How I Came to Dance With Fonteyn

27 April, 2008

<i>I Peed on Fellini</i> by David Stratton

The venerable David Stratton was addressing a lunch crowd at a launch of his autobiography, I Peed On Fellini. As he autographed my copy, I reminded him that I had sometimes been mistaken for him at film festivals from Cannes to Honolulu. Similar age, height, Panama hat, beard; easy mistake to make. To some people Australians all look alike. Even imported ones like Stratton.

The title of his book got me thinking.  If I found the energy,  the memory and the courage to one of my own, I might well title it I Danced With Fonteyn — with perhaps a sequel called I Dueled With Nureyev.

At about the same time as this launch lunch, my son discovered and sent to me an old scrapbook of mine in which was a cringeworthy poem I had written in my 20s about the then binary stars of the ballet universe, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.

Read my new page, Invitation to the Dance, for the full story of how the book got to be so named and how I got to dance with Margot Fonteyn.

Where were you when …?

17 August, 2007

Never mind JFK, do you remember where you were when Peter Sellers died?

I was sharing a poolside table at the rooftop restaurant Le Méditerranée at the Sofitel le Méditerranée during the 1980 film festival in Cannes with theatrical agent extraordinaire, Theo Cowan.

Sofitel le MéditerranéeTheo was well-known for his “Cannes outfit” of army surplus safari jackets over the kind of baggy khaki shorts known to British troops of long-past wars as Bombay Bloomers. His heavily horn-rimmed spectacles were invariably adorned with clip-on, flip-up green shades.

Theo also represented Peter Sellers.

We were well into a salade niçois and about to signal for a second bottle of excellent Domaines Ott Château De Selle Cotes de Provence Rose for the main course. The olive oil drooled over the salad leaves and the pool sparkled watery diamonds around the perfect semi-clad bodies disporting themselves on a perfect Mediterranean day.

A quiet, private lunch with the inimitable Theo was a luxury in the madness of the Cannes Film Festival.

Theo was not expecting to be called to the phone. He apologized and followed the waiter. I sat back, sipped and took in the view.

Yachts jostled cheek-by-jowl at their moorings, stern-in to the pier as is the practice in this part of the world. Beyond the yacht harbour, across the Bay of Cannes, past Palm Beach and its casino can been seen the Île Sainte Marguerite, where, according to Alexandre Dumas, the man in the iron mask was imprisoned for eleven years. The intense luminous blue of the sea leaves no doubt why this is called the Côte d’Azur.

Theo’s voice broke my reverie. “Peter has died. I am so sorry but I have to get back to London right away.”

La facture, s’il vous plaît

17 August, 2007

Doubtless the accommodations for the man in the iron mask on the Île Sainte Marguerite were not in the style of the Hôtel du Cap so near and yet so far just a few kilometres across the azure water to Cap Ferrat.

However his dungeon was free of charge.

Hôtel du Cap FerratEleven years in just a standard room at the Hôtel du Cap would have set him back €3,412,750 (A$5,808,748, US$4,567,965), not including food, beverages, laundry or tips.

And believe me, food, beverages, laundry and tips can well bring that close to double.

If he had chosen a suite or villa his bill would have cleared the national debt of many former French colonies.

It is worth noting that only fairly recently did this and many other luxury hotels in Cannes accept credit cards, previously requiring cash in settlement. They also imposed minimum stays (ten days during the film festival), charged a full booking for early departure, and demanded 50% of the reservation in advance — non-refundable. Naturellement!

Saturdays too far away

17 August, 2006

As a kid there were more Saturday matinées than even the combined efforts of Peter Sellers, Danny Kaye and John Wayne could fill. That didn’t stop me from hoarding or begging the price of a train ticket, a packet of Jaffas* and a ticket to the movies for the Saturday matinée.

Rififi posterSometimes what followed the cartoons and Johnny Weissmuller cliff-hangers was not the stuff of comedy fantasy or cowboy heroes. Sometimes it was a movie of an entirely different genre. These were movies made in shadows; not soft shadows as between seasons, but shadows of fate and doom or the black glint of a death-threatening revolver. They were full of men and women, good and bad, doomed by their needs, flaws and frailties – or those of others.

Of course I had never heard of such a word as “genre” then but, in my youthful innocence, I classified these as “dark films”. As much as these movies frightened me they gripped me too. I had yet to encounter Shakespeare or Sophocles and so film noir became my introduction to theatrical tragedy.

I mention this because I recently watched again after perhaps 20 years one of the icons of my “dark films”.

Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes) is a séminal work; a seed, and sometimes an outright template, for following films noir and for heist and caper movies to the present day – be they films couleur regardless. Overblown latecomers such as Mission: Impossible and its type have never approached the breath-suspending sour-sweat tension and ultimate sadness of this original.

I was still young when I was promoting Stanley Kubrick’s release of Sparticus, not so long after Jules Dassin was forced out of America by the hysterical McCarthy House Un-American Activity Committee. Kubrick reportedly insisted similarly-accused Dalton Trumbo write and be recognised for the screenplay for Sparticus.

If you ever wanted to experience the rank fog of Gaulois butts and stale calvados, there is plenty here, as is a certain absolution and an exposition of a code de honoré – for some at least.

* A marble-shaped confection with a chocolate centre and an orange-flavoured candy coating beloved of Australian moviegoers.

IBM and the Hollywood connection

18 July, 2006

Determined to eclipse his huge success with the Busby Berkley musical, 42nd Street, Daryl Zanuck demanded the writers at Warner Bros to come up with another sure fire hit. After rejecting dozens of new screenplays, Zanuck is said to have berated the luckless writers “Gimme 43rd, street, 44th Street, 45th Street …”

IBM’s HollywoodNothing much has changed — except perhaps that now a successful movie clones both sequels and prequels. Hollywood production executives choose the projects they support not on the basis of instinct for a good story and personal judgement of good writing, but on the project’s “defensibility”. In other words, the elements of the project that determine how successfully they will be able to protect their executive arses in the event the film is a turkey. An “A-list” cast and director have high defensibility quotients — but probably the best defence of all is that the project is a sequel to a known money-maker.

“Hey, who could know? With that cast and Harry-whatsisname directing and the first one grossing $200 million in a week? I tell you, I did everything right and still I get let down. Hollywood’s a bitch. Sometimes I think I should’ve stayed in real estate.”

The fact is, of course, that sequels tend to cost a third more and make half the money of the original. There are several reasons for this: 1) often the cast and director on the original were paid less than asking rates and, now they find themselves part of a successful franchise, they want more money, so they get replaced. 2) the original project was likely to have been driven by the story. The sequel is almost always driven by the desire to exploit the original. (Godfather II is one notable exception.)

The result is usually a thin and flimsy facsimile that antagonises the audience. They feel that in buying a ticket to the sequel they entered into a pact in which they were promised, if not better than before, at least more of the same. And the result of that is the most potent box-office poison of all, bad word of mouth—and in these cyberdays of Internet chatter instant publishing and broadcasting, that can be a very big, fast mouth indeed.

So where does IBM fit into all this?

There was a long-running advertising campaign for IBM with the headline: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”.

What that campaign was really saying was not that IBM is the best or most appropriate product but that the decision to buy it was defensible! It was saying that buying IBM night be the dumbest decision you ever made — but, don’t worry, you won’t get fired for making it.

As much as I loathe the thinking, the campaign works because that is the thinking of most corporations, all the way up. It is a dangerous call to fire an inferior today for making a decision on the same grounds you may well use to defend you own position to your superiors tomorrow.

Oh, and as for IBM, the Chinese bought a whole chunk of it.