Gilbey on Film: non-human stars

The talking animals in cinema worth hearing.

Dr Dolittle could talk to the animals. This much we know. But what about those beasts in cinema who want to express complex thoughts and emotions, or converse with someone higher up the actors' food-chain than Rex Harrison (or, heaven forbid, Eddie Murphy)?

One such example can be found in Beginners, which I will be reviewing in this Thursday's issue of the NS. In this movie by Mike Mills, a Jack Russell terrier communicates telepathically with its owner (Ewan McGregor), and the non-human side of the exchange is made accessible to the audience via subtitles. It's worth noting that Mills is the partner of the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, whose own latest movie, The Future (which opens in the UK in November) is narrated by a cat called Paw Paw. Mills admitted to me recently that he likes animals more than humans, but perhaps that's simply what happens when you've been in the film industry too long.

You can hear Mills and his cast discussing the honour of working with Cosmo the dog here. And here is a brief run-down of other notable talking animals in cinema. Animation and children's films are excluded -- well, almost.

1.The rancid fox in Lars von Trier's Antichrist proves with its menacing delivery of just two words ("Chaos reigns!") that there are no small parts, only small actors.
2.Harvey the hell-hound in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam commands the "Son of Sam" serial killer to continue his bloodthirsty spree. The voice is provided by Lee regular John Turturro.
3. The pig-man hybrid in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! ranks among the most disturbing sights in all cinema (watch the whole clip, with the creature unveiled around 2:21). Trivia nerds will already know that he is played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later donned the costume of intergalactic bounty hunter Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
4.A small variety of non-human speaking parts in Garth Jennings's film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but my pick would be the stoical whale played by Bill Bailey.
5.Like Cosmo in Beginners, the cat in Doug Liman's underrated portmanteau comedy Go converses telepathically with its human co-star -- in this case, a young supermarket clerk who has just taken Ecstasy.
6.Okay, so I said no children's films. But this list would look plain odd without Snowbell, the withering cat squeezed out of his family's affections in Stuart Little. Listen to the incomparable Nathan Lane stealing the show as Snowbell in the 2002 sequel.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser