Scotland’s Satanic Majesty
DONALD Cammell’s life reads like a blockbuster novel with lots of sex and drugs, exotic locations, pop stars and society beauties and a hero who scales dizzy heights of fame and fortune and plumbs depressing depths as his dreams collapse around him.
He belonged to one of Scotland’s great shipbuilding families and was born in the Outlook Tower next to Edinburgh Castle. He studied art in Florence with Annigoni, the Queen’s official portrait-painter, opened a successful studio in Chelsea and counted Princess Margaret among his subjects and friends.
At first glance he might have seemed a pillar of the establishment. But Cammell got bored with painting, tapped into the Sixties zeitgeist and became mentor to Mick Jagger, proffering expert advice on everything from sex to country dancing. The unlikely lads decided it would be a good idea to get into movies, and Cammell wrote and co-directed Performance, with Jagger as a reclusive pop star and James Fox as the gangster who turns up looking for somewhere to lie low.
Marlon Brando was one of Cammell’s closest friends and they spent years developing projects together. None ever made it in front of the cameras and the two fell out when Cammell started dating the schoolgirl daughter of one of Brando’s lovers. After many other disappointments, Cammell put a gun to his head and shot himself.
In the ensuing decade, Performance has regularly figured in lists of the best British films. Last year, Demon Seed, Cammell’s second film, came out on DVD, and Fan-Tan, a pirate epic on which Cammell and Brando collaborated, appeared in novel form.
Even in his native Scotland, Cammell remains a little-known figure. But that is changing and the process will be accelerated by the appearance of this biography and a retrospective at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse.
Often, an actor or director may have turned out great work, yet the details of their private lives are decidedly dull. For every Errol Flynn, there are a depressing number of actors who went straight to drama school, were dedicated to their craft and faithful to their wives. Cammell was not one of those.
He is a biographer’s dream, or nightmare. Rebecca and Sam Umland spent six years on this book, four more than they intended. A husband and wife team, they are academics at the University of Nebraska, but despite the generally scholarly tone, they admit they could not ignore Cammell’s “infamous sexual life”.
It is impossible to keep his private and professional lives apart and the multiple couplings in Performance merely reflect Cammell’s own taste and experience, though the Umlands contend that threesomes were Cammell’s own peculiar way of avoiding intimacy.
Although Performance is now regarded as a classic, Cammell’s work remains uneven and there is a feeling that he never realised his full potential. Early in the book the Umlands write: “When success was in his grasp, he repeatedly, one might even say systematically, set about to guarantee his own failure, either by abandoning a project or by setting himself at odds with his patrons. It is our view that the reasons for this deliberate artistic undercutting are not rooted in culture, but are highly idiosyncratic and personal.”
The Umlands spend considerable time on his schooldays and an unhappy period at Fort Augustus. He ran away more than once, prompting the authors to speculate on the possibility of abuse (without any evidence, other than the unauthorised absence) when homesickness seems an obvious enough motivation. A possible genesis of his strange behaviour might be found closer to home. Despite being one of the Cammells of Cammell Laird shipbuilding fame, his father Charles was no industrialist. A playboy poet, he inherited and lost much of the family fortune.
Charles Cammell wrote the biography of occultist Aleister Crowley, once described as “the wickedest man in the world”. A family friend, he was probably responsible for Cammell’s obsession with death and the occult, interests which Cammell would pass on to Jagger, and which in turn surfaced in such Rolling Stones records as ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Cammell had shown prodigious talent as an artist and his success had him rubbing shoulders with Princess Margaret, Brando and Jagger and bedding singer Eartha Kitt and actresses Barbara Steele and Jill Ireland. Cammell was romantically involved – for want of a better phrase – with Anita Pallenberg and the future Bianca Jagger before any Stone was.
He was nine years older than Jagger and exerted a Svengali-like influence on the young rock star. One of Cammell’s long-term lovers claims Jagger’s distinctive stage movements “with head defiantly erect, back arched and arms akimbo” were inspired by watching Cammell dancing Scottish jigs.
United Artists had just had a big hit with the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night and their rivals at Warner Brothers were desperate to tap into the youth market with a Rolling Stones film. Performance was the closest they got. It did not come entirely out of nowhere. Cammell wrote the scripts for two other 1968 films The Touchables and Duffy, a crime caper starring three Jameses – Coburn, Mason and Fox.
In Performance, Fox’s character arrives in a house occupied by Jagger and two live-in lovers, played by Pallenberg, at that time the girlfriend of a very jealous Keith Richards, and Michele Breton, a complete unknown Cammell had met on the beach at St Tropez. Fox finds himself drawn into some strange mind games.
Warner executives were horrified by the incendiary mix of sex and violence, and the film did not come out until 1970. A change of management and Easy Rider had underlined the full extent and profitability of the youth market.
All sorts of far-fetched stories have attached themselves to the film. Many are true. “Home movie” footage shot by Pallenberg turned up at a Dutch porn festival and full-frontal photos of Jagger were taken from it and printed in the infamous underground magazine OZ. They are reprinted in the Umland book, which is illustrated excellently, including examples of Cammell’s art.
Several of those involved in Performance had problems coming to terms with the experience. Pallenberg and Breton struggled with heroin addiction, while Fox gave up acting for a decade and sought solace in religion. It was years before Cammell was trusted with another film.
But Peformance is the halfway mark in this fascinating tale. The Umlands present a detailed picture of Cammell’s tortuous relationship with Brando – including the bust-up over girlfriend China Kong, the reconciliation and an extended sojourn in the South Seas. There are Cammell’s later years in America and many unrealised projects, including one that would have seen him working in his native Scotland with Sean Connery.
Many would say Cammell left behind him only one great movie. But he also left at least one incredible, mesmerising story – the story of his life.
Donald Cammell Season, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from tomorrow.