Gavin Lambert

Incorrigibly witty Hollywood writer

Monday 29 April 2013 04:50

Though Gavin Lambert will be remembered as a classic commentator on the glories and follies of Hollywood, his origins were solidly British. The California vowels he acquired during his 50-year expatriation could never quite eradicate the classic Oxford diction.

He was born in 1924 to a well-to-do middle-class family in East Grinstead, and attended St George's Preparatory School, Windsor, before going on to Cheltenham College. Here he met Lindsay Anderson, a year older than himself, and formed a friendship that was to last until Anderson's death in 1994.

From the start their rapport seems to have been intellectual rather than sentimental. Both were homosexual, but, while Anderson was permanently tormented by his sexuality ("Lindsay always changed the subject", wrote Lambert), the young Gavin joyously flaunted his, in a manner that was as brave as it was exceptional at that time. He gratefully attributed his sexual initiation at 11 to a preparatory school teacher, and boasted that at Cheltenham he was a "tart" for the other boys:

This talent for entertaining, as well as a senior Tough who considered me fair sexual game and played the role of protector, saved me from persecution as a Wet.

Though Anderson must have deplored such goings-on (in his diary the 18-year-old ponders, "I think I do not trust Lambert"), they were drawn together by their shared artistic interests, especially a precocious passion for cinema. They invented Parthenon Films and wrote a couple of scripts which were rejected "by almost every production company in the land".

In 1943 Lambert went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he shared rooms with Peter Brook, whom he assisted on his first experimental short film, A Sentimental Journey, even playing the bit part of a drunken slut. He left Oxford in 1944 without taking his degree - it was said because of his dislike of his tutor, C.S. Lewis, although his own explanation was reluctance to learn medieval English. He found a job scripting two-minute commercials made by Gaumont-British, and meanwhile published short stories in The Windmill, New Writing and English Story.

Lindsay Anderson (having returned to Wadham after army service), together with Peter Ericsson and Penelope Houston, took over the Oxford Film Society's newly established magazine, Sequence, in spring 1947. They were in a very short time to revolutionise British film writing, castigating a weary post-war British cinema, and asserting the auteurist values of popular Hollywood cinema, traditionally dismissed by British critics as inferior to European "art" films. With issue five the editorial offices were moved to London, to a flat near Regent's Park shared by Anderson, Ericsson and Lambert, who now replaced Penelope Houston on the editorial team.

Sequence achieved 15 issues and such a reputation that its editors were photographed by Lee Miller for Vogue, captioned "Wise, Witty and Courageous". In late 1949, Denis Forman, the inspirational new director of the British Film Institute, invited Lambert to transform the institute's venerable and stolid journal Sight and Sound. He gave it the stylish design and rigorous critical stance of Sequence, secured Penelope Houston as assistant, and recruited friends like Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson as contributors.

In 1954 Lambert took leave of absence to direct a film, Another Sky, from his own script about a puritanical young woman who discovers her sexuality in North Africa. One of the few who ever saw the film was the American director Nicholas Ray, who had just made Rebel Without a Cause, and whom Lambert now met in London. A brief love affair ensued and in late 1955 Lambert moved to Hollywood to became Ray's assistant and writer on Bigger than Life (uncredited, 1956) and Bitter Victory (1957). He went on to collaborate with the veteran Ealing writer T.E.B. Clarke on the script for Jack Cardiff's Sons and Lovers (1960). This script was nominated for an Oscar, and was followed by The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961).

Meanwhile Lambert had completed the first two books of his eventual "Hollywood Quartet". The Slide Area (1959) is a collection of short stories; Inside Daisy Clover (1963) relates the breakdown of a 1930s child star: it was effectively filmed in 1965 by Robert Mulligan from Lambert's script, with Natalie Wood in the title role.

He was to receive another joint Oscar nomination for the adaptation, with Lewis John Carlino, of the script of Tony Page's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), from the book by Joanne Greenberg. After this his screenwriting activity ceased, apart from a couple of teleplays at the end of the 1980s and occasional uncredited script doctoring.

In 1964 Lambert had taken on American citizenship. Between 1974 and 1989 he spent a large part of his time in North Africa, and his longest-lasting love affair was with a Moroccan. In Morocco, too, he formed a close friendship with Paul Bowles.

Increasingly and assiduously he worked on books. The Hollywood Quartet was completed by The Goodbye People (1971) and Running Time (1983), again about a child star. Other fiction included Norman's Letter (1966) which received the Thomas R. Coward Memorial Award for Fiction, A Case for the Angels (1968) and In the Night All Cats Are Grey (1976).

Of his non-fiction writing, The Dangerous Edge (1975) is a study of nine suspense writers. Lambert's first Hollywood biography, On Cukor (1972), which took the form of an extended interview, was compromised by George Cukor's (ineffectual) secrecy about his own sexuality. Much better were the meticulously if fast-researched biographies Norma Shearer: a life (1990), Nazimova: a biography (1997) and Natalie Wood: a life (2004). His last book, The Ivan Moffat File: life among the beautiful and damned in London, Paris, New York and Hollywood (2004), chronicled a colourful but less celebrated Hollywood figure.

Lambert's most controversial biography, however, was Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (2000) which traced his own and Anderson's parallel lives, on opposite sides of the Atlantic. It recorded a friendship which was mutually supportive and admiring, even if it often collapsed into irritation and acrimony. Anderson's friends generally disliked the book for Lambert's celebration of his own liberated sexuality while deploring Anderson's neuroses.

Gavin Lambert combined phenomenal knowledge of the cinema and its history with the qualities of a fine stylist. Everything he wrote and most of what he said was elegant, precise and incorrigibly witty. In person he grew ever leaner and more ethereal. Though he was an indispensable figure at Hollywood parties, he never exuded warmth: there was a touch of sneer in the quizzical smile that rarely left his thin lips.

He had an unusual capacity for spite, most notably in his unaccountable treatment of his early comrade Penelope Houston, whom he persistently endeavoured to write out of the history of Sequence and Sight and Sound. As recently as three years ago he contributed to Sight and Sound his recollections of the magazine without mentioning her name, writing off her remarkable 35-year career as editor as a few anonymous years when the magazine lost its way.

Lambert's last public appearance was in April, when, along with Gore Vidal, he took part in a panel organised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to mark the centenary of Greta Garbo.

David Robinson

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