Flattery gets you everywhere

The Academy is nothing if not self-adoring... just look at the Oscar nominations

A sad week for cinema. Two influential figures are dead: Theo Angelopoulos, the 76-year-old director of The Travelling Players, Ulysses' Gaze and the Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day, died yesterday after being hit by a motorcycle near Athens. (You can find a thorough and illuminating interview with him, conducted at the National Film Theatre in 2003, here. And Bingham Ray, a major player in the US production and distribution scene, died aged 57 after suffering a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on Monday. Ray founded October Films, whose first release was Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet, and later headed United Artists, a speciality division of MGM. An obituary in the LA Times notes that he "often clashed [with MGM executives] over the types of films that Ray chose to champion, with the studio regarding his taste as too esoteric and arty."

Which brings me to this week's other, less significant but nonetheless disheartening news. "Academy Awards Nominations Play It Safe" is a headline of the "Dog Bites Man" variety; no one expects the "esoteric and arty" to be anywhere near the door-list. With each year, I feel more inured to the minor snubs and injustices, and more resigned to the parade of phoney prestige that constitutes the whole awards calendar, not just the Oscars. I'm not immune to its silly allure -- I vote in the London Film Critics' Circle Awards, and was happy to see The Artist and A Separation amply rewarded last week. While I haven't yet seen Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed Margaret, its inclusion on our nominations list, and the tie-break win in the Best Actress category between that film's Anna Paquin and awards-magnet Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, did make a case for the importance of such rituals in bringing largely unsung work to wider attention.

We all know by now that this isn't the remit of the Academy Awards. The expansion of the Best Picture category in recent years to ten nominations was intended to accommodate popular favourites that might otherwise not have nabbed a place; at no point was it meant to shine a light on the overlooked or under-praised. But it's ridiculous to cast the net so wide when the quality of the films nominated does nothing to warrant it. Any awards body that is seen to be making up the numbers will lose what little authority it has. I'm sure this isn't going to trouble the Academy -- viewing figures count here, aided by the smoothness of the ceremony (hence the return to Billy "Safe pair of hands" Crystal after the botched experiment of Anne Hathaway and James Franco).

Reluctant as I am to share the opinions of someone who boasted of having walked out of The Artist, Bret Easton Ellis was correct when he tweeted that "The Oscars are a marketing tool but they give an indication of what Hollywood is thinking about itself. 2011 was an awful year for movies... In order for The Oscars to mean anything, if they mean anything at all, they have got to limit the number of best picture nominations to five."

I'm sure The Artist will win big; I hope it does -- it's not the best film made in the past year, but it is a smart and witty confection, and it's certainly the finest work within the boundaries of what the Academy is prepared to acknowledge. As the Huffington Post remarked, "films about films" like The Artist and Hugo (which leads the way with 11 nominations) predominate this year; the Academy is nothing if not self-adoring, and such movies are inherently flattering to the industry's sense of itself as magical.

Keeping the glass half full, it's encouraging that A Separation has been recognised in the Best Original Screenplay category, as well as the expected Best Foreign Language Film. Another plus: Bridesmaids got a Screenplay nomination, and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Melissa McCarthy -- she could very well win, as it's one of the few categories where unbridled comic turns are tolerated. (See Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway.) And a Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life -- flawed though that movie is -- alongside Best Director for Terrence Malick is not to be sniffed at.

Expect to see Malick sitting in the front row on Oscars night, jeering and braying loudly. Next to him is that born hellraiser, Joey the horse from War Horse, who leads the charge as the pair of them "do a Kanye" when The Artist scoops the gold. Well, if we can't have esoteric and arty, let us dream of scandal and horseplay...

 

 

 

 

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