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Book Review

A Joyful Portrait of the Author and Friend

MAINLY ABOUT LINDSAY ANDERSON by Gavin Lambert; Alfred A. Knopf $29.95, 372 pages

October 04, 2000|ERIC LAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Mostly About Lindsay Anderson" is also quite a lot about Gavin Lambert, which makes it all the better. Anderson, the director of "If . . . " and "O Lucky Man!," among other films, and of such influential plays as "Look Back in Anger" and "The Changing Room," died in 1994. He was also the author of "About John Ford," which is also a fair bit about Anderson. Lambert is a screenwriter ("Inside Daisy Clover"), biographer ("Nazimova") and novelist whose "The Slide Area" is one of the best books about L.A. and the movie business. Building on Anderson's example, he has intertwined stories of two lifelong friends.

Lambert and Anderson met in the early 1930s at Cheltenham College, an English boarding school with "stone corridors that reeked of carbolic acid" and where they "sat on long worn benches like convicts in a prison movie." Homosexuality was common though generally not a permanent preference. Anderson's diaries show how he struggled with his homosexual desires and detail his often unfulfilled longings. Lambert, on the other hand, writes that since his sexual initiation at age 11 with a teacher at his preparatory school, he has felt only "gratitude" for realizing his homosexuality.

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The many indignities inflicted on the Cheltenham student bodies--the straying hands of teachers, beatings, "metallic tea from a blotched urn" and "ancient mutton or frazzled cod"--colored Anderson's work, most directly "If . . . " (1968), an allegory of revolution and youthful passion that earned the praise of Patrick White (the school's only--and ignored--Nobel Prize winner), the enmity of the Establishment, and which introduced Malcolm McDowell to the movies.

Anderson and Lambert were drawn together by their love of Hollywood movies, and they were such cineastes that at Oxford they founded Sequence, a magazine devoted to ardent examination of films and filmmakers. Lambert writes that Anderson "took falseness of any kind as a personal affront, and the films that Sequence attacked, as he wrote retrospectively, 'hurt us as much as our comments hurt their makers.' "

Anderson instinctively resented authority, and no authority figures more than producers. The first he met was Sam Goldwyn, whom he interviewed for Sequence. The magazine's fortunes were flagging and Goldwyn's advice was to put cheesecake on the cover and a gossip column on the inside. "Life is compromise," he told Anderson.

For many, certainly; for Anderson, never. He found British films "emotionally inhibited, willfully blind to the conditions and problems of the present." Although an all-star cast of writers felt much the same about England in general and left (mainly for America), Anderson stayed to fight the good fight. His idealistic skepticism and his insistence on working in England made him like John Ford, who loathed Hollywood but managed to make film after film of quality there. No wonder he admired Ford so much.

"England doesn't change," he often wrote Lambert, yet he did brilliant work about the home he loved in spite of its flaws. With their themes of injustice, the plight of the homeless, science at the expense of humanity and a shredded societal safety net, "O Lucky Man!" (1973) and "Britannia Hospital" (1982) portray the conditions of the time they were made--and of today. (Alan Price's songs that anticipate and comment on the action in "O Lucky Man!" are perfect; Lambert says they're as integral to the movie as the Street Singer is to "The Threepenny Opera.") And for more than 40 years Lambert has written brilliantly about L.A., the "horizontal automotive city" that became his second home.

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Lambert also writes engaging sketches of other friends, among them Isherwood, Natalie Wood and Paul Bowles, and of such lovers as Peter Brook and Nicholas Ray. His portrait of Rachel Roberts, who committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of lye, is heart-wrenching yet its aftermath is sweet: Anderson kept her ashes in a gift-wrapped box in a Gianni Versace shopping bag for more than 10 years before scattering them in the Thames along with those of another suicide victim, friend and actress Jill Bennett. He filmed the ceremony for a 1993 documentary on his work and life, entitled "Is That All There Is?" Alan Price sings the title song while others on the boat amiably gossip, drink and eat sandwiches. The BBC didn't quite get what Lambert calls "the portrait of the artist as an old man--quirky, funny, sadder than perhaps he realized and nakedly personal as he intended."

Much the same can be said of Lambert, an elegant stylist and raconteur who has opened the gift box that holds his own past as well as Anderson's. A friend recoiled when Anderson invited her to the ceremony for Roberts and Bennett. "No, Lindsay, you can't throw the ashes of two of your dearest friends in that awful, cold, dirty" river. But she came anyway and saw, "He was right. The whole scene was extraordinarily warm and joyous." Just like this book.

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Eric Lax is the author of "Woody Allen: A Biography."

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