Actors, Celebrities

A close encounter with George Clooney

The Times, April 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

George Clooney’s easy banter and high-brow films have made him the thinking person’s heart-throb. But what do we really know about him? Ginny Dougary has a close encounter with a most elusive superstar

George Clooney is a guys’ guy, a gays’ guy and, obviously, a ladies’ man. It’s not just the looks and the voice, the irony (a slanting sense of humour not generally shared by his compatriots), the charm, the political awareness and unphoney compassion – an American who isn’t an embarrassment to America; it’s the whole package. He must be too good, surely, to be true?

The Clooney effect is even more astounding. You can attract your own little fan club just by announcing that you are off to interview him. My taxi driver, the most bloke-ish of South London blokes, got unusually excited: “George Clooney! Even I fancy him, and I’m heterosexual.” A gay female friend announced that she would cross the line for a night with him. Editors expirated; acquaintances asked if they could touch my hand as though they could press Clooney’s flesh, by long-distance osmosis, when he brushed mine; friends were beside themselves with envy. Mentioning his name at Heathrow and LAX airports was an “Open Sesame” for instant upgrades. On my return, I watched a documentary about a sex change ex-paratrooper whose first woozy words on coming round from her final op were: “Get me George Clooney’s number.”

I was not immune to the Swoon, and started off by klutzily knocking over my tape recorder. He agreed that this was not my best move, setting the relaxed, jokey tone of the rest of our fiercely negotiated time together. Later, I find myself blurting out that it’s funny looking into those dreamy brown eyes (when you’ve just seen them magnified on the giant screen, there is the odd moment of unreality as you gaze into them face to face). “Yes,” he grins, “they are dreamy, aren’t they?”, as though they were something quite separate from himself.

Is it ever hard being “a lurve object”? “Yes, yes, that’s me, don’t you think? Once you meet me, though, it’s not so fun, is it?” Mass giggles. “Too old and too grey.” But does it become tiresome being fancied by everyone or is it endlessly marvellous? “Well, you know, people have been nice to me most of my life. I mean, fairly kind. But there was a time when compliments about your appearance were used to make it sound as though you weren’t bright, in some way – so much so that you almost wanted to avoid them.

“But you get to an age [at 46, he's closer to 50 than 40] when you’ll take any compliments you can get – you know, ‘Yeah, thanks’ [a casual, molasses drawl] – so when people are trying to be nice, I’m never bothered.”

People may have been “nice” to Clooney before ER but it was that television series that led him to becoming an international heart-throb at the age of 33. He admits that he was suddenly catapulted into a different stratosphere of attention, because “ER was so huge. In America, with hits like American Idol, they’ll say, ‘Twenty million people watched it!’ But we averaged 45 million. It was such a giant hit that the focus had to be on certain people and things.”

ER’s “certain person” was careful not to emulate other stars of mega TV hits, most notably David Caruso in NYPD Blue, who was released after one season of a four-year contract to pursue a film career, which failed to take off. In contrast, Clooney honoured his five-year contract without once demanding a pay rise, even as he was almost single-handedly contributing to its enormous viewing figures, which cemented his reputation as a man of honour who valued such sturdy virtues as modesty, integrity and reliability.

Post-ER, his first critically acclaimed venture was Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight – with the famously sexy scene of Clooney’s bank robber spooning Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal in a car boot. The following year, he talked himself into getting a leading role in the first of his political films, Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the end of the first Gulf War. In 2000, he displayed a talent for comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ resetting of The Odyssey in Thirties Mississippi, as good ol’ boy chain-gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill.

Fast-forward, via The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s Eleven blockbusters, to 2006 when Clooney received an embarrassment of Oscar nominations – the first person to be shortlisted for best director and best supporting actor for two separate films (he was also nominated for best original screenplay). He lost out for best director (for Good Night, and Good Luck, his atmospheric black and white Fifties film about TV journalist Ed Murrow’s battles with Joseph McCarthy) but bagged best supporting actor for his role in Syriana as a bearded, overweight – he gained three stone for the part – CIA agent caught up in the shifting moral eddies of the Middle East.

A few days before meeting the Swoon, I managed to catch up with him in Michael Clayton – he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor (There Will Be Blood) in this year’s Oscars – and felt that in this portrayal of a flawed and troubled hero, he was digging into deeper psychological territory as an actor. There is a key scene when a shell-shocked Clooney runs across a mist-shrouded field at dawn to look at a trio of horses whose stillness matches his own. I confess he looked so very forlorn that it made me feel quite maternal, and he laughs and says: “Give me a hug.” (And, no, incredible though the Swooney Fan Club finds it, I did not.)

The new film Leatherheads, the first offering from Clooney’s production company, Smoke House, is a romantic comedy about the early days of America’s pro-football league in 1925. Clooney directs and stars as team captain Dodge Connelly opposite Renée Zellweger as a sharp-talking ambitious reporter, Lexie Littleton, who is dispatched by her editor to do an exposé on Connelly’s prize signing, an alleged boy wonder war hero – Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford.

It has the Clooney charm and farce and appeal – it is very good-looking, for a start, drenched in rich colours – but doesn’t strike me as an instant classic in the mould of the golden oldies such as The Philadelphia Story, which inspired its creators. Clooney recently admitted that Zellweger had been “a little bit” of a girlfriend and I would say there is a little bit of screen frisson between the two – a loaded dance, a romantic although rather chaste kiss, lots of zingy repartee. I particularly liked a couple of the lines, such as the one Lexie lobs at Dodge – “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you in Deluth” – but wondered how much of the film’s audience was likely to be even dimly aware of Dorothy Parker and the round table of New Yorker wits.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’ll be somebody who picks up on it. Having grown up working in television, what all the networks say is, ‘Well, no one will get it.’ When we did the pilot for ER, the NBC executives literally turned round to the head of Warner Brothers and said, ‘What did you do with our $3 million? There’s too many stories. No one will get it.’

“And the truth is – when you think of the shows that have been hits over the years – that people are smart. M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Taxi are all smart shows.”

Despite all Clooney’s love action with the opposite sex over the years – one ex-wife, decades ago, a string of girlfriends, none of whom has lasted for longer than three years – there have been persistent rumours about him preferring men. I had read about a website called “George Clooney is gay, gay, gay” and the fabulous, practically Wildean insouciance of his response: “No, I’m gay, gay…” “The third gay, that was pushing it,” he completes his quote, looking fleetingly pleased with himself.

The truth is that Clooney has a habit of playing up to the gay rumours. When I ask him about the film company he used to run with Soderbergh, Clooney’s response is: “Steven and I broke up.” Sifting through the cuttings – which despite their bulk are remarkably sparse in terms of fresh content, with the same slender details endlessly recycled – there is a distinct thread of playful campness. Way back, he was asked about an episode of his life when he brought girls back to mess around with him in his boudoir (a bed in a buddy’s cupboard) and his jocular riposte was: “I’m certainly out of the closet now.” During the ER years, asked about what might unfold in the next series, he referred to one of his male “colleagues” thus: “I think Noah [Wyle] and I become lovers on the show. Last season, you could see the longing glances across the room.” When he and some of the Ocean’s Eleven cast were invited to leave their handprints outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, he said: “If I had to be on my hands and knees with three other guys, I can’t think of three better guys to do it with.” Well, excuse me, but frankly how could you not think, “Hello, sailor!”

While some of our own local sex gods also enjoy teasing the press and the public about their various proclivities – Russell Brand and David Walliams instantly come to mind – it is highly unusual for an American film star to set the cat among the pigeons in this way. On the subject of pets, Clooney’s longest relationship has been with his beloved Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Max, the actor’s constant companion – until his recent demise – for 18 years. According to newspaper reports, Max was even allowed to share Clooney’s bed in the rare gaps between his owner’s human relationships. If any of Clooney’s girlfriends could have been persuaded to go for a menage à trois, they might still be around.

When I say that I’m not going to ask about his sexuality, obviously, Clooney – as relaxed as it is possible to be – says: “That’s all right, you can.” Most people say that you’re so right-on that you won’t dignify the question with a concrete response… “Because then you denigrate the people who are [gay],” he agrees. “Also, I remember when there was a whole story about Richard Gere and the truth is that he handled that as best as he could. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not something,’ because it’s somehow insulting to other people.

“You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life and have a great life and I’m not worried about what people in that world think.”

Later, he mentions “some actor” who introduced the subject of Clooney’s preferences recently, “and it was the funniest thing”. Er, what? “You’re talking about me being gay…” Which actor? “Some actor in a London paper brought it up. I can’t remember who it was but they were really tearing into me and I was, like, ‘Wow, that was strange.’” Sorry? An English actor said that you were gay? “I don’t know if that was what it was – maybe they were just saying that I was an idiot, I can’t remember.”

The unmemorable English actor, I later discover, is Rupert Everett, who had lambasted Clooney for his Ocean’s films, describing them as “a cancer to world culture”, and rammed the knife in even further, saying: “He’s not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He’ll be president one day. Mark my words, if he’s straight [Everett is a very out gay], he’ll be president.”

It is when we talk about the forthcoming presidential election that Clooney really hits his stride. On almost any other subject –which may explain that meagre sense of him in the cuttings – his charm acts as a sort of shield, creating a series of cul de sacs. His favoured response to any question that is remotely personal is to come back with a wisecrack, rather like the banter of an English public schoolboy, but more beguiling – so that you don’t instantly recognise it as a withholding device.

He admits to being a bit of a bloke himself – a bloke with a Peter Pan complex, with his train sets and model airplanes and motorbikes. When I’d read about his pranks – which he still likes to play, he says – my heart rather sank. There’s nothing debonair about leaving your calling card in your host’s cat litter tray (my sons thought this was hilarious, but they are teenagers) or borrowing friends’ cameras at parties to take photos of your naked bottom. His favourite clip on YouTube is of a monkey sticking a finger up his arse, smelling it and passing out.

Even his wedding, to actress Talia Balsam, sounds like a joke – with a ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator in a kitsch Las Vegas chapel. Three years after the couple’s divorce in 1993, Clooney himself sounded a bit worried by his prospects, saying: “The problem is kind of image. As you get older, that image isn’t cute any more – not like when you’re 18 and going out with a bunch of girls. When you’re 40 and you do it, it’s kind of sad.” I mention his current gorgeous girlfriend, Sarah Larson, a waitress turned reality television winner, and ask him how many months – “She’s, uh, I think she’s 29 years old, actually” (see, he’s quick) – before mumbling that they started dating in August.

Clooney has referred to his own immaturity, saying that even though he was 28 when he got married, he was probably too young for that commitment, since actors tend to be less grown up than the rest of us. He has often said that he has no desire to reproduce, but is that partly because fathering a child would deprive him of his own extended boyhood? He responds, inevitably, with a gag: “Don Cheadle [Ocean's Eleven, Hotel Rwanda] came up with a very funny line when he introduced me at an awards ceremony, saying, ‘George Clooney doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t want the competition.’”

I read him Philip Larkin’s famous anti-parenthood anthem (“They f*** you up your Mum and Dad”), which he finds very funny, as a way of asking him about his own childhood. He says: “Oh, I had a great childhood. I’m really, really close to my parents and talk to them all the time. But they were Catholic and very strict. I was always being grounded and being told to be in by seven. Grace at the meals and all that. But I was also a child of the Sixties and Seventies, with all those movements that were going on – civil rights, women’s rights, the drug counter-culture, the sexual revolution – which were interesting to me.”

Apart from Max the pig, Clooney’s longest relationships have been with eight buddies he’s known for 25 years. He says that he does, on the whole, prefer to hang out with “the guys” than with women. When he’s not making films or getting involved in humanitarian causes – he and his father, Nick, a former television news anchor, travelled to Sudan and Chad to make a documentary about genocide – or entertaining guests in his villa on Lake Como, the actor likes nothing better than to play basketball and kick back with his pals by drinking beers and watching sport on TV.

He sounds horrified when I ask whether the gang of eight are all actors. “Noooo, noooooo, noooo. One sells real estate, one’s a lawyer at Warner Brothers, one’s a writer-producer, one’s a security guard in Italy. Only one is an actor. They’re a great touchstone when things really take off…” And you could become a bit of a wanker; do you know that word? “Yes, I know it very well [a look of mock befuddlement], I’ve heard it a lot lately. I don’t understand why.

“What happens is that sometimes people can be too nice to you and say, ‘You’re really brilliant,’ and your buddies will go, ‘Oh, he’s a real genius,’ and they’ll just cut you up. They’re never mean, just funny. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to make sure that the most important thing is that we’re still all around for each other.” This sounds slightly odd when you consider that six of the eight have wives and children but, hey, this is Hollywood.

We had talked earlier about Clooney’s dismay at the way news is increasingly presented as entertainment. He cited a grotesque example of a boy who drowned during some dramatic floods and a producer’s decision to jazz it up with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Even Diane Sawyer – who, naturally, turns out to be a friend – plays the emotional card too much for my taste. So I tell him I’m going to attempt to ask him a serious question now. “OK, I’m ready.” This is my Diane Sawyer moment. “I’m ready,” he looks nervous. Do you ever worry about lonely old age? “I [sniffs, pretends to get tearful]… no, actually, I was joking about this with my Dad – about getting old and dying alone, you know, and my Dad was, like, ‘You die alone! That’s what you do, basically. Whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, you die alone.’ So he defends me a lot. And I have a great world. I have a great family and great friends.”

Do you get depressed? “Sure, I get depressed sometimes. But then if you drink, you know, then it’s fine.” No, no, drink can exaggerate depression. “Hahahahahahahah. Not if you’re Irish!”

I mention the references to Clooney’s drug use in his youth – dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms – and comments by his late aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, about his dark circles and wild lifestyle. “Oh, I didn’t know that she said that. That’s funny. I was mellow compared to my friends. Certainly it was a different time in terms of drugs in general, but, you know, I never had an issue with it. It was just casual use.”

Rosemary Clooney had her own “issues” with prescription drugs and wrote about her addiction and subsequent confinement in a mental hospital. It was her illness that dissuaded Clooney from taking any pain medication when an accident on the set of Syriana led to him suffering severe back problems and short-term memory loss. He still gets headaches but other than that he has recovered pretty well. “They gave me a tub this big, you know,” he extends his hands. “And you take one and it feels pretty good and you take two, and it feels better, and the next day two doesn’t do it. They’re incredibly addictive.

“There are so many people in this town who are or were addicted to it. They pass them out like M&M’s out here. They really alter your personality. It’s like a bad drunk. It takes you away from who you are, which in Rosemary’s case was a really fun person, but she went through a time in the early Seventies when she was truly hung up on prescription drugs and she wasn’t fun to be with. You were always aware that might be in your genes, so you stay away from them.”

Since Clooney has been outspoken about his support of Barack Obama, I wonder whether he agrees with the view that the Clintons have been fighting dirty. “They have upped the ante and have made it difficult if they were to have a dual ticket so, yes, I suppose that means in some ways they have.

“But, at the end of the day, not too much damage is done – it’s probably nothing more than he would have gotten from the Republicans – so it might as well come out now. I think it would cause an awfully big rip in the Democrats if he isn’t the nominee.”

Was it an easy choice for you? “From the very beginning.” Why not her? “First of all, it wasn’t ‘not her’, it was him. I’m a friend of Bill and Hillary’s and I like her very much, but Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely. He’s just spellbinding.”

He mentions that he was talking recently about the state of America with his father – the only reason that Clooney doesn’t mention his mother is that she hates being talked about, but she’s a former beauty queen who was also mayor of Augusta – when the Clooneys Snr and Jnr decided that all was not doom and gloom.

“My father and I were saying that we’ve been lucky as a country historically. When we needed a constitution – something which has to be really well-handled – we had Thomas Jefferson. Then we had a civil war, which could have destroyed the country, and there was Lincoln. With the Depression, we had Roosevelt. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear holocaust and there was Kennedy. These are some of the greatest leaders of our time, and then we had 2001 and got unlucky. And, listen, I can’t believe that Bush is an evil man – I just think he wasn’t equipped. But maybe 2001 or September 11 wasn’t that moment – although they were two of the biggest moments in our country’s history – but now that our economy is in the tank, our face across the world is probably at its most blemished, our country has been assailed, the fact that we don’t necessarily adhere to the Geneva Convention… maybe in terms of that moment when you absolutely need someone to lead, not manage the country, maybe it’s now.

“Because here’s the thing that’s sort of astonishing. Even at the time of the civil rights movement or Vietnam – when kids actually had something to lose – they still didn’t show up at the polls. But you know what? They’re voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

Time’s up. I try, unsuccessfully, to coax Clooney into doing a duet with me and warble those lines from O Brother – “Let’s go down to the river and pray” – but he says that his voice is so bad that they cut it out of the movie. “My father, he had an album. My aunt, she could sing. My mother cannot sing at all. She screwed it up for me.” Well, I say, as he is walking out of the door, I’m sure I’ll see you again one day. “Yes, you will,” he pokes his head back and does the Swooney grin, “because I’ll be your stalker.”

* * *

Leatherheads is released nationwide on April 11

Actors, Celebrities

Robert Redford: An American idol

The Times – November 3, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

Robert Redford was the screen heart-throb of his generation, but he never quite played the Hollywood game. Back in the director’s chair, he talks about being an outsider, his looks and why he is in mourning for his country

It’s a measure of Robert Redford’s enduring appeal, even at the grand age of 70, that when he says, “I’m all yours”, just for a fraction of a second, a tiny bit of you wishes it were true. In truth, despite an occasional dimpled grin – when you catch a flicker of the old Redford screen charisma that made your 13-year-old heart pound in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and surprisingly gentle manners, he has neither the playfulness nor the hint of danger of the natural-born flirt.

This should be music to his ears, if Redford is to be believed, since the poor man has spent decades trying to be taken seriously, only to have his good looks stand in the way. When he appeared on the scene, journalists of both sexes drooled. A Newsweek profile by a male writer is a classic of the type, launching into his “gorgeousness” thus: “The head is classically shaped, the features chiseled to an all-American handsomeness, the body athletically muscled…” Not to be outdone by this homo-erotic rhapsody, the women writers swooned: “He gives you the feeling that even his sweat would smell good”, and raved about his “cool” and “sexual arrogance that is far more fetching than any amount of sweet talk”.

What is more interesting, apart from the quaint gush of these early pieces, is to see how consistent Redford has been from his earliest interviews in the Sixties and Seventies about the issues that he is known for now: anti-Hollywood, pro-environment, concerned about youth apathy, questioning of the government and sceptical about politicians in general, as well as the power of corporations. He has always been protective of his privacy and had periods of withdrawal from work – even at the height of his fame – to travel around Europe or do his own thing.

Way back in 1970, a year after he shot to fame as the Sundance Kid, Redford vented his frustration about Hollywood to a young Derek Malcolm: “You can’t run an art form like a business any more and they’re still trying to. Films to them are just like vacuum cleaners or refrigerators. The approach sickens me.”

Not content to bitch from the sidelines, Redford founded the non-profit-making Sundance Institute in 1981 – using his own land and property in Utah – to support emerging screenwriters, directors, composers and producers who work alongside established names to craft their skills and develop their projects. To this was added the now internationally famous Sundance Film Festival which, to its creator’s evident discomfort, has become so successful it has assumed the mantle of the Cannes of America, with all the trashy commercialism that entails.

This is anathema to Redford, whose rueful complaint to me is: “What happened was the success of it brought the media, and then the merchants came and the stars came… Look, when Paris Hilton comes to the festival, she’s coming to the parties. We’re doing the same that we always have, but then the brand names come to take advantage of the festival and they throw parties to promote their brands and they say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a free coat or a free perfume or we’ll take your photo.’ I can’t control it because it’s a free country – that’s the reality and it is ironic. But I don’t worry about our mission as long as we stay true, and the Lab is non-profit and that’s the purest thing about Sundance.”

Naturally, with Sundance’s success, come the knockers. A counter-festival, Slamdance, established itself in Utah in the Nineties to show the films the organisers believe Redford has turned his back on – but there’s no evidence that his vision has been diluted. He may be attracted to the likes of The Horse Whisperer, which appeals to his romanticism about the American landscape he fights to protect, his love of horses and his sadness about the dying ranch culture of the West, but the films that have come through his “Lab” or have been showcased at the festival are very different and include Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape (the director, Steven Soderbergh, and Redford have since fallen out), Boys Don’t Cry, Orlando, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and Little Miss Sunshine.

Redford has worked equally hard on environmental issues, both publically and behind the scenes, and has a slew of awards in recognition of his contribution. The Utah home he built himself almost three decades ago was fitted with solar panels – visitors have commented on its rather spartan decor – long before it was fashionable to be green. He successfully campaigned against a huge power station being built between five national parks and disgruntled locals – Utah is a Republican stronghold – responded by burning an effigy of the star. Most unglamorously, he took on the role of the local sewerage commissioner with a mission to transform the area into an independent municipality with its own produce and energy resources.

For his pains – and even his detractors could hardly accuse the man of not backing up his words with action – Redford is hammered for being earnest or worthy, impatient, arrogant, humourless, a control freak and so on. One of the biggest and legitimate complaints against him is that he is always late. He once kept a Sunday Times journalist waiting seven hours, after she had made the epic trek to Sundance. Paul Newman, his co-star on Butch… and The Sting, presented him with a needlepoint runner stitched by Joanne Woodward (Mrs Newman) that read: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

This was a revealing rebuke since it suggests – something one can glean from the early cuts when the actor was a bit more forthcoming – that Redford’s early chippiness about being born on the wrong side of the tracks has prompted grandstanding posturising to demonstrate that he’s as important, if not more so, than the Hollywood royalty he had joined. Newman, who is a friend, was gently trying to point out that such behaviour is not classy.

I would have liked to have asked Redford about his punctuality problem, but our interview, of course, was cut short by his late arrival. However, I should add here, it was the star himself who dared to defy the publicity martinets by insisting that he make up the extra 15 minutes in his own lunch hour. This was gracious of him and also provoked an unexpected conspiratorial mirth between the interviewer and interviewee. “I’m here to serve,” he kept saying plaintively, and moaned that, “They have me jammed to the gills.”

Redford describes himself as coming from “a lower-working-class family. My dad was a milkman and supported us with no money. We didn’t have anything. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood [Santa Monica, 12 miles from Hollywood, known as “the home of the homeless”] where you had to provide your own entertainment. I was blessed that I was athletic and so could do sports.”

In one of his earliest interviews, he confessed that, “Sometimes I’d break into those big houses in Bel-Air just to look around and I thought, ‘What have they done to deserve all this?’ I was always good at tennis and I took great pleasure in beating the rich kids.”

His education was not good, but one teacher discovered that her problem pupil had a surprisingly creative bent. “I started drawing because there was nothing else to do,” he says. “If my parents went somewhere on a visit, they would take me along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I’d sit in the corner and pick up a pencil and draw things. And then in class, I would be distracted and looking out the window all the time, or I would draw instead of doing an assignment.”

When he was nine or ten, the teacher who had started out by punishing him – insisting that he draw a picture once a week and describe what it was about to the class – began to realise, “‘Wait a minute. He’s telling a story and he’s pretty good.’ I loved hearing and telling stories and that’s the way I learned – through stories.”

The rest of his school years Redford describes as “a disaster”. He was always in trouble, going off the rails and drinking too much. He believes there is a connection between the Celts – he is Scottish and Irish on both sides of the family – and boozing, and says that some members of his family, although not his parents, had problems with alcohol. He managed to win a baseball scholarship to Colorado University, but was kicked out because of his drunkeness.

Of all the different characters he has played – and critics complain that they tend to be a one-note samba, detached and unknowable, or perhaps played that way, much like his reputation off screen – the Sundance outlaw is the one who, Redford says, feels closest to his own skin. He was originally up for the part of Butch Cassidy but persuaded the director, George Roy Hill, that, “I can identify with that guy [the Kid] a lot more because of my earlier life, and he got interested in that because we’re both Irish and so on…” So the roles were swapped, leaving Newman in the lighter part and Redford as the brooding, more intense foil.

As a bleached-haired Californian surfie teenager, part of a gang of semi-delinquents, Redford grew up despising actors – referring to them as “sissy boys” – and the whole Hollywood scene. On one occasion, he and his older half-brother broke into one of the studio lots and trashed the place. Even at this long remove, when he has achieved so much, Redford still identifies himself with alluring ne’er-do-wells, particularly if they have a death wish – such as the beautiful but doomed alcoholic younger brother, Paul (played by Brad Pitt looking uncannily like the young Redford) in A River Runs Through It, which Redford directed in 2002.

Perhaps this connection with the wayward rebel – who enjoys a certain reckless freedom – also explains his ambivalence about the acting world and made him more determined to define himself in other ways. He tells journalists that he is not of a psychological disposition, though this seems a convenient way of sidestepping awkward territory and may be a legacy of his upbringing – “We never trusted words much in my household.” Yet, he did see a therapist in the Eighties (who promptly betrayed him by selling his story to the press) when his long marriage to Lola Van Wagenen, mother of their three children, finally came to an end.

His real education began, he says, when he came to Europe in the late Fifties. This flight from America, when Redford was 18, followed the death of his mother. “I wanted to get out in the world and experience other cultures and histories and people,” he says. “I wanted to be an artist, so I went to France and Italy and I was living a very low life, you know, in a bohemian area. But what got me was that all the students I engaged with – whether they were artists or medical students – were all extremely political. It was the de Gaulle era, you know, and the time of the Algerian crisis.

“They were asking me questions and I was humiliated because I didn’t know the answers. I was just absolutely ashamed. So I made it a point to begin to look at my country but from another country’s point of view – because in California you’re given a very comfortable view about things. And I realised that I had a high regard for this other point of view because it was very intelligent and very different. So I began to put all these together and when I came back, a year and a half later, I schooled myself on what my country was doing and how I felt about it.”

Were you able to find like-minded people when you returned to the States? “I was not. I was expecting engagement and all people asked me was how the girls were or the food, and that was so disappointing. So it was around that time that I started to put a critical eye on my own country but I also realised, having travelled around, how fortunate I was in the country that I was from and how that country was blessed in many ways, and how do you protect that?”

He landed in New York, enrolled in art school and, “through a series of serendipitous turns”, ended up at drama school at the same time, supported by his wife, and acting was the career that took hold. (It would seem ill-advised, particularly since the Redfords had separated for a good ten years before the press got hold of the story, to comment on his current status. But, with no evidence to the contrary, we must assume he is still with Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter, who has been his partner since 1996.)

Redford’s first roles were on Broadway, where he created something of a stir as the male lead in Neil Simon’s light comedy Barefoot in the Park in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols. It won a Tony Award (but not for Redford) and ran for 1,530 performances, which appears to have put the actor off a career in theatre for life. And then, in 1969, came his big breakthrough, as the Sundance Kid, at the un-Kid-like age of 32.

I have the impression that Redford has a low boredom threshold, as well as a short attention span, which may explain why he turned his back on theatre once his film career took off. He says that he loves going to see plays – of course, he saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens about the build-up to the Iraq war – but he agrees that he is unsuited to the daily routine of performing on the stage.

“You are partly very right. It’s not that I have a short attention span but I do have a low boredom threshold. For me, the joy of acting was in the spontaneity of expressing yourself – and being part of what makes a play ‘happen’ is pretty exciting – but after nine months of doing the same thing every night… you just want it to move to a new place,” he says.

Redford is sensitive to criticism about his acting and, as ever, believes that his appearance has prevented critics from an accurate appraisal of his performances. It’s difficult to know how to respond to his angst about his looks, particularly when one reads about his insistence on photographs being touched up. Even as far back as 1973, The Way We Were, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand, became known as “the Battle of the Close-Ups” because both actors reputedly competed to be shot from the most flattering angle. (Redford, who had apparently successfully negotiated to be paid more than La Streisand, allegedly won.)

One has to ask why Redford would be so concerned about protecting his image if he genuinely believed that it has been an obstacle to him being taken seriously. There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether he has had any “work” done on his face, particularly as he has lambasted those who have submitted to the knife. I found one reference to his eyes having been operated on “on medical grounds” – whatever the reason, for a septuagenrian he certainly does have a strikingly open, unlined gaze. But one can equally imagine that Redford would find it demeaning, “sissy” even, to stoop to any surgical enhancement.

He tells me that he still gets drooled over: “Even today. It happened last week when we were on tour. I keep thinking, and I mean this when I say it, when do we get past this? I can’t speak for Europe but certainly in my country, there’s an obsession with youth. People trying to stay young and facelifting and all that, which I haven’t done. I keep thinking that I’ll grow out of being labelled, you know. I just don’t understand it.”

Face to face, it is a shock to see quite how freckly and “ginger” Redford is. Redheads don’t suffer the same stigma in the States as they do in this country, and we have a funny moment when my interviewee attempts to get to grips with the point I’m endeavouring to make. “Bullet?” he asks. No, bullied. “Bullied? Oh, really? Are you being serious? Why?” Nevertheless, although Redford was never exactly tormented on account of his colouring, “When I was a little kid, I had red hair and freckles and I was certainly teased, yeah, yeah – ‘Hey, Red! Hey, Red!’” he taunts.

Surely it was quite pleasant to discover that you were so appealing to the opposite sex. “Absolutely it was,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say it was a shock but it was a surprise and it was something I could enjoy for a period of time. But then it got out of hand and I began to see the dark side of it. Particularly since I’d grown up in Los Angeles and was not enamoured of Hollywood.”

He no longer turns up in cowboy gear – partly because of his age but also, perhaps, because of the way that image has been tainted by Bush in his off-duty garb and on-message rhetoric (“We’re gonna get them bad guys!”). Still, Redford wears his shirt a little like medallion man, unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a sparse-ish crop of carroty hair. When I tell him that the elderly taxi driver who dropped me off said that he hated Robert Redford “because of the way he looks compared to the way I look”, the actor says: “I’ve gotten a lot of that but when you get it from the critics, it’s really rough. You know, they resent you because of your physical self and you say, ‘Would you not judge me for that, please? Would you please judge the performance?’”

Dick Cavett, America’s veteran chatshow host, once described Redford as having “a withheld quality that makes the viewer come to him”. It is this reticence, some might call it subtlety, that has laid the actor open to accusations that his range is limited, as though he were too buttoned down, too afraid of being unmanly, to show overt emotion. One of his directors said that he felt Redford was a natural character actor encased in the body of a matinée idol. He says that when he started out as an actor, “I played all kinds of parts. I played killers and rapists and deranged people and they were great fun as an actor because there was variety. But no one knows that except the people who watch old TV series like Naked City and The Twilight Zone.”

Whatever his reasoning, apart from an early role when he agreed to play the part of a bi-sexual reprobate at a time when plenty of Hollywood actors would have declined, Redford seems to have settled for roles which are safely within his comfort zone – restricting his risk-taking for the higher ground.

His new film, Lions for Lambs, about America’s role in Afghanistan, the first he has directed for seven years, is a case in point. It is worth pointing out here that it is as a director, rather than an actor, that Redford has been honoured with an Academy Award for his debut feature, Ordinary People, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Quiz Show.

Although Redford talks at great length about his new project, like the politicians he dislikes, the actor-director (environmentalist, philanthropist, etc) has the same battering-ram tendencies to repeat himself, albeit in a variety of ways, in the hope of getting his point across. There appears to be a certain level of anxiety behind the scenes, judging from the number of times I was asked what I thought of the film by various personnel.

Well, it may have its flaws – as commentators have already noted – but I would say that it is essential viewing, particularly for American audiences. The story unfolds in real time, during the course of a single day, and explores many of the issues that are dear to Redford’s heart via three separate strands – the role of the media (how, in the present climate, can it step away from being the Government’s propaganda machine?), the politicians’ justification of the War on Terror, and the losing battle of educators (Redford plays the anguished professor) to prevent students retreating into a torpor of cynical lassitude because they feel helpless to effect change.

The power of the film is the juxtaposition of two injured soldiers – former students of the professor – waiting to be killed by the Taleban on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, while in the safety of lecture rooms and living rooms and White House offices, politicians, professors and students, reporters and editors, argue about how to end this war. The scenes between Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist and Tom Cruise as the ambitious senator are as dazzling as they are daunting, with the senator saying: “You sold the war, now you have to help sell the solution.”

You just have to look at the level of debate – so ranting and knee-jerking and, frankly, moronic – in response to Lions for Lambs on the website of Variety, America’s newspaper for the entertainment industry, to see what Redford is up against and why he feels the need to make such a film.

There may be a sense in which Middle America could feel betrayed by Redford – how could the denim-clad cowboy and lover of the great open plains be such an unpatriotic turncoat? But despite his lack of polish and uneasy way with words, since that early “lowlife” European education, Redford has remained true to what he holds dear about America. It is only now, as he enters the last chapters of his life, that he feels his country has lost its way.

He is not at all optimistic about the future: “The bottom line has taken over everything, including journalism. It’s surprising, frankly, that the studios would take a chance on this film. There has been so much damage to our country that it’s going to take a long, long time to pull ourselves out of it.”

Can you see it happening in your lifetime? “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It’s just that there’s so much damage and there’s such a negative impression of America throughout the world and for these people to be talking about democracy while practising policies that are so undemocratic…”

Does he feel angry? “You know, what I can’t forget or forgive is that we were asked to give up our freedoms and let them do what they needed to [after 9/11] and we zipped our lips and gave up challenging the election because they had a difficult job. And it sure was good timing for them.

“And we gave up criticising the administration and our president, and we all saluted and marched in lock step in support, only to be lied to and cheated and send young people in harm’s way and unnecessarily risk losing their lives. That made me angry. And now I’m past anger and in a state of mourning.

“Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that’s what democracy means, but it’s all been shut down now and it’s ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ and we don’t even have to talk about how dangerous that is and where that leads if it’s not corrected. And I know that [with this film] I’m probably not going to change anybody’s opinion but at least as an artist I can try to dramatise what my feelings are about.”

——–

Lions for Lambs opens nationwide on November 9

Actors, Celebrities, Women

One tough kookie

The Times Saturday Magazine – November 5 2005
Ginny Dougary

From honorary Rat Packer to early-adopting New Ager, Shirley MacLaine has always been an unconventional broad. In a wonderfully frank interview, she talks to Ginny Dougary about politics, sex, and brother Warren Beatty.

Shirley MacLaine is holding court on a Malibu cliff-top terrace with plunging views of the ocean far below. It is she who has picked this restaurant location – principally because of its proximity to one of her homes, and something about the setting, as well as her untrammelled personality, lends a certain cheerful anarchy to the proceedings.

She has the most penetrating stare, which could intimidate the faint-hearted – for whom she would have no time anyway. MacLaine, herself, is lion-hearted… always steering her own path, way ahead of the rest of us, or in a league of her own: a civil-rights agitator before the great swell of the civil-rights movement (she risked being lynched when she attempted to check into a motel in Mississippi with her black friends); the only female who hung out as a buddy rather than a broad with Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Mafia boss Sam Giancana; an unconventional, long-distance marriage (her late husband, Steve Parker, lived in Tokyo with their daughter, Sachi); she was open about her affairs with spoken-for men – Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, whom she shared with Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye – which, if she were anyone else, would surely have played awkwardly in hypocritical Hollywood; a Democrat campaigner, along with her brother, Warren Beatty, for George McGovern – if he had won, she would have considered going into politics herself; an intrepid solo traveller; an early and abiding New Ager, before the term was invented, who has been mocked for her beliefs in reincarnation, UFOs and other such other-worldy stuff.

To explain her directness at one point in our interview – in something which comes suspiciously close to an apology – MacLaine excuses herself on the grounds that she is old enough now to speak her mind with impunity. A wearer of purple from way back, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of her ever feeling constrained by convention or the need to bite her tongue. She has always appeared younger than her age, and that hasn’t changed. It’s something to do with the curiosity in those startling blue eyes with their spiky lashes, her freckles, “Oh, I’ve always hated them; still do. They used to call me Freckle Face”; the quick turn-of-phrase; the slightly teenage counter-culture bolshiness.

Today, as she moves between tables of expectant journalists, she still has the gait of a dancer. At the end of our rumbustious one-on-one, I ask her to give me a flash of her famous legs. “They’re very white,” she says, and then grabs the hem of her loose trousers to roll them up… and up and up. They are ridiculous, I exclaim. Very slim, seemingly never-ending, taut almost to the very top, not a trace of cellulite or blemishes of any kind. My God, you’re 71! “That’s why I don’t mind telling anyone my age,” she says. “Mind! I love it.” In this spirit of mutual Shirley-worship, she also confesses that she doesn’t have to wear a bra: “I hate wearing a bra.” Didn’t you breastfeed? “Yeah, but she didn’t eat much! Ha ha ha.”

In her new film, In Her Shoes, MacLaine is the grandmother to two motherless and very different sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) and plays a pivotal role in patching up and explaining the various estranged relationships. It is an unusually quiet performance for MacLaine – rather English in its reserve – of guilt, subdued regretfulness and long-buried emotion that gradually comes to the fore. It has no trace of the “bombastic serenity” – the apt phrase MacLaine has coined to describe her relationship with the world. As a senior care worker in a Florida residential home, her character – who dresses with tasteful restraint – in no way resembles the colourful woman in front of me, with her pinky-auburn gamine haircut, cerise Indian kurta and layers of turquoise ethnic jewellery.

We decide early on that I shall call her Empress – and it really does rather suit her. She is a powerful presence with an occasionally imperious manner: “Hey! Can I have some ice-tea?” she bellows to her elderly personal publicist, Dale, at one point, and then to the film’s publicist, Hilary. “I asked for some ice-tea. I don’t know where it is! Maybe they went to Starbucks to get it!” But she is also an absolute trouper; submitting to hour after hour of interviews, eating lobster and mussels as she speaks, with no break or discernible outbreak of ill humour.

The director of the new film, Curtis Hanson, wanted no wigs (MacLaine’s hair is thinning at the back) and no make-up, even for the close-ups – and MacLaine admits that was daunting at her age. I liked her performance, particularly for its quality of watchful distance, so subtle you find yourself sharing the character’s apprehension about opening herself up to the pain of feeling again. I’m not all that surprised to hear the actress say that she found motherhood tough; Sachi was only five when she went to Tokyo to live with her father. “It’s very hard, but I gave up the guilt,” MacLaine says.

And then a second later: “I beat myself up still.” I wonder to myself if she drew on these feelings for her role as Ella, who holds herself responsible for her daughter’s death. But she says that playing the part made her understand her own mother better: “Because she was so contained. She was Canadian, you see, so she never told you what she was frigging thinking.” Oh, I didn’t know that’s what Canadians were known for.

“I’m serious,” she says. “They live in snow. They don’t talk.” Sounds more like the English. “No, the English are more perverted. Ha ha ha. You know exactly what you’re dealing with. With Canadians you never know what you’re dealing with.”

Did MacLaine feel that she missed out on her daughter growing up? “Yes… and so did she.” Was she cross and resentful? “Little bit. Little bit. But now she’s learning, because she’s got two kids – a boy and a girl, nine and seven, and she’s seeing you can’t do anything right. She’s a little over-attentive.” MacLaine leans over to pick up an enormous wide-brimmed hat decorated with antique roses, to protect her pale face from the Californian sun.

“I look like a bag lady now,” she snorts when I compliment her on it. So does she enjoy being a grandmother? “Of course, because I can spoil them and I can say ‘You really shouldn’t do that’ or whatever and send them back to their parents in Connecticut… Oh, it’s totally liberating. And I also like being an aunty. Although everyone thinks I’m their grandmother anyway,” she grimaces.

There have been periods of estrangement between MacLaine and her younger brother. My guess is that there may have been an element of professional competition. MacLaine’s longterm ex-beau, the writer and journalist Pete Hamill, who left her for Jackie Kennedy, was uncomfortable with MacLaine’s attachment to the mystical – and I would imagine that Beatty, who is still very much concerned with the inequities in this world, would be in the same camp. And MacLaine, despite her own sexual adventurousness, was probably uncomfortable with her kid bro’s conquesting reputation.

When I ask her how they’re getting on these days, she says: “Look, I understand the workings of a family better now – brothers and sisters, sisters and sisters – I mean, come on. We’re in a very good and cordial period now… I don’t know how long it will last but we’re there now.” Is it stretching it to find anything about the difficulties between the two sisters in the new film which might correspond to the history between her and her brother? “Oh, I think there can be sibling rivalry between brothers and sisters. I was always watching the way he treated women.”

Aha, and…? “I think he was interested in women because of mother, you know; he could never hear her. Therefore, I think he’s very good with women and understands women. Maybe he didn’t have to understand as many as he did…” her voice goes up. Do you think he has a strong feminine side? “Oh, very. He does, but I think he was searching for what a woman means and needs and loves and hates and wants and is afraid of.”

I say that I had spoken to him at some length on the telephone a few years ago, in an attempt to persuade him to be interviewed. We talked about politics, mainly, but what was alluring about him, compared to most actors I’ve encountered, was his informed interest in the world about him. “He’d have loved to get you into bed,” is her bizarre response. Oh! “Are you kiddin’ me or what?” she squawks. Well, gosh, you know, I feel sort of insulted and embarrassed, and also rather flattered. “You see, he knows that he has that appeal which overcomes the sensibility that you know that he has, and it makes you forget that you know he’s doing that to you.” Hmm. How complicated. Moving on swiftly… What do you think of our new English national treasure, Madonna? “I’d like to bronze that horse.”

I take it you were not all that thrilled when your brother and she became an item? I think you said something quite rude at the time? (Asked how she would feel about having the singer as a sister-in-law, MacLaine’s response was that it would be as easy for her “as it would be for me to nail a custard pie to the wall”.) “I said it would be like hanging bubbles on a clothes line, or pissing up a rope,” she says, in case one were in any doubt about her feelings.
MacLaine is still sufficiently concerned with this life – I feared that she had completely retreated from the here and now – to care about who is holding the reins of power. I wondered whether she was still friends with Julie Christie, a famous Beatty ex, who shows no signs of political apathy. “I liked her a lot. I thought he should have married her.” Do you approve of this one? (Annette Bening.) “Love her. She’s smart; she wants to be a mother; she certainly is a brilliant actress, but if the roles don’t come along – that’s all right, too. I was just over there last night. We had a wonderful time.” I ask her whether she will intercede on my behalf to secure that interview with her brother. “I’ll do it on one condition,” she says sternly. What? (I’m thinking: copy control; I have to become a Buddhist…) A very big pause and then: “You have to go to bed with him.” Hysterical laughter on both our parts. What is she like?

It is as well to mention, perhaps, that neither MacLaine nor I have been drinking. So this drift towards bawdiness – at poor Warren’s expense – is merely his sister’s idea of natural ebullience and fun. The only occasion I have come across such ribald behaviour, in this context, was with another great celluloid diva: Elizabeth Taylor, who was equally outspoken and shameless. They make the present crop of female megastars seem colourless in comparison.

I tell MacLaine that I had been warned that she would be on her toes and quick with the verbal come-back: a legacy of her upbringing. “Nooooh,” she says. Her parents, Ira and Kathleen – the name of Warren’s oldest daughter – Beaty, had a long but difficult marriage. MacLaine once described it as a partnership of “blended neuroses”. Her childhood home was full of “disappointment and longings”. She has also compared her parents to the drunk academics in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Now she says: “They weren’t that bad and therefore not that funny.” Her father was a bad enough “cyclical” drunk – to make her wary of getting involved with any man with similar tendencies. Which is interesting, since the only man who seems to have dented her heart – Robert Mitchum – always conveyed the impression of being over-attached to the bottle.

She was born in Virginia, a southern gal but not a belle – which meant that she was never burdened with the anguish of losing her looks. One of the many astute comments MacLaine has made about herself was this: “See, I wasn’t afraid of getting old, because I was never a great beauty. I was never a sex symbol. I did, however, have great legs because I was a dancer. But I didn’t have that baggage. I wasn’t interested in my stature as a star. Ever. I was just interested in great parts.”

MacLaine adopted her mother’s maiden name when she became frustrated by a director who seemed unable to pronounce her surname correctly (Bait-y not Beat-y). Warren merely chose to embellish the family name with an extra “t”. The two siblings could not look more disimilar; it must have been vexing, I think, to have a brother who was considered prettier than yourself. MacLaine says that she’s not even sure that she is the offspring of her parents. You think you were adopted? “I always felt I was so different from anyone in this family.” Different from anyone, full stop, I say… and she laughs.

There seems to have been a rapprochement between parents and daughter in later life which was partly to do with their shared interest in the unknown. “My mother’s metaphysics had to do with nature: her rose garden, for example. ‘I understand reincarnation,’ she would say, ‘because the rose’s stem is the soul which has a different rose every spring’. Dad was a serious metaphysician – which he never told anybody. His best buddy died in the Second World War, and at the moment of being shot, appeared at the bottom of my dad’s bed. And he told me about one night when he was drunk and crashed the car and had an out-of-body experience. ‘So,’ he said, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’”

For those of us who remain sceptical about the beyond, it would seem more constructive for MacLaine to apply her considerable energy to addressing the problems coming out of America. Does she actually feel American? “Oh, yeah, but an American that is the result of the founding fathers’ wish. I’m very ashamed of being in this country and of what we’re doing.” Of the war specifically? “Our imperialistic attitudes, our desecration of the environment, the whole Christian crusading that the Bush administration is doing, the marketing economy… it’s a freakin’ disaster!”

So why not re-enter the political fray? (Her brother has been reported to be considering taking on Arnie.) “No, I’ll sit back and…” But why sit back? “Politics are not what it is about now. What it’s about now is really what I’ve been writing about and thinking about for most of my life. Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What is God? We might have an apocalypse with everyone involved and armies killing each other over God.”

Has MacLaine ever fooled herself about herself? “Yeah, now this is interesting… I fooled myself that the country would wake up to Richard Nixon. I fooled myself that we would see that in the name of, quote, ‘Democracy in the Arab world’, we’re losing it at home. I thought we would be more aware than that, and we’re not. I fooled myself for a while that people would understand the nature of my metaphysics. It is now mainstream but I thought they would be ready for it sooner.”

Mainstream? Well, only up to a point. My partiality to MacLaine – an admirer of her talent, sassiness, and courage in forging her own way – meant I found myself editing out the parts of her that alienated me. From kooky to cuckoo, after all, is but a short UFO-mystic hop. I had not read her copious volumes of spiritual travels and tried to brush over the outlandish musings on her past lives: as Charlemagne’s mistress; an orphan brought up by elephants; Nefertiti’s handmaiden; a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. I was doing pretty well, but then I came to the most recent cutting in her many files and my heart sank: four pages in Hello! publicising a new book, Out on a Leash, Exploring Reality and Love, which she has “co-written” with her dog, Terry. Shirley, I read, has Terry the terrier “sign” documents for herself, and says that she talks with the dog in a “purer, more direct form of language”, which she calls “Humanimal”.

She lives alone in her main home in Santa Fe and I had been asking her, as she has become older, whether she finds herself becoming increasingly reclusive or more reliant on friendship. “I’m a phoney recluse,” MacLaine says. “Because I like being alone. My idea of being really alone – no, of being lone-ly – is never to be alone. I love my own company. How I would feel now about my own company without Terry, my dog, is another question.

“But she and I have an arrangement that when she goes, in about ten years, she’s going to come back right away again. So I will wait until I’m drawn to the right puppy. I know more about the meaning of love with her – this is important what I’m saying now – nature and animals have taught me more about love than people.”

One might be tempted to say this sounds barking – ho ho – but MacLaine is in full Empress flow and not in the mood for jests. I say, instead, that it’s quite common for older people living on their own – particularly women – to form extremely strong attachments to their pets. “I’ve noticed that, too, and I do feel very much in the ranks of older women who have their pets,” she concedes. “But maybe it’s because we are really searching for the definition of love. We know that what we’ve experienced before comes and goes – came and went. The child thing is another thing, of course, that’s love – in that you can’t help but love, but you’re always worried about whether you’re doing the right thing.” And so we keep circling back to this niggle of long-gone decisions returning to haunt MacLaine in some way.

I wonder whether she had worries at the time about sending her daughter off to Japan, or did she close them down? “No, Steve and I had arguments,” she says. But there had been kidnap threats and a drunk nanny sleeping with her boyfriend, while Sachi was left sitting outside on the doorstep, and MacLaine was concerned about the general perils of Hollywood life and, in any case, her husband – a dancer turned director turned producer – did not want to stay in a town where he was known as Mr MacLaine.

The couple finally divorced in 1987 after 27 years of marriage. MacLaine’s father had died the previous year and I wondered whether this had been the catalyst. “Oh no, it was because I found out that Steve had been stealing all my money,” she says. The marriage had been amicable till then; more of a long-distance friendship than a partnership. “Yes, that’s right. He had his affairs and I had mine. But take my money and you’re outta here! I’m far too Scotch for that. Ha ha ha.” When Parker died in 2001, MacLaine did not attend the funeral: “He didn’t want me there.”
Passion doesn’t feature in her life any more: “I think it’s the ageing process and also wisdom.” She says that she feels completely peaceful, and happier than she’s ever been. “I have zero stress. All that over-achieving has been transformed into not planning,” she says. “It’s daunting but you should try it.” Instead of going to swanky dinner parties, with place settings and fabulous wine – and where it’s all over in three hours – she prefers to have her friends stay with her for three days in Santa Fe, where they go hiking and riding, feed the chickens and talk. She says that, although she doesn’t like to socialise or go to parties, when she does go, she’s always the last to leave.

So you like to drink martinis and kick up your legs? Oooh, what kind of look is that you’re giving me? “What does having a martini and kicking up your legs mean?” I suppose it’s shorthand for asking you whether you turn into the life and soul of the party. “No. I’m over in a corner talking deeply with someone who no one else is talking to.” Did you object to the suggestion you drink, or the idea that you kick up your legs? “I just thought it was a stupid question.” Oh. “I thought it was a clichéd question.” Oh. “I hate cliché. Hate it. But I have to get over this because now everyone is speaking in cliché.”

I wonder whether, perhaps, MacLaine has turned into one of the Californian New Puritans. But she only stopped smoking last December, and she still wants a cigarette every day. Pot wasn’t for her because, like the ex-Pres, she never inhaled. And now, since her hiatus hernia, drinking’s pretty much out, too. How very boring for you. Yes, particularly since she loves a good martini, she says, especially a Dirty Gibson. This is an evil-sounding concoction: gin (it has to be Tanqueray), a tablespoon of onion juice and a great big pickled onion. “I’ll go make one for you because I make really good ones,” she says. Lovely, I say, but possibly not quite yet. (It’s 11.30 in the morning.)

A few questions on and MacLaine is fretting that she spoke too harshly to me. “You know, I had a pang of guilt when I said that was a stupid question. In my head, I didn’t think that out, and I am guilty over things like that. But I explained myself and it was all right. Still feel guilty.” It was a bit mean? “Mmm. I do that. With age and the right to tell the truth, and then people have their feelings hurt…” Do you mind that? “I do. It bothers me because I’m kind, but I’m also extremely direct and I can’t stand being a phoney diplomat.”

She may never have been a sex symbol, as she says, but that didn’t stop some pretty hunky men finding MacLaine sexy. When we go on to talk about romantic love, there is something about her that reminds me of her character, Ella, in the new film. For all her apparent transparency, there is also a sense of something buried or unacknowledged – which makes me wonder whether the actress really is as tough, deep-down, as she likes to make out. In her youth, and later, she considered herself to be a sexual person. There were liaisons with a number of politicians: the assassinated Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme; Australia’s urbane Andrew Peacock, twice leader of the conservative opposition – are you still friends? “Oh, yes!”; a British Labour MP who remains anonymous. Were you attracted to their brains or their position? “I was probably slumming in power,” she says. There were also a couple of truck drivers whom she found sexy, she would like to point out, possibly in the interests of egalitarianism, “but only for one-night-stands”.

Now, she says: “It wasn’t really about sex. Never is. It never really is. What is sexual attraction anyway? When you think about it, it’s not about sex, it’s not about f******, it’s not about how big it is or anything like that. It’s about the person inside that body. It’s to do with a certain energy and values and sense of humour. And I was always attracted to a man who was basically a mystery to himself, because that kept my interest and gave me something to do.”

Were you ever romantic? “Basically not. I understand that romance will kill a relationship.” Did you ever have your heart broken? “No, but there were some periods with Robert Mitchum [they had a three-year affair] where I just wanted to kill him… does that mean I had my heart broken?” she seems to be asking herself. “No, I’d kill a man before he broke my heart.” How did you manage to insulate your heart and still be an open person? “I didn’t insulate it. But…” Then I believe you must have had your heart broken. “But I don’t see myself as a victim. I turned being hurt into action: ‘What did you do this for? Why? What is on your mind? Let’s talk.’ Yes, I am a good communicator.”

You’ve written about flying halfway around the world to meet your lover in hotels. “And he wouldn’t be there.” So what on earth did you do? “Ask myself, ‘What am I doing this for?’ See, I was fascinated by how weak he was… this big guy. I couldn’t stay away from investigating the passivity.” I liked that beatniky phrase about Mitchum having the soul of a poet; a poet with an axe. “That was his description of himself,” she says. “I think he was lying about the axe.”

Our time is up, but MacLaine is damned if she’s not going to show off her martini-making skills, which throws Hilary the film publicist into a state of some alarm. I follow the Empress, tape recorder in hand, and watch her create havoc in the restaurant. The young staff are so far from being obsequious that their attitude is almost rude. MacLaine rolls her eyes but carries on indomitably till she has mixed me her Dirty Gibson. Oh God, I gasp, reeling from the neat alcohol, perhaps it needs a bit more onion juice. “Ha ha ha… this girl is really Dirty!” she says.

I mention Elizabeth Taylor whom I interviewed in Beverly Hills where I also interviewed Madonna, and say how much more gracious one was than the other. “Why would you even mention them in the same breath?” she asks. “Did he screw them both?” Screw? Who? What? Him? Your brother? “Did he do Elizabeth? I don’t know. I think he tried to on that picture in Paris.” Well, honestly! What is Shirley MacLaine like? I think the answer has to be: like no other.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Funny girl

THE TIMES – July 9 2005
Ginny Dougary

Jennifer Saunders is the unrivalled queen of British comedy. Here she talks, absolutely frankly, to Ginny Dougary about age, Eddy, shyness, weight – and the importance of being English.

Poor Jennifer Saunders. How can she possibly be expected to live up to her creation? As a fully paid-up member of the Edina Fan Club, I want the queen of comedy to lurch into the room in a pair of mad platforms, clutching a bottle of Bolly, call me “sweetie dahling” and go mwah-mwah somewhere in the vicinity of my cheeks, before passing out.

The initial signs are quite encouraging – the Ab-Fabby rendez-vous of Soho House, and an Ab Fab-sized entourage of personal make-up artist, personal assistant, advertising agency publicity assistant, our photographer and two assistants, as well as a charming, most unSaffy-like 19-year-old mini-Saunders daughter. At first, dauntingly, all nine of us crowd into a tiny room around a table covered in empty ashtrays just asking to be filled. Offered a drink, Saunders orders a post-lunch glass of white wine. Thank God – if she’d ordered mineral water she might never have been forgiven. The entourage melts away into MediaLand beyond our door and we settle into a thoroughly convivial time.

There is something quintessentially English about Jennifer Saunders, as opposed to her overblown characters; English, as in pony- in-the-paddock, self-deprecating, shyness-mistaken-for-aloofness sort of way. When Dawn French first met her future comedy partner at drama school, her opinion was that Saunders was a snooty, upper-class girl… “And her opinion hasn’t changed,” Saunders says drily. Both their fathers were in the RAF but in different ranks, and French has always placed herself firmly in the lower-middle classes. “She’s obsessed with class,” says Saunders, with eye-rolling affection.

No, as it happens, she doesn’t believe that she is snooty but she is aware that her manner can be forbidding. (Although she is never even remotely so, I must say, in our encounter.) It seems that she has had to work hard in adult life to overcome her innate shyness. As a child, Saunders would stare at people so intensely that her mother would become quite mortified. From one or two of her comments, I think Saunders is still a bit frightened of her mama, interestingly, even at the reasonably ripe age of 47.

“My mother says that I’d have to be taken away in restaurants because I’d be standing in front of tables just looking. And I had quite a cross face. In most of my pictures of me as a child, I’m frowning, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of the frown because it seems to be my natural expression.

“People are always telling me to cheer up and I’m, like, ‘I’m really not sad, I’m just thinking.’ But I do still frown and generally have my head down.”

For such a bright spark, coming from a family of Oxbridge high-achievers, it must have been puzzling, if not a little dismaying, to have failed to get into any universities. I have the feeling that Saunders’ mother, a biology teacher, was not amused. Did the rejections make her feel thick? “No, I’ve never felt thick.” Did she know why she was so unsuccessful? “I knew exactly why. It was because I was slightly sullen and unable to engage. Even though I would say I’m not shy now, I used to go bright red the second someone spoke to me and I couldn’t look at anyone, ever. But I did sort of overcome that.”

Part of the problem, I think, must have been Saunders’ aversion to self-promotion. She may even be allergic, possibly, to the idea of selling herself, which is why there are relatively few interviews in such a long and successful career. Saunders, one suspects, would just shrivel up and die were she ever to be persuaded to appear on Oprah. Her guest appearance on Parkinson was described as an historic moment in non-disclosure.

“The big, overriding thing in our family was that any kind of taking yourself seriously was the biggest, biggest crime, and that went for religion, for everything. You just didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s like my father didn’t keep his RAF title [Group Captain R. T. Saunders] once he left. All that sort of thing to him was just a little bit… no, not bad form, it was pompous.”

Until recently, Saunders considered herself only borderline as opposed to hardcore English. Her mother’s father was South African and her maternal grandmother a Scot, and compared to Group Captain R. T. Saunders, who was “very English”, his daughter believed she was not, you know, “English English”. But she has had to revise her opinion on reading a book, Watching the English by Kate Fox, recommended by Ella, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter and the oldest of the Adrian Edmondson-Jennifer Saunders’ triumverate of daughters.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as a complete mystery the things we take for granted. You know, how awful it would be if people walked into a business meeting and started business without making friends and having a bit of a tea party first. The English bonding thing which is to compliment someone on what they’re wearing, and then that person says, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, it was terribly cheap but you… look at you!’ ‘Oh, I just threw this together’, that whole thing.”

She applauds Kate Fox’s example of an American going up to someone and saying, “Hello, my name’s Jack and I’m from Idaho,” and the English person recoiling in horror that anyone could be so forward. Which is entirely Saunders’ position. The English art of social intercourse is to start with general small talk, “and then, sideways, you gradually find out what they do and whether you might in any way be interested to know them at all [slurred, rather like an American, actually, into ‘adall’], and at any point you can cut the conversation off. You don’t have to know who they are or where they’re from. It’s just awful to know that sort of thing.”

Saunders is being only slightly humorous at this point, and I think – if I closed my eyes – she could be an English actress from another era: Celia Johnson, perhaps, or Joyce Grenfell. There’s a trace of Penelope Keith’s Margo there, too: the wrinkle of the patrician nose, the little moue of distaste.

But with my eyes open, what I see is how very comely Saunders is in person, with her artfully highlighted blonde hair, handsome jaw and fine, rather delicate features. She is much more small-boned, too, than she appears on screen, although, like most women who submit themselves to the merciless gaze of the camera – or, perhaps, most women full stop – she inevitably thinks she’s overweight.

We take a small break from the enjoyable pastime of bashing Americans to discuss girlish matters such as diets and clothes. She knows that she’s precisely half a stone heavier than her usual weight of between ten and ten-and-a-half stone. Today her 5ft 4-ish, 5ft 5-ish height is stacked up with a pair of red shoes (could they be platforms, indeed?) under her jeans. She blames her new avoirdupois on a recent holiday: she and her girls with Peter Richardson, her old friend and director of the Comic Strip, and his family in a house in Spain: “The most wonderful no-exercise, drinky, eat, eat, eat, lovely holiday. Get up, sit by pool, have giant Pimm’s and then giant lunch and giant supper. And there’s nothing I like more in the world than that.”

However, Saunders also likes “the ability to get up in the morning and do something without feeling really puffed out by the time I get to the top of the field, and at the moment I have to stop quite a lot because my legs are hurting… and I don’t enjoy that.” In decamping from Richmond, London, to Dartmoor, Devon, Saunders has returned to her childhood pleasures of riding and country walks.

There’s also the business of how you look on TV, presumably? “Well, I’m towards the end of my career now,” she says. What? “I mean, the end of being on telly.” What? Surely not? “I would like to write and direct. That would be my joy.” But why can’t you carry on being on telly? “I don’t know, it’s so bloody… six o’clock calls to go to bloody make-up all the time.” That must be a drag, but all the same…

“I mean, always the first there and the last to bloody leave and it does wear you down. The little things wear you down. You do think, ‘Oh, just get on with it.’ And then having to publicise everything and the endless business of…” Like this, I suppose? “It’s not that I hate doing interviews and this one is nice,” she says, diplomatically (the real reason she’s here is to promote a new ad campaign for Barclaycard). “But it can become an endless treadmill of stuff. And the endless pressure to buy more clothes. Find some more things to put on. In my normal life, I wear the same clothes for a year and then decide the boots are a bit worn out, better get some new ones.”

Although I like the way this conforms to my idea of Saunders turning into one of those careless upper-class beauties who stride around their massive country piles in threadbare old cords, the woman in front of me is too thoughtfully kitted out for me to believe she is quite as insouciant about her appearance as she makes out.

Her lovely mossy linen jacket is by the English designer Margaret Howell: “I used to buy her and then she went out of fashion for a bit and now she’s back with these fantastic clothes, great little collarless shirts… and it’s completely my uniform which is what I used to wear as a child: sort of jodhpur boots or cowboy boots, with a trouser generally with a slight flair, a good shirt and a nice jacket. Basically, riding clothes is what I wear.”

The very idea that Saunders – one of our most popular comic actors – is talking about retiring from our TV screens is plainly preposterous. French and Saunders are the Morecambe and Wise de nos jours – in other words, a venerable British institution. But for me, it’s the thought of no more Eddy and Patsy that is unthinkable. The appalling duo have surely embedded themselves in our comic consciousness as firmly as Basil and Sybil, and the shows are still cult viewing in America and Australia. It will be some time before the Alan Partridges or David Brents or even the much-garlanded Little Britains can claim that.

Anyway, don’t you just love Eddy? “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how much. I absolutely adore her and I adore being her.” Do you think she’s allowed women to feel better about behaving badly? “Yes, I would say that Eddy has legitimised quite a lot of… behaviour.” Is it a great escape being her? “It’s the most lovely thing. It’s hard to describe – but when I’m being Eddy and Joanna becomes Patsy and we’re sitting there, I think there’s no happier place to be because it is a total escape. It must be for us like meditation is for other people who can lose themselves through it,” she says. “You become these people and you think of funnier and funnier things. And Joanna and I will sit for an hour and just have a conversation about whatever Patsy might do, how they would end up, where they might have gone, what would happen if they did this or that. And it’s like eating the best chocolate, do you know what I mean?”

As Saunders goes on, she begins to metamorphose into her creation. She is laughing, quite brilliantly, at her own jokes – remembering how one of the sketches came about. She had the lines but no theme, and Lumley started talking about how movie stars marrying other movie stars didn’t really work. Why? “‘Darling, race horse.’ ‘Race horse?’ ‘She [glam actress] doesn’t want another race horse for company, she wants a donkey or a goat. Doesn’t she, darling?’” And as Saunders and Lumley riffed on, they began to twig that within their own on-screen relationship, Eddy’s always the donkey. “So eventually Eddy was sitting at a table with donkeys – hahahahahaha [wheezing with laughter now] and they’re trying to Sex and the Ciddee up their lives a bit and just being more thin and more everything… yah, more Sex and the Ciddee kind of thing,” she swings from Eddy back to sensible Jennifer, “And it’s just totally impossible. At her thinnest, Eddy would still be too fat, you know… because it’s a whole career to be that thin.”

To stick with the donkey theme, Saunders does have quite a marked, Eeyore-like strain of gloom in an otherwise sanguine personality. This is not the first time, for instance, that she has hinted that her on-screen days are numbered. That she is more emphatic in this encounter may simply be a case of her being a year or two older – or closer to incontinent senility, as she might put it.

She seesaws wildly between writing off Absolutely Fabulous herself to saying that there’s nothing she wants more than to do another series. There have been five to date, plus specials, but the last show was filmed about two years ago. She says the negative reviews, which have been proliferating with each series, don’t really affect her life because by the time they’re screened: “You’re moving on, you’ve got some more chickens and you’re quite happy.

“I actually have finished with it now, I think,” she says. “You have a sense of when something really is past its sell-by date and it might just be now. I’ll have to burn the wigs because otherwise it’s all too convenient.” Everyone’s too old, she says, and Eddy’s developing into someone who’s going to become very needy and require a lot of looking after, “and it’s a slightly sadder sort of place to go”. But this is mad, surely; Eddy and Patsy are only in their fifties. There’s a good 20 years in them before they’ll be reaching for their Zimmer frames.

Part of the problem may be that Saunders wants to see if she has it in her to be able to invent something fresh to match the success of Absolutely Fabulous. She did have a go at writing a brand-new series, Mirrorball, which came out as a pilot a while back – but all it made her realise was how much she missed Eddy and Patsy et al, and so she retreated to her old creative comfort zone.

It was Ab Fab’s unexpected success in America – where it went out on cable after Steven Spielberg and then Roseanne Barr failed to convince the major networks that it wasn’t the work of Satan – that convinced Saunders to give the old dames a new lease of life.

“It was at a time when the critics here were being sniffy and I thought it would be too embarrassing to do another series. And then America was so cheerful about it, because in America they just think things go on and on, and why shouldn’t you? And you get infected by that and you think, ‘Yeah. Why the f*** shouldn’t I do another one?’” she says. “Because if you can think of enough good jokes – and generally I think there’s more jokes than in the average sitcom – then why don’t we do it? And we generally have a really great time making it. We have such a bloody laugh. And if I could just do that and it never went out, I would be so happy for the rest of my life.”

So what does her husband think about the future of Ab Fab? “I don’t know.” Really? But doesn’t Ade love it? “He must have an opinion, but I’ve no idea.” Hmmm. What does one make of that, I wonder. And then she says that he would like to keep the series going from a business point of view: “You think, ‘Keep it going for as long as you can,’ because, you know, TV’s so hard to break into now. Why give up something that people actually want to see or that they [the TV chiefs] actually want to commission? Why would you give that up? Because it also gives you slight leverage into people wanting to commission other stuff. It keeps you there. And that’s a horrible thought, really, because it means that you’re thinking about things from the wrong perspective.”

The quandary for pioneers is where to go next when everyone else has caught up with or overtaken you. Saunders was startled by the reaction to the first series of the show, since for her it was merely an extension of the kind of work she and French had been doing. “In England, it was, ‘Oh bloody drunk birds… there you go.’ But in America, it was as if some kind of revolution had taken place. American women are so straight. They were going, ‘OMYGAHD! These women are so CRAZEE!’ And I was like, ‘What? You mean, you don’t know anyone like that? You’ve never been like this yourself? You’ve never got drunk and fallen in the street? I don’t understand! Where have you been?’”

But that was in the days when you never saw anyone smoking or drinking on American television, before HBO transformed what you could show on the small screen and ushered in Will and Grace and Sex and the City and now Desperate Housewives… “and they’ve all taken that kind of idea and run with it. And in a way, that’s why I feel I can’t go on, because if we went even more extreme, it would sort of cheapen it in a way and look a bit desperate,” Saunders says.

Reality television has also shifted the definition of extreme: how can the imagination compete with real-life grotesques such as Jackie Stallone or the Almodóvar drama of Nadia? She says that although The Office and Little Britain new bods are huge and sell millions of DVDs, they’re still slightly peripheral to mainstream entertainment: “They’re not 7.30, BBC One Friday night. Not yet, although they will be, because everyone naturally progresses that way. Like we have. You don’t progress yourself, actually, you get progressed until you suddenly realise, ‘I thought we were BBC Two still.’ And it’s, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, you’re BBC One now.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ And it fits uncomfortably sometimes, but that’s the way television has gone now. Television prescribes the product before you’ve written it. That’s a big change and it’s very difficult, and it often makes us feel that we should just give up because you think that you can’t quite squeeze yourself into the mould.”

At the time, Saunders’ delivery was so breezily matter-of-fact that her statement didn’t make much of an impact. Yet writing this now, it sounds almost like professional suicide. She definitely hankers after the old days when she was allowed to take risks and the powers-that-be did not interfere. Now it’s “where they want you to pitch it; it’s the material they want you to cover. Yes, it can be topics, but you’ll also get suggestions about sketches and that never used to happen ever at the BBC. It’s the way most television has gone: they decide what slots they’ve got and what they want to go into it. So if you bring a product to the table, they will try to mould it into the show to fit the slot.”

The last French and Saunders, it turns out, wasn’t quite what the BBC wanted… “because there weren’t loads of parodies and it was a little bit too loose. It didn’t have enough to grab people immediately. It didn’t have enough very obvious stuff in it.” Ergo French and Saunders themselves loved it: “We enjoyed it as writers and lots of writers love it because it’s a proper writers’ show. But now, there’s a feeling that if it doesn’t work first time, it can’t work. Cut it. Change it. Do anything.”

Oh dear. It does rather look like Saunders is trying to get a message across to someone at the Beeb. Perhaps this, too, with her newfound sense of English Englishness is a convenient way to avoid the simply awful business of being direct.

In Los Angeles, in contrast, she seems to have found a way to overcome her reticence. She sees the formula now from the moment they love you to the moment they don’t even know “who the f*** you are. And it’s quite a short time space.” So now when she goes into LA meetings, she says: “‘Listen, while we’re still speaking to each other, can I say…’ ‘Whaddya mean?’ I’m going, oh forget it. ‘While we are still speaking…’ ‘But you’re my best friend,

I love you. I wanna adopt you.’ And I say, ‘Yes, while we’re still speaking, could you just…’ And you can just time the moment when they’ll actually blank you altogether.”

Saunders is fantastically proud of her daughter Ella’s voice and songs, which she describes, intriguingly, as ballads under the influence of Marilyn Manson and Nirvana. Her own musical preference is country and western, and her heroine is, of course, Dolly Parton. During the time that Roseanne Barr was attempting to recreate Ab Fab in America, Saunders became quite chummy with Eddy’s foul-mouthed US counterpart. And one jetlagged evening, through Roseanne’s auspices, she actually met The Dolly. Barr had offered Saunders dinner “without an entourage. Hurray. That is quite rare in America”. And there they were in Morton’s, home of the famous Vanity Fair Oscars party, which Saunders describes as a giant aircraft hangar: “All you can see from the outside are air-conditioning systems, and you think, ‘Where are we going? A car park?’” Several bottles of wine arrive at the table “because Roseanne thinks, like everyone does, that I’m like my character and must require not just one, but two or possibly three bottles”.

Then plates of mashed potato arrive because obviously since she’s English, that must be what she wants: “And I was in a sort of heaven. But not quite realising that I had now floated at least six inches off the ground with jet lag and bottles of wine and I’d examined all Roseanne’s tattoos, and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dolly Parton is here. Do you like her?’ And I said, ‘I worship Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has made my life such joy. I know every single song, every single album.’ And she said, ‘I’ll ask her to come over and sit at the table.’ And I was, like, ‘OHMYGOD!’

“And then Dolly Parton – DOLLY PARTON! – is sitting at our table, and it’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Oh God, I wish I wasn’t so drunk because I really do like Dolly Parton and I want to say how much I like her but maybe I’m too drunk.’”

So Saunders staggers off to the loo in an attempt to sober up and it’s a long, long way away. She’s sitting on the loo thinking she may by now have been gone for half an hour but what she feels would be a fitting mark of respect would be to sing a medley of Dolly songs to Dolly: “Because, you know, she needs to know how much I like her.

“By the time I’d negotiated the aircraft hangar back to the table where Dolly was sitting, actually quite merry herself, she was absolutely up for anything, lovely – I’d forgotten every single thing she’d ever done. I never got to tell her that I thought she was really… quite good. And she was sitting there, thin as a rake, huge tits, looking great, and I thought – in that slightly above-your-body-looking-down way – ‘I am sitting at a table with Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr. Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr.’ And I thought, ‘I must not forget this moment.’”

A few years later, when Dolly did her show in London, Saunders sent her a present backstage: “But she didn’t remember me.”

And what could be more English, or more Jennifer Saunders, to end on that note.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.

Actors, Celebrities

Dennis Hopper

Times Online – March 12 2004
- Ginny Dougary

Hollywood rebel, self-confessed wife-beater and brilliant artist, Dennis Hopper is the most underrated actor of his generation. Now married for the fifth time and the adoring father of a baby girl, he’s swapped drink and drugs for golf and Republicanism

DENNIS HOPPER LIVES IN Venice, Los Angeles, 20 minutes from the beach next to beautiful Santa Monica, the Home of the Homeless. It’s an area of artists and writers and bums, rampaging gangs and violent deaths. It also has funky boutiques, designer shops and slick restaurants, palm trees and brightly-painted houses smothered in bougainvillea.

When you drive into the street where the actor has lived for the past two decades, the folksiness hardens into monochrome industrial chic, and Hopper’s Frank Gehry-designed house is the industrial-est and chic-est of them all.

It looks more like a bunker than a home, with its corrugated steel façade and numbers scorched on the front. The crazy paving seems to be ironic with a sort of metallic sheen; a pair of giant cactuses complete the atmosphere of spiky brutalism. Obviously there is nothing as straightforward as a doorbell; instead you punch in a code and wait to make contact with a human.

The human who opens the fortress door five minutes later is Braden, one of Hopper’s two laid-back assistants who are both freckle-faced and smiley and dressed down in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts. Victoria, wife No 5, whom I meet at the end of my visit, also looks as though she may have just come from the gym. Hopper himself, when he appears half an hour later, is meticulously turned out in a dark brown corduroy suit, crisp white shirt and leather boots.

The rooms into which you step are cavernous and quite undomestic. I am reminded of Charles Saatchi’s old house in Chelsea, where I was once invited to inspect Damien Hirst’s sheep in the living room. Behind the elegant Georgian exterior the house was a homage to British art: the walls covered with Freuds and Regos, the floors with outré sculptures by the likes of Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin. You did rather wonder where the living got done.

The art work here is resolutely American: Andy Warhol (a Mao, and a screen-print portrait of Hopper as a young man), Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Salle, Ed Ruscha. In one room there is a skinny black leather sofa with a red heart-shaped cushion. In another there is a rouched cardboard armchair and chaise longue designed by Gehry.

There are a couple of works to which I’m particularly drawn: a sort of soft-focus Bridget Riley piece of shimmering stripes, and a decorative, slightly Aboriginal, number that reminds me of a length of fabric. As it turns out, they’re both photographs of street graffiti which have been transformed in some way — perhaps silk-screened? When I ask Braden who the artist is, she says they’re by Dennis.

I’m shepherded over a courtyard to one of three Gehry buildings that make up the Hopper residence, up a staircase into a very large white room with an off-white rubberised floor, a king-size bed at one end, a desk at the other and in between a fancy cream day-bed which could be described as lived-in.

In my bag I have a photocopy of a black-and-white photograph taken by Hopper in 1961. It’s called Double Standard — deadpan wit, as it refers to two Standard signs above a petrol station in an island abutted by main roads. It’s a most satisfying picture: the view of the cars behind in the driver’s car mirror, the lines of the telegraph poles — a slightly eerie David Lynch slice of Americana. I’m staring at the original Double Standard outside the bathroom when Hopper appears at the bottom of the stairs. He is wearing shades and holds an unlit cigar in his hand. There is nothing loose about him, but neither could one say that he is exactly coiled. What he has is the stiff strut of a boxer — he is small and compact — along with a sort of vigilant alertness. He walks over to one of the windows that make up a wall of light and opens it, rubbing his finger with mild displeasure over the dirty sill. Braden says she’ll get someone to fix it, leaves the boss with a bowl-sized cup of black tea on his desk, and departs.

It’s an odd way to interview someone. Hopper is so far away from me that I often have to bellow to make myself heard. But other than the two of us sitting on the edge of the bed, which would be equally odd, there is no seating in the room but the day-bed, which is at ballroom length from Hopper and his desk. This could be simply a hazard of minimalist living or it could be a distancing device in more ways than one.

Do you want to wear your dark glasses throughout the interview, I ask. “I can take them off,” he says. Well, I’d quite like to see your eyes (which turn out to be a clear, flinty blue). “Would you really? Can you see them from over there? Harharharharhar.” He breaks into a harsh staccato of laughter.

We are talking about one of his latest films, when he suddenly breaks off — “Oh my God!” — looking as though he’s seen a ghost, which in a way he has. I hike over to his desk and look at the photograph of Helmut Newton which has flashed on to the screen of Hopper’s computer. “It’s the photograph that I took of him the day before he died. I was talking to you and I haven’t been in this room, and I didn’t set this up . . . I swear to God . . . hello, Helmut . . . oh, man . . . that’s weird.”

I’m a bit worried that he’s not qoing to be able to take his eyes off the screen. But he explains that a few friends, including Anjelica Huston and her husband Robert Graham, had spent five or six hours together over a long lunch looking at each other’s photographs, and then the next morning Newton keeled over with a heart attack — “which is just horrendous and it was only two weeks ago. But anyway that’s why I jumped.”

The new film in question, Leo (after Leopold Bloom), is most definitely an art-house movie. It stars Joseph Fiennes in the leading role of a released murderer with a mysterious past and a mission for the future. Hopper plays Horace, one of his nastier psychosexual nutters, who has a hold over the employees of the diner in which Fiennes lands a job on leaving prison. Sam Shepard also has a cameo role as the troubled Christian manager of the diner, and there’s a certain relish both in the script and the playing of it, when Shepard sprinkles Tabasco over Hopper’s food saying, “I know you like a little sin (which stretches out into a great southern drawl of seee-y-uh-nnn) on your shepherd’s pie.” There’s also a horrid little scene when Horace (Hopper) has the abused waitress’s legs splayed apart and he’s stuffing dollars between them, as well as anything else that comes to hand, such as a smashed egg.

“Oh, man!” Hopper gives one of his clenched laughs, remembering his speech: “. . . and whose egg is this?” Horace is not a million roles away from Frank, the asthmatic psychosexual nutter who wheezes into his plastic mask while subjecting his lover (Isabella Rossellini) to unspeakable acts of humiliation. That film was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986 — Hopper’s comeback year, and first year of sobriety from narcotics and booze, in which he made three films back to back: the other two were River’s Edge and Hoosiers, for which he won an Oscar nomination.

I wonder whether he minds being typecast, since I can’t think of a role in which Hopper hasn’t played some crazy, from Easy Rider to Apocalypse Now to Speed to Blue Velvet and beyond. And then I apologise since I imagine he gets asked that all the time. “No, I haven’t been asked it a lot,” he says equably. “The point is that unfortunately I’ve been trapped inside a system that I’ve been able to eke out a living from for almost 50 years. I’ll be 68 in May and I went into contract for Warner Brothers when I was 18.

“So in over 150 movies, I’ve done just about everything.” As a teenager he was in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean, whose acting tip was “Do it, don’t show it”.

“But mostly I get to play heavies, that’s basically what I’ve fallen into. I mean I rarely get offered the other roles.” Does he get bored? “No, because heavies are always interesting . . . usually more interesting than the guy on the other side going ‘What are you doing to him?’ But I would like to be able to play much better roles than I get.” This is said without rancour but is a refrain to which we return on several occasions, with a mounting sense (mutual, incidentally) that it’s curious how much better regarded Hopper is in almost any country other than his own (add to that list Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Brian Wilson and you’ve got the beginnings of some sort of thesis.)

I’d read somewhere that he’d have loved to have been a “serious” actor: “Well, you know, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen now but I would love to have played King Lear and I would love to have played Hamlet,” he says. “I came out of playing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego when I was 13 years old. From 13 to 18, all I did was play Shakespeare.” Somewhat unusual, I ask, for an alfalfa farmer’s son from Kansas, but I find the cuttings have led me astray.

“Well, no,” he smiles tightly. “My mother’s father was a wheat farmer and I was raised on their farm. But my father was not a farmer.” Hopper’s father managed a grocery store in Dodge City before joining the Office of Strategic Services, aka the CIA, during the war. He was posted to China, Burma and India “and was one of the 100 guys that liberated General Wainwright out of prison in Korea,” his son says now with a measure of pride. Your father was a bit of a hero, then? “Well, he was a working person in intelligence.” He was also a lay minister in the Methodist church.

After the war Hopper Sr carried a gun and guarded the mail on trains from Kansas City to Denver. Then, when the family moved to San Diego, he was mananger of the city’s post office while his wife worked for the Red Cross.

It’s always tricky for an English person to know what an American means when he says his background is middle class. I point this out when he tells me that he was first exposed to great art when he was nine or ten and was enrolled in a programme for under-privileged children: “You know we weren’t rich, OK?” Along with other kids from his neighbourhood in Kansas City, Hopper was bussed to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where he saw Gainsborough ’s Blue Boy, which made a strong impression.

On Saturdays he went to art classes and was taught by a painter who specialised in Rocky Mountain water colours. “And I was doing this little rock with the river going by and a mountain and a tree, and he looked at it and said: ‘You’re not gonna understand what I’m saying right now, but some day you’re gonna have to git tight and paint loose.’ And have you learnt to paint loose? “I have learnt to paint loose. And I’ve learnt how to git tight, too . . . ” he grins.

Hopper was ousted by Warner Bros in 1957, two years after Rebel Without a Cause, when the 21-year-old actor had a well-documented falling-out with the director Henry Hathaway on the John Wayne film From Hell to Texas.

Rejected by Hollywood, Hopper turned his back in turn on Tinseltown and decamped to New York, where he became a devotee of the method-acting guru Lee Strasberg (whose methods Hopper still extols) and developed a successful secondary career as a photographer, doing fashion shoots for Harpers & Queen and Vogue (his most recent fashion commission was for French Vogue last autumn). It was in the early sixties that Hopper began collecting art. He is now on his third collection: the first two — which included a major Lichtenstein of a sunrise, worth millions of dollars now, he says, but bought for $780 — went towards alimony costs. He says he’s always traded or bartered for his collections rather than had vast sums to plough into art. He describes himself as a third-generation abstract expressionist, and was one of the first to spot the importance of the much-heralded “return to reality” when a dealer showed him a cartoon by Roy Lichtenstein and an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can. He immediately visited the artists’ studios and started to build up one of the first major pop art collections.

man loves a bargain. He was thrilled to buy Warhol’s very first soup can for $75, mainly because it was 25 bucks less than a later version he’d been first offered by another dealer. He’s clearly quite pleased with himself for buying his first Gehry building for as little as $90,000; the Gehrys had apparently been sitting empty for five years because the area was so bad.

Now he’s (pleasantly?) shocked to discover that his English neighbour is selling his house next door for $1.2 million: “For that little . . . I mean, it’s not even one bedroom!” And he’s very happy that he gets his clothes for free (Hugo Boss today) as well as his cars, including his beloved Jag-u-wahh.

I can’t help wondering how his artsiness went down with his parents and start by saying, cheesily, that I suppose he loved his Mom. “No,” he says.

“No,” his voice going up. This slightly takes my breath away (I mean, doesn’t every boy love his mum?) — which is a pity, as I had been going to ask him about oedipal complexes, having read an interview in which Hopper said he had been sexually attracted to his mother. “I didn’t love either one of them, very honestly,” he says.

“They weren’t bad — like, this isn’t a monster story — but I just felt out of place. They thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and that being an actor was a life of becoming a bum — and this was not an acceptable occupation. So we start there, and you can get the rest.”

Well, yes and no, actually. It’s slightly surprising that after his drug-crazed wilderness years in New Mexico, when he really went off the boil after making his hippy-biker-cult classic Easy Rider in 1969, he still had no contact with his parents — even after producing four grandchildren for them (the latest addition is a baby daughter, Galen, who is almost one. Her father is besotted: “She’s the most remarkable baby, all she does is smile and relate and she’s the most wonderful child . . . I’ve never experienced anything like this”). Hopper’s father is now dead: “He was really a decent guy, I just didn’t know him.” His mother is in a nursing home in Los Angeles and he does visit her.

Hopper is similarly unconstrained on the subject of wife-bashing. I ask him about wife No 2, Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. She called it a day after just over a week, allegedly on account of Hopper’s “unnatural sexual demands”. Ah, the kinky handcuff story, I say. “Yeah, first of all, what handcuffs? This is Michelle . . . where did the handcuffs come from? I didn’t handcuff her, I just punched her out! Harharharharharhar.” What did you just say? “I didn’t handcuff her,” he says pleasantly. “I just punched her out.”

Do you regret all that? Beating women up? “I didn’t beat any women up. I mean, I’ve done nothing beyond anything that they did to me.” I suppose that you must have been out of your head on drink or drugs at the time? You wouldn ’t make a habit out of behaving that way? “The point is that no one was ever truly hurt by me. And if there’s any physical abuse by me, believe me it was after days of abuse by them (rueful laugh) so it doesn’t really . . . I have no . . . kind of feeling of any kind of guilt about that. I wasn’t handcuffing them and beating them to death or anything.”

We move on to golf and politics. He’s a Republican who has been voting that way since Reagan: “I liked Clinton but I voted for Bush then and I voted for Bush Sr and I’m definitely voting for Bush again.” All his life, from his childhood on, he’s been surrounded by Democrats and was very much to the left himself in the Sixties, marching with Martin Luther King and protesting against the Vietnam War.

The reasons he gives for swinging to the right are the usual conservative complaints about soft-bellied government and sponging welfare cheats. He was even moved to write a herogram to Newt Gingrich, the rabble-rouser of the far Right, on his withdrawl from politics: “Your resignation saddens me. When you want to run for president, I will be there. You have done so much more than anyone in a long time for our country. Make some money, have a life, come back, kick ass.”

His wife, Victoria, meanwhile, is a passionate Democrat who has diverted her energies from her equine activities — stadium jumping, three-day eventing, and so on — to raise funds for the party, including hosting several parties in the Gehry bunker, with John Edwards and John Kerry as guests of honour.

“How does that work, you want to know,” Hopper asks, unprompted. “Well, I support Bush and I support my wife, and I support what my wife’s involved in. That’s all. We don’t talk politics. I respect her things and, you know, whether she respects mine doesn’t really matter to me. Harharharhar.”

All these exchanges are markedly good-natured. Hopper is never edgy or tense; there are no twitches or ticks or menacing looks. Although some of his takes on life are disconcerting, shall we say, there is nothing rabid about his manner. Those characteristics belong to Hopper’s characters, not the man playing them. He says that when he’s not acting, he’s introverted and shy. “When I get up to make a speech, I am so nervous I really have problems. I have to be Dennis Hopper. Who is Dennis Hopper? I mean, Dennis Hopper doesn’t have an identity.”

The only time he does give me that familar evil eye from his movies is when I’m rude about golf — and he roars with laughter when I point it out. His father used to coax him to play as a boy; Dennis tried it once and thought it was “cissy”. But years later, when he came out of rehab in Texas, his friend the country singer Willie Nelson told him to play on his private golf course to take his mind off going to bars, and now he’s hooked: “What I find really interesting about it is that nobody’s doing anything to you. There’s no interaction between you and another person. It’s really just you and that little ball. And when you start thinking that you’re only playing against yourself, that becomes interesting to me.” According to Hopper, American golf courses are full of former wild men: “Most of the guys who were heavy on drugs and stuff — the rockers, and all that — we’re all out playing golf and we’re all sober. It is weird.” It’s probably not quite what Steppenwolf had in mind.

He was photographed at the Vanity Fair party for the Oscars but all that starry smiling and schmoozing, which is an integral part of playing Hollywood, is clearly a trial for him. “You know, I’ve had a very strange relationship with this town. I’ve always hated Los Angeles and I’m really making a major effort to like the city, and the people. I mean, it’s my home and it’s hard to hate where you live — but I’ve had such a bad relationship with it on a work level that it’s not been fun for me.” He rattles off his last year of filming, two movies in Romania, one on Vancouver Island, a film shot in Australia in which he plays Frank Sinatra: “You see, I’m not here. I don’t work here; I live here. Now that’s weird, man.

“I’d love to be in a Coen Brothers film, or something by Curtis Hanson — did you see 8 Mile? a terrific little movie — but I’ve never worked for Lucas or Spielberg. You could name most of the directors in Hollywood I’ve never worked for. I am not offered any of the roles that Jack Nicholson gets or Warren Beatty gets, or any of these people get, and never have been and never will. So when you ask me about playing villains and would I like to play other things, I think, God, I’m just lucky if I get a villain part every once in a while.”

Finally, I ask him what has made him proudest in his life, and he says his work. And then he qualifies that by saying: “The high points have not been that many, but I’m a compulsive creator so I don’t think of the children first, I think of the work. Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of and yet they ’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

We finish our interview with a tour around the house, after which Hopper goes off to be photographed and Victora returns to her computer to contuinue her good fight for the Democrats. While Dennis was talking about the paintings, Victoria gently warned him that their baby was sleeping, and he immediately dropped his voice to a whisper. Despite how disappointed his words sound, he didn’t really strike me as a disappointed man. He lives in a great house, in an area surrounded by his artist buddies, with a new baby daughter as well as a first grandaughter of the same age, and a marriage that seems both happy and robust. Perhaps this time he’ll be able to hang on to the art collection.

Celebrities, Music, Women

Ginny meets Dolly

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – November 2 2002
Ginny Dougary

Dolly Parton’s bosom goes before her. It is impossible to think of her voice and her songs without conjuring a mental picture of that famous cantilevered shelf which juts so implausibly over her minuscule waist. Her top-heavy form even enlivened debate in the House of Commons when some years ago Kenneth Clarke chastised Gordon Brown for relying on the “Dolly Parton school of economics — an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion with no visible means of support.”

If it seems unseemly to linger on a person’s poitrine in this way then it must be said that no man or woman has more boldly gone into this territory than Parton herself. Reading past encounters with journalists — mostly male — it is she rather than her interviewers who nudges the subject back to her breasts again and again. Dolly’s bust, she makes it clear, is up for grabs. There has been much speculation in the press over the decades as to the secret of her bosom’s buoyancy: exactly how much silicone has been pumped into those mamas? She has never denied that she is partially plastic but she won’t be drawn on the detail. When one persistent fellow pressed her for specifics, she said: “Look, I’m in show-business. I look at my boobs like they’re showhorses or showdogs. You’ve got to keep ‘em groomed.”

Emboldened by Parton’s own approach to her body, I had convinced myself that it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to ask her if I could briefly touch her, ahem, breasts. The readers of The Times surely had a right to know what such significant assets in the Parton empire felt like. But, alas, when it came to it I chickened out…partly because in the flesh, despite appearances to the contrary, there is nothing remotely fluffy about Dolly.

A big heart may be beating under her big chest but Parton is also a tough cookie and steely in her determination to run the show precisely to her specifications. If you attempt to steer her into uncharted waters, she makes her disapproval very plain. The version of herself that she is prepared to offer has been carefully honed over the years — the teasing paradox of the God-loving “toilet-mouthed” sinner; the woman who has been apparently happily married to her teenage sweetheart, Carl, for 36 years (they met outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat in Nashville) who has neither confirmed or denied rumours of her affairs with men and women over the years; the simple country girl who is an extremely shrewd businesswoman, an owner of five houses as well as various enterprises including a radio station, a brand of cosmetics, a lucrative theme park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dollywood, and a Hollywood film and television production company.

One of Parton’s much-quoted lines is that she looks like a woman but thinks like a man. “You know, there are many women who think good,” she tells me. “I just mean that you would be foolish as a man to underestimate me.” Plenty of men have been fooled by her appearance which has doubtless been good news for the Dolly dollar: “It’s worked for me because I’ve got the deal done and gone before a lot of people have got past looking at the boobs or the hair.”

She makes no bones about the importance of being in control of her business affairs, and I wonder whether Parton would go so far as to say she was a control freak. “No, I’m not a control freak but I’m very alert and very aware of my things. I have to take care of my things my way,” she says, sounding very southern indeed, with her mah’s (for my’s) and ah’m (for I’m) and swooping high-speed delivery. “I’m a very professional Dolly Parton. I don’t try to run other people’s lives but I know what I want, what I don’t want, what I will do, what I won’t do and I think it’s important for people to take care of that part of things themselves. And I don’t care if I’d been born a man or a woman or both.”

When I visited Dollywood two years ago (of which more later), I was told by one of Parton’s assistants there that her boss’s days often started as early as six in the morning and ended late at night, with every minute in between accounted for. Like presidents and Hollywood stars, Parton keeps her interviews short and to the point, treating herself as a rare commodity to be sampled at arm’s length by outsiders, and only with limited access. The briefer the encounter, of course, the easier it is for her to keep the conversation within the boundaries which suit her. She is happy projecting a contained provocativeness (four-letter words, a relish for sex) — which may be bold and shocking in her hometown of Pigeon Forge, dominated by hellfire Baptists obsessed with sin — but she is not prepared to be controversial in a broader context.

I come close to offending her, for instance, when I broach the subject of politics. “I’ll talk about sex and God but I ain’t talkin’ about politics,” Parton says firmly. So I can’t talk to you about America and Iraq? “No, you cannot.” She says that she definitely has her opinions — which I don’t doubt for a minute — but she doesn’t even care to discuss politics or religion with her friends because those discussions can very soon turn into arguments. And being in the limelight herself: “I don’t voice my opinions about those things because people take it out of context. Especially journalists. You say one thing, next thing you know it’s plastered all over the page and taken out of context: ‘Dolly said this’. I just wish we all got along. I wish the world was perfect, but it is not.”

Dolly’s world-view is this: “If we were more God-loving, God-like, Christ-like people, we wouldn’t be having the problems we do. But we’re having them because nobody will forgive, nobody will love, we’re all so selfish and just get into our own little place of what is right and what is wrong and so we’re all just screwing up big time.” These sentiments are echoed in several of the songs — Hello God, Raven Dove — on her new record Halos & Horns, the fourth back-to-bluegrass album Parton has released in the past four years. This return to the unadorned acoustic music of Parton’s mountain roots — fiddle, banjo, snare-drum, washboard, tambourine and goosebump-inducing harmonies — has given her career a new lease of life, happily coinciding with the post-O Brother Where Art Thou hipness of bluegrass (her first album in this vein, as she points out, came out before the film), and prompting her to form a new band, the Blueniques, made up largely of Pigeon Forge recruits, and go back to touring. For die-hard Dolly fans like myself, it is incredible to think that she hasn’t performed a concert in this country for 20 years.

“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” is one of Dolly’s favourite Dollyisms, along with, “If I hadn’t been a woman I’d have been a drag queen.” She based her look, she has said, on a local prostitute who stood out from the rest of the drably dressed, careworn women in the community with her yellow hair, red nails and lipstick. For our interview, however, Parton looks comparatively sober, almost tasteful, in a little charcoal grey skirt and matching monochrome sweater, a V-neck revealing only a glimpse of pale cleavage, flesh-coloured nylons and high-heels. Most of the time, she tucks her pointed feet underneath her bottom on the sofa.

There’s the same wig of teased hair but close-up — obviously, really, since she’s a 56-year-old woman — her face does not have the dewy, youthful glow of her photographs in which even recently she looks like a gorgeous tarnished angel. The Annie Leibovitz snaps on the sleeve of the new album are a case in point and among the best of Parton I’ve ever seen: tatty, faded denim shirt, blue jeans, and the sort of understated make-up which takes at least three hours to apply.

The singer’s husband, Carl Dean, has always come across as a mystery man in the press, principally because he has rarely been sighted in public. They met the day Dolly arrived in Nashville; she was 18, he was 21, and they married two years later. I must say that I do like the detail of the Wishy-Washy Laundromat: “Well, I was doing my dirty laundry that I’d brought from home — you know having graduated the night before — because I was in such a hurry to get to Nashville and be a star.

“Carl had just finished work — he and his father owned an asphalt paving company — and he had gone home and cleaned up and he was just driving around…looking for me, he said. And he must have.” Her voice does a fabulous loop-the-loop — he-yyyyyy-uhv. “He was very shy and bashful and that’s not like him. So that’s another way I believe God has purpose for people.

“Of course, I was tiny and I was blonde, for sure, had that hair all hiked up and I had on a red rib-tickler halter top and my little hip-hugger red pants and I guess he just looked and thought, ‘I’m gonna say something to her.’”

Do you remember what he said? “Well, yeah, I know exactly what he said. He just pulled up to the sidewalk and said, ‘You’re gonna get sunburnt out here, little lady.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you think?’ And so we just started talking and that was that.”

She says that her husband loves music and is forever whistling and singing around the house and the barn “in a kind of pop sounding voice”. He has a large record collection and is a great Led Zeppelin fan, which was one of the reasons why she did her own version of Stairway to Heaven on Halos & Horns “because I’d heard that song in the house a million times”. I think it’s by far the most exciting track on the CD, and really beautiful — full-blown and delicate at the same time, building up to a great choral swell of celestial female voices at the end.

And what was Carl’s reaction? “‘Only you’d have the nerve to do that damn song that way!’ You know, he doesn’t say it’s good or bad. He just says, ‘Well, it’s different, I’ll give you that.’ Yeah, that’s about all he says.”

Is he a loner? “Very much a loner. But he’s friendly. He’s funny. He does have a handful of very good friends but they’re mostly people that he went to school with.”

I had gone to Dollywood in the summer of 2000 in the hope of talking to Parton, who was scheduled to be there. The interview had been agreed — after questions had been asked about The Times (“Was it a tabloid?” “Was it a new paper?” “What was its circulation?”) — but after a great deal of shilly-shallying about how many minutes I would be given, Dolly’s people cancelled. I decided to go anyway, and thought that if I approached Parton after her press conference to launch her new water park — Dolly’s Splash Country — she might relent. Not a bit of it. There was no hobnobbing with the locals at the reception, no pressing of flesh, or bestowing of gracious smiles. This was a glimpse of the “very professional Dolly Parton”. She came, she went, she vanished and although you can be sure I pestered her manager, Ted Miller, for at least an introduction having come so far, none was forthcoming. Dolly had a toothache, it was explained. And, besides, she was only interested in local journalists for this story.

Still my time there was not without its diversions. Her appearance was sensational, to say the least. The local press and dignitories were sealed off behind a cord waiting for Dolly to say the word so that the bulldozer could start the ground-breaking ceremony. We had watched her blonde head approach us, poking out of the top of an army tank as it made its stately progress up an interminable dirt track while Islands in the Stream crackled in and out of the loudspeaker system.

She was helped out of the vehicle by a half-a-dozen butch lifesavers, and there was an appreciative murmur as she asked coquettishly: “So howdy’all like mah wet suit?” Lady Penelope meets dominatrix scuba diver, I wrote down on my notepad. I was amazed by how filthy she was, which possibly explains why she and Graham Norton hit it off so well. (Norton went to Dollywood to film a Christmas special last year.) All the attractions, she explained, were based on places that were important to her as a child: “Like the Suck Hole but I don’t think with mah reputation we should call it that!” She screamed with laughter. She brought up a story which had appeared in the National Enquirer about her alleged dalliance with a 15-year-old boy: “It’s not true, unfortunately. I wish it was,” she said mock-wistfully. “Sounds fun!” And then she was gone.

I was impressed by Dollywood itself. Having expected to enjoy it in an ironic “Isn’t it kitsch?” way, it was far better than that, with none of the plastic unpleasantness of mainstream theme parks. In Craftsman’s Valley, blacksmiths, soap-makers, woodcarvers and coopers were hard at work. The food all smelt delicious: wholesome, authentic home-cooked ham and beans and grits. The children’s area was a splendidly inventive Professor Branestawm interactive paradise. There’s a replica of the two-room newspaper-lined log cabin Dolly and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up in, and many spangly frocks in the Rags to Riches Museum. And, naturally, you can hear every sort of music from country to gospel to Fifties rock’n'roll…although one of Dolly’s brothers, Randy, who does a sort of gospel meets Blues Brothers gig would probably not be drawing crowds where it not for his sister’s patronage.

I went on the Imagination Express, a brightly painted vehicle designed to look like a train, for a storytelling session at a local infant school down a long, winding road. This was part of Parton’s literacy programme — the Dollywood Foundation — through which every child in Sevier County, where the singer was born, receives a new book every month from birth to the age of five. I was given Madeleine in Paris to read to the children by Parton’s jolly assistants, Karen and Doreen, since my suggestion of Harry Potter had been rejected. (The book had recently been banned in a couple of southern states on the grounds that J. K. Rowling was promoting sorcery.) That evening, I went to The Dixie Belle Saloon and drank nasty sweet non-alcoholic cocktails out of a plastic drinking vessel in the shape of a boot. The county is dry, and being America there was no smoking. And although the cocktail waitresses were trussed up to look like old-fashioned whores (frilly knickers, plunging necklines), it would — of course — be a sin for gentlemen to harbour impure thoughts about them, even if those thoughts only did remain in the mind.

What is intriguing is how Parton reconciles her robust appetites with her Godliness, particularly given her severe Baptist upbringing. For a true Holy-Roller doesn’t just believe that sex is sinful — it’s also a sin to dance or drink or have any kind of fun. As her fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather used to tell her: “A dancing foot and a praying knee don’t fit on the same leg.” And she used to think: “‘Well, why not?’ Because I believed in making a joyful noise and rejoicin’.”

Even as a child, the young Dolly was a determinedly free spirit so she simply remoulded her God into a more accommodating form: “I didn’t want to worship a God that I felt was vengeful and scary. I mean those preachers — and not just my grandpa — they would scream at you, and threaten you, and yell at you, ‘If you go out of this church unprepared and get killed on the way home, you’re gonna go straight to hell’…that used to scare me to death.”

So she would take off on her own and have her own conversations with God in an abandoned church and “try to reason with him a little bit find him in a softer way”. One morning, when she was nine years old, she had such a feeling of profound light-heartedness as the empty room flooded with sunshine that she believed herself to be “saved”. She skipped down the street telling everyone she met that she was on her way to paradise and insisted on being baptised there and then…”So I made my communication with God in my way and he’s always dealt with me according to how I can accept him in my own heart and in my own emotions and in my own mind.”

On Halos & Horns there’s a jaunty-sounding song called Shattered Image which Parton wrote and recorded in 1976 in response to one of the first tabloid stories about her love life. It uses the image from her childhood of her throwing stones into the river to shatter her watery reflection, and then fast-forwards to the present: “I’m far from perfect, but I ain’t all bad/It hurts me more than it makes me mad/You gather your stones by stooping so low/Then shatter my image with the stones you throw.”

She says she dragged the song out again because of more stories in the press about her alleged 19-year affair with an improbably named singer-songwriter called Blaise Tosti. He claims that Parton seduced him when he was 13 years old: “That’s bullshit. I know the people. We used to go to the house and feed the family because they were poor and the boy’s mother was an alcoholic. He was a kid then, I was young also and I had just gotten married and brought down my own brothers and sisters to raise them. (One of the reasons she has cited for never having had children of her own.) And he was a great singer and a great writer and I worked with him. But, you know, people turn on you and are desperate for money so they do stuff and it does hurt.”

There has always been speculation about the precise nature of Parton’s relationships with her leading men — from the man she first sang with, Porter Wagoner, through to co-stars in various movies, such as Burt Lancaster. She’s an open book on this, just as long as you don’t attempt to turn the page yourself. So she will spin an impression to me of herself as a free agent: “Even if I was having an affair with someone, you don’t like to hear people talking about it…all people are capable of anything and I’m no angel…I’ve not done all the stuff that I’ve been accused of, but I have done a lot of stuff that nobody’s found out yet…” But if she suspects that you are angling for more information, she will slap you down: “I’m not here to tell you everything about myself. You have no right to know that any more than somebody else. But I’ll tell you all I can. I’ll tell you all I will [weee-youl],” her voice goes up. “And you can guess the rest.”

My question had been, simply, whether she thought her God was an unjudgmental one, particularly as regards sex. “Well, how can sex be wrong?” she says, after subjecting me to her mild knuckle-rapping. “I have no problem with sex. I have no hang-ups about sex. I enjoy sex. And if that’s a sin, well, then somebody else will have to punish me and if God decides to…and, you know, I’m not saying that I’m right, I may be the first person he punishes, I may be burning in hell tomorrow…but if it’s wrong, as much faith as I have in God, I would just ask him to take the whole desire from me. You can make anything a sin. It’s all in how you deal with it. If you believe it’s a sin, if you feel it’s a sin, then it is a sin.”

Parton has not always felt this unmuddled and forthright. In her forties, she suffered from a serious depression for 18 months. She was 50lb heavier than her ideal weight, which ballooned over three or four years, she had mood swings, gynaecological and personal problems: “Never between me and Carl…that was always fine, thank God.” She hated herself and felt despairing enough to think about suicide. You didn’t! I say, shocked that such an indomitable force could have been so derailed. “I didn’t do anything, let me finish telling you,” Parton says, crossly.

“I’m just saying that when you get into those places, you really realise how people get on drugs and how they would commit suicide because you really don’t want to live and it’s like you’re waking up dead every day. And one night, I was thinking: ‘Do you know what? I’m just lying here wallowing in my fat, wallowing in my misery, and it’s either do something about it — git off your fat ass and git on a diet — or shut the hell up.’ And I said to God, ‘You either get my ass out of this mood, show me a way, help me, or I’m ending it. Even if committing suicide is a sin, I’ll just burn in hell.’”

Fortunately for us, God came up trumps, Dolly went on a diet, sorted out her hormones, and went though a whole emotional, spiritual and professional rejuvenation. When I point out how unexpected is this glimpse of a darker Dolly, even though a fair number of her songs — and she has, incredibly, written more than 3,000 — deal with heartbreak and despair, she says: “I am cheerful and optimistic but people also forget that people like me are not mannequins, we’re not plastic dolls; even if we’ve got plastic parts, the heart ain’t plastic, the mind ain’t plastic. People think that just because you’re a star and because you’ve got a big smile that you never suffer, you never hurt. But people like me are the ones that hurt most because we’re the ones that leave ourselves wide open in order to be able to write. To be sensitive enough to pick up on everybody’s sorrow as well as your own, you have to leave yourself wide open. And I don’t know how to do anything just a little. Same with food. If I want to eat, I want to eat the whole thing. If I’m gonna love you, I’m gonna love you to death. If my heart gets broken it’s gonna shatter. And you know, it’s just the whole thing. That’s the kind of person I am.”

General, Women

In the orbit of a goddess

THE GUARDIAN – Saturday June 24, 2000
Ginny Dougary

When the writer Ginny Dougary was mistaken for the young Elizabeth Taylor, she was flattered. Inevitably, she began to feel an affinity with the movie star and took a special interest in her sometimes turbulent life. Then she came to realise that she was not alone – everyone feels they own a part of icons such as Taylor.

The first time it happened was in 1983. I know the year because it was one of the rare times in my adult life when I’ve been slim. I was living in a hot country and had discovered, to my surprise, that I enjoyed exercise. When I wasn’t working in my part-time job at a vintage clothing store, I was working out in a gym or running or swimming. I lived on fruit shakes, cheap champagne and nuts. I was 26 years old. I had a tan. I had cheekbones. I wore 50s frocks with boat necks and shoes with pointy toes and my hair was cut in a sort of choppy bob.
One evening, I was sitting on the balcony of a friend’s flat, listening to the clinking of the boats in the marina below, when she turned to me and said, “Do you know who you look like?” “No,” I said, not at all sure that I wanted to hear the answer.

“Liz Taylor.”

I thought it was a cruel joke and told her so. But she insisted that she was serious.

“It’s something to do with the end of your nose – the way it tilts up – and the shape of your face,” she tried to explain.

Not long after, I was given a postcard by someone in my office. It is possible that he had a crush on me. The photograph was of Liz with a suntan, a slightly rosy nose and a spray of tiny freckles on the sides of her cheeks. Her black hair is scraped back in a pink towel tied in a turban. She is in full maquillage – eyebrows darkened, eyeliner, mascara, and salmon lip-gloss. She is 33, but looks younger. My husband pinned it on the noticeboard in our kitchen. Friends would come in and do a double take. At first they assumed that it was me. Only after peering at it quite hard did they realise that they were mistaken.

In an old diary, I keep some photographs of myself that were taken at that time. I look at them when I am feeling middle-aged and sad, to remind myself that I wasn’t always this way. But, in truth, what they show is as unreal and duplicitous as a movie still. Most of them were taken at parties, with me wearing dresses from a more glamorous era: off-the-shoulder taffeta and chiffon and satin, diamanté earrings dangling, eyes widened in surprise or half-closed, flirting with the camera. I can see, far more now than I did then, a faint resemblance to Liz – which is more to do with the retro look and the confidence of youth, which can pass for allure, than anything real.

The last time it happened, I was interviewing a don on the banks of the Cam. I was 33 – the same age as the Liz on that postcard – with a two-year-old son, and was back living in a cold country. The don was a classicist who had written a book about surfing. We sat on the grass, drinking cups of tea, eating fragile cucumber sandwiches and talking about the mythology of the waves. I remember that I was wearing inappropriate shoes – black and spiky – and large sunglasses. Later, I was told that a colleague had asked him what he was doing on the lawn with Liz Taylor. I decided to take it as a compliment. Now that I’m 42, and closer to Liz in her kaftan years, no one says that I look like her any more.

When I was eight, I saw Liz close up. My parents and I were staying in Cap Ferrat in the south of France, in a darkly lush winding road. Somerset Maugham lived in a neighbouring Gothic-looking mansion, and every time we passed it my mother would tell me that he had lived there with his male companion.

I can’t summon the names of any of the other hotels we stayed in when I was young and my parents used to travel in style. Villa de la Robia was different. There was a garden with lots of tangled undergrowth and chipped, mossy statues lurking in the gloom. I had a room to myself, which you reached from some crumbling steps that led up from the shadows of the garden. I used to lie in my bed with its odd, sausage-shaped pillow, the shutters closed, and imagine what it would be like to kiss my favourite handsome waiter.

One lunchtime, the usual placid hush in the restaurant was disturbed by the arrival of a family. Heads studiously did not swivel, but there was a sudden brightness, a subtle animated charge in the muted chatter. I can still see Liz clearly. She was wearing Capri pants and a dark headscarf. There were two teenagers with her – a boy and a girl, who were strikingly good-looking with their black hair and violet-blue eyes framed by thick eyebrows – and a rather grey, craggy man who must have been Richard Burton.

They were sitting at the next table, and my mother – who had her own movie-star glamour – was determinedly unimpressed. After lunch, over coffee on the veranda, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“My God, darling,” he replied, “she’s not a patch on you.”

Liz hasn’t had a major role in a film for years. Unlike Katharine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall, age has withered her acting career. There have been no grand matriarch roles or twilight-year romances. No Golden Ponds. And because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor celluloid, we still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past. We are constantly reminded that she is alive – if only because of her frequent brushes with death: the brain tumour three years ago, the fall the following year – but the Liz who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least weird man she knew, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. In that sense, she occupies a unique space: one in which she is both alive and dead.

There are not many actors, of either sex, who have become so iconic in their lifetime. Warhol favoured the dead over the living in his prints – JFK, Mao, Marilyn, Elvis. But he also placed Liz in this pantheon, as if acknowledging her not-of-this-world lustre, and fixed on her image, circa 1960, with the tousled hooker’s hairdo she wore in Butterfield 8.

She was always a star rather than an actress. A lot of her films were B-movies, which were somehow redeemed by her luminous sheen. It feels like I’ve always loved her, even though there’s something unconcrete and dreamlike about the way I conjure her in my imagination. She is not like other actors I admire, in that I cannot point to this or that role to illustrate precisely what it is about her that I find so appealing. She doesn’t have a set of mannerisms that help you to place her. There is no equivalent to the Clint glint or the Marilyn wiggle. But for me, it was enough that when she was in a film she had some quality that made it impossible for me to take my eyes off her. She seemed to fill the screen, eclipsing everyone around her.

I always saw her films retrospectively, and this may partly explain why I view her through a special lens. She seems always to have been there in my childhood and adolescence, although I never actively sought her out. I saw her by chance: a Sunday movie on a rainy afternoon, or late at night when I was a student, or as part of some film festival of 50s kitsch. Like most people, I have absorbed the soap opera of her life – the multiple marriages, the accidents, the illnesses, the addictions, the sojourns in the Betty Ford clinic – but, in my case, as an unwilling participant. I’d rather not know about these details, since they detract from the image of her in my mind’s eye.

I haven’t retained much of an impression of her in National Velvet, although if I blink I can see her in jodhpurs, her hair tied up with a bow, the beauty spot on her cheek – already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loved horses. I can visualise her more clearly in Jane Eyre, although she had a tiny part. She played Helen, the angelic child who befriends Jane in the orphanage and dies beautifully. I remember her dark eyes gazing out of an unearthly white face. She was, of course, too good to be true – and probably would have been better cast as one of Jane’s nasty, spoiled relatives. But I loved her satiny voice and believed in her sweetness.

The films that stand out for me are the ones in which she was a poor little rich girl. Or, sometimes, the beautiful rich bitch. They were all made between the early 50s and the mid-60s, when she was at her swooning loveliest. Watching her was like basking in the reflected glory of her shimmering youthfulness. When I look back at those films now, as a body of work, I am struck by how dark they were. There was often the suggestion of something corrupt about her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; a hint of moral decay behind the succulent peachiness. She is a siren of doom, driving the men around her to murder or self-destruction. I rather think it was this sickness behind the bloom that I liked.

There was also a frisson – a sort of fag-haggy appeal – in acknowledging the relationship between her status as a gay icon and her friendships with her leading men, who tended to be homosexual: Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun and Suddenly Last Summer; Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant. But I don’t think I would have responded to Liz so viscerally if she had been merely camp. There is a dangerous undertow to these films; a sense in which some sort of malign energy, which both emanates from her and is beyond her control, is propelling the protagonists to their downfall. Her kind of brittle shallowness can kill.

The film that sums up this quality for me is, oddly, not A Place In The Sun – in which the rich girl’s new boyfriend drowns his discarded pregnant girlfriend, which might seem to fit the bill more neatly – but Suddenly Last Summer. It still strikes me as astonishing that such an overtly homosexual theme could have been tackled on the screen as early as 1959. Here, the sickness is almost tangible. Young Liz in her white bathing suit – the fleshy bait to lure penniless young beach boys into the arms of her homosexual cousin; his harridan mother (Katharine Hepburn) in her throne-like chair on the veranda ordering a lobotomy for her hysterical niece in order to obliterate the memory of what happened on the day her son died; the ending – even now it makes me shiver to recall it: the boys who had been preyed upon by the cousin chasing him up the hill, joined by other children on the way to the top, tearing his immaculate white suit to shreds, and then his flesh.

There was a time, at the height of her stardom, when Liz’s fans – in their eagerness to steal a part of her lustre for themselves – were in danger of ripping her apart. They would grab at her hair, her mink coats, her fabulous jewels. There was something about her appeal that was as universal as the strange kinship the public felt for Princess Diana. When Liz was taken to hospital with pneumonia in 1961 and was reported as being close to death, fans pulled their cars to the side of the road and prayed for her recovery. If Liz had died then, she would have become a Marilyn or a Princess Di. Like them, she was a goddess who could pull us into her orbit. Her battle with weight, her weaknesses for a bad man and a good frock, were our own little lives writ large. You could even forgive her ostentatious displays of wealth and her excessive habits, since they so evidently did not bring her happiness. It is a peculiar quirk of fame that such an untypical woman can also, at some level, be an Everywoman.

When I started to write this piece, I was concerned that it might sound deranged to be exploring the idea that I felt a personal connection with Liz because someone once said that I bore a passing resemblance to her. I reminded myself of the old bag in a film I once saw, who thrust a photograph of Princess Diana in front of her hairdresser and announced, “I want to look like that.” But I have come across other women who also have been told that they look like Liz – and none of them looks like me. My children’s middle-aged nanny – one of the old guard in a tweed skirt and sensible shoes – used to tell me that people said she had Liz Taylor’s eyes. A former colleague, an alluring scruff with unkempt hair, was often persuaded – particularly by men who wanted to kiss them – that she had Liz Taylor’s lips. And I have the tip of her nose. Perhaps this is how we divide Liz up for ourselves, so that we all own a bit of her.

A few months ago, I was sent a postcard by an acquaintance. It is split into two halves. On one side is Liz in the pink towelling turban, the one when she was 33. On the other is Liz in the same headgear, at 60. Her eyes look as though they have been widened; her lips seem to be puffed up by silicone. Her oval face has lost its definition. I’m not sure whether any message was intended – but, anyway, she still looks wonderful to me. This won’t, however, be going on any noticeboards. That moment has passed.

Actors, Celebrities, Comedians

Of make-up, men and fantasies

THE TIMES – February 17 2000
Ginny Dougary

Eddie Izzard is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being an outstanding comedian. Despite his penchant for high heels, lipstick and dresses, women not only love him, they find him sexy, too.

“And ladies, if you are wearing high heels you will be asked to remove them.” The safety instructions on the plane coming back from Paris sounded weirder than usual. Hang on a minute, I thought, there’s something missing here. Shouldn’t that be ladies and gentlemen? This is what comes of spending 24 hours in the company of Eddie Izzard. You may not end up thinking like him – how could you? – but you do begin to see the world a little more through his eyes. Our marathon together had been scheduled to start on the Wednesday morning when Eddie, a member of the Labour Party since 1995, was to join Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe, at the Gare du Nord. The comedian is passionately pro-Europe and has lent his services to the Labour Party’s “Your Britain . . . Your Europe” roadshow.
The idea is to meet and greet the press, travel by Eurostar to Waterloo – canvassing the views of passengers en route – before heading straight back again for the third night of his show in a sometime striptease joint in La Pigalle. As it was, we had been up the previous evening talking in the hotel bar – switching from French to English to Franglais – until three in the morning. He was still on a post-performance high, although there was nothing feverish or giddy about his demeanour. In fact, he seemed impassive, even expressionless, compared with the electric ooomph of his stage persona. But then his face was so stiff with make-up that it might have been hard for him to move his features. Still, his manner was cordial, if not exactly friendly, and he was relaxed enough to pass time in idle chit-chat.

What was most startling was his Look. I had seen him on television years ago when he made a grumpy appearance on one of Ruby Wax’s shows, and more recently on Have I Got News For You?; watched one of his videos with friends; witnessed him in the flesh playing a serious role opposite Lindsay Duncan in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram; and doing his one-man show in a small off-Broadway theatre in New York, where the audience sat on cushions on the floor, and the fans backstage included Helen Mirren and her American film producer husband. Each time I saw him I thought: Wow! Isn’t he sexy! A sentiment, incidentally, that is shared by every woman I know. Straight men have a right to be puzzled by this phenomenon, since Eddie is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being funny. What he calls himself is a male lesbian; so I suppose that makes all us women gay.

For anyone who was reared on the androgynous rock of the 1970s – Bowie and Jagger et al in their make-up and girly blouses; the Transsexual Transylvania of the Rocky Horror Show – there’s nothing all that traumatic about the sight of a bloke in eyeshadow and a spot of nail polish. And there is something quite rock ‘n’ roll about Eddie, from the pounding techno that builds up the atmosphere before he careers on to the stage, to his PVC trousers and spiky peroxide hair. The style he favours – the one that suits him best, he says – is “the boy/girl-type thing.” With the vogue for perfume ads featuring crop-haired boyish-girls and girlish-boys, Eddie’s image – admittedly with a bit more slap than the norm – has a distinctively contemporary feel. This must be why, at first, I don’t recognise the slim figure who appears in the foyer of the hotel.

Odd really, because unless the hotel was hosting a transvestites’ convention, the likelihood of there being two trannies – or TVs as Eddie prefers to call them – staying at the same time was rather remote. The point was that this was Eddie as I had never seen him before: in a skirt, albeit a rather smart black Gaultier kilt, stockings, perilously high spike-heeled, knee-length boots and dated drag-queen make-up. When I told him that this, for me, was A Look Too Far, he seemed genuinely interested.

Although he has been “out” for a long time, he hasn’t had as long as the rest of us to fine-tune what works for him and what doesn’t, and so he chooses to value what people have to say rather than to take offence.

The next morning, at the Gare du Nord, Eddie is the closest he gets to looking straight. Which is still pretty out-there for most people. His maquillage is minimal: tinted moisturiser, powder and mascara. Helen, who is doing his make-up on this tour, says he has got the best skin-care routine of anyone she knows.

Inevitably, the Paris correspondents, mostly middle-aged men, confronted with the sight of sober-suited Vaz and high-heeled Izzard, go for the Odd Couple angle. Reading the reports later, I am struck by how inaccurate men are when writing about clothes and make-up. For the record, Eddie was wearing bronze nail polish on his long nails, a jaunty red and black plaid jacket, slim-cut black tuxedo pants and a black T-shirt.

Later, on the radio, when Keith Vaz is being quizzed on the complexities not of the euro, but of Eddie’s wardrobe, I am amused to hear him describe his fellow traveller’s get-up as “the kind of outfit I often see in the House of Commons”. He was, of course, being non-gender specific.

Everyone wants to hear what Eddie has to say, and poor Keith has to battle to get any attention. Eddie deals in sweeping generalities – “I like the idea of us all working together. . . if we can do it, it might mean the end of war . . . a blueprint for the rest of the world . . .” – the big vision-type thing, as he might say, leaving the Minister to cope with the boring detail which, predictably, no one is interested in.

The Minister says that Tony (Blackadder) Robinson and the chief executive of Monarch Airlines have joined Eddie Izzard as unofficial champions of Labour’s push on Europe – “the kind of people that ordinary British people relate to” – and presents the people’s transvestite with a plaque.

On the Eurostar a miked-up Eddie and Keith are accompanied by two TV crews, one from the BBC, as well as an assortment of young men from the Foreign Office – policy wonks and chaps from the press office – and me. Despite our previous night’s conversation into the early hours, Eddie has yet to show me the slightest flicker of recognition.

As we make our way down the carriages, I lob a few comments his way but he barely acknowledges them. Although I can see that he is both exhausted and focusing all his energy on the job at hand, this blanking or blocking off – a phrase he uses a lot about his survival technique when we finally get down to the interview at midnight – is rather unnerving. On one level it makes sense if one considers this interaction with the public as another performance and that he is suffering from pre-show nerves. On another, I wonder if his transvestism – and the aggro that he still gets from wearing women’s clothes – has trained him not to respond to people on the periphery of his vision. Or maybe he just doesn’t do small talk.

It’s a funny old day. When Keith Vaz asks me what I’m doing on the train, I say I’m going to interview Eddie and he says: “Eddie who?” Er, Eddie Izzard, you know, who you’re doing the roadshow with. “Ohhh,” he says, “I thought you meant Eddie George.” How new Labour to have the Governor of the Bank of England at the forefront of your mind. Eddie (Izzard) is definitely the euro star. English and French businessmen and students ask him for his autograph.

While Keith has the politician’s knack of saying a few words and moving on, Eddie can’t tear himself away. When possible, he launches into French. Since he is doing his entire Paris show en français – remarkably, since he has never got beyond O-Level standard – he probably needs all the practice he can get.

By the time we draw into Waterloo, Eddie’s face has taken on a ghastly veal-coloured pallor. We are greeted by a pesky press agency journalist who is going for the provocative angle: “Some might say that having a comedian on the roadshow speaks for itself.”

Eddie, who is a lifetime member of the European Movement, bridles: “I am a comedian, as you say, but I’m also someone who can speak my mind.”

In the sanctuary of the Eurostar press lounge, we are joined by Angela Billingham, a former Labour MEP, who says she is still spitting blood and stone after losing her seat at the recent European election. “I’m sure you’ll find it again,” Eddie says like an arrested eight-year-old. Angela chides, “You’re not too old to be smacked,” and then wonders whether she is the token woman in the room.

Angela compares her finger-nails (frosted pink) to Eddie’s muddy talons, and pronounces: “Oooo, I don’t like yours at all.” An exceedingly dapper Foreign Office man asks Eddie to sign a programme from Lenny, apologising for doing such a creepy thing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever asked for an autograph,” he confides to me. “I’m a huge fan. I’ve been to see him live four times.” Eddie does another radio interview: “I know that Europe is not a very sexy subject . . . but the things you can do in Europe are sexy . . . like travel and having sex. In fact, More Sex For Europe is the government line, I think.” We all laugh hugely.

But not everyone loves Eddie. Passing through security before re-embarkation, I am frisked by a jolly black woman who chortles at my Diana Ross joke, although she has heard that one a lot recently. Eddie totters on ahead and she turns to her male colleague and says: “Disgusting that is, and a man of that size.” There is a look of real revulsion on their faces, and as I watch them watching Eddie’s retreating form – a man in make-up and high heels who they have no idea is a star – I catch a glimpse of just how plucky he has had to be to be the way he is.

In the back room of La Boule Noire, behind a velvet curtain, Eddie is having a last-minute French lesson with his young teacher. It is hard to imagine anyone shining with the handicap of a foreign language – and after such a punishing day. He was up at 6.45 after hardly any sleep, had breakfast with various British Embassy bods, an interview on the Today programme, a rendezvous at the Senate for the 40th anniversary meeting of the Council of Europe, and that was all before we met at the Gare du Nord. But he does shine – mostly anyway, and with the help of a forgiving audience.

He wisely decides to address his transvestism straight away – saying, since we are in a notorious red-light area, that he is not “un travesti pute”, ( prostitute) but “un travesti exécutif” (puffing out his chest) and, indeed, “un travesti action”. It may not be widely known that Eddie’s alternative career possibilities were civil engineering – although the word “civil” worried him – or joining the Army.

The audience seems slightly bemused but willing to fall for him. One of the reasons why his humour travels well is that his subjects are both epic and mundane enough to cross most boundaries: supermarkets, the Royal Family, the merits of Vanessa Paradis versus those of Johnny Depp, Aristotle and Socrates, dinosaurs, the Renaissance, the fall of the British Empire, Stonehenge, and a great riff on why whales are the DJs of the ocean, all woven together in a characteristically ingenious Eddie loop. Actually, his French is pretty good and getting better every night after the day’s swotting. Nevertheless, when I ask the three women behind me what they thought of the show, they said that although it was “extraordinaire”, there were just too many mistakes to carry off the big ideas.

Back at the hotel Eddie is sitting in my room, smoking for Europe and wearing my bathrobe because I have insisted on having the window open. He is clearly running on empty and still rather down about his performance, disappointed with himself for losing it on a couple of occasions (trying to master a Welsh accent in French proved particularly troublesome). When I remind him that he said the same thing about his New York show, he says that here the fear is much greater than usual, “even though you might have ideas that are nice to play with – ‘the universe is, er, ugh, vairy beeg’ – you are talking with the command of an eight-year-old and you’re just not getting the curves on it.”

At first he mutters away, very fast and very low, with a slightly sullen expression on his face. But the more up-front I am with him, the more engaged and engaging he becomes.

I wonder whether before Eddie came out in his true fantastic colours he might have come across as a bland, rather inspid character. I have interviewed a number of transsexuals and transvestites, and when they showed me old photographs of their pre-operative or blokey selves they always looked supremely dull fellows – almost as though their public selves were an exaggeratedly toned-down counterpoint to the flamboyance of their private compulsions. What would I have made of Eddie, for instance, if I had come across him when he was studying accountancy at Sheffield University?

He says he was a slob in a camel coat who didn’t give a flying monkey’s about his appearance. “I didn’t really bother buying clothes because I felt that everything somehow looked wrong on me.” But did you always have this surreal way of thinking? “In the sense of working out what I wanted to do type-thing?” No, the way you talk. “This way now or the way I am on stage?” Well, you’re a bit like you are on stage off stage as well.

I try another tack. Would I have thought you were just an ordinary, boring boy if I had met you when you were a 17-year-old doing maths, physics and chemistry A levels?” “No,” he says. “I would have attempted to make you laugh because this comedy has developed as a social tool.”

Ah, the classic scenario then: lonely, isolated boy who finds popularity through becoming the class clown. But Eddie says it wasn’t like that at all. It was not until he went to a school where, bizarrely, they didn’t play football – a sport at which he had excelled at his previous school, where he played in the first team – that he showed any interest in becoming funny. He was never bullied, he says, because he was such a ferocious arguer: “I would do that small dog, bigger dog thing – ruffruffruffruffruff [he barks like a terrier] – and make a helluvalotta noise and the bigger dog would go ‘Well, I won’t bother with this one’,” he says in his Sean Connery accent.

By the time he got to Sheffield – choosing a northern university to escape from the South – the only thing he wanted to do was to become a comedian, but he was dismayed to discover the student union would not support him taking an act to the Edinburgh Festival. He went anyway, writing and funding the gig himself. “It was a huge psychological thing and it was a crap piece of work, but we did it.”

He dropped out of university and had a miserable 1980s, living in a “bungalow thingy” near Streatham Common with a bunch of fellow street performers, waiting to be discovered. At his second school he had begged the headmaster each year to give him a role in the Easter musical, but it was thought his talents were better employed playing the clarinet in the orchestra, and so there he remained.

Although he is still perplexed by the headmaster’s obduracy – and told him so when he revisited the school – he reckons it was useful training learning how to endure setbacks. “I got to 18, 19, 20 and said ‘OK, let’s go, I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh. I’ve been writing sketches . . . someone’s bound to discover me’ – but it just kept on not happening.”

And when it finally did happen – after he graduated from the streets, to the Comedy Store, to his own sell-out show – that was the moment Eddie chose to come out.

Some commentators have erroneously linked Eddie’s transvestism with the death of his mother when he was six, at which age he was dispatched to boarding school with his older brother. Eddie believes that his sexuality was genetically pre-ordained, and his earliest memories – as far back as the age of four – were of him wanting to wear girls’ clothes.

But his mother’s early death has certainly affected him in other ways. He describes himself as “emotionally compressed” and says he does not get too high or too low: “It’s kind of a survival thing.” The stand-up gives him the opportunity to get a lot of the highs out of his system, and he uses his serious roles (most recently as the late American comedian Lenny Bruce) to explore his anger and his lows. He has always needed his own space, physically and emotionally – long before he was famous – and lets people come to him rather than risk approaching them.

There is something so essentially detached about his presence – despite him having warmed up considerably by now – that I imagine he probably finds any kind of intimacy difficult. He says he inherited his reserve from his father, but the effect of his mother dying when he was so young was to make him emotionally stunted.

“In the scheme of things people lose entire families in concentration camps and so on but . . . I cried a lot and was caned a lot and just lost it at school, and then I got into this boy thing and couldn’t kiss my Dad anymore.”

The tears stopped abruptly at the age of 11, when he thought he had lost a fight because he cried. “So I blocked all that up and remained blocked until I was 19.”

The turning point for him was in Sheffield when he tried unsuccessfully to stop a feral cat running into the road and saw it being run over. “It had broken its back; I picked it up and it struggled to breathe and then it just died, and I felt nothing.

“So I thought ‘My God I am dead, I feel nothing. This is not good.’ I took it to the vet’s because I didn’t know what else to do, and I forced myself to cry.”

Do you still block stuff off? “Yes. There’s still a natural compressed emotional state which isn’t a great place to be, but then again I can be like this [he gestures to his appearance] and when people say negative things I’m not that bothered. It’s a good survival technique.”

In his show, while musing on the ghastliness of adolescence, Eddie had told us that he managed to lose his virginity only at 21. “Ce n’est pas cool,” he said, before affecting to change his mind. “C’est cool, mais dans un style très sad-f***er.” He has always been attracted to women and has had several long-term relationships. He used to turn up to Have I Got News for You with a girlfriend, and he is with someone now – though she does not wish to be discussed with journalists for obvious reasons.

I ask him if he is able to express himself and have rows and so on. “Oh yeah.” And are you able to say weedy things? “Weedy things?” You know, be soppy. “Oh yeah. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the kid who had been to public school – because they wouldn’t ever let themselves cry or get in touch with their emotions. So I am in touch with my emotions, although I will steel over them.

“I mean, the whole thing of coming out as transvestite is a big key to how I work. Because the – arrrgh – amount of guts it takes to come out, and what I or any person who does come out has to go through – it’s tough. And it’s so visual as a TV and you get so much flak and you look such a mess initially in the frumpy transvestite phase when you’re not out enough to say ‘I wonder what this would look like?’, which is what a normal boy or girl or man or woman would do.”

Before we get into the grittiest of the nitty-gritty about what makes a TV tick – or, at any rate this TV – I feel that something must be cleared up. At which point, may I suggest that readers of a delicate disposition STOP READING NOW – after which warning if you do cancel your subscription to The Times we will know that you have been unable to resist temptation.

Right. Now if all of us women fancy Eddie, it is likely that somewhere down the line some of us must have imagined what it would be like to be physically entwined with him. And once one goes down that route, inevitably what enters one’s mind is the penis-type thing. And so Eddie, I ask, do you use your penis penetratively? A question, incidentally, that I do not recollect ever having asked a man before, interviewee or otherwise. Perhaps being with someone who has to be brave every day of his life has an emboldening effect. And mercifully, he doesn’t bat a (smokey grey and kohl-lined) eyelid.

Yes, he says, he does, “if the other woman is into the penis but if not, fine.” I had always understood that transvestites were heterosexual men who simply had a fetish – a word Eddie dislikes, as I am to discover – for women’s clothing. Transsexuals, on the other hand, were men who felt they were a woman trapped inside the wrong body, men who loathed their maleness and saw their penis as a constant physical rebuke.

But Eddie says TVs and TSs are on exactly the same path, it is just that the latter are farther down it. Until recently he described himself as a heterosexual, but got fed up with journalists writing that he insists on calling himself hetero, as though it were a mask for his gayness (he has never attempted to go to bed with a man) and drag queens accusing him of being a liar. Male lesbian, he thinks, fits the bill and avoids any suggestion that he is distancing himself from other sexual minorities.

But does he, like transsexuals, hate his penis? “The penis is immaterial,” he says, which certainly sets him apart from the way most men view their equipment. “I don’t think it’s at all an aesthecically pleasing thing. I don’t think, ‘Heyyy, this penis, Gahhd, I’d like to put it on the mantelpiece. Isn’t it hard, I venture, to use the penis in a feminine way? “Er, yes,” he says. “So that’s probably why we don’t want penises. I’ve got breast envy.”

You’d like a bosom? “Oh yeah. Just like teenage girls or some women think ‘Oh, I wish I was bigger’. That’s exactly what’s going on with me.” Have you ever tried putting a false bosom in? “I have and I did and I do,” he says. So would you rather have a bosom than a penis? “Um. I’ve never done the either/or choice but, yeah.” I don’t understand, I say.

As Eddie is the only famous “out” transvestite in the world (he thinks, though he has heard that there might be a New Zealand politician who is also a TV) he does believe he has a mission to explain the way he is in order to promote a better understanding of less fortunate, more shamefully closeted men than himself. That is why he is always game to try out new theories and also, I sense, because he himself is still trying to grapple with the mystifying psychology of transvestism. So here, unveiled for the first time, is his new theory:

“Men – and disagree with me whenever you want – are stimulated visually. If women do the black dress, the high heels and the lippy, men go, ‘Hey! Wow!’ And it could be the same woman they haven’t paid any attention to. The woman could be a complete bimbo and have no conversation and the man could be very articulate but still – Bam! – would wish to shag. Women? Not so much. They’re stimultated more by . . .” Touch? “Touch and also personality. By a bloke who might be a curious-looking bloke. So the key points are the triggers. OK?” OK thus far.

“Now let me stay on the point because I think this is a bit of a breakthrough in explaining things. So TVs have an urge to be a woman. They’re at home and they get the clothes and the make-up right and maybe they’ll turn the lights down low so that the look is good, and they’ll say ‘Hey right, I look like a woman.’ But then this two-step effect happens. Because they get visually stimulated – like clockwork – just like all men do. They have created this sexy image that they are then attracted to.”

So it’s masturbatory? “Yes, absolutely.” So it’s “I love . . . me”? “No. It’s ‘I love that image’. What they’d prefer to do is to make love to another woman and have lesbian sex. They’d like to be a woman and make love to another woman.” Right, still with him, just about.

What I still find quite hard to understand is the clothing. In the past you have said that your desire sometimes to wear a provocative skirt rather than boring old trousers is no different from the way a woman dresses to please herself. But isn’t the relationship of the transvestite with the actual gear eroticised? And if so, this is not the way most women relate to their wardrobe. He says he has watched women, something he does a lot, and has noticed the way that they will stroke a new pair of boots and though they are obviously not getting wildly turned on, they will say ‘I love the feel of this. It makes me feel sexy.’

But it’s not the same thing, is it Eddie? He says there are no sexy men’s clothes apart from, say, a leather thong. Men’s satin dressing gowns? “You find those wildly erotic?” he says, with disbelief. “There’s nothing sensual or sexy for men. Male lingerie does not exist. Stockings do not exist. Socks are not going to get you going, ‘Hey maaan, great socks, let’s go!’

“Women have this vast variety of lingerie, stockings and tights and different patterns, and shoes, with different-sized heels, in red and black, and skirts – short, long, with slits – push-the-boob things . . . there’s so much around in women’s things that is erotic.

While men have: shirt shirt shirt jumper shirt jumper jacket jumper shirt jacket trousers trousers short trousers trousers flat shoes.”

He says that while women wearing men’s clothes confers on them a certain sort of power – and cites Marlene Dietrich as an example – men attack other men for wearing women’s clothes because it is seen as a weakness: “And it’s seen as being weak because they equate the clothing with being female, and female equals weak – which is wrong, because women have strong and weak characters, and so do men.”

I say that part of the problem with transvestism is that there is an image of shame and humiliation and solitariness, and husbands ejaculating over their wives’ clothing, and it’s not a very attractive image. “Mmm. Absolutely.” And then you come along and mix it and match it and have this very male way of being and it’s no longer seen as something pathetic. “It’s because it’s out and knitted into society,” he says thoughtfully.

I ask whether he’s aware of how many women find him attractive. “Yes, it’s off the scale,” he says. “And very sexy women, too.” He’s attracted to all sorts of women, from boyish girls to those with Marilyn Monroe curves. He thinks a lot more women would be attracted to TVs if the men were as out and calm and relaxed about themselves as he is. Also women are turned on by the fact that it takes balls – so to speak – to go out there and be himself and not give a damn. And if he’s given stick, he gives it right back – as a group of thugs discovered when they set upon him, and he not only fought them off but took them to court and won.

But he has noticed that a lot of the female fans who write him letters seem to feel compelled to explain why they are attracted to him. He compares it to women who sleep with women but insist they are not lesbians. (The same applies to men, presumably.) “So there’s denial and we’re not at the end of explaining things,” he says. “But getting the truth out of people is difficult. They’ve got so many blocks in their heads that they can’t tell themselves the truth. It’s something right at the back of the quiet mind.”

It is only towards the end of our conversation, and almost by chance, that I finally find an image for transvestism that works for me. I ask Eddie whether the erotic nature of transvestism isn’t essentially narcissistic, and he reminds me that when Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water he didn’t know that the face staring back at him was his own. And there’s the key, I think. The transvestite at his most private, most sexually engaged, is actually disengaged from himself. He looks at his femaleness from the outside, rather than feeling it from within. And if that splitting of oneself is fundamental to your make-up, it might explain why there are other areas of detachment as well.

For most of our time together, despite the emphasis on sex, there is nothing charged or erotic about the atmosphere. Quite the opposite, if anything: it is more clinical, scientific and oddly impersonal. But very occasionally, when one becomes aware of holding a gaze for a fraction longer than is necessary or when Eddie turns an intimate question back to me, it feels for a moment as though something else is going on. Perhaps it’s the dreamy lateness of the hour, the man sitting in your dressing gown, the shadow of his false eyelashes on his cheek.

At the end of the interview, Eddie says that what you need to do is to look at everybody’s fantasies and line them all up and only then can you see what is normal and what is not. “Who doesn’t have fantasies?” he asks. I don’t think I do. “Actually, I’ve heard other women say that.” Don’t have time to…

“So you don’t really have fantasies?” he asks softly. Not really. “You should get some,” he breathes. Because they’re fun? “Yeaaaahhh.”

Like I said, he’s sexy.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Elizabeth the first

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – October 10 1999
Ginny Dougary

There’s never been a film star quite like Elizabeth Taylor: the eyes, the diamonds, the men, the myth. And at 67 she still reigns supreme in despite her self-imposed celluloid exile. Ginny Dougary of The Times (London) is granted a rare audience.

The Russian taxi driver is the first to see her. “Look, there she is. OmiGod. I cannot believe it. Elizabeth Taylor! Today is my birthday. I will never forget this.” We had left behind the Great Gatsby mansions, gleaming white against the lime-green lawns, the pseudo-gothic and baronial mishmash of architectural styles favoured by the millionaires of Bel Air, and driven up a vertiginous road, all lush undergrowth and garlands of bougainvillaea, to reach Miss Taylor’s residence.

The gates open silently and almost immediately we are in a courtyard, with half a dozen cars, and an L-shaped complex of buildings which consists of a long low bungalow and a garage. My initial thought is that these are the servants’ quarters and the star must be in some whopping great palace beyond our view. But no, there she is in the doorway, a tiny figure in black, that famous face with the dark eyebrows, framed by its halo of spun white hair, white pooch at her heels, smiling and walking towards us. “Hello,” she breathes, “I’m Elizabeth.”

As if we didn’t know. This interview was the culmination of three years of letters, phone calls and faxes, during which time she had suffered numerous health set-backs, including an operation to remove a brain tumour the size of a golf ball, her hair had turned from black to white and for a while an elfin crop replaced the trademark bouffe; her long-term New York agents and management had been replaced by a firm in Los Angeles, so we had to embark on the process all over again; she had come out of a period of reclusiveness; she had won a BAFTA award for lifetime achievement; I had written an essay about her which seemed to me to be, in part, an acknowledgement that I was never going to get to meet her. And yet, here, finally, we are. Was it worth the wait? Oh, yes.

Firstly, she is still astonishingly beautiful. She fixes you with those dazzling eyes of hers and it can be quite hard to concentrate on what she is saying. She hates being called a legend or an icon – since, as she rightly says, they are labels which are usually reserved for the dead. “And I’m not dead,” she pouts. “I’m very full of life.”

But part of the undoubted frisson of sitting face to face with her is that there are very few actors of either sex who have become so shrouded with mystique as she has in their own lifetime. Unlike Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, age has withered her acting career. She hasn’t had a major film role in years, and because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor, there is a sense in which we can still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past.

We are constantly reminded that she is alive, if only because of her frequent brushes with death. But the woman who was Malcolm Forbes’s best friend, who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least-weird man she knew, who bottles her allure in a top-selling scent, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. And this is the curious excitement of being with her; that you are, at once, abruptly in the present with one of this century’s most celebrated women, but also, intermittently in your own past, as a child and an adolescent, watching the peachy Elizabeth Taylor, on the small TV screen with your parents, playing opposite Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, all of them dead. It is dreamlike, listening to her satiny voice telling stories of Bogey and Coop and Monty and Marilyn and JFK – one’s mental screen flickering with Hollywood’s ghosts.

She is a beguiling mixture of kittenish femininity and bar-room broad, with her salty language and a thrillingly vulgar laugh. She is flirtatious, conspiratorial, funny, down-to-earth with occasional, slightly worrying lapses into la la land – when she closes her eyes or looks up to the heavens, circles the air with her hands, and talks in a frankly batty way about some experience or another. Occasionally she freezes – when she doesn’t like the line of inquiry – and one is left in no doubt that the charm is underpinned by steel.

Most striking of all is her willingness to talk openly about all sorts of subjects that one might have thought were taboo. On plastic surgery: “It is an impertinent question, but I will answer it. I have had a chin tuck.” On sex: “I think it’s very important… and it’s such F-U-U-N!” delivered with a great gleeful whoop. On drinking: “Loved it. Loved it. And I loved drinking the boys (including epic topers Burton and O’Toole) under the table.” On taking recreational drugs: “I did it for a bit… oh, I had a ball being bad!” On up-keep: “I think beauty products are a bunch of… I use hand cream on my face, and always have!” Her weight: “Everybody tells me I’m fat, but I don’t care. I’m 67 years old! I have the right to do what I want to do.” On the joys of the elasticated waistband: “Baby… it’s here!” thwacking her trousers to demonstrate.

The modest facade of the bungalow masks an opulent interior. We walk through the hall past a huge portrait, circa 1951, of Liz – or Bessie, as she prefers to be known. Monty’s name for her was Bessie-Mae which she particularly liked: “I think it’s sweet and country.” Actually, she says, she cannot stand Liz. When she was a little girl, her brother used to tease the living daylights out of her, chasing her around the garden, dangling lizards in her face and calling her Lizzie the Lizard. Lizzie became Liz and it was all associated with stuff way back then and, as it happens, she doesn’t think it’s a very pretty abbreviation anyway.

Into the living room, white carpet and chairs, a wall of important Impressionist paintings, french windows opening on to a pretty terrace, which leads down to the swimming pool. The tables are laden with great rocks of amethyst and pyramids of crystal and luminous amber obelisks – a collection so vast and impressive it would not look out of place in a museum of natural history. We look at a piece of shimmering violet on the table between us, which both contains and sheds a rainbow of colour. “Michael gave that to me,” she says. “It’s a major piece of crystal. That’s what a pure diamond does. Reflects all the colours.”

Ah, Elizabeth, and her diamonds. When did you first start liking jewellery? I ask. “When I first started opening my eyes,” she says. Later Tim, who has been Taylor’s personal assistant for the past seven or eight years, takes me on a tour of the house and standing in the loo, in front of an etching of a pair of lips (To Elizabeth – a big kiss Andy Warhol) he opens a box and shows me a ring on which is mounted the biggest, purest diamond I have ever seen. Shall I try it on? I ask. “Go ahead,” he says – so I do. Fortunately, it does nothing for me.

The star’s new management had warned me that on no account should I ask Miss Taylor about her jewels, but the first thing she says when we sit down is “Do you like my earrings?” She designed them herself and is inordinately proud of her efforts, drawing attention to them several times during the interview. They are very Liz – or Bessie, as I must now think of her, which sounds plain wrong somehow (Bessie Bunter? Bessie Smith? Queen Bessie?) – dangly, large and far from understated. They look like a string of daisies weighted down by a bell, and they do most definitely suit her. I think we can safely say that the diamonds and pearls are the real thing, I jest. “My dear. Who do you think you are talking to?” she breaks into her crazy laugh. “This is white coral (pointing to the flowers). These are white diamonds (the anthers), yellow sapphires and little pearls. I love the way they swing. They feel like they’re in the breeze.”

In her speech at the BAFTA awards earlier this year, Taylor said that she had never really considered herself as an actress. Even at the height of her acting fame, when she had received Oscars for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (her favourite performance), she always maintained that she felt more like a movie star than a serious thespian. “I know I am an actress, and that I’ve been paid as an actress,” she says, “but when I listen to actors who are so taken away by the whole thing, I look at them and I think, get a life!” This is music to my ears. “Now I don’t mean to be rude,” she joins in the laughter, “but there are other things… and maybe living in Washington DC helped my perspective on that.”

After the BAFTA hoopla, there had been numerous reports that Taylor was so thrilled by the tributes that she had decided to relaunch her acting career. Her name had been linked, as they say, with Rod Steiger and various projects he supposedly had in mind for her. He’s a boy and a friend is how she describes him, and no, she squawks, she is not going to get hitched to him. In fact, after seven husbands, she is through with marriage altogether. “I am not going to marry anybody who is on the face of this earth or any other planet!” she says robustly.

As for the comeback, she seems decidedly half-hearted about it. I ask her about her rumoured role as Lady Bracknell. “The Importance of Being Earnest?” she asks. “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.” Do you want to act again or do you think you should because everyone else thinks you ought to? I ask – I can’t make it out. “I can’t quite either,” she says, truthfully. “It’ll happen when it happens. I’ll just let it flow.” The reason she gives for not making a major film for the past 20 years is that most of the scripts she has been sent have been dreck – “a good Jewish word. Let the reader figure it out”. She continues: “If I go back, I want to go back in something worthwhile – not just because it’s something to do. And the most important thing in my life is Aids.”

It is Elizabeth Taylor, more than any other celebrity, politician, activist or world leader, who was responsible for turning around public opinion towards Aids, certainly in the United States and probably beyond. Her involvement came at a time when little was known about the virus and any association with it was the social kiss of death. She wheedled, coaxed and badgered her powerful, wealthy friends to support her first big fundraising event – drawing in the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr and Frank Sinatra, and making front-page news. “Here they all were attending this dinner for Aids? What’s Aids?” she recalls. “Let’s turn on to the inside pages to find out. So it was an enormous coup and a way of letting people know what this thing was.” Since then she has raised millions of dollars for research and medical care, through her own self-funded Aids foundation as well as helping others, and she has stuck with the cause despite receiving a number of death threats. She acknowledges her position as a leader in the Aids fight, saying, “I am very proud of it, and I’ll take any flak they want to give me.”

In the early days, before anyone in the film community – including Elizabeth Taylor – knew that Rock Hudson had contracted the virus, she would be incensed by the kind of attitudes she encountered over the dinner table. “Well, it serves them bloody well right,” she affects a pompous swagger. “They should be wiped off the face of the earth and this is God’s way of doing it.”

When the news got out about Hudson, Hollywood was suddenly convulsed by the implications. “My God. It’s hit one of our own. It’s one of the family,” Taylor recalls. “And everybody loved Rock. He was one of the most enchanting, funny – ach, just so adorable. He was so cuddly and he loved to cuddle back.”

For all Taylor’s emotionalism on the subject, which is perfectly understandable to me, what impresses is her ruthless pragmatism about keeping the organisation lean and cost-efficient, so that every cent raised goes directly tothe Aids patients, whether in Nairobi or New York. Acting is only interpreting other people’s words and work, she says, but what she wants to do is make some contribution of her own. “This is not mimicking something else. It’s real tragedy. There’s no Greek chorus. We’re living it.”

It is not the first time in her life that Taylor has drawn flak from America’s Moral Majority. When she and Richard Burton became a couple, while they were both still married, there were more death threats and even attempts, she tells me, to run them off the road. “Oh yeah,” she says, “we had been evil and broken commandments. All the religious zealots came out and wanted to hang us. The Pope – who is not a religious zealot but, er,” she giggles and adopts a hokey accent, “He mighty big up there. He one of the big boys. He wrote a letter in the Vatican newspaper saying that my children should be taken away from me. Those were not easy times. I was sickened, maddened, saddened and heartbroken that those kinds of thoughts would be in people’s minds to such a degree of vehemence. Isn’t the Pope supposed to be like a descendant of Jesus? And didn’t Jesus forgive Mary Magdalene? Where is the love in that?”

I ask her whether she had a favourite husband, and her response is so theatrical I am tempted to see if the cameras are rolling. “I have had two great loves in my life. I have been doubly blessed. And I consider myself soohh lucky. Some people never find that kind of love that I’m talking of… I had it twice,” this delivered in a stage whisper. I do hope one of them was Richard Burton. “Of course… and Michael Wilding. I loved him with my life. We had 13 months together and our daughter, Eliza, was six months old when he was killed in a plane crash over the mountains of Albuquerque.” Taylor was left a widow at 26, a mother of three, with a film to finish – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

And did she consider that any of her husbands were a complete waste of time? She yodels with laughter “Yesss. But I’m not going to tell you. I’ll let you guess. I’m a gentleman.” Listening to this exchange afterwards, we sound – and not for the first time – like a couple of tipsy molls painting the town red. And yet Taylor, after years on the razzle, is now teetotal (she still indulges her taste for beer, but these days it’s non-alcoholic) and I am on the mineral water. For the most part, I get the impression that she enjoys being a bit risque and bawdy and that is why, unlike many reformed drunks, she is a lot of fun to be with.

The more cheeky the question, the better she seems to like it. She is homely rather than high-handed, without a trace of grande-damery. At one point, she offers to refill my glass of water herself, unlike most of the bigwigs I have encountered who simply yell or ring a bell for a servant. Standing up, she loses her balance, and apologises for her clumsiness, saying that since the brain surgery she has been left unsteady on her feet. Several weeks after our meeting, Taylor has another of her falls and is obliged to recuperate at the Cedars-Sinai hospital, a place with which she is so familiar that Burton once referred to it as her second home.

High on the list of dud husbands, I suspect, was the last one, Larry Fortensky (that hair!), the construction worker she met in rehab. Later when we talk about how she would still like to live with a man – “I like to cuddle and the companionship and all that, but not that blasted piece of paper” – I ask her why, in that case, she had not forgone marriage sooner. “Well, first of all, John (Warner) was running for Senate, so that explains that one. Fortensky? God only knows. His mother was dying of cancer, and she wanted us to get married so badly… and I got carried away in a moment of sentimentality.”

She suddenly breaks off and shrieks: “Shhhugggarr! You just come here to your mother!” The miniature dog, which resembles a bedraggled Slinky, comes into the room and Taylor leans down to cuddle her, making a series of mewing, infantile bleats including, stomach-turningly, “Has Sugar done a poo-poo?” You really love your dog, I say redundantly. “Oh I worship my dog,” she replies, “she’s an extension of me.” Looking at their fluffy white hair, together, I am struck by the fanciful notion that perhaps Taylor’s new hairdo has been modelled on her dog’s. Sugar is not simply a canine accessory but part of a double act – she is featured with her owner in the perfume ads, for instance, and is in Taylor’s arms at press conferences. It’s only later that I realise how rude my question sounds, but fortunately Taylor does not take it that way.

The only time she does get cranky with me is when I ask her about being beaten. I reviewed a couple of trashy biographies of Taylor some years ago, which left me with the impression that she had been physically abused by several husbands. When I raise the matter, she says, stony-faced, “Not plural. That’s all I’m going to say. I have never been beaten or abused by more than one man, and if someone out there wants to say, ‘Oh God, it must have been blah, blah, blah,’ I will say, ‘No it was not blah, blah, blah. It was Nick Hilton, who drank himself to death by the age of 33. And alcohol was a great part of this behaviour.” So you wouldn’t consider lending your support to a refuge or anything to help other battered women? “No. Because it makes me sound like a battered woman,” she replies. “I had a very unfortunate marriage and part of it was being beaten up. I’m not going to make that one of my crusades.” (It emerged in a recent American interview that Hilton had once kicked her in the stomach, causing her to have a miscarriage.

Her reluctance to discuss this period of her life may well be that it summons memories that Taylor would rather were not revived, but I think something else was going on as well. The uplifting message of our interview – and one which the star seemed keen, in an unforced way, to promote – is that despite all her adversities, the illnesses, the addictions, the tragedies and deaths, Taylor has not only survived, but in her late sixties, she is on top form. “With age, if you set your mind on the positive,” she says, “you can have more fun. You can be more in control and you can make things happen.” So let’s not spoil it all by focusing on a time when she was a victim of something out of her control.

And while we are on the subject of rejuvenescence, Taylor’s libido, she informs me, is as lively as ever. I ask her whether it’s important to her to have a good sex life and she exclaims: “Yesss. God! Yes! I have some girlfriends who are my age and they say, ‘Oh Elizabeth, (breathy dowager voice) sex isn’t important at our age.’ And I say, ‘Bull-shee-ut.’ Well, each to his own, but I have as much desire as I did in my twenties and thirties.”

She is tight-lipped about Michael Jackson presumably because they are the best of friends and perhaps something more. By which I do not mean anything romantic, although there is a framed poster of the singer, in one of the rooms, with the inscription: “To Elizabeth, my true love, yours eternally”. What they seem to share, more than anything, is a sense of communality, of being kindred spirits. I put it to her that perhaps the reason she said Jackson was the least weird man she knows is that her own upbringing was so weird.

“Oh my childhood and Michael’s childhood are so similar and so strange,” she agrees. “We had no chums our own age. I, thank God, adored horse riding and had that for my release and I loved my horse, King – the one they used in National Velvet – with a total passion. But Michael had nothing! The rest of the kids – the Jackson Five – would, um, I shouldn’t be talking…” I say that if we look at what he has done to himself – a perfectly attractive young black man who has disfigured himself in his desire to be something other than he is – well, it’s sad, at the very least, isn’t it? “It is,” she agrees. Does he see himself that way? “I can’t talk about him,” she says. “It’s not my prerogative, other than to say that there are reasons that would explain to you and the public… why he looks this way, or whatever. But it’s not my position.”

The more time I talk to Taylor, the more struck I am by the thought that she could have been a formidable force, had she been born in a different era. She has the courage of her convictions, a hatred of injustice, and the ability to apply her considerable will to get what she wants: qualities that have been amply demonstrated in her Aids work. Party politics don’t interest her, but issues do. She was an active pro-choice supporter and of the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, despite being married to a Republican senator. She says that it would be fascinating to be a politician… but being a politician’s wife was not.

“It was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had,” she recalls. “You are told what to think, when to say what you’re supposed to think, and you have no opinions of your own, supposedly. If you cut out of the cradle and blurt something out, you’re looked down on – ‘Naughty, naughty.’ Having been very verbal all my life and independent – even before it was fashionable – I found it soooh difficult to keep my mouth shut.” Did Warner ever get cross with you, if you were indiscreet? “He’d give me a look that could kill a cat,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Never anything out loud, but I could get the vibes across the room.”

Taylor was born at a time when a woman’s power tended to reside in her ability to manipulate her sexuality. She has no qualms about using a little charm or flirtation for the sake of a good cause, saying that’s it’s no more dangerous or obnoxious than taking off your bra; shorthand, one takes it, for bra-burning Women’s Lib. Then she examines her poitrine with a quizzical look and says: “Maybe if I…? Well, I did have pretty good tits in my day.” Another cackle of laughter.

As a young woman, at least into her thirties, Taylor was dismissed by her directors and fellow actors, particularly those who had come from Shakespearean backgrounds. If you were pretty, naturally, you couldn’t have any brains. “And that hurt me enormously,” she recalls. “Because I don’t think what you look like has anything to do with what you are. But I rode right over it, because I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of and all I have to do is go out there and prove it.”

She was not always blessed with this unshakeable sense of self-belief. I had imagined, partly because of the luminous sheen of her screen presence, and the precocity which goes along with being a child star, that Taylor had always been confident about her allure. So it is a surprise to hear that she was once such a passive little woman that Humphrey Bogart, no less, felt obliged to take her to task. “I’ve been watching you,” he told her. “All you do is follow Michael (Wilding) around like a puppy dog. Don’t you realise that you are your own being? You’re a very beautiful woman. And when you get up the nerve and open your mouth and make a remark, you’re a very funny woman.” Bogart insisted that she go off and sit on her own and within ten minutes, he predicted, she would be surrounded by a crowd of men. “Oh Bogey,” she said, “don’t make me do that. I’m too shy. I love listening to Michael talk.” He threatened that if she didn’t, he would never invite her round to his house again: “This is a lesson. It’s a test. Treat it that way.”

“So I got up, walked over, smoked a cigarette, smiled…” Elizabeth Taylor is performing for me “…and eventually somebody came over – a very attractive somebody – and in five minutes there were about five men around and Bogey walked by and went…” she winks at me. She would often think back on that moment with Bogey – the teacher with his pupil done up in Christian Dior – and it would make her laugh inside. She would test it out and the more it worked, the more confidence it gave her… “and all I did was just sit there.”

While we’re in the past – and they certainly did do things differently there – I ask about her relationship with Montgomery Clift. She says that although they were attracted to each other – “We would kiss and stuff” – she knew that they were not meant for each other: “I loved Monty so much, he was beautiful, and he loved me so much, but one night I looked at him – and this was before I knew what gay was or anything about closets – and I thought, my God, he should be with a man, not a woman, and I know who.” Who? I ask, of course. But, alas, she won’t say. So did you matchmake them? “Yeah, and they were together for about three years,” she says.

David Heymann, in his biography, Liz, had interviewed a man who had claimed to have slept with Taylor’s art-dealer father. But when I ask her about this, she goes mad: “Whhh-aa-a-t? My father was g-a-a-y? Bull-sh-it! I know he wasn’t. He was my father. And especially since I seem to have a sixth sense about this…” She says she didn’t read the Heymann biography, or any of the others, including Kitty Kelley’s, but that if her father had been gay, “My answer would be, yes, and that’s why I think I learnt to understand homosexual men. But it isn’t true, so don’t put something on the man that isn’t true.” And then, in a low, confidential voice: “But I know he had an affair with his girl secretary.”

She tells me about Jack Kennedy – “I went out with him when he was a young congressman and I was 17, doing A Place in the Sun. All he could talk about was politics, it was one of the more boring dinners of my life.” And Marilyn Monroe – “I adored her. I felt very protective towards her and there was no way of protecting her… she had brought this net of negativity and self-destructiveness around her that anyone could put their Machiavellian fingers through. She drank and took too many pills.” You’ve done that and survived. “But she didn’t have the grit.” And Edward and Mrs Simpson who used to entertain the Burtons on Sundays in their house in Paris. I could listen to her talk like this for hours more, but our time is up and she is flagging.

The previous day, Taylor had cancelled our interview because of an urgent dental appointment. I was not particularly convinced by the excuse, and suspected her of prima-donna malingering. But when we meet she is still suffering – she clutches her jaw every so often, and gives a ladylike moan – and I half-wondered, whenever there was the odd slurred word or glassy look, whether she might not be a little high on medication. But gone are the days, she says, when irresponsible doctors would hand out as many pills as she wanted. This lot keep her in line, and admonish: “A little pain won’t kill you.”

She signs an autograph – “It was fun!” – pecks me on the cheek, and retires for a rest. I wait in her office for a taxi, and look at all the old photographs on the walls and tables. There she is with Jack Lang, who thanks her for “un jour lumineux”, with Michael Jackson, and with Michael Caine. The years peel back, and there she is in National Velvet, her hair tied up in a bow, beauty spot on cheek, already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loves horses. On one wall, there is a safari series of her with Burton, black eyeliner and Jackie O specs on her long dark hair, him grinning craggily into the camera, the two of them cuddling up to a baby leopard. On the table, there’s a photograph of her squashed on a sofa alongside all her hippy offspring and their babies, in which she looks so young you could mistake her for one of the children. And then I see a picture of her that I am unlikely to see again – it is a recent one of Taylor sitting in her hospital bed, cuddling Sugar, with no make-up and no hair, none at all. What a woman. If there were any evidence of her lack of vanity, this is it.

I had seen her at close quarters once before. It was when I was about ten, 30 years ago, and she must have been about the same age I am now. My parents and I were staying in a hotel in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and one lunchtime Taylor and Burton and a couple of teenage children – a boy and a girl, with the same tar-black hair and lavender eyes as their mother – walked into the dining room. They sat at the next-door table and my mother, who had her own movie-star glamour, was determinedly unimpressed. Sitting on the verandah afterwards, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“Well, Dougie,” he said on cue, “She’s not a patch on you.”

I love Taylor’s old movies, particularly A Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer: the suggestion of something corrupt in her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; the hint of moral decay behind her succulent bloom. Now that both my parents are dead and a huge span of my life resides in memory, being with her in some odd way reminded me of them. Her face is different now; her features have coarsened, but she looks fresher and somehow cleaner with her freckles and minimal make-up. My friends warned me that she was bound to be a disappointment. I would discover that the goddess had feet of clay. But it was her very ordinariness, if anything, which was captivating. The idea that she would be happy to let herself go, if it weren’t for all those darned well-wishers in her entourage, constantly nagging her to dye her hair and lose weight, even to have a breast reduction to ease her back problems: “But I’m fond of my old boobs,” she said, mock-forlornly. Still, as a journalist, I know that the fan interview does not always make for the most satisfactory read. So, perhaps, it is just as well there was a sting in this tale.

When I got back to my hotel, still glowing with pleasure from the encounter, I received a phone call from Tim, the friendly assistant. He was wanting to finalise the paperwork, and wondered why I hadn’t left a particular document. “You didn’t leave it, you dog,” he said. I’m sorry? “You dog.” Well that’s not a very nice thing to say, I say, and since it was your job to deal with it, if anyone’s the “dog”, it’s you.

Dog insults out of the way – an odd way of doing business, one might think, even in Los Angeles – I take the opportunity to check on a few details. When was Taylor’s last interview published, and when is the next scheduled to appear in an American magazine? Bam! Another gratuitous swipe, along the lines that the other bunch are much more thorough and professional than The Times. “Oh, ha, ha,” I say, assuming this is some kind of off-joke. At which point, a new purring voice comes on the line: “Ginnyeee.” My hairs stand on end as I realise that Taylor has been listening to this conversation all along, quite unannounced, tacitly or explicitly egging her assistant on.

In an instant, the heroine of my imagination has become a horrid hybrid of Gloria Swanson in Hollywood Boulevard and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

It was a mistake to think we were on the same planet. Whatever Elizabeth Taylor says, she is a great actress.

Actors, Theatre

Oh, what a roguish and pleasant slave

LONDON TIMES – November 22 1992
Ginny Dougary

Kenneth Branagh appears to think he is in a comedy sketch in which the interviewer is cast as the fall guy. Our question and answer routine is like something scripted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. All the punch lines hinge on the same word. ”Isn’t it stressful”, I ask, ”directing the woman you live with?” ”Well, as Hamlet would say…” ”Can you only achieve public success at the cost of private happiness?” ”You know what really fascinates me about Hamlet is…” ”Do you take part in the showbiz circuit?” ”I’m no good at small talk. Playing Hamlet reminds you of how precious life is.” Is he taking the mickey or what?

Branagh is 31. This production, directed by Adrian Noble for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is his fourth attempt to conquer the colossal role of Hamlet. His last essay was in 1989, with Derek Jacobi as director, the same year he married Emma Thompson at Cliveden, filmed and starred in Henry V, set up his own Renaissance Theatre Company and wrote his autobiography. His critics found the breadth and prodigiousness of all this activity perfectly nauseating. To attempt so much and at such a tender age was not only impertinent, it smacked of overweening ambition and a monstrous ego. How dare the whippersnapper challenge Lord Olivier’s epic Henry V with his own celluloid version? How tedious the Ken and Em show had become: a one-note samba, the couple endlessly playing different versions of themselves in The Fortunes of War, Look Back in Anger, and on and on; he appearing in her television series, she appearing in his plays and films.

But those seeking the comfort of schadenfreude were to be disappointed. There was no fall and, even more disconcertingly, whenever Branagh submitted himself to the scrutiny of the press, there did not seem to be too much pride either. If anything, he came across as such an unassuming, nice bloke, it was a bit of a letdown. Even his fans, however, must have wondered how a 28-year-old, regardless of his achievements, could think he had been around long enough to justify writing an autobiography. His response to the cavils was that he needed the money to buy office space for his theatre company. The book illuminates Branagh’s obsession with the part of Hamlet. It was seeing Jacobi in the role at the Oxford Playhouse that sharpened the starstruck schoolboy’s appetite to act. Not many years later, he chose the play for his final performance at Rada, taking note of Tyrone Guthrie’s advice, in A Life in the Theatre, that young actors should tackle the great roles at the start of their careers, so that there would be more chance of getting them right early on. ”I wanted one day to be a great Hamlet,” Branagh writes. ”I wanted to play Hamlet as many times as possible, so that each time I played it I would get better in the role, and would get closer to the truth of the character.”

”John Gielgud said that the play describes the very process of living.” Branagh is warming to his theme as we sit in a tiny, rather squalid eyrie in south London, during one of the company’s rehearsal breaks. ”I would compare Hamlet to a great piece of music or a poem. It’s something that you respond to with your insides. And that response is a little deeper, and a little richer, as you get, perhaps, a little older.” There is something puzzling about Branagh’s delivery at this early stage of our meeting. Each phrase, regardless of its insignificance, is carefully weighed and balanced before the next is pronounced. As he speaks, he stirs the air with his hand, in a precise little movement, like someone folding a cake mix. It is as though he is parodying Alan Whicker and Fanny Cradock simultaneously. It is the very reasonableness of his tone that appears artificial.

Perhaps because we suspect that actors are never not playing a part, it seems more natural when they are arch or mock-heroic, fantastically dotty or over-the-top camp. Why bother being Mr Ordinary, after all, when you can be Peter O’Toole?

It feels churlish to quibble about an actor’s lack of theatricality when it should make a refreshing change, and particularly since Branagh is such an affable interviewee. He is effortlessly courteous springing to the door every time anyone knocks, scrabbling around on the floor to fix the wonky table so that I can write my notes and he does something with his eyes which makes one see, despite what he describes with some accuracy as his nondescript features, why he has a reputation for being a ladies’ man. It is only, however, when he drops the measured pontificating to let off steam that one senses he is being himself.

We are discussing The Wedding. Had the couple intended it to be quite such a public spectacle? ”No, no, very much the reverse,” Branagh says. But it was not exactly a quiet, understated celebration, was it? The marriage even featured in Hello!, although the magazine did not attend the ceremony. ”The wedding was not quiet because there was nothing else going on in the country at the time,” he says. ”There was absolutely I’m here to tell you no pursuit of publicity for that wedding whatsoever, may God strike me dead now. The more we said, ‘Look, we’re just havin’ a do’, the more interest there was in it. The press was overdosing on us at the time.” (Thompson makes another appearance in a recent issue of Hello!, under the teasing banner ”Caring Actress Who Hopes Her Future Family Will Share In Her Commitment”, to publicise Oxfam’s fiftieth anniversary.)

There was no question that the couple would get married in a church because of Branagh’s antipathy to conventional religion. (His parents are Irish Protestants. The family moved from Belfast to Reading when Branagh was nine years old.) He starts off languidly enough: ”I don’t like churches. Never have done. I associate them with fire and brimstone. I find them oppressive places. They are the most joyless, soulless places. I hate them. ” And suddenly he is off, in a crackle of anger: ”I really hate them. I hate all that religious stuff. I hate what the Church of England does. There’s so much hypocrisy about what God is supposed to do. I come from a province where the whole place is divided because of it. Inevitably, there’s a personal connection with it. And what’s this about the Vatican having just endorsed the death penalty the other day? Great. Thanks. That will help promote human understanding, won’t it? Let’s kill the buggers. Then we could have hung the Guildford Four, couldn’t we?”

An animated Branagh can sound like a slightly arrested, bolshy undergraduate. The ”kind of”s, ”y’know”s and expletives come so thick and fast, they are in danger of obscuring the words in between. The effect is oddly reminiscent of the character he plays in his new film, Peter’s Friends. Come to think of it, he even seems to be wearing the same clothes: grey and black, an open-necked shirt, revealing a tuft of mousy chest hair, a casual jacket.

The film (produced by, directed by, and starring Branagh) is a sort of Oxbridge version of The Big Chill: a group of friends who were at university together meet up ten years later for a weekend reunion. Since Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery and Thompson were all at Cambridge together, as well as Martin Bergman, who co-wrote the script with Rita Rudner, one can guarantee the audience will be searching for autobiographical clues.

This process of identification can prove too elliptical. Many people assume, for instance, that because of the company he keeps and his glittering career, Branagh was part of the Footlights set. In fact, he went straight to Rada, with a set of undistinguished A-level results from a Reading comprehensive. He visited one of the Oxford colleges with a girl friend from Reading, and wrote about the experience in his autobiography. ”We sat in some ancient rooms at midnight, drinking port. Our host put a violin concerto by a little-known composer on the record player. The smooth-talking undergraduate next to me turned and spoke as if the effort might kill him: ‘They’re taking this at quite a lick, aren’t they?’ I smiled and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder to the other, and thought that this definitely wasn’t the place for me.”

”One of the myths about this film”, Branagh says, ”is that we are all as thick as thieves. I’m sure that some people will say it should be called Kenny’s Friends, when in fact I have no past history with them at all. It’s Em who goes way back with them. The other thing I’d like to say is should this company the RSC be known as Adrian’s Friends because vast numbers of people work regularly in this organisation? And look at Martin Scorsese’s films. Are people annoyed because Robert de Niro has worked with him six times? And, ‘Apparently, he knows him!”’

This is said, partly I am sure, as a pre-emptive strike to ward off the inevitable question about the Ken and Em partnership. How does the power dynamic work offstage? ”Um, um, um… the bottom line is as a director I wouldn’t be employing her if I didn’t think she was a fine actress,” Branagh replies, which is not exactly an answer to my question. ”I feel very lucky to have her. She’s one of our best. She is very much her own woman. She doesn’t back down from what she would normally say as an actress in response to a director. And I don’t back down either. She’s very good at being specific. She’ll say, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean. You’ll have to tell me again.’ It’s good for the other actors because it sets the example for a certain level of communication. In all honesty, it is very professional because I’m not interested in parading my personal life in front of the people I work with. Obviously our professional life is very warm, but we have our married life, as it were, away from work.”

Branagh is as evasive as a politician when he is asked questions he prefers not to answer. The more personal the enquiry, the more general his response. This probably explains why he persistently steers the conversation back to the comparatively safe terrain of Hamlet. When I point this out, he practically chokes on his sandwich and then mumbles something unintelligible about a walnut. Sorry? ”Em sometimes calls me a walnut because that’s how unemotional I could be.” Could you elaborate, please? ”I’ve always felt that ‘You’ve got to be strong’ male stuff. My dad’s very much like that. I think it’s a very natural thing to be protective of your own emotions, so that you make an advance decision not to involve yourself as much as you might. But I’m much less like that now.”

On one of his many forays into Hamlet’s character, Branagh mentions that everyone knows what it’s like to suffer from a broken heart. So what was his experience? This is probably below the belt, since one knows that he will be far too polite to say, ”Mind your own business.” Instead, he scrunches up the discarded wrappings of his sandwich with such deliberation, that we both crack up. When I ask whether the couple plan to have children he becomes spectacularly inarticulate: ”Yeh er that would be nice, that would be nice. Er. Er. I I I. You You You hope that you’ll have them and we do. Yeh.”

I wonder, since we must talk about Hamlet, whether it’s principally the pyrotechnics of the part, the fabulous rolling arias of the speeches, that explain the pull. ”I don’t say that it’s completely without ego”, Branagh says, ”but it isn’t just about putting on the tights and being a kind of mincing luvvie. For me, the part expresses doubts and concerns about whether there is any point in being alive at all. And I believe that everybody has those doubts, however embarrassing it is to talk about them.”

Branagh proceeds to launch into one of his key speeches, which convinces me that, if nothing else, he knows his lines. ”I mean, you’ve only got to say, ‘Well, what about Somalia?’ And that’s fine because we do feel and Hamlet feels, indeed, the extraordinary pressure of world events. ‘To be or not to be…’ is full of that. ‘Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?. Th’oppressor’s wrong (Yugoslavia), the proud man’s contumely (John Major), the pangs of despis’d love (everyone’s had their heart broken), the law’s delay (Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six) and the spurnsThat patient merit of th’unworthy takes (Anyone who’s had anything to do with the government or whatever). I mean, who would do this, you know, if you could actually take a dagger and kill yourself?”

It is tempting to invest our artists with damaged psyches, to somehow believe that they are making themselves whole through their art. But this is particularly wrong-footed in the case of Branagh. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, he has none of the existential angst of the young Danish prince he loves to play. He is an optimist who is fascinated by the preoccupations of the pessimist. But he is also more reflective and inward-looking than one might imagine he has time to be. (His current schedule is fairly typical: the days in punishing rehearsals; the evenings devoted to editing his forthcoming film of Much Ado About Nothing and planning his version of Frankenstein.) Last year, Branagh and Thompson went on a four-month walking holiday, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in Ireland and Scotland. Branagh says he desperately needed a break, an unencumbered period that was not at the end of one immense project and at the beginning of another. ”One is exercised by our inability to be happy; we have very unquiet minds. It is a dangerous game with actors. You can’t pretend when it suits you to be ‘in life’. Sometimes you just have to stop.”

It is this desire for inner stillness which attracts him to eastern religions. Towards the end of the interview, when he had loosened up considerably, Branagh talked about this inward journey. ”One of the wonderful things about those people, and I am not among them, who can meditate well, is their ability to achieve that sense of being absolutely nothing. To just ‘be’ and not to have your head full of ‘Oh God, I’m late’, ‘The gas man’s coming’, ‘Oh Christ, Somalia’.” He is particularly taken with one Buddhist tract: ”There’s this grand master, 100 years old, and he’s asked to sum it all up. ‘Just be cheerful’ is what he says. It sounds glib, on one level, but it’s also delicious. It’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare does all the time.”

Branagh’s obsession with D.H.Lawrence, rather than Hamlet, may yield more clues about what drives him. He started reading Lawrence’s letters in a moment of emotional crisis, and has been hooked on the man and his work ever since. ”There’s this character from a working-class background who went away into a different kind of world, and I felt a deep connection with that. It’s very romantic to someone like me, that he achieved a great position and accomplished so much, and that he came from Nottingham. I like the idea of him being on his own when he first came to London, and suddenly being on the edges of the whole Bloomsbury caboodle. He was so single-minded about what he wanted to do. I’ve even got a bunch of books that he and Jesse Chambers had back in the early 1900s in Nottingham. I have spent some considerable time touching his signature and thinking, ‘God, I wish I had met him.”’

Olivia Manning’s phrase about the Anglo-Irish sense of ”belonging nowhere” has a special significance for Branagh. The passage in his autobiography in which he describes his transformation from a cocky Belfast lad into a solitary teenager in the English suburbs is surprisingly affecting: his mother suffering from loneliness and a loss of confidence which took years to regain; the young Branagh, surrounded by fellow pupils whose older brothers were in the army, straining to mask his Irishness at school and then suffering from guilt at home. ”For as long as I could, I kept up the double life”, he writes, ”but my voice gradually took on the twang of suburbia. However, I still sounded different, and was very careful when the subject of English casualties in Ulster came up in school.” Between the age of 12 and 15, he coped with his predicament by retreating into himself. It was through acting, a legitimate method of reinvention, that Branagh discovered a way out.

Branagh seems to be at his happiest in a culture where actors are not made a fuss of. He fell in love with Australia when he spent several months there filming an adaptation of Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush. He has used return visits in much the same way that other people go to health farms. He is similarly restored by trips to Ireland. The premieres of his three films have been in Belfast, and the Renaissance Theatre Company performs in Dublin and Belfast each year. He is recognised there, but not gaped at. ”There’s a different attitude. They’ll say ‘Hello’, or breaking into an accent ‘Very nice on the television there, ah Kevin, very good.’ In a pub in Ireland you can talk about a football match and you can talk about a poem. You can get very deep very quickly, in a way that you can’t quite over here,” he says. ”It has something to do with the unaffected knowledge and curiosity across the social classes and sexes which I like.”

Branagh’s conversation is littered with references to the way actors can get marginalised into a self-obsessed kind of ”luvvery”. Some of his best friends are actors, but he avoids the theatrical hoopla of first nights and the right restaurants. ”It’s very easy to get into a scene where your feet never touch the ground…Where you’re only ever having conversations with people who are looking over their shoulders to see if there’s anyone more interesting to talk to. Your vocabulary narrows into ‘How are you?’, ‘Good’, ‘Oh good’, ‘Lovely’, ‘It was marvellous’, ‘No, you were great’, ‘I was great’, ‘Let’s not talk about me. What did you think of my performance?’ So one tends not to do it.”

Branagh strikes me as thoroughly likable, and a good deal cuter and more larky than his bland image. He is so unpretentious, indeed almost gauche, that it is easy to forget how much he has accomplished for such a young man. At the end of the interview, a rather harassed stage manager knocks on our door for the second time. Hamlet is very definitely needed back in the rehearsal room. Branagh says: ”I’ll be right with you, darling.” And it doesn’t sound right at all.