A catch up with film culture tsar Adrian Wootton, back at the Melbourne International Film Festival to talk Humphrey Bogart, Patricia Highsmith, John le Carré, and Katharine Hepburn.
Despite arriving from London that morning, a jet-lagged Adrian Wootton is gregarious company, generously giving me two hours. Over a delicious Greek lunch at George Calombaris’s Gazi—highlights included snapper with pine-nuts, spit-roasted chicken, and Acropolis Now dessert—the conversation is similarly appetising.
Tall, with piercingly blue eyes and a big presence, Wootton’s many mantles include CEO of Film London. His lively and learned lectures are a reliable Melbourne International Film Festival drawcard, which I had the pleasure of first experiencing last year. Ahead of his wonderful talk on Humphrey Bogart, Wootton and I discussed Casablanca, Katharine Hepburn, Patricia Highsmith, John le Carré, Martin Scorsese, and Bob Dylan. Illustration by Matt Kambic.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I remain a big fan of Casablanca. The only classic scenes that are more romantic are between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, moments like the whistling in To Have and Have Not. I have to say I disagree with Pauline Kael—she famously dissed Casablanca and said Bogart treats Bergman like a whore.
ADRIAN WOOTTON: I don’t think that’s true. I think Pauline Kael’s great for a soundbite, she always was. But she’s wrong about lots of films. And she’s certainly wrong about Casablanca. Casablanca’s always been one of my favourite movies. It’s wonderful because for me because it marks the point at which Humphrey Bogart reached an apex of a particular trajectory in his career. He managed to shake off the shackles. He had become a star against all the odds, and a star that people suddenly thought of as a romantic hero in a way that nobody thought he could be. That’s by the time of The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca puts him onto a new level and cements the iconic status that he had.
It allows him to be tough and tender within the course of the same movie. And humorous, too; there’s all that stuff in the café when he’s maître d, all of that stuff is brilliant. Casablanca stands up every time. New generations can watch it and get it because it’s about the war and it’s a love story, and you don’t know until the final reel what’s going to happen, because famously they didn’t know what was going to happen either.
The fights on and off set; Michael Curtiz being a dictator behind the camera; and Bergman saying, “I kissed Bogart but I never knew him.” In my talk I note how his personal life was a complete trainwreck at the time he was making the movie, with his third wife. She thought he was sleeping with everybody on the set, including Ingrid Bergman, and was constantly turning up on the set, trying to accuse him of sneaking off to his trailer with somebody, which wasn’t happening at all. She was absolutely convinced he was philandering with somebody. It didn’t happen till he got together with Lauren Bacall on To Have and Have Not. So it should have been a disaster. That’s what’s so extraordinary—all the odds were stacked against it, everything-
AB: Like Apocalypse Now–
AW: Yeah. The one thing I’ve learned by being involved in commissioning low budget movies, but also seeing large budget movies get shot in the UK and following their progress… [is that] if a set is relaxed or easy going, then what often happens is that people make mediocre movies because they don’t care enough and they’re lazy. There has to be a certain edge to the movie maker. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to fall out or be permanently stressed out, but I do think there needs to be some creative tension and frisson to be successful. Most of the time if people are too close friends, or they’re having a jolly good time, then it normally means it’s not going well. Casablanca is a prime example. All the odds are stacked against it and when they finished the movie everyone thought it was going to be a disaster, but of course it wasn’t.
AB: How have Bogart and Katharine Hepburn influenced your creative philosophy?
AW: I’ve always worshipped Bogart because of that combination of world weariness, cynicism, and romanticism. In the mid-late 1940s, he defined a certain kind of masculinity, a certain kind of glamour. As a very green young man, I aspired to him.
In the 1970s Brian Ferry and Roxy Music were deeply influenced by that whole style. There’s a famous Roxy Music song, ‘To HB’. Again that represented to me a certain notion of Hollywood and glamour. I’ve always held it up as an epitome of what a male star could or should be in terms of you empathising with them, admiring them, and inspiring to be like them. You sort of believed in those movies that Bogart stood for something. There’s an implicit liberal conscious in the films of that period. Obviously his persona changes in the 1950s as he gets older and he becomes less of a romantic hero. It becomes edgier and more disturbing.
In terms of Hepburn, it’s probably a little bit less emotional, more cerebral. I’ve always admired her singularity, her individuality. I’ve admired the longevity, how she refused to be beaten down and told what to do. Again she represents something: independence, free spirit; inevitably considering her background, her mother was a suffragette, for goodness sake. She again represents a liberal tendency in Hollywood. Like Spencer Tracy, but unlike lots of her co-stars. You couldn’t get much more extreme than her and John Wayne. They come from completely different sides of the political spectrum. Looking at her you think that there are very few actresses that manage to do what she managed to do. You’re looking at fingers on one hand.
AB: Speaking of exceptional people. That was a lovely, touching piece by John le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman.
AW: It was very moving. With John le Carré (David Cornwell), you always get something very insightful. I saw the film (A Most Wanted Man) at Sundance in January. I came out saying, “This is terrific!” mainly because I thought Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance was so brilliant.
AB: “Philip took vivid stock of everything all the time, it was painful and exhausting work and probably in the end his undoing,” he wrote in that New York Times piece.
AW: Le Carré’s half sister is an actress, Charlotte Cornwell, he loves actors. Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, and Hoffman are three of the greatest actors that ever lived and they were all in films adapted from his books. He had these moments of closeness with them. And because le Carré is extraordinarily protective and extraordinarily intuitive, he picked up things from them. It’s so sad about Hoffman. It’s awful, an extraordinarily talented, and incredibly vulnerable man.
AB: You did that very rare interview with le Carré 12 years ago.
AW: I did. I met Patricia Highsmith once and we had a wonderful little conversation, whereas le Carré I’ve met six or seven times over the years. I spent a few days with him when he accepted a Raymond Chandler award in 2001 in Italy. Then in the run up to the onstage interview that we did. He’s only ever done two onstage interviews in the UK in the course of 25 years. He’s an amazing raconteur. He’s got a great memory. He’s such an extraordinary character: his background, with his conman gambler father, becoming a spy himself for MI5 and MI6, and then becoming one of the greatest espionage writers in the 20 and 21st century.
AB: What do you think would surprise people about le Carré?
AW: I think the two things that are surprising, unless you’ve read a lot about him, is that how much of his childhood was really Dickensian, that David Copperfield childhood that he had with his father being a conman and a convict and being someone who created false identities and false personalities, influenced the personality of John le Carré.
I think it made John le Carré a perfect person to be recruited as a spy. Le Carré became someone who knew how to dissemble, to be other people. I think that’s why he likes actors, because they take on other people’s identities, and he saw his father take other identities. In a sense in fiction writing, it’s all about writing about other people. John le Carre’s an extremely courteous English gentleman, but you do get the impression when you meet him that’s there’s an enormous amount of mystery behind that charm. You’re getting very much what he wants you to have of him. There’s John le Carré, the professional writer, where he will tell you his stories and you will find him the most charming companion out, but there’s a very compartmentalised place you’re being accessed to, and there’s a whole hinterland you’re not going near. It only comes out when he writes, and he gives glimpses of that hinterland in journalism.
There’s a new biography being published about him finally next year, which he’s kind of authorised, which will dig up skeletons in his personal life which he’s not talked about for 50 years. I find it fascinating, the relationship between John le Carré the man, a man who as I say is quite secretive, and in some ways quite cold, and this extraordinary writer.
AB: What don’t people know about Patricia Highsmith?
AW: People didn’t know really, except a few of a very small club, about her being gay. The whole thing about her being a gay writer, writing under a pseudonym. Gay novels, which nobody knew about, weren’t published under her own name almost until the point of her death, and having this extraordinarily turbulent and in many ways self-destructive personal life. Her life was littered with love gone bad affairs, over the course of 40 years. Psychodrama of her and her parents, her and her lovers.
On one level people talked about her as being very shy, very diffident, uncomfortable in company, and other people talk about her as this monster who could express the most extreme opinions and be emotionally like a volcano. You have to try and knit together the contradictions of this extraordinary personality.
The things that knit them altogether is the writing, because it was the writing that provided her with her escape and a vehicle for self expression. It kind of kept her alive to the age of 74, because if she hadn’t had writing to pour all these torrents of soul searching emotional drama into, I don’t think she would have made it past her thirties, because her life was so crazy.
She seemed to sustain an affair every four months. She was falling in and out of love with people, having affairs sometimes with men, but mainly with women, and a lot of times with married women, and then she’d have a relationship, which would sometimes last a week, but sometimes would last two or three years, but was always invariably bad. And she’d write about it copiously in her diaries, and elements of the emotional turmoil would be fed back into the novels. In a way, Highsmith created the instability, restlessness of her life; it was the cauldron in which she could create great work.
AB: So you’ve read the lesbian novels?
AW: Yeah, there’s Carol, which was originally called The Price of Salt, from 1952. There’s self published ones as well. The last book she ever wrote, which was called Small g: A Summer Idyll, was also set in a gay milieu; they’re very different books because they share a certain emotional intellectual relationship, stylistically they’re radically different but the connection is emotional obsession.
The lesbian novels are about the confines of society crushing relationships. Certainly in the 1950s when she was a young woman, and what a beautiful young woman, she really did feel that societal pressure; she tried to go straight and marry a male novelist, which was a disaster. She agreed to marry and the marriage was on off on off, until she realised it was completely stupid and she broke off with him. But it went on for two years, her going to a psychiatrist to try and cure herself of being gay, which obviously was not going to happen. I think that’s why her books’ characters have fragmented identities, they dissemble like Tom Ripley, multiple personalities. I think it does reflect that repression.
I think she was an incredible writer. It was a shame that as she got older, the combination that she wasn’t well, her alcoholism got the better of her, she got more extreme, and her opinions became more extreme. Her political opinions became very extreme. Her anti-Semitism, which is very well known—it’s not even subliminal—became grotesque. I don’t think that was really her; I think it was a function of the disease of alcoholism taking over in the last ten years of her life. Her friends talked about how she deteriorated and became very difficult to be with.
She was drinking like a fish and it would lead to these volcanic outbursts. She used to write to French newspapers complaining about Jewish people. It started from a political perspective, about Israel, because she felt that very strongly, she hated the whole 1967 war, but it magnified and became something more grotesque as she got older. I do think that was a function of her terrific loneliness, stress, and unhappiness. She’d been an alcoholic since she was a young woman, but it had gotten out of control in the last part of her life, which ultimately killed her—she was only 74, but the body had taken a big toll on x amounts of vodka and whisky.
AB: I guess we have to go back to the work.
AW: The body of work is amazing. She wrote unlike anyone else. John le Carré took what Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and other espionage writers did and translated it into a modern English literature. He redefined the vocabulary of espionage fiction and the milieu of it. Highsmith redefined a certain notion of crime literature, putting fantasy and almost supernatural and macabre elements, and the focus on psychology, the psychology of the schizophrenic and making the bad guys the anti-heroes, which nobody had done before. Or they had, but they’d done it in serious literature like Doestoevsky, rather than crime literature.
AB: What did you think of the screen adaptation of Two Faces of January?
AW: I liked it. Highsmith’s work from 1950-65 is a monster success because she wrote Stranger on a Train, the first Ripley novel, things like The Blunderer and This Week’s Sickness, and Two Faces of January, and short stories. She wrote great books after that, but it was a very difficult period. I didn’t realise until after I’d started researching how much she’d had to rewrite, and the fights with her publishers and agents; the publishers telling her the weren’t going to publish it unless she rewrote the ending. But she had this purple patch and Two Faces of January belonged to that. I thought the casting was very good.
AB: Viggo Mortensen is pretty reliable, Oscar Isaac is good.
AW: It’s a bit of a thankless part, the Kirsten Dunst role, but that’s also to do with a great contradiction that Highsmith didn’t write women very well. Ironically. She was never really interested in women in her books. Apart from the lesbian novels, she’s not really interested in women.
AB: Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s documentary on the New York Review of Books, The 50 Year Argument, was a highlight of Melbourne International Film Festival this year.
AW: I hosted a BFI on-stage interview with Tedeschi in London in June. Scorsese couldn’t come over. The use of archive footage was fantastic; to see the Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag footage, all that stuff is brilliant. But also the James Baldwin stuff was terrific; both the archive footage, and then Darryl Pinckney talking about it, and also apologising on stage for the way he behaved towards him. That kind of epiphany was brilliant. I said to David Tedeschi, “This is a very unusual project, why did it happen?” And he said, “Scorsese’s been a subscriber of the New York Review of Books for 25 years.”
AB: So those two have more documentary collaborations pending?
AW: There is supposed to be a part two to the Bob Dylan film, it was supposed to be coming out either later this year or next year. The second part of the autobiography is definitely Dylan’s doing, and Scorsese as far as I know is committed to doing part two: from the motorbike crash, retirement, through to Rolling Thunder, concluding with Desire and Blood on the Tracks.
AB: “Humphrey Bogart lines from several other films curl like his cigarette smoke into these Dylan lyrics too,” Michael Gray writes in his terrific The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. You were a big fan of No Direction Home, weren’t you?
AW: I was a huge fan of it. To have Dylan talking in that way, and obviously to have that footage; that famous tour, it was amazing.
AB: He employs that amusing archive footage where Dylan gives no respect to stupid questions, but it’s heartening to see how when he gets intelligent questions from Scorsese, he’s eloquent.
AW: “God, who knew that Dylan could do this if he wanted to?” We’re so used to him being enigmatic and aloof. The only guy that’s worse than him in an interview context is Van Morrison, who just doesn’t want to talk at all. In that documentary, Dylan’s fantastic because he does tell you things that you don’t know. There are real insights there into the way he thinks. It’s enthralling, so I really hope there is a part two, because I love that period of Blood on the Tracks and Desire and the ’70s tours he did. I am at least in part a fan of Renaldo and Clara insofar as that the concert footage is amazing in places. In fact, I asked at great length Dylan’s manager about showing Renaldo and Clara in London, and Dylan’s supposed to be doing a new version of it. It is a shame he won’t let us screen it.
AB: I also love the clip of Sontag and her argument with Mailer, and I love that with The New York Review of Books that some of its contributors are having these fights in and off the page.
AW: Yeah, that’s what makes the documentary and the whole magazine interesting because they were having furious disagreements about really important political and social issues. Very few magazines get to set an agenda as serious as that one. Rolling Stone certainly had its moment in the late ’60s and ’70s when it defined a certain kind of cultural response through the prism of popular music, but it seems to me that The New York Review of Books defined a whole kind of aesthetic and poitical agenda for a while.
AB: That great essay Susan Sontag wrote about Leni Reifenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism.” It’s important to mention the war. With Reifenstahl, unfortunately, that association with Hitler can’t be shaken.
AW: Her films were the great propaganda films of the regime. If they’d have been bad comedies, or terrible spy thrillers, they’d have been forgotten actually. But because they were these glowing examples of a certain kind propaganda cinema, they tarnished her forever.
AB: Speaking of definitive, what do you think sets Eric Lax and A.M. Sperber’s Bogart biography apart?
AW: There’s a lot of stuff that’s been written about him, little that I would call serious biographical research. What set their biography apart was that it was so ferociously well researched, and it myth-busts his life and what he did and didn’t do.
AB: What sort of myth-busting?
AW: The scar on his lip that people talked about affecting his diction and how he got the scar. Lax basically analyses every possible interpretation and finds one where he was hit by shrapnel when he was on a cruise ship coming back from Europe in 1918. Another one, which is a favourite popular story, is that he was transporting a prisoner when he was in the navy, and the prisoner escaped from him, hitting him over the face with the handcuffs when he escaped, and another one was a childhood fight. The most likely explanation of all comes from an interview with Louise Brooks, where she said Bogart was always getting drunk and getting in fights, and it was just a bar fight.
AB: Tell me about an important book for Hepburn?
AW: James Curtis’s book on Spencer Tracy. Inevitably, because of the relationship between Tracy and Hepburn, he writes an enormous amount about Katharine Hepburn. He’s got a little epilogue at the end of the book about biographies of Hepburn, where he rails against a bunch of biographers for being sloppy and slap-dashing their research and putting lots of unfounded stuff in the books, and he basically says the problem is until such time as somebody does the research properly, and in particular properly accesses Hepburn’s papers where ever they are, we won’t get a definitive biography of Katharine Hepburn.
He’s right. And he’s given us some part of that because his biography on Spencer Tracy is absolutely fabulous. It’s a brilliant piece of work; because they spent 30 years together you get a fantastic insight into Hepburn through her relationship with Tracy. It’s a partial perspective because the biography stops in 1967 when Tracy dies.
AB: Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hepburn in The Aviator is a delight.
AW: Lovely. That’s one of the things that Scorsese the film fan gives us—a little vignette snapshot into that relationship, which she wrote about in her own autobiography years later in the ’90s. It still seems surreal to think about Hepburn being squired around, being flown around, by Howard Hughes, but it absolutely was the case. They were a very close couple. She says she thinks he wanted to marry her. And she said she thought it would have been a terrible marriage, a disaster.
But he was very kind towards her, and he was very important at a critical part of her life when she’d been characterised as being box-office poison. He helped her buy the rights—she essentially set about commissioning Philip Barry to write the play that became The Philadelphia Story as a vehicle for her. And it was Hughes who essentially bought the rights for her, and then sold them back to MGM to have creative control over who directed it and who co-starred in it, which was extraordinary. And it was because of Hughes’s money that she was able to do that.
AB: As with those fantastic documentaries Scorsese’s done on American and Italian cinema, his love of classic Hollywood is contagious.
AW: In the days when people were still around, he was employing Bernard Hermann to do his scores, and he would employ those old legends at the end of their career. They’re gone now, so now what he’s doing in particular films like The Aviator, he tries to build in little homages to those eras, because like us, he’s a huge fan.
Hepburn, I think, is a very singular woman who changed the face of stardom for women in Hollywood for her refusal to be stereotyped. Her contemporaries, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, struck blows for female independence in many ways but Hepburn refused to be typecast and because she refused to be typecast, she created a very individual persona inside American cinema, which very few people did. Also she managed to carry on making films. The fact that she carried on to work for 50 years is extraordinary. You see her at pretty much all the stages of her life on screen. She’s one of the few actors who you see from her 20s to her 80s on screen. That’s pretty amazing actually—someone’s life being reflected through the prism of cinema, and still doing meaningful movies.
AB: What did you think of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street?
AW: I thought there was a really strange reception to that movie. It got ignored by all the awards, though there were nominations. It seemed to divide people; a lot of filmmakers and a number of critics absolutely love it. I knew some people voting in the BAFTAs and I said I thought it was one of the films of 2013/14 and some people vehemently disagreed with me. In America at some of the Academy screenings, both Scorsese and DiCaprio got booed and hissed. I really thought the film was terrific. I thought it was the best Scorsese movie for a number of years, because it had an edge to it; it was about something. It was doing, in a sense, for sex and corruption what Goodfellas did for drugs and violence.
AB: I thought it was weird people who loved movies like Goodfellas—real panache and edge about people doing unpleasant things—dissing it.
AW: I found that reaction to that film very strange because I thought it was terrific. The problem was there was an unfortunate holier-than-thou ridiculous moral attitude. I was amazed when people were saying, “But he’s justifying these people.” How can you say he’s justifying these people? How many ways do you want to see him depicted doing appalling things? We weren’t sitting there going, “Whoopdeedoo that’s great,” we were sitting there going, “Oh my god, how much more worse can these guys get?”