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Obituaries

Gavin Lambert, 80; British-Born Screenwriter, Chronicler of Hollywood

July 19, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Gavin Lambert, the British-born author and screenwriter whose novels such as "Inside Daisy Clover" and nonfiction works, including biographies of screen stars Norma Shearer and Natalie Wood, earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood's finest chroniclers, has died. He was 80.

Lambert, who lived in Los Angeles off and on for the last five decades and was most recently a resident of West Hollywood, died of pulmonary fibrosis Sunday at Barlow Respiratory Hospital in Los Angeles, said his longtime friend Mart Crowley, who wrote the landmark play "The Boys in the Band."

A former editor of the prestigious British film magazine Sight & Sound, Lambert arrived in Hollywood in the mid 1950s as director Nicholas Ray's assistant. From then on, he devoted much of his life crafting what one book reviewer called "elegant, elegiac, arch fictions about his adopted home, Hollywood."

Among his novels are "The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life," "Inside Daisy Clover," "A Case for the Angels," "The Goodbye People" and "Running Time."

In her review of "The Ivan Moffat File," a 2004 book about screenwriter Moffat that Lambert edited, critic Carolyn See said of Lambert: "Both his 'Inside Daisy Clover,' an artful study of creativity, longing and heedless love, and 'The Slide Area,' written in the sophisticated, elegiac style of Christopher Isherwood's 'The Berlin Stories,' remain as terrific today as when they were first written.

"One has to see -- quite apart from his talent -- that Lambert is a gentleman as well as a writer entirely committed to recording the history of this magic place."

As a screenwriter, Lambert's credits include his adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," his adaptation of "Inside Daisy Clover," and his two shared Oscar-nominated adaptations, "Sons and Lovers" and "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden."

As a biographer, he wrote "Norma Shearer: A Life," "Nazimova: A Biography," "Mainly About Lindsay Anderson," a combination biography-memoir about the acclaimed British director and his lifelong friend; and "Natalie Wood: A Life in Seven Takes."

Lambert also wrote "On Cukor," a full-length interview with director George Cukor; and "GWTW: The Making of Gone With the Wind."

Writer Dominick Dunne said he considered Lambert to be "a major Hollywood historian," whose "The Slide Area" is one of the best books on Los Angeles and the movie business he has ever read.

"He was the guy at the party who observed more than participated," Dunne, a longtime friend of Lambert's, told The Times on Monday. "He could be very funny -- funny in a quiet way. His observations on Hollywood life and Hollywood people were just incredible."

Kevin Thomas, The Times' veteran film writer, said Lambert "was tremendously knowledgeable about Hollywood people and history, and very perceptive, very insightful and very comprehensive. I consider him a big loss as someone who I think had a real understanding of Hollywood's legacy and how Hollywood has worked."

Director Nicolas Roeg, for whom Lambert adapted Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" for a 1989 TV production starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon, said Lambert was "a terrific writer," who, despite having some of his greatest successes in the 1960s, "didn't stay rooted in the past."

"He moved on in style and attitude," Roeg said. "He was quite an exciting guy; I thought he was extraordinary."

Born in East Grinstead, England, on July 23, 1924, Lambert attended Cheltenham College, where he first met Anderson. He also attended Magdalen College, Oxford, but left after a year, he said later, after discovering he had to learn medieval English to earn a degree.

Lambert later wrote that he "never made any secret" of the fact that he was gay, "but was never militant -- unless it was 'militant' to inform the tribunal that summoned" and rejected him for military service in 1942 that he was a homosexual.

His first job was writing scripts for two-minute commercial films shown in movie theaters. He also wrote short stories that were published in literary magazines.

In 1948, he collaborated with Anderson as an editor of an iconoclastic film magazine, Sequence. As a film critic, he became known for championing neglected films such as Ray's "They Live By Night" and Max Ophuls' "Letter from an Unknown Woman."

Two years later, he became editor of Sight & Sound, a position he held until 1956.

Taking a sabbatical in the winter of 1955-56, he wrote and directed an independently financed movie, "Another Sky," a low-budget film shot on location in Morocco. It drew the admiration of Luis Bunuel and Ray.

After becoming Ray's personal assistant in Hollywood, Lambert did uncredited writing on Ray's films "Bigger Than Life" and "The True Story of Jesse James," and he collaborated on the script for "Bitter Victory."

In what may have been his last public appearance, Lambert joined author Gore Vidal and others at a motion picture academy salute to Greta Garbo in April.

Like Vidal, Lambert had known the film legend.

"Everybody adored him," said Crowley on Monday, describing his friend of 40 years as "very droll" and "terribly fun to be with."

"He liked to go to every party and be out almost every night," said Crowley. "But he was an intense worker every day. His work habits were extraordinary. He worked every morning and played every night."

Lambert, who became an American citizen in 1964, is survived by his brother, Denys M. Lambert.

At Lambert's request, no funeral service will be held.

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