When critic David Ehrenstein told actor Sir Ian McKellen that there existed a photograph of actor Roddy McDowell (How Green was My Valley, Planet of the Apes) performing oral sex upon himself, the great stage and screen star's response was immediate: "Put it up on the internet!" he boomed, in the voice that breathed life in to Gandalf the Grey.
Alas, or not, the image under discussion still apparently lacks a public forum, and is as elusive as McDowell's sole film as director, Tam Lin a.k.a. The Ballad of Tam-Lin a.k.a. The Devil's Widow, starring Ava Gardner.
1970, of course, was the one year in the history of western civilization when the ability to self-fellate was alone enough to guarantee a directing career, and so it was that McDowell found himself in Scotland, filming Ian McShane (sweary Al Swearingen from TV's Deadwood) running screaming through a swamp on LSD. Based on a poem by 18th century bard Robert Burns, the film is a literally indescribable parable/love-in/horror movie/aesthetic wallow, with a supporting cast hemorrhaging with hipness. Apart from token oldsters Richard Wattis and Cyril Cusack, there's Sinead Cusack, Cyril's real-life daughter, who doesn't play his daughter here, and Stephanie Beacham, who does. With Joanna Lumley providing background beauty, this movie deserves its meaningless, obscure place in history as the film which contains both Jessica Van Helsings (Beacham in Dracula AD 1972, Lumley in The Satanic Rites of Dracula). Madeleine Smith, with her willowy frame, melony breasts and mousy voice, adds further Hammer glamor, as does Jenny Hanley, and future director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) lends his sculpted cheekbones and utter incompetence to the zany proceedings. It's a virtual "Who's That?" of British cinema.
There's also an unknown called David Whitman, styled as a perfect younger version of McDowell himself, down to the careful intonation, bowl-cut fringe and Nehru jackets. Whitman is devilishly good, and it's both a shame and a mystery that he never attained some form of fame—perhaps there was nothing really there without McDowell to animate his shadow.
At the heart of it is Ava, still great at forty-eight, with her dirty cackle and air of knowing what's going on, which puts her at an advantage over most of the cast, not to mention the audience and possibly the director. Ava is Michaela "Mickey" Cazarat, who is fabulously rich, possibly immortal, and conceivably the Faerie Queen, presiding over a house full of torpid youngsters in the Scottish borders (the distinctive Traquair House lends its turrets to the production). The girls are all sixties dolly birds, the men are either arch sensitives or rough trade. Events unfold in a curiously limpid and undramatic manner, kept afloat by the groovy fashions, attractive cast, swinging soundtrack (by Stanley Myers and The Pentangle) and the spectacular cinematography of Billy Williams.
Williams, who photographed Women in Love for Ken Russell, collaborates with his director and the landscape to serve up an arrange of stunning visuals, as in a scene where the Forth Bridge looms from the fog, reduced to a series of vertical columns diminishing into the purple haze; or a truly happening image of McShane, wearing the Orange Shades of Doom, wandering from the mansion; and a rhyming shot of Gardner drifting back towards it through a patch of rhubarb. The story appears to be on hold for weeks at a time, although I may be exaggerating, but the visuals and atmosphere of decadent, druggy dream is relentless, even stifling. Based on this example, I actually think it's a shame McDowell's directing career was still-born: he has imagination, at least.
Apart from the reliably terrible Robinson, who's on particularly lousy form here, the performances are just fine, although certain lines of dialogue defeat even the most determined players. But despite the presence of the brooding McShane, there's rarely anything to get our teeth into dramatically, since William Spier's script never lets us in on what the hell's going on, nor does it generally provide the kind of confrontation or tension we expect in a drama. (Spier was a TV writer in the fifties who seems to have disappeared for a decade before turning up as author of this curiosity—a suspicion cannot be entirely dispelled that his wilderness years were spent exploring various altered states of consciousness.) Slowly—terribly slowly—a sort of vague plot creeps in, as we learn that Michaela's lovers have a way of dying when they try to leave her. This information is imparted, delightfully enough, by effete comedy actor Richard Wattis, as "Mickey's" secretary, who keeps a scrapbook commemorating the various bloody "accidents" which have destroyed Mickey's men. "You wouldn't think, would you, that a face could spread that wide," he purrs.
This, it must be noted, is possibly the most extravagantly camp film ever attempted from within the celluloid closet. None of the characters is gay, no same-sex action is performed or even hinted at, but the entirety of the production is perfumed in Wildean fantasy, hyped up with a particularly arch form of chi-chi Gothic aestheticism, intensified to hysteria by the colored lenses and fey folk-rock of the period. McDowell prostrates himself before Ava's beauty, offering her one last femme fatale role—the ultimate belle dame sans merci (with a man's name)—before she's symbolically washed away in a flooded underground car-park in Earthquake (a Sensurround headache which might have been subtitled Twilight of the Gods). McDowell was, it should be stressed, a great lover of movies, and that shows here. His devotion to his chosen medium drowns his interest in story and drama, and he presents us with a lovingly crafted ornament, completely without function. It is, of course, a magnificent time capsule of 1970—life was really like this! When most time capsules are opened, you get a gallon of rainwater and some pulped, soggy documents. Yet McDowell's hermetically sealed fantasy still emits a nostalgic whiff of patchouli oil and at least a trace of magic.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.