Sunday, 31 August 2008

Ricky Gervais

Three Ricky Gervais factoids from this week

The Office is going to be made into a film – but only the German version into a German film

Last week he wrote to the British Prime Minister asking him to replace the bearskin hats of the famous Buckingham Palace Guards Regiments with luxuriant faux fur (Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood may get involved)

Gervais was hosting a series of press junkets for his new movie, Ghost Town, at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, but left in a hurry when sudden temperature drops and ghostly women glimpsed in mirrors left him unwilling to hang around

Kiss and Tell - from a bathchair

Their average age is 76. Now they're spilling the beans. And not from their plastic soup-bowls, either.

Seven veteran actors are publishing their autobiographies over the next few months.

Hot on the heels of Sean Connery’s Being a Scot comes Roger Moore’s My Word is my Bond. Amongst his recollections include violent spats with Grace Jones on the set of View to a Kill.

Robert Wagner is also set to launch forth before Christmas. He recalls his romance with actress Barbara Stanwyck and writes that dating Elizabeth Taylor 'was like sticking an eggbeater in your brain'.

Tony Curtis preferred the more chemical form of eggbeater. He discusses how he turned to cocaine as a sex-enhancement aid in the 1980’s.

Youngest of the crew is George Hamilton, 69, who, in Don't Mind If I Do, tells how he witnessed a suicide attempt by Judy Garland

Nicolas Cage Eats a Cockroach - no, really

One of the things I do is an occasional column for the Independent newspaper here in the UK. It looks at famous movie scenes and tells the variously hair-raising/amusing/ creepy stories behind them. The collected scenes will become a book round about this time next year, published by AC Black, a subsidiary of Bloomsbury Books, who publish the Harry Potters.

Sometimes the pieces get cut down to fill the space. It's a national newspaper. These things happen.

Here's one that was published last Friday, and since I went to some trouble to track down the director of this particular movie, I thought I'd reproduce it here in it's entirety.

Vampire’s Kiss (1989)

What’s the true story behind the early Nic Cage film where he actually eats a live cockroach? Filmmaker Robert Bierman tells me not to bother with all the Internet rumours. Still, it would be good to know.

How many takes did Cage do for the scene? Where did the actual live cockroaches come from? And which famous movie director and comedian refused to believe the scene was real in any way?

These days Bierman is better known for his work on UK television – most recently working at the helm of Waking the Dead. But back in 1989 he was in New York making a feature film about a publishing executive who believes he’s turning into a vampire. On this particular scene, Cage, now increasingly demented, sees a cockroach on the hob of his kitchen cooker, pops it in his mouth, antennae wriggling, and crunches it up.

‘In the script it had been written that he should eat a raw egg,’ Bierman recalls. ‘But a day or so before filming I’d seen a Japanese film Tampopo do the same thing. So I discussed it with Nic, and he said ‘I really want to do my room 101’ which happens to be cockroaches’.

Filming in an apartment block opposite the Gramercy Park Hotel, the props manager went down to the basement and came back with a number of bugs. ‘We had a bug beauty competition,’ says Bierman. ‘And we selected two’. There were two takes. ‘He ate it, chewed it, and after the shot spat what was left out and took a shot of 100% vodka’. Bierman asked him to do it again. ‘In fact the second take wasn’t so good, and the cockroach didn’t move enough, and Nic flicked it with his finger to try and get some life into it’.

Cage later told a journalist ‘I couldn’t really taste it, but psychologically it was murder – I couldn’t eat anything for three days. I had difficulty sleeping. Every muscle in my body didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway’.

In those days, a year before making Wild at Heart, Cage was fearless in his commitment to acting. ‘He also ate a pigeon later on,’ says Bierman. ‘So I had to drug them so he could catch them. Filming in the late 80’s, there really were no health and safety issues. There was another scene where a bat flies around the room, and Nic had to be stopped from sending his assistant off to Central Park and catching a real one’.

Bierman was careful to shoot the scene in one unbroken shot to make it clear no trickery was involved. Even so, he later received a phone call from Mel Brooks asking him for the address of his ‘brilliant’ props man who had so expertly faked the scene. Bierman had to assure him that Cage had, in fact, eaten a real, live bug from the basement.

Mean Dads

Lindsay Lohan's war of words with her father shows no signs of dying down anytime soon.

Now Michael Lohan claims he’s negotiating to do a one-hour TV special revealing intimate texts and phone calls between himself and his daughter.

As if Lohan’s family weren’t already trashy enough, now her uncle Paul Sullivan has been sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison for defrauding the U.S. government of terrorist relief funds. He claimed his car company lost business after terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center on September 11th 2001.

Sullivan reportedly broke down in tears in the courtroom when the Long Island, New York judge delivered his sentencing.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Awww - Brad Pitt saves Boy

Brad Pitt was just in Venice for the Film Festival.

He was a year late – picking up a gong for Best Actor for his Jesse James (he couldn’t make it in 2007 but won anyhow). Plus he was in town to promote his new Coen Brothers film.

Now he’s a hero too. Brad saved a boy from falling into one of Venice’s notorious (and not very sanitary) network of canals. Pitt grabbed the boy who tripped while he attempted get an autograph from the Hollywood heartthrob.

As the youngster almost fell into the canal, Brad extended his arm and pulled him to safety.

Not only good-looking, a good father, a fan of modern architecture, and not a bad actor – but a moppet-saving superhero too.

You can find out about his new film Burn After Reading here.

John Lennon : The Women

In the UK, visual artist Sam Taylor-Wood is best known for her art installations, though she took a short film to Cannes this year. It now seems she’s signed up to direct a John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy to be filmed in Liverpool.

The script from Control screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (who just won a BAFTA for most promising newcomer) will focus on the Beatle’s relationship with the women in his early life, especially his Aunt Mimi, who some sources are claiming will be played by Titanic Star Kate Winslet.

The key casting will be Lennon himself. Now here’s a thing – Sam Riley has already played Ian Curtis and Mark E Smith, Ian Curtis in Control, Smith in 24 Hours Party People. Can he make it a triple musical icon whammy?

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Coco Bio

Face of Chanel No 5 Audrey Tautou will star in a biopic of Coco Chanel which will start filming in Paris on September 15th.

It’s called Coco Avant Chanel.

Current Chanel director Karl Lagerfeld will supervise the re-creation of costumes and accessories, which is adapted from a biography of the grande dame of French couture.

It was written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine with Oscar-winning script consultant Christopher Hampton, best known for his work on Dangerous Liasons, another film with dresses, big dresses and big wigs.

Less likely there will be the same amount of decadent sexual romping, but you just never know

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Hamlet 2

Potty-mouthed High-school spoof Hamlet 2 was a great success at Sundance, mainly for its mind-boggling songs and lyrics, written in a rush according to its writers Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady - the latter having experience as a scribe for South Park.

What can you look forward to? Try "Raped in the Face" as a heart-wrenching confessional set to piano, xylophone and violins.

"Therapy's taken me to a better place," the actors sing. "So why do I feel like I've been raped in the face?"

If you love South Park, this is the musical for you, and you can find the website here

Ricky Martin Mystery

There'll be no baby cover splash for Latin actor/singer Ricky Martin and his new twins. Celebrity magazines say the whole thing is a turn-off because he's not being honest about his private life (claims the New York Post).

"We aren't jumping like we usually do," one editor said. "We don't think he is going to tell the backstory, so the whole thing just seems kind of icky."

Martin admitted last week that he is now caring for twin sons delivered through an unnamed surrogate.

"When someone seems like they are hiding something, it's a big turnoff to the public, who want to share in celebrities' lives," another editor observed.

You can follow the mystery of Ricky's usually fictitious dating patterns here

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Duchess

Saul Dibb has come a long way from Bullet Boy – his gritty tale set on a London housing estate. His latest is The Duchess with Keira Knightley, based on the real-life tale of an 18th Century aristocrat whose 'there are three people in this unhappy marriage' bears an uncanny resemblance to her descendant – one Diana Spencer. Both Dibb and Knightley have denied there is any link with the late Princess of Wales, but in truth the marketing of the film has played on the connection for months.

I’m happy to report the film is well-made and well-played with Ralph Fiennes the up-tight husband to the charismatic, flirty Georgiana, who is doomed from the moment her mother played by Charlotte Rampling obliges her to marry the well-connected Duke of Devonshire. It’s Knightley’s best acting turn since the somewhat similar Pride and Prejudice - bearing in mind her acting is usually a succession of infinitesimally changeable moues.

Look out for Fiennes niece Mercy Tiffin, who plays a young Georgiana.

Here’s a little-known fact: afternoon tea was invented by the Duchess of Bedford, but it was the Duchess of Devonshire who has a dalliance with Earl Grey.

See a trailer here

Tom Cruise and the Nazi Film

More lawsuit news - injured extras from the as-yet unreleased Tom Cruise film 'Nazi Film' Valkyrie (yes, the one they're already talking about being 'cursed') are to sue United Studios for $6 million in damages. It's said the legal action could delay the release of the film yet again.

It's claimed that eleven extras, still wearing their Wehrmacht uniforms, were sent to hospital with an array of injuries, ranging from bumps and bruises to broken ribs and pulled ligaments. They were hurt when riding in a lorry.

The film ran into trouble in Germany when swastikas were hung in Berlin for key shots. Later, whole scenes had to be re-shot when reels of film were accidentally destroyed in the lab during processing.

Screen tests with tame audiences are already indicating the movie is a disaster, and frantic efforts have been made to re-edit it.

Much of the official German distaste for the film is actually connected to Cruise's Scientology. Scientology is reviled in Germany because it falls within a strict post WWII legal remit to address the issue of cults, sects and fascist interludes. Now why would those nice Scientologists be subject to such strictures?

Jessica and Daisy

See Jessica Simpson carrying Daisy through LAX yesterday in a Gucci dog carrier.

Here are two sites devoted to celebrity dog-owners. Woof!

Here and Here

Bringing Up Baby - Cary Grant Jr

Born in 1966, Jennifer Grant is the only daughter of actors Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon. Now it's been announced that Jennifer herself has now given birth to Cary Benjamin Grant(there's no mention of the father)in LA.

It's a first child for Jennifer, best known for her role as Celeste Lundy in Beverly Hills 90210, and the first grandchild of movie legend Cary Grant. It's said she resisted the lure of acting for many years on the insistence of her famous father; I wonder whether she'll say the same things to Cary Grant Jr?

Cary Grant senior always claimed that Jennifer was his 'best production'. Aww. You can find out more about Jennifer and her father here. We're all still waiting for the memoir of her father she announced she was writing in 2006. Published by Knopf, word is it will appear in 2009.

Harry Potter and the Lawsuit

Harry Potter producers Warner Bros are suing an Indian film company over the title of upcoming film Hari Puttar - A Comedy Of Terrors, according to industry publication The Hollywood Reporter.

Mumbai-based Mirchi Movies will defend the case at Bombay High Court. The film is due to open in India on 12 September.

Hari Puttar is directed by Rajesh Bajaj and Lucky Kohli and stars Zain Khan as young Hari alongside veteran Bollywood actor Jackie Shroff. It tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who moves to England with his parents.

Insiders claim the Indian production has more in common with Home Alone, but Warner Bros remain distinctly unimpressed.

Judge for yourself - here's the website. And here's a trailer on YouTube,

A Voice from the Past - Jules Dassin

I met Jules Dassin in 2002. The man was a legend - surviving the McCarthy purges of 1950's Hollywood, he ended up happily living in Greece, a national hero and a man who always followed his conscience.

Ushered upstairs in a stuffy Piccadilly Hotel, I find myself alone with the ninety year-old director of Rififi whose life story itself sounds like something out of a movie. I’m torn by the desire to quiz Jules Dassin frivolously and endlessly about his terrible experience directing Joan Crawford in Reunion in Paris (1942), and discussing far more weighty and solemn matters, in particular his being blacklisted by McCarthyite stooges in the early 1950’s and a summons to the Senate Committee on UnAmerican Activities. He’s certainly not averse to chewing the fat about politics especially since he married a politician, the spirited actress Melina Mercouri who was similarly exiled from her native country by the Greek Government Junta of 1967. She later became the Greek Minister for Culture and a woman of considerable political clout in Europe before her death in 1994 (memo to Glenda Jackson: only be ‘Oscar-nominated’ like Mercouri for a successful political career – gold statuettes in the loo won’t appeal to the green-eyed Millbank set). Till his death Dassin lived in a street named after her in Athens, a man used to exile, and seemingly not much bothered by it.

Julius Dassin was born of an exile, on December 18th 1911 in Connecticut, his father a Russian Jewish barber and first generation immigrant, who moved his family of eight to Harlem in New York soon after Jules was born. Jules subsequently attended High School in the Bronx and debuted as an actor in New Yorks legendary Yiddish Theatre in 1936 after drama studies in Europe. After writing radio scripts he found himself briefly under the wing of Alfred Hitchcock at RKO during the shooting of Mr and Mrs Smith, and was snapped up by MGM. In 1942 he was in the thick of production-line film-making with three movies in that year alone, the third of which was Reunion in France with Joan Crawford in the heroine of the French Resistance. It also featured John Wayne as a pre Pearl Harbor American pilot applying to join the RAF.

It was Wayne who saved him from the full wrath of Joan Crawford when the rookie director first went onset. ‘Making it was hell,’ he admits, in the sweet tone and benign countenance that is the most striking thing about him. ‘I managed to get a meeting with the MGM executives because I was concerned about the casting and the script,’ he tells me. But they only wanted to talk about one thing. Hats. Hats were important. Joan Crawford is the heroine of the French Resistance and is sacrificed for their existence in the movie – I mean, she’s captured and stripped of all dignity. And yet they wanted to dress her ‘for the fans’. And this was talked about for hours. Finally I got a word in and said I thought the script was bad. And one of the executives took me over to a window overlooking the parking lot and said: which one is your car? And I had this little old car at the time. And he pointed to his automobile, one of those big new things. And he said: that’s my car and that’s your car, and I say the script is good’.

It didn’t get any better either. ‘On the first day we rehearsed and John Wayne – a very interesting man, extreme right-wing but really just a nationalist – was going through the script with Joan Crawford. It wasn’t going well, so of course I said cut. And the whole set just froze. My assistant panicked and pretended to call up at some imaginary guy, telling him to be quiet. John Wayne took me to one side and muttered ‘Never say cut to Miss Crawford.’ You just give a hand sign. I thought this was just nonsense. But when I said cut again Joan Crawford walked off the set, and Louis B Mayer called me to the office and fired me. But then she rang me at my house that night, and asked me to come to dinner. I came to this mansion and the door was opened by her two little girls wearing long white gloves. It was the longest dinner ev-er! And she asked me into the library, where she had thousands of books, and she said: Mr Dassin, do you think I’m a bad actress? And I said, no, I don’t. And she said don’t ever say cut to me again. Just do this.’ Dassin pauses to draw two fluttering fingers across his brow, like a diva having a neuralgia attack. ‘So that’s what I did’.

I was fascinated to hear his account of the creepy and spotless realm of Mommie Dearest, because of course one of those two little girls who opened the door to him was Christina Crawford – that same Christina whose biography of her mother passed into legend as the most spectacular hatchet-job in Hollywood history. Was she the witch of repute? The scariest mother in known history? ‘I suspected those white gloves,’ Dassin nods sagely. ‘I suspected the silence from the children’

But the problems didn’t end after this rapprochement, which saw him rehired. Quite quickly Dassin discovered that Crawford was busy avoiding her Dutch co-star Philip Dorn – he was an embarrassing ex-fling and she’d just got re-married. He began to notice La Crawford mysteriously kept moving out of frame when she was in scenes with Dorn, so the camera would never capture them together. ‘I got so mad,’ recalls Dassin, who was perched on a weighted camera crane at the time, ‘I jumped off the crane and the crane flew up – and I yelled ‘I’m gonna punch you on the jaw’. And then that whole New York gangster thing came out in her, and she took off her hat, and she put down her purse, and she pointed to her jaw, and said GO AHEAD!’

Now I don’t want to misrepresent Jules Dassin, who considered his encounter with fearsome old Mommie Dearest a very small part of his early life as a director, and who soon after made a name for himself with moody film-noir classics like Brute Force (47), The Naked City (48) and Night and the City (49). Night and the City was the actually last movie he managed to shoot for Hollywood before being blacklisted, shortly after fellow director Edward Dmytryk identified him as a communist and his life collapsed around him. It wasn’t until the Parisian heist movie Rififi – the mother of all ‘heist gone wrong movies’ right up to and including Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – that he found work five years later. He was rehabilitated in the sixties but by that point he was married to Mercouri and settled in Greece and Switzerland. I can’t help noticing that several online US biographies of the man still refer to his ‘self-imposed exile’ after his apparent rehabilitation, as if he was in some way being an awkward cuss in not returning to America, despite the vicious campaign waged against him by his own countrymen, a campaign that included the US embassies in countries like Italy and France successfully sabotaging his movie career abroad from 1949-1954 (Zsa-Zsa Gabor and producer Jacques Bar were explicitly told that none of their films would receive a US release if they worked with Dassin).

Dassin famously never talks about his time on the blacklist. It’s painful, even today. He had several post-Hollywood successes after Rififi, including the movie Topkapi (64) which won Peter Ustinov an Oscar and was apparently the inspiration for the Mission Impossible tv series and recent Tom Cruise franchise (the first of which namechecks the Dassin original). His final film Circles of Two (80) has an elderly Richard Burton as a painter falling for fourteen year-old nymphet Tatum O’Neal.

However I did manage to squeeze a few words out of him about the McCarthyite blacklist. Looking at the campaign waged against Robert Altman (still being conducted in certain US movie magazines) after his post September 11th comments, I ask Dassin if he could ever see the blacklist returning to haunt America in a new guise.

He heaves one of the most terrible sighs I think I have ever heard. He’s already found his letters to the New York Times ‘cleaned up’ of criticisms of the Bush Government. ‘Could it ever happen again?’ he says after a great and pregnant pause. For the first time in the interview he looked every one of his ninety years and his genial manner faded into sadness. ‘Somebody asked me that the other day. I always used to say – never! It is remembered with shame. But this present government scares me. Impose another blacklist? It might be possible. I believe it may happen again.’ It was a sombre note on which to end.

Don't Put Your Wife on the Stage, Mr Payne - matrimonial film-making, the perils thereof

‘When a director and an actress click,’ Quentin Tarantino once said, ‘only a husband and wife, or a father and daughter, share the same level of intimacy’. But what when the director and actress really are husband and wife? In the Oscar-winning comedy Sideways Alexander Payne decided to direct his Korean-Canadian wife Sandra Oh, later star of Grey's Anatomy, for the first time. She played a woman working in a vineyard who dates about-to-be-married Thomas Haden Church. ‘She actually had to obey me – that was so nice,’ Payne observed. They divorced a few years later in 2006.

Some years ago Kevin Bacon self-directed a film Loverboy made with wife Kyra Sedgwick, having previously cast her in his risky, award-winning pedophile drama The Woodsman. They are still married 19 years after they met on the set of Lemon Sky, a PBS version of the Lanford Wilson play. Directing your wife is a dangerous business though – just ask Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie (Guy Ritchie's latest guyzer caper RockNroller is out shortly). What if it all goes wrong?

Some directors who met their wives through central casting – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are examples – chose never to cast their wives in their own films again. Perhaps they’re right to be wary. History still shows the DNA of many a catastrophic director-actress marriage preserved onscreen. Just what was Judy Garland doing falling in love with Vincente Minnelli in Meet Me in St Louis when the result was a gay husband and Liza Minnelli? How painfully obvious is the estrangement of Rita Hayworth towards Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai – the film that proved the final nail in his Hollywood coffin, the onset of their divorce and Hayworth’s last contract movie for Columbia Pictures? And how sad and difficult it is to watch Sharon Tate in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire without recalling the macabre circumstances of her occult-influenced murder at 10050 Cielo Drive?

Polanski fell for Tate during the filming of The Fearless Vampire Killers in much the same way that Olivier Assayas did for Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep and Woody Allen did for Mia Farrow In A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982 (though not actually married we always felt they were – Hannah and her Sisters and Husbands and Wives evoking a painful resonance of their final bitter estrangement and court-cases). The Assayas-Cheung marriage only lasted a few years as they were constantly filming in different continents, but Irma Vep is a very good example of a male director turning an actress into a fantasy figure and then marrying her. Prophetic in same ways of Tarantino’s festishisation of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill – similar slinky leather and form-hugging jumpsuits – Hong Kong superstar Cheung (Hero, In the Mood for Love) cuts quite a figure in the chilly Parisian landscape of the movie. You can see the same dynamic at work with Luc Besson and Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element; Besson’s camera just can’t get enough of her lissom tangerine-haired alien in Jean-Paul Gaultier rags. They reunited two years later for his ill-fated Joan of Arc saga The Messenger. He made her look like a boy. It was all over. They separated soon after.

It seems that in the breast of many a married actress there beats the heart of a medieval virgin-martyr, and a whole monograph could be written on the pathology of men who direct their wives as Joan of Arc. Its an international phenomenon that goes from the obscure (Russia’s greatest living actress Inna Churikova filmed the story with her husband at the helm in 1970) to the very well known (Ingrid Bergman created several versions of the Joan of Arc story with husband Roberto Rossellini – having also made a 1948 version for Victor Fleming). The marriage of Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini is book-ended with Joan of Arc; her obsession with La Pucelle was so intense she carried soil from Domremy in her pocket for many years. ‘I've gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime,’ she said, after he marriage ended, and she made Joan of Arc at the Stake in 1954. She had fallen for Rossellini on the set of Stromboli, become pregnant, and abandoned her child and then husband of thirteen years to be with the Italian. The public never forgave her. Rossellini’s vision of his wife, piously caparisoned in armour and chained to a stake, is a curious images to mark the end of any marriage.

But its not always trouble and strife. There is a breed of director who simply cannot do without their wife in a lead role. Robert Guédiguian barely makes any of his socially-conscious Marseilles-based films without wife Ariane Ascaride. In many ways her thin, strong face is the actual face of her husband’s work; even when she appears in other movies she takes a whiff of that Red Flag waved in the soft Marseilles air from the likes of Marius and Jeanette. In that movie, where she plays the supermarket worker who gets sacked for her strident communism, one sees exactly why former communist agitator Guédiguian married her in the first place.

The same is probably true of the wife of Federico Fellini, Giulietta Masina, whom he married in 1943. His first truly independent work was The White Sheik in 1952 and it featured Masina – albeit briefly - as a prostitute. Two years later his first masterpiece La Strada had a plum role for her as the simple and clownish girl Gelsomina, who is ‘purchased’ by brutish circus strongman Anthony Quinn. Critic Roger Ebert praised her ‘Chaplinesque innocence that somehow shields her from the worst of life’ and she seemed to represent much of the personal and autobiographical qualities of his masterpieces. In 1990, when Fellini received an honorary Oscar, she was on hand in the audience as well. It remains one of the most successful and long-lasting marriages in the movies.

Many admirers of Jean-Luc Godard believe his best work was when he was married to Anna Karina – again for a while the ‘face’ and muse of the reclusive auteur – and that both their careers declined when they divorced in 1967 after a six year marriage. But on the whole its hard not to agree with Quentin Tarantino’s assessment of the actress/director dynamic. ‘Directors are…by and large the most butt-ugly motley group of geeks found this side of a Star Trek convention’. He concludes that no ‘woman would give them a second glance if they weren’t a director’.

All the same, Alexander Payne is one of Hollywood’s better-looking directors. Asked about directing his former wife in a sex scene he just shrugged and said ‘I didn’t see her as my wife, I saw her as just another of these pieces of meat I put in front of the camera’. Payne, you understand, is not a man that dwells sentimentally on things. ‘I wouldn’t have hired her if she wasn’t perfect for the part’.

He admits to giving Oh just one practical direction – when she beats up Thomas Haden Church for not being honest about his single status. ‘I need to see 1600 years of Korean rage against the oppressor,’ he shouted onset as she began to pummel the actor in question.

Two years later they were pummeling each other over the question of post-divorce support. It seems Oh didn't need it after all; she's now far more successful in monetary terms than her Oscar-winning ex-hubby ever was.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Office Kitano and the Gangsters

Invited to meet Takeshi Kitano in his favourite London hotel to talk about his latest film Dolls, we were soon talking, as one does with Takeshi, about his interest in the Japanese mafia. ‘I just interviewed one of the most senior Yakuza figures in Japan,’ he admitted to me, via his twenty-something personal translator from Office Kitano, who translated Takeshi’s deadpan pronouncements with a kind of annoyingly fractured LA whine. ‘It’s very good because now none of the lesser Yakuza call me up and try to meet me, which is what they always do. Once they read I had met and become friendly with Seijo Inagawa the phone went silent’.

Beat Takeshi, the yakuza pin-up, is a curious individual, even by Japanese standards. Born in Tokyo in 1947 he had an early career as a one of the most successful TV comedians in Japanese history. A whole generation grew up with his mashed-up ugly face permanently on their TV screens, both as part of the comedy team known as Manzai from 1972, and then later as a solo comic. In 1983 he was cast against type as the sadistic POW camp officer brutalising David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. But the most unexpected of his career changes came in 1989 when one day the director of Violent Cop Kinji Fukasaku fell ill and Takeshi stepped into the breach and direct as well as star in the film. The cool, melodic style of his direction was a revelation: he was a natural. Since then he’s directed a succession of features including Hana-Bi which won the Golden Lion at Venice, as well as working constantly as a much-used character actor in his own right. Attempts to translate him for Hollywood – starring opposite Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic and his ill-fated attempt to recreate his Yakuza genre re-zoned LA three years ago called Brother – have failed, despite the admiration of people like Quentin Tarantino. In career terms it's as if an actor with Harvey Keitel’s raw physical presence becomes Dan Ackroyd for a decade before morphing in Clint Eastwood when Don Siegel fails to turn up to direct Dirty Harry.

Dolls continues a change of direction and mood that’s been detectable in Kitano’s films since 1994, when a near-fatal motorcycle accident saw him hospitalised for nearly six weeks. He nearly died and the knock on the head didn’t do him any good. Now after a couple of relative commercial failures – Kikujiro in 1999 and Brother in 2000(he’s a gangster in both) - his formerly limited colour palette has burst into life and he’s returned to the same kind of bruising melancholy to his storylines last seen in Hana-Bi. In this film violence happens but you don’t see it: you’re more likely to see petals falling and kimonos being rustled than blood being spilt. Takeshi isn’t acting in it and Han-Bi’s sense of artifice is much more to the fore: stylised exquisite costumes by Yoji Yamamoto (who also dressed him in Brother) and aspects of traditional Japanese Kabuki and Bunraku theatre dominate many of the scenes. It’s a calculated move destined to please western audiences. Needless to say the Yakuza still feature, but these men are not the same characters we saw in Boiling Point (90) or Sonatine (93). They are no longer indestructible; they are no longer even happy with their work. One of the three storylines in Dolls features an ageing Yakuza named Hiro – wracked with terminal illness – suddenly realising that the youthful sweetheart he never returned to thirty years earlier has been turning up at a park bench, and waiting for him, every Saturday ever since.

Dolls is a film full of people getting crushed, of things being crushed, whether its butterflies and plastic children’s toys under the wheels of a car, or bodies being squashed by lift doors trying to close on the scene of an assassination, or blind men and gorgeously bedizened beggars falling from great heights. People are hobbled by ropes to each other and to car seats and tied by the leg to surf-board harnesses (a visual reference perhaps to his third and best film A Scene By the Sea from 1992, an early indication he was very good at bleached-out mood pieces not far from this). People have problems walking and problems seeing, and wear eye-patches like Kitano did after his accident.

As we talk I notice Takeshi is still afflicted by the nerve damage from that motorcycle crash: his right eye trembles and it looks as if he has had a stroke. It’s a face already alarming enough, but those liquid black soulless eyes, that implacable visage than can suddenly vividly transform into a laugh that’s all teeth, is now etched with a long-passed storm of paralysis. He’s lost an inch from his arm and an inch from his leg which has qualified him for a disability pass, a mutilation affecting that rolling trademark walk, once so arrogant and self-confident in Sonatine. ‘Colours affect me differently now,’ he’s telling me as he chain smokes and his bent hand picks at his grungy sweatshirt. ‘Ever since the accident I’ve been seeing colours very intensely’.

We talk a bit about Yamamoto (‘his costumes are a true contribution to the film’) and even about his sexually ambiguous roles in Takashii Miyake’s Gonin (95) and in Oshima’s ‘Gohatto’ (01) (’I’m not really comfortable playing gay characters’, he says, boringly – end of subject) but try as I might things just keep coming back to the Yakuza. You look at Kitano’s face and all his characters keep swimming up from the abyss: the thugs and the wide-boys and the blank psychotics. This man represents the Japanese Id, ‘a tulpa, a materialised thought form’ as cyber-punk author William Gibson once memorably described him.

‘I grew up with those people, the yakuza,’ he tells me of his impoverished, Mean Streets childhood in post-war Tokyo. ‘It was old-fashioned then and these days they’re more corporate and more businesslike. I guess you can say their existence is quite anti-social and that they basically use violence, but when I look at Japanese history I can’t help the feeling that those shoguns who fought their way to the top were no different. They were prepared to do whatever they had to do and take any risk. The Yakuza can’t be seen in a half-hearted way – its either huge respect or huge disapproval’.

It’s clear to me which of those two choices Kitano cleaves to. He has a visceral feel for them and the drama of their lives and the problematic cleansing power of violence. Later when I track down the interview (never published outside of Japan) he mentioned he had conducted with Seijo Inagawa a ‘self-made man in the Japanese Yakuza’ as Kitano describes him (apparently his self-confessed status is not a problem in their native country) I notice him becoming quite obsessed with the 87 year old’s venerable 60 stitch machete wound on the head, an event which happened way back in 1937 and we’re told was an incident borrowed ‘for a film by Toei’. I mention this interview only because I believe it shows Takeshi more candid and more himself than he ever is with interviews with western journalists. Although all of Japan treats this recidivist and jailbird rather like a film star, Takeshi’s interview with the old rogue is like a teenager’s love-in with a pop star (one of the stories in Dolls) ‘you have such presence in your face, even when you smile, it’s going to affect me all day’ he gasps, and when the old man wipes sentimental tears from his face with Takeshi’s proferred handkerchief, Takeshi coos ‘I’ll never wash it’.

But does he actually socialise with these people? Does he break bread with the granite-faced big bosses, drop sake with the henchmen down at the pool hall, share quips with the hitmen?

‘I have this professional life as an entertainer so you can’t outwardly be with these people’, he says.

So that’s a maybe then.

This article was published in 2002. You can keep up-to-date with Kitano's prodigious output at his own website here and there's a more recent interview with him at the excellent Midnight Eye website

An Englishman in New York

The British company ITV has announced that John Hurt will return to a role he made famous in 1975, before he became a big international star. The Naked Civil Servant was a version of Quentin Crisp's scurrilous and highly amusing autobiography, and now an Englishman in New York (yes, he was the subject of the Sting song) is beginning production in New York with Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon.

Nixon will take the role of Penny Arcade, the performance artist and playwright who formed a close bond with Crisp in his latter years. The two created the long-running performance/interview piece, The Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp.

Also joining the cast is up and coming American actor Jonathan Tucker (Veronica Must Die, The Black Donnellys,) who stars as Patrick Angus, the young artist who befriended Crisp, Denis O’Hare (Brother’s and Sisters, Charlie Wilson’s War, Michael Clayton) as magazine editor, Phillip Steele and Pushing Daisies’ Swoozie Kurtz, as Crisp’s American agent, Connie Clausen.

I interviewed Crisp (who died in 1999) some years ago for The Evening Standard in one of his rare returns to the UK, and tracked down the famous cafe he used to haunt, Le Chat Noir, now a clothes shop on Old Compton Street in London Soho. He was enchanting company. In New York he was famous for being listed in the phone book, and would go out to lunch with anyone who rang him up, so long as they paid.

Malaysia and Mr Tsai

This article was published in Sight & Sound in November, 2007.

With two films about to be released theatrically, something of a catch-up for the UK, and a 50th birthday retrospective at the National Film Theatre in November, Tsai Ming-liang seems suddenly back with the wordless, delinquent version of a vengeance. As well as the vaudeville and pornographic pleasures of The Wayward Cloud (like The Hole, but with watermelons) from 2005, British audiences will now get to see I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – his first feature made in his native Malaysia. It’s the latest in a series of cinematically refined, intensely personal films from one of the key figures of Taiwan’s second generation New Wave – whose members include the rather better known Ang Lee.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone stars regular lead Lee Kang-sheng acting in two roles: one as a comatose man and the other as a migrant worker badly beaten up on the streets and cared for by a local named Rawang, played by Norman Bin Atun, who Tsai found, in characteristic fashion, selling fried cakes on the street. Onstage in Toronto last year Tsai mentioned that the experience of making this film brought him ‘healing’; the moments where Lee is being cared for by the Malaysian man is certainly deeply touching. In both roles he is given a full bed-wash by another in varying degrees of sympathy towards his plight, and in both, the iconography of death, the sluicing and sponging and preparation for burial, is very clear. It’s taken Tsai, by his own admission, some time to come to terms with the idea of death, a subject he approached first in What Time is It There? the most emotionally haunted of all his films.

Tsai began writing the script for I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone in 1999 during a period spent back in Malaysia, during which time he became intrigued by the skeletal half-built building that presides over the whole film. He walked past it every day, and gazed upon it. The building was, he says, a poignant relic of the economic crash of the 1990’s when the building was abandoned before it was completed; the deep dark pool of water in its centre, a familiar Tsai motif, is one of his dark mirrors of the soul – like Dr Dee’s obsidian scrying glass in the British Museum.

He never went into the building at the time but was so determined to use the building he began filming other scenes before permission came through; it was late in coming thanks to an accident that had taken place there some months earlier, but he doesn’t elaborate what kind of accident. Certainly the place looks dangerous, the steel cabling from the unfinished concrete standing up like thousands of bristles. It’s a curious building in which to find healing – but its isolation and incompletion appealed to Tsai.

Tsai admits he was initially anxious about working in Kuala Lumpur, but soon found that its mixed-ethnicity demographic worked in his favour. He was also able to use – and this is one of his favourite things – onscreen songs from different ethnic groups. ‘Shooting on the street in Malaysia wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be because they were very natural,’ he told me. He was using his regular crew from Taipei. ‘In Taiwan the Chinese people are very aware of cameras and tend to shun the cameras but in Malaysia, somehow, they are more relaxed and act more naturally.’

This was never more in evidence than when he was filming scenes set in an off-street restaurant. Tsai had arranged for extras to arrive; but in the end he used actual customers who were already there, and quite amenable. There’s a point in the film where the famous smog descends on the city and as the smoke machines cranked up he asked the customers whether they wanted to leave. They didn’t and continued chatting as his crew handed out the face masks.

Tsai has been identified, not quite correctly, as a chronicler of Taipei’s bored and alienated youth and fluctuating cityscapes since his first full feature Rebels of the Neon God in 1992 – a film that bought him almost instantaneous international success. Though he is largely considered a Taiwanese director, his emotional links are overseas. Born in Kuching, East Malaysia, in 1957, the son of a farmer who also operated a stall in the city centre, Tsai spent much of his childhood lurking in local movie theatres watching films from China, Taiwan, The Philippines, India and Hong Kong. But it wasn’t till he went to university in Taipei that he was to see the kind of auteurist cinema that was going to influence his own art – especially the works of Antonioni, Fassbinder, Bresson and, above all others, Truffaut.

After graduating in 1982 he stayed on in Taiwan and went on to work in the theatre (four plays, including the deadpan one-man show A Wardrobe in the Room) and ten plays for local television, eight of which he directed. This particular section of work has hardly ever been shown in the West but it was during this apprenticeship that he developed his fastidious and formal visual style, in 1991 casting the completely unknown Lee Kang-sheng in a 30-minute TV drama called Boys.

It seems that Lee was working as a guard at a video arcade at the time, sitting on a stationary motorcycle, when, like Pasolini on the prowl in Rome, Tsai spotted him, talked to him and gave him his telephone number. He was enchanted by his indifference and working-class solemnity; Lee later refused to take standard directions during filming and insisted on reacting on his own slow impassive way. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tsai found his celebrated and characteristic style, stripped of contrived emotion, through the eccentricities of his lead actor.

Lee curiously mutable face has been in all of Tsai’s feature films since 1992 – they include Rebels of the Neon God (92), Vive L’Amour (94), The River (96), The Hole (98), What Time is It There? (01) and Goodbye Dragon Inn (03). His character has evolved from the rebellious youth of Rebels of the Neon God (where he is the incarnation of the Chinese god Nezha – the god of the title – a headstrong deity who defies his parents) into something sadder and more battered in recent films, including a porn actor in Wayward Cloud.

Perhaps they might never have met; perhaps Tsai might have walked down another street that day and perhaps Lee wouldn’t have been leaning against his motorcycle (motorcycles have a freighted presence in many of Tsai’s films). It’s hard to think of another director with quite such an intense artistic relationship with his leading man. Lee’s own life informs the films of Tsai quite as much as Tsai himself. Lee’s real-life neck injury on the set on Rebels of the Neon God became the central motif for his character in The River – to date Tsai’s best-known film, convincingly declared a masterpiece by Jonathan Rosenbaum, with its celebrated scene where a closeted gay father accidentally has sex with his own son in the mists of a sauna.

Tsai says he could not imagine making a film without Lee, but then again, a solitary man himself, who will not go into a restaurant to eat if it is crowded, he does tend to work with the same comfortably familiar people. He usually uses the same cinematographer (Liao Pen-jung) and draws from the same small group of actors, including Chen Chao-yung and Yang Kwei-mai (intended as the porn actress in Wayward Cloud but ‘she didn’t want to film naked’). However it is the presence of Lee that most informs and the works of a director who, quite uniquely, balances the ascetic with the over-ripe.

‘I don’t talk to him every day, but most days, since we work in the same office,’ observes Tsai of Lee. ‘However I do talk on the phone to his nephew every day, who is seven years old’. He’s also involved in Lee’s fledgling directorial career – Lee’s second film Help Me Eros was in competition in Venice this year, with Tsai on board as a producer and art-designer. I suggest that his position on Lee’s films were a role reversal, but he just laughs. ‘It’s not just those roles – I’m also helping to distribute and publicise Help Me Eros in Taiwan for its January release. As for the art-direction, that was just to save the production money. We have the same mentality and the same beliefs, and I don’t agree with those people who say he is simply copying my style. If he isn’t influenced by my films, who would be his influence?’

It’s been noted that Tsai seems to enjoy his bad boy image, and, despite his personal delicacy and reticence, his themes can be lurid. Wayward Cloud includes a great deal of pulpy sex with watermelons. But on a more serious note Tsai is especially good at depicting private moments – showing the things that people do alone when they are not observed. Sex is an important force in Tsai’s films, but it’s rarely connected to love; the default position of a Tsai character is usually masturbation. A kindred spirit, the poet John Donne, once wrote of the ‘spermatique issue of ripe menstruous boiles’ and the ‘ranke sweaty froth’ of insalubrious sex, the sweat on the brows and lips of lovers co-mingled and encoffined by small spaces. Froth inevitably tends to at some point; it wouldn’t be a Tsai film without ranke sweaty froth and congruent bodily spillage.

Yet he’s very precise amidst all this chaotic human debris. His visual style, while depicting considerable crudity, is highly sophisticated. Few directors can compose a shot with quite such fluid beauty, his camera fixed and unmoving, like a dead or paralysed man looking out into a room as people come and go. His editing is non-linear and works against accepted convention. His scripts, fifty pages long and written like poems, contain little or no dialogue, something which baffled his hero Jean-Pierre Léaud when it came to his cameo in What Time is it There?

Disease, often mysterious in nature, is a hovering and malignant presence in much of his work, but most especially in The Hole – where a virus makes people behave like cockroaches (Lee’s battle with a cockroach in Rebels of the Neon God is one of the first scenes we ever see him in). It’s possibly too crude a reduction to associate these fears with the shadow of AIDS, but there again Tsai did make a documentary about AIDS in 1995. In Tsai’s landscapes, rooms are dirty. Pipes leak. Buildings are crumbling. People strive alone. Life is bleak and then, as in The Hole, you get a musical number. Curious that, when you meet him, Tsai giggles so much, like a naughty schoolboy, but perhaps much of this is much less symbolic than is commonly supposed. He claims for example that he always gets flooded by water leaks in nearly every apartment he’s ever been in, including one in Paris.

Audiences schooled on Hollywood film-making have looked in vain for themes of redemption, but escapes are there, especially the escape of cinema itself, most perfectly expressed in his film about the closing down of a Taipei arthouse cinema Goodbye Dragon Inn. Totemic filmmakers and actors figure here and there; a cameo for Anne Hui in The River, for veterans Shih Chun and Miao Tien (another Tsai regular – the father in The River) in the front row watching themselves onscreen in Goodbye Dragon Inn, with Shih complaining that no-one goes to the movies anymore, and of course Jean-Pierre Léaud scowling in a cemetery in What Time is It There?

After he has finished his chores for Help Me, Eros he’s back in France making a film with Jean-Pierre Léaud; it’s a project in some way financed by the Louvre (in Torino, 2005, I teased him about the erotic possibilities of the statues and he admitted he had been thinking about it). He’s concerned about Léaud’s health. ‘I’m anxious about working with him as soon as possible because he’s getting quite frail and perhaps not so clear minded – at the same time you can’t rush the film because I need to work on the script. I feel that if Truffaut was still alive he would most probably like to make a film with him.’ He is, he explains, keen to trace the history of Léaud’s face from his boyhood on 400 Blows, its relative effect on the audience, and compare this to the ageing of Lee Kang-sheng at the same time. ‘I’m more and more only interested in faces,’ he says, which incidentally says something about his interest in the watermelon, since he casually mentions that he first noticed them on street stalls because ‘cut open they looked like faces’. Surely a close-up can’t be looming? Tsai laughs again, alarmed and intrigued at the very thought.

For many years British audiences have been oddly oblivious to modern Taiwanese cinema, partly because the films of Edward Yang (apart from the majestic Yi Yi) and Hou Hsiao-Hsien haven’t been distributed here. An Edward Yang retrospective at the NFT some years ago briefly helped open the gates, even prompting some supposedly august Anglo-Saxon critics to take note. Tsai considers Yang’s sad and untimely death earlier this year to be the end of an era. ‘The passing of Ed Yang represents the passing of an age in Taiwan,’ he observes. ‘Audiences have changed and Taiwanese cinema has changed’. Increasingly he’s finding funding abroad. US style blockbusters now predominate.

No Hollywood for Tsai, though - he’s too much his own man to follow the Ang Lee route. The two mean ostensibly have little in common apart from their mutual obsession with cooking and food, although they have been known to meet for dinner every now and then. When I met Ang Lee at the time of Brokeback Mountain we discussed Tsai briefly and he told me he had borrowed many of the gay elements of his films from his contemporary. ‘I always say,’ mused Ang Lee with his familiar probing smile, ‘that the relationship between the Hulk and his father is very Tsai Ming-liang’.

It made me see that film in a whole new light. Tsai Ming-liang had gone to Hollywood after all in the heart of a radioactive green beast.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Hollywood blogger and occasional movie-maker Kevin Smith has raved about about the forthcoming $100m blockbuster Watchmen (its official website here is suddenly unavailable at the time of writing). But there again, Kevin Smith raved about Sin City, didn't he? With the notable exception of Batman and Spiderman almost all comic book/graphic novel adaptations in recent years have been shuddering disasters - The Fantastic Four, V for Vendetta, The League of Gentlemen, The Hulk, to name but a few. Will Watchman, originally written in 1986 by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, be any different? As a film it’s had various directors attached over almost a ten year period. Some were hoping that Terry Gilliam would succeed in his long quest to make it, but too many dollar-hemorrhaging productions and too many tilts at windmills put a stop to that.

But it looks as if no-one will get to watch the Watchmen if 20th Century Fox have their way; they’ve launched a lawsuit claiming prior copyright on the project. They’re out for blood too, with industry bible Variety claiming Fox actually want the film destroyed, and not distributed at all. What seems more likely is that they’ll ask for a hefty pay-off - $25m is being discussed. On top of that they’ll be a share of the ancillary profits; Warners is already planning two spin-offs for the DVD release.

Fox has already spent $1m developing the film. When projects drag on as long as this, it seems that people forget who signed what document and when. But watch this space. Around the globe, comic book fans are planning noisy protests outside the Fox headquarters in LA and we could well see people with limited social skills moping round outside Fox's London HQ in Soho Square, fanning each other with copies of the mercifully unfilmable Swamp Thing (Alan Moore's masterpiece).

If comic books are an important part of your mental architecture, you can sign a petition here.

Richard Widmark - The Cowboy who Never liked Guns

Richard Widmark died earlier this year. Here's his obituary in the London Times. He was one of the great survivors from the Golden Years of Hollywood, and first appeared on Broadway in 1943. He's also one of the few actors to have an airport named after him. I met him in 2002, when he had arrived in London prior to a season of his films at BFI Southbank.

For a man who doesn’t like to drink and absolutely hates handguns, 86 year-old Hollywood legend and tough-guy Richard Widmark has done an awful lot of onscreen carousing and killing over the years. In his earliest roles he played killers and losers in a slew of classic late noir movies, leading one breathless expert in the genre (Eddie Muller in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) to proclaim him ‘one of the true noir artists’. That insane giggle as he pushed a woman in the wheelchair down the stairs in Kiss of Death (47) has passed into cinema legend, his mere fifteen minutes of screen-time completely eclipsing its actual star Victor Mature and earning him an Oscar-nomination to boot. ‘Imagine me in here,’ his psychotically breezy character Tommy Udo chuckles to a sullen Mature in the police cell they share. ‘Big man like me getting picked up, just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head! Traffic ticket stuff’.

Still, that traffic ticket stuff did serve him well in the early days. Widmark has worked for well over half a century since blithe and chilling Tommy Udo first skittered cross the silver screen with his flop of blonde hair and petulant snarl (incidentally spawning a dozen Tommy Udo fan-clubs amongst antisocial teen boys, with even real-life Brooklyn gangsters imitating him). Over the years the famous roles have included top spots opposite icons like John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe (‘It surprised me she became this icon – she was always frightened, you couldn’t calm her down’). He’s been directed by Elia Kazan, John Ford, John Sturges, Samuel Fuller, Vincente Minelli and Otto Preminger. Indeed, he’s just about the last big star left over from the era of Hollywood when the old-fashioned studio system of the Golden Years still ruled the roost. People are sincerely awestruck to meet him. It’s not really surprising he received a standing ovation, simply for walking onstage for an interview, at the National Film Theatre last Sunday afternoon.

I’d met Widmark some days earlier in his London hotel, the one off Grosvenor Square he’s been using for the last thirty years whenever he comes to the UK. For all his kudos as a noir god, I don’t think he was ever entirely comfortable in its exaggerated style. He quickly left his noir roots behind him in the fifties and always looked comfortable in dusty buckskin and cavalry garb, as in Cheyenne Autumn, or crisp military uniforms, as in Panic in the Streets. He even made a good senator in his last movie Primary Colors. ‘The seedy underworld has never appealed to me,’ he confided as we began to talk. ‘I always wanted to be Douglas Fairbanks Jr – I fancied myself as a gay blade!’ He laughs with gusto. He’s as sharp as ever. No wonder he never quite bonded with John Wayne, or John Ford, or Santa Barbara neighbour Robert Mitchum (who would only ever come round for the yearly Easter Egg hunt with the kids): he wasn’t too keen on the sauce. ‘I never caroused with me boys,’ Widmark tells me with a wink, talking in that immaculate Midwestern drawl that reminds me of Wayne himself. ‘I didn’t like the taste of booze’.

It’s pretty darn clear he’s really just an old-fashioned Connecticut gentleman underneath, with an education in politics and law, certainly nothing like other hungry noir legends of the same vintage (genuine street-savvy hustlers like Mitchum and Robert Ryan). I already knew he was a committed Anglophile (George Cole – in the audience at the NFT – is one of his unlikely oldest friends) and so asked him about the first English-based movie he ever starred in, the crime melodrama set in bombed-out post-war London, Night in the City (1949). He plays a two-bit yankee wideboy with a line in big suits called Harry Fabian; he’s got a scheme to remove lucrative all-in-wrestling shows from the hands of the Greek Mafiosi. ‘I was always running, the whole sixty days of the shoot; I musta lost twenty pounds’, he told the NFT audience. Earlier he’d told me another reason for the weight loss. ‘There was rationing, you couldn’t get an egg. I had food-parcels sent over from America. At the end of the shoot we went to Paris and had a steak. Man, we were hungry!’

Was that the first time he’d been in London, after the Blitz and during the austere postwar years? ‘No, I was passing through in 1937 on my way to Germany with a friend. I had a professor who was very interested in the German situation and got me all fired up about it. We got permission to film the Hitler Youth camps for ten days. There were these little kids from about five years old in uniform and they’d spend all day saluting’. Was it kind of creepy? ‘No it was just like a boy scout camp.’ With your Aryan schoolboy looks, did they try and convince you to join up? ‘We knew it was all baloney and they didn’t try and convince us, but they did put on special events for us to film’. Were you surprised by what you found? ‘We travelled round Germany and saw soldiers on the train and the factories in the Ruhr were belching smoke night and day. Everything was in movement. It was pretty much what we had expected’.

I was interested in the subject of Widmark’s politics. I don’t believe he’s ever discussed them in interviews. After all, he’d played an enthusiastic leading role as a nazi prosecutor in Judgement at Nuremburg (61). He’d been famously mortified having to play a racist opposite Sidney Poitier in No Way Out (50), and kept rushing over to apologise between takes. They went on to become friends. I’d heard he’d also not shared John Waynes view of the world, though he insists he respected him professionally. It can be no particular coincidence that he’s friendly with arch-liberal Tim Robbins, who offered him the post-retirement role of Randolph Hearst in his movie Cradle will Rock. He won’t be much drawn on politics. But then his suddenly says something very interesting. ‘I contribute to an organisation to get rid of handguns,’ he tells me, just like that. Really? ‘I think our second amendment is ridiculous and in my opinion it should have been repealed years ago.’

I’m fascinated. He begins to quote the second amendment of the US constitution. ‘A strong militia being necessary for a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be abridged’.. He finishes the quote, with a kind of Vidalian patrician-liberal flourish. ‘Now to my mind that means in a militia, not as individuals. And that has usually been the interpretation of the Supreme Court. But this current administration has submitted a brief to the Supreme Court that the individual is supported. That’s the Bush administration! You know, it’s ridiculous’. So you don’t agree with Charlton Heston? ‘Oh god, I think he’s an idiot!’

Suddenly it all makes sense. Now we know why he pointedly stopped eccentric director Sam Fuller from firing a handgun to signify ‘action’ on the set of Pickup on South Street (53) and how truly ironic his take on Madigan (68) was. Don Siegel’s remake of the Akira Kurosawa film Stray Dog was virtually made-to-measure for Widmark’s sensibilities: a cop embarks on a 72 hour odyssey to retrieve his stolen gun from the hands of a murderer. Yes, it all makes sense. Widmark’s real life has been quite different from his screen roles: a marriage that lasted sixty years, a private life of gentleman farming on a Californian ranch, always a consummate professional with a clandestine liberal slant, a life in fact given over to gentle nurturing, reading and mild athletic enthusiasms. How about movies, does he still watch movies I ask him before we end the interview?

‘They don’t interest me,’ the legend of the silver screen says of his own industry, his mind perhaps still fixed in the notion big machines happily grinding up handguns. Movies don’t interest you, I ask weakly? ‘I think I made too many,’ he says with a solemn smile. ‘So they kind of bore me’. Traffic Ticket stuff, I can almost hear him say.

The great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami discusses his movie Ten

The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was in London last weekend, just before the news came through that the US authorities had denied him a visa to travel to the premiere of his film Ten at the New York Film Festival on September 29th. Not event the clout of Harvard University – where he’s also been booked to speak – could get him in. This rather shocking piece of information hadn’t been reported when I met him on Monday at the ICA, and in consequence I was unable to ask him about it, though having met him I suspect he’s probably rather relieved at not having to go at all. He’s no friend of the mullahs, indeed in his work he is discretely and carefully rebellious, and as the NYFF director Richard Pena told Variety: ‘policies that deny or make difficulty with visas are very short-sighted and counterproductive especially at a time when we need more contact with the Muslim world, especially their finest artists and thinkers’.

The bizarre spectacle of a delicate Kiarostami having to wend his way through the Countryside March on Sunday was a sight I missed, alas, though I first caught a glimpse of him at the lavish evening party thrown in his honour in the ICA Nash Rooms, surrounded by bangled bevvies of wealthy Iranian exiles who routinely turn out en masse to such functions in London. I didn’t get the feeling the he felt any more at home with them than with the muddy old Wellington boots clumping down the Mall a little earlier. Kiarostami is a reclusive man, as I was to find out during the interview, who fastidiously wears dark glasses like Garbo, though some say this is to protect his strained and sensitive eyes.

This Iranian auteur – who many, especially within the French intelligentsia, consider the finest film director in the world – had surprised his ICA audience earlier on Sunday by pulling out some finished reels of his new short film from a duffle bag which showed nothing but the waves of the Caspian sea gently lapping onto the shore. One can’t imagine what the Iranian exiles, haughtily quaffing white wine at his reception later, could have made of such languid seascapes. As he told me later, he found their cocktail party chatter a taxing experience, almost impossible to bear. But then everything is a taxing experience for the 62 year-old Kiarostami these days. As he told me on Monday morning, he wants to strip his life down, he wants people to let him be, and most of all, he wants to be alone.

It was difficult to get him to agree to an interview, difficult to get him to come to the UK (he felt slighted for many years by not receiving an invite to visit). Even at the time of walking into the ICA canteen, he was quietly threatening to dispense with the interview in a mere ten minutes. He’s like that. He’s temperamental. No doubt he’d rather be spending time with children (the fond subject of all his earlier films such as Where is My Friends House and Homework) or driving out to the country outside his native Tehran to be with ordinary country people (as featured in films like Through the Olive Trees and The Wind Will Carry Us), or ideally, completely on his ownsome. Incommunicado. A lot of your films are about people deciding how and what to communicate, I say to him, before the sound of the ICA canteen staff clanking thick water glasses together forces us to move to the calm of the cinema (‘I hate to object to people simply doing their work,’ he says, with a pained expression’).

He tells me about someone who works for him, a house servant, who after eighteen years left to marry and bring back an Afghan girl. He wants to explain to me about the horrors of modern technology and how it is robbing us of our space. ‘For one year his wife stayed inside my house and never went out the door. One day I forced her husband to take her out, and at least stroll around the neighbourhood. And when they returned, I asked her, did you enjoy going out? She said: no. It hurt my face. She couldn’t explain it more than that, but I understood exactly what she meant, that the noise and the cars and the people oppressed her. For another two years, she wouldn’t leave the house again’.

I suggest the poor woman is simply suffering from agoraphobia. ‘I don’t believe that,’ he says, firmly, like a family doctor, with his soft, exactly modulated Farsi being quickly translated by our interpreter. He’s an elegant-looking man, clean-shaven, with a brushed-down receding hairline. ‘It’s true that anything that doesn’t fit into the social norm could be a disease. I get annoyed by mobile phones; possibly that’s a disease. Nowadays if you invite someone to dinner they harass you two or three times with their mobile phones on the day, ringing to say they’re on their way, and that they’re halfway there, and then that they’re at your door.’ I mention how he satirises the use of mobile phones in The Wind Will Carry Us, where an engineer has to keep running up a hillside to get a signal. ‘I’m against the mobile phone, I don’t want to be accessible all the time.’ I suggest he doesn’t have to answer a ringing phone. ‘For me this is a matter of personality, but I find it very rude not to answer. If I don’t answer my nerves are completely destroyed, the contact has already happened, the energy has been taken. I now put my phone at home always on the fax – now I’m even frightened of the fax. You close the door and lock the house and go away but these letters still come into your home without you wanting it’.

Kiarostami denies he is a monkish recluse, but the picture building up, as we talk amicably, is of a man of almost Proustian nervous sensitivity, at bay from a forest of marching fax messages and phone calls enough to make the head of a dervish spin. He’s in despair of having to use a mobile whenever he’s in Paris being lionised in all the salons. ‘I turn it off, but when you turn it on, there are sixteen messages of people who have called me. And I never give out my number! When the phone goes off, it’s as if you’re asleep, and someone has woken you. Recently in Paris a man, who’s about eighty years old and very lonely I think, wanted me to have a copy of his book on cinema. He was very insistent. And then he left messages about which pages I should read.‘ Behind his Garbo shades I sense his eyes have widened in horror. Amusingly the nice interpreter gargles and interjects: ‘I once had you number, Abbas, but I never used it and I NEVER WROTE IT DOWN’.

The car is his lifeline and escape, and its no coincidence that his new film Ten, as well as The Taste of Cherry (about a man driving round and trying to get people to assist his suicide) and his semi-documentary And Life Goes On (about his return to Kokor – scene of Where is My Friends House - after an earthquake has destroyed the town), all relate to long car journeys. Kiarostami owns a big jeep, and he loves it. That jeep for him is the ‘best chair in the world’ because he’s ‘not obliged to see people and socialise’. This makes you sound like a misanthrope, I warn him. ‘On the contrary, it’s because I love people that I want quality time with them. Once you give water to a flower you’re responsible to the end’. You friends must be respectful of your need for isolation to remain your friend, I venture. He agrees.

‘After some struggles we settle down, yes. Just because I agree to see them on a set day, I might change my mind - it’s not because I don’t respect them. But promises are made to be broken. Sometimes in the middle of a traffic jam I see a friend, and I turn my face away, because that’s what I feel like at the time, because I’m in a state of solitude. Seeing so many people puts a pressure on you. Any object that is not useful is a nuisance. If you have two chairs in a house and you only use one, you have to get rid of the other, it’s an intrusion. Sometimes I drive out into the desert just to be alone, because it’s so relaxing. Even if there’s a tree – I love them and photograph them – it’s an object and I’m happier if there’s nothing to be seen. The less I can see the better’.

Funnily enough, although all this probably makes him sound rather mad, and rather intolerable, I understood exactly what he meant at the time; he seemed sweetly sensitive and pained. After all, It’s hard not to warm to a man who sees no difference between a tree, a chair, and a friend.

This interview was conducted in 2002. You can find out more about Kiarostami at the IMDB and news of his most recent prize in the Tehran Times. See also his 2007 interview with the New York Times where he ponders further on his eternal battle with US immigration authorities

Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter - The Addams Family of the Movie World

Tim Burton is laughing. For the master of such gothic darkness as Batman and Ed Wood, laughter isn’t exactly something you associate with the man. Hallowe’en hi-jinks maybe. A touch of glossy dark camp, of course. Yet here he is, hugging himself as a veritable belly-laugh escapes his black-clad frame. We’re in the middle of an interview in a beautiful beach pavilion on the Lido in Venice, mere hours after the world premiere of his stop-motion gem Corpse Bride . I really hadn’t meant to say anything funny. I just asked him whether Corpse Bride was in any way autobiographical.

It’s a fair point. The film concerns a gloomy and neurasthenic young man Victor (voiced by Burton regular Johnny Depp) pushed into marrying the well-heeled daughter of impoverished aristocrats (grotesque figures voiced by Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley). These people think Victor is common as muck and certainly don’t go out their way to make him feel comfortable in their stuffy mansion house. Intimidated, Victor goes for a walk and before you know it he’s actually proposed to a dead woman by mistake: the corpse bride of the title. She’s voiced by Burton’s other half and mother of his son, Helena Bonham Carter – the great-granddaughter Henry Asquith the prime minister, with sundry hereditary peers and Rothchilds amongst her near family.

‘Are you saying,’ Burton coughs and gargles, pushing his thick-rimmed tinted spectacles up his nose, ‘it’s all based on her family?’

Well it had occurred to me, I reply, nervously. Not to malign them in any way. But Burton is thoroughly entertained by the notion (later I read that Johnny Depp’s whole acting style with him is a constant effort to make him laugh). ‘Albert’s character looks exactly like her grandmother, yeah’, he exclaims, still enjoying the idea. Then he seems to collect himself, not wanting to get into trouble with the in-laws, one would assume. He puts a hand through his frizzled chestnut hair. He calms himself. ‘But no. I don’t know much about her family. We’re from such different backgrounds. I’m kind of white trash and she comes from lord and lady whatever – so it’s kind of a funny difference you know’.

It is one of the most unlikely of combinations, after all. Tim Burton had been dating the statuesque model Lisa Marie for most of the nineties, but after he worked with Helena Bonham Carter on Planet of the Apes, where she is dressed in an ape-suit, and makes an impressive primate, they began dating. He’s a Californian hipster and B-movie loving goth with a background in animation. She’s a public school girl who was for so long a kind of Merchant Ivory pin-up, forever gadding about in frocks and twirling parasols.

If cursory impressions are anything to go by, though, they clearly adore each other. They seem like two big kids having a whale of a time, during the interviews they both did and during the premiere.

Burton talked about the five years it took to make the movie, about how he doesn’t have the patience to animate any more, and relied heavily on his co-director to do the day-to-day work. He oversaw the footage on a highspeed link from Pinewood. Johnny Depp would finish work on Charlie many evenings and then step into the animated shoes of Corpse Bride.

‘I’ve always been misrepresented,’ he says. ‘You know I could dress in a clown costume and laugh with the happy people but they’d still say I’m a dark personality!’ It all dates back to his childhood, when he was a quiet little boy who liked to watch Godzilla movies.

A little later I met Helena Bonham Carter. She too feels that her image is something foisted on her by other people, though she didn’t exactly help matters by admitting to me she used to think she could ‘go back in time if I got inside the television and dressed up in costumes’ and that her first crush wasn’t someone from Duran Duran but ‘Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited – I kind of stalked him, scary, then I met him once and it was all over’.

They now both live in Belsize Park, just down the road from Hampstead in London, where they are raising a two year-old son named Billy. She shows us his picture in a necklace round her neck with a flutter of her Moschino-scented hand (she’s taking him on the beach after she’s finished with us – ‘chuck him in, see if he sinks,’ she snorts, a bit Joyce Grenfell for a second). ‘It’s a lonely thing, being a director,’ she says. ‘It’s just you and you have all the responsibility’. He manages to leave most of his work in the office. ‘But he does do a lot of venting when he’s angry. And I get it. But it’s not about me’.

She did the voice-overs for both Corpse Bride and Wallace and Grommit was she was pregnant, traipsing up to Hampstead to lay down the soundtrack while Burton was down the road making Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Pinewood. It wasn’t until she told Burton she was doing Wallace and Grommit that he piped up ‘hang on a minute I was going to ask you to do a stop-motion picture’. She laughs. ‘So it’s like London buses, two come along at once’.

How did he direct her in the movie? It’s now the fourth they’ve done together. The dynamics between couples in such situations can be tricky. History is littered with the disastrous situations of directors directing their wives followed inevitably by divorce. ‘Well he wasn’t always there,’ she recalls, ‘but he was there for the last session – he just told me to keep my voice up, since my voice is naturally quite low and he wanted a higher register. And try not to be so harsh, he said – maybe something to do with our relationship! Like I’m a husband-beater.’ And she leapt at the chance to sing a song in the movie, scored by Burton regular Danny Elfman, for my money the best composer in Hollyw ood. ‘I love show tunes,’ she exclaims brightly. ‘I’m a gay man at heart’.

Some have suggested that Burton’s work is not dark any more, since the two have become an item. Even she admits that for all its gothic and macabre flourishes, Corpse Bride is rather an optimistic movie, where the dead seem to be having a good time. Does she feel guilty about this profound change? ‘I don’t think I feel that guilty about it,’ she says, without an ounce of defensiveness. ‘I’d rather Tim was happy and other people were disappointed’.

She explains that it wasn’t until the end of filming Planet of the Apes that ‘ding and it was obvious’ and they started dating. Friends were not surprised. It was only her who hadn’t seen it. She felt ‘immediately comfortable and safe’ with him, and what was more he was more than happy to move to London, claiming that Hampstead ‘was the only place in the world I feel at home in’ after staying there during the making of Sleepy Hollow. ‘Years later he came to live there with me, it seemed like serendipity’, she says. ‘He loves the rain - the only person in England who likes the rain’. And she adds, after thinking about it, ‘he has an old soul – yeah, he’s been around the block’.

Her relationship and having a child has definitely made acting take second place, though she is also due to appear in a TV production in November called The Magnificent Seven as the mother of seven autistic children. ‘I’ve had relationships before but this is family,’ she admits. ‘Acting has definitely become a satellite activity. It’s not where I put my sense of self or self-esteem. I don’t need it to feel real’.

She likes her life now, she says. ‘I don’t need to reinvent myself or escape’. And does a return to what originally made her famous, the costume or period drama, hold any appeal these days? ‘Actually I haven’t done one since about 1998 and I wouldn’t mind doing another you know’.

Time to dust down those parasols.

The Greatest Film Dirk Bogarde Never Made

On the last day of shooting Death in Venice in August 1970, Luchino Visconti offered to buy lunch for Dirk Bogarde in the little village pensione in the mountains outside Bolzano. They had been up since 2am trying to catch the light of dawn for a key shot: Bogarde was in his linen suit sitting in a plum orchard pretending to be still on the Lido in Venice. Bogarde declined the meal but in their parting conversation, as the 64 year-old Italian director daintily peeled the fatty skin from a sausage, he mentioned to Bogarde that he was keen to start work on a cherished project. ‘I am thinking to make the Proust La Recherche,’ he ventured in his thickly accented English. ‘You must think of Swann perhaps, yes?’

It was the movie had always wanted to make and he very quickly found an enthusiastic producer in Nicole Stéphane (a Rothschild by birth, she had also been an actress in Melvilles Enfants Terribles and starred as Madame Curie in Franju’s biopic). For over six years Stéphane had been trying to hire just such a director, despite haughty dismissals from the likes of Francois Truffaut (‘I wrote to the woman producer that no real film-maker would allow himself to squeeze the madaleine as though it were a lemon’). But the fiasco that followed ended in a series of lawsuits, bitter recriminations and a bizarre feud with Harold Pinter that Pinter refuses to discuss to this day.

Stéphane had acquired the rights to A la Recherche some years earlier and like Visconti she felt intensely possessive about Proust (born in 1923, she too came from a privileged background). Stéphane had been hanging on to the hope that Rene Clement would make the film with her, but it only took lunch at the lavish Principe di Savoia in Milan to persuade her to go with the glamorous Italian Count. Helpless against the full force of Visconti’s charm she cried ‘you are saying all I wanted to hear!’ and ‘I must kiss you!’ at the end of the meal, agreeing at once to give him permission and to produce the movie.

What was it that Visconti said that so convinced her? He identified strongly with Proust. ‘Every page could have been a description of his own life,’ notes Visconti’s biographer Gaia Servadio. The Milan of his youth was gone ‘yet it remained a luminous memory to him as Combray was to the narrator of A La Recherche, as the lilacs of Meseglise and the river at Guermantes’, notes his other biographer Laurence Stefano.

Visconti was raised in a grand Milanese manner little changed from the days of Stendahl and alive with fading belle époque inflections. He was the son of a Duke. The family palace at Via Cerva was run by a host of flunkies smartly dressed in black and yellow livery. The social rounds were understood from an early age, and set in stone, as the great and the good visited the proper salons in a strict rotation; it was the Gallarati-Scottis on Monday, the Viscontis on Wednesdays, the Borromeos on Thursdays and on Friday the Ricordis. Proust would have completely understood such a world.

Visconti adored his mother Donna Carla. Every evening, like the narrator in A La Recherche, he waited for the sound of his mother’s footsteps coming to kiss him goodnight, the swish of her gown on the grand staircase and the instant when she’d stoop over him, swathed in tulle and exuding the subtle scent of Chavalier D’Orsay. In fact no other director has proved so consistently Proustian in his personal sense of recall on a loved and vanished world and the pathology of his own sexuality, whether in evocations of Milan in Films like Rocco and his Brothers or White Nights or directly linked to his own personality in films like The Leopard. It is his own wizened and liver-spotted hand turning the pages of a D’Annunzio novel in his last film The Intruder.

So the project was set. Eight months was spent writing the script, then six weeks on scouting for locations. La Ferriere, the belle-époque chateau belonging to Guy de Rothschild was selected, thanks to Stéphane’s connections, along with sites in Combray, Trouville, Doncieres, Cabourg, Paris and Venice. Some actors received contracts. Silvana Magnano was to be Oriane de Guermantes and Alain Delon Marcel the narrator. Brando was approached to be Charlus, but the producers favoured Laurence Olivier. Helmut Berger was pencilled in as Morel and Brigitte Bardot asked for a role, and was given one, as the ageing Odette de Crecy. Charlotte Rampling was to be Albertine.

In all the film was to last four hours and cost an astronomical five billion lire, but when Stéphane baulked at the price and asked to be given more time to raise the finance, Visconti huffily started pre-production on his subsequent film Ludwig, informing Stéphane of his decision at the 1971 Cannes Festival. It seemed to unravel with extraordinary rapidity, the Visconti dream project. Visconti genuinely intended to return to A La Recherche, but nonetheless Stéphane felt wounded and betrayed by his behaviour, and turned to Josef Losey to make the film she wanted (who then commissioned a Pinter script). She sued Visconti. Visconti counter-sued. There was stalemate.

Clement and later Volker Schlondorff would concentrate on the Swanns Way section of the book. It’s not surprising that Visconti chose to specialise on the decadent aspects of Sodom and Gomorrah. His A La Recherche script opens in a Venice Hotel that would certainly have been Hotel de Bains once more (the one he uses in Death in Venice), where the Marcel-like protagonist goes to stay with his mother after the death of Albertine. The 363 page script ends with an orgy in a homosexual brothel and Marcel later mingling with frightened Parisians seeking shelter from the German bombardment of 1918. It couldn’t be more different than the chaste Pinter script (a staged adaptation of it appeared at the Cottesloe Theatre in 2000) which was to begin and end with a close-up of a patch of yellow wall (a detail from Vermeer’s View of Delft) and the sound of a bell ringing.

‘I think you can safely say the Visconti A La Recherche would have had wonderful costumes and sets, and would have been very beautiful and nostalgic,’ says Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, whose book of Visconti remains the only serious critical mainstream work to have been published on the director in decades. ‘I think it would have been all about the loss of childhood, but would also have been very overwrought and decadent, and full of lesbians’.

Pinter described that year working on Proust in 1972 as the greatest working year of his life and his script has become the stuff of legend (though not everyone is convinced by its brilliance – Roger Shattuck in Proust’s Way complaining that Pinter presents ‘Marcel as a precarious and somewhat forlorn heterosexual in the midst of a sea of homosexuals of both sexes’) Unlike Visconti, he considered Proust a ‘merciless satirist’. Perhaps mindful of Truffaut's earlier analysis he also drops the Madeleine scene because it was ‘impossible to represent it without it becoming a cliché’.

In the end neither film was made. Stéphane angrily complained that Pinter’s script was ‘unproducable’ and would be ‘four times more expensive than Visconti’s’. In a curious coda to the whole affair, Visconti enacted what appears to be a revenge on Pinter by staging his play Old Times in Rome in 1973 and completely sabotaging it. By now quite ill, he directed the play from his Rolls Royce, which he had driven into the auditorium of the Theatre Argentina. The staging was a fiasco – he introduced new elements such as nudity, lesbian sex and masturbation. Pinter’s agent tried to get the production closed down, and eventually Pinter himself flew to Rome and was reduced to fly-posting his protests to the glass doors of the theatre. Visconti’s line was that Pinter was a mere ‘radio playwright’ and that his work needed ‘fleshing out’. For good measure he refused a direct approach from Stéphane to sign away his rights to Proust, haughtily allowing her representative to visit the theatre to see him doing the Pinter play and then refusing to acknowledge Stéphane’s letter in his hand.

It was a bitter conclusion to a glittering project, though its clear that in the end Visconti was secretly relieved not to have made A La Recherche. He’d had the conviction that he would die as soon as he had finished making it, and he was always unshakeable in his superstitious beliefs. The film would be so autobiographical there would have been nothing left for him to say. Still, elements of Visconti’s Proust turned up in later films of the same subject. Volker Schlondorff hired Alan Delon for Swann’s Way in 1983 (produced by Stéphane – at last she got her film) and Raul Ruiz copies a scene from Death in Venice in Time Regained in 1999.

Visconti went on to make Conversation Piece and The Intruder, where once again he dressed the lead actress (this time Laura Antonelli) as his mother. ‘My mother wore veils just like these,’ he told his long-suffering costume designer. ‘She was swathed in veils in 1910 when she went to La Scala followed by a valet’. He died very shortly afterwards, in 1976.

Here is a website devoted to to Dirk