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JOSEPH LOSEY'S REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST--FROM HOWARD HUGHES TO THE F.B.I.

By the time I interviewed him in 1975 for The Los Angeles Times, Joseph Losey had been through it all--including Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, Burton and Taylor, and J. Edgar Hoover--but he was still here. When you read his "It can happen again" prediction at the end of this article, you may feel Joseph Losey is still very much here. --GUY FLATLEY

"The Remembrance of Things Past" is the tale that taunts Joseph Losey, the elusive chronicle he dreams of putting before the camera. It’s the pet project upon which he and Harold Pinter—his collaborator on such memorably unnerving mixtures of mood and menace as "The Servant," "Accident" and "The Go-Between"—have labored long and lovingly, only to discover that in today’s market no movie mogul can muster the price of production. But if Proust’s expensive "Past" fails to materialize in Losey’s future, the expatriate American director might well consider the cinematic possibilities of his own past.

He could rummage through memories of a cozily Wasp boyhood in Wisconsin, the smugly serene days of choirboy practice, prayers and patriotic pleasures; the intellectual dawning at Dartmouth, the expanding of cultural horizons at Harvard; the tumultuous time of social protest in the New York theater; a soul-stirring sojourn in the Soviet Union, mingling with the proletariat and paying homage to Sergei Eisenstein; a parade of passionate love affairs and marriages and divorces; a budding career as a hotshot Hollywood director. And then—biff, bam, boom—the red scare, the witch hunt, the blacklist.

A painful past, in many respects, and Losey, now 66 and silver-haired, remembers it with a gently cynical smile. It’s early morning and shivery-cold in the Algonquin suite where he’s been deposited by Ely Landau for the purpose of promoting Landau’s American Film Theater version of "Galileo" (at right, with Topol in the title role), the Bertolt Brecht parable of cowardice under pressure which Losey, after many abortive attempts, has finally succeeded in capturing on celluloid. Munching bacon strips and sipping coffee and possibly feeling a bit hung-over, Losey traces his obsession with making a movie of "Galileo" back to 1947, the year he and Brecht, whom he had met earlier in Moscow, staged the play in Hollywood with Charles Laughton as the anguished astronomer who recants his teachings rather than submit to churchly torture.

"I adored Brecht," says Losey. "He had a marvelous sense of humor, and he was a strict disciplinarian with everyone, including himself. He was vain and arrogant and absolutely sure of his own genius. He ate very little, drank very little and fornicated a great deal. He was an eccentric looking man, with very piercing eyes and a high-pitched giggle. He always wore denim clothing but tailored denim, very elegant. And his cigar was so foul that a kind of stench preceded him wherever he went.

"We had rows. I once threw the script of ‘Galileo’ at him and said I was quitting. I went home and did some gardening and then the phone rang. It was Charles Laughton saying, ‘Please come back.’ ‘I will,’ I said, ‘if Brecht apologizes to me.’ Laughton hung up and after a while he called back saying, ‘Brecht says please come back and he also says you should know Brecht never apologizes.’ I went back and nothing more was ever said about the row."

One of the reasons Losey had found time to mount "Galileo" in Hollywood, and a year later on Broadway, was that his movie career had hit a snag named Howard Hughes. "Dore Schary, the head of RKO, wanted me to sign a seven-year contract, but I was afraid of getting trapped. ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘I’ll be here to protect you.’" So Losey signed, Schary got the sack, and a studio-full of people stood atremble at the thought of having been left at the uncertain mercy of the mysterious Howard Hughes.

"Hughes never came to the studio, but I used to get messages from him every morning, pieces of yellow paper with scribbled notes. I’m afraid I threw them all out, since I had no idea that they might one day be of historical significance. There were those who did get to see him, though. Nick Ray would sometimes be summoned in the middle of the night. But the only time I saw him was the day he splattered all over Beverly Hills in that plane he designed."

Losey got scribbled notes from Hughes, but movies he didn’t get. "There was already an anti-Communist crusade going on in Hollywood, and Hughes had this script called ‘I Married a Communist’ which he offered to directors as a test of their patriotism. Thirteen directors turned it down before it finally got made, but I happened to be the first. The only movie I directed at RKO was ‘The Boy With Green Hair,’ and I did that before Schary left the lot."

Mere mention of the stickily sincere "Boy With Green Hair," a 1948 anti-war fantasy featuring a poignantly orphaned Dean Stockwell, is enough to turn Losey’s face red, but he has never felt one second’s embarrassment over his 1950 film, "The Lawless," a tough indictment of racial prejudice and mob violence. He’s saddened, however, by the thought of the movie’s leading lady, a pathetically vulnerable woman whose life was wasted in alcoholic suicide.

"Gail Russell had the most beautiful eyes I ever saw, except for Elizabeth Taylor’s, and she was a lovely, painfully insecure girl. She used to say to me, ‘I never wanted to act. I’m absolutely terrified of acting.’ The fact was that she simply could not work without alcohol. The studio gave me strict orders not to let her near a drink, and we had to keep doing the very first scene over and over because Gail couldn’t get it right. She finally came to me, shaking uncontrollably, and said, ‘I’ll never get this scene right if you don’t get me a drink.’ So I got her a drink. Gail was a very sweet, sad girl, and she never did any harm to anyone. Everything was done to her. I deeply regret her death."

After "The Lawless," and roughly a year and a half before his self-imposed exile in London—where Losey now lives with his fourth wife and his 17-year-old son—he directed "The Prowler," considered by many critics to be his finest Hollywood film. The blistering screenplay was written, in secret, by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo shortly before he began his prison sentence for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. "As a sort of joke, we used Trumbo’s voice for the disc jockey who’s never seen in the movie, the husband of Evelyn Keyes who gets murdered by Van Heflin. It was our little way of protesting."

Heflin (at left, with Evelyn Keyes) played a corrupt cop in "The Prowler," and some patriots voiced the opinion that this lacerating portrait of an authority figure—and the society which nurtured his greed—was unduly savage. "We consciously set out to make a film about the inculcation of false values. We had the cop say, ‘All you need is a hundred thousand bucks, a Cadillac and a blonde’—a philosophy which I would say anticipated the present dilemma in this country, the belief that it makes no difference how you make it so long as you make it."

But surely, Losey must have breathed a deep sigh of relief when Richard Nixon, a man well remembered from days of Red-scare hysteria, walked out of the White House?

"I was absolutely delighted, but I must say that his resignation was a long time coming. I don’t suppose Ford could be any worse, but I do think Rockefeller—in combination with Kissinger—is dangerous."

Joseph Losey and Nelson Rockefeller are not total strangers. "I was a classmate of his at Dartmouth. I recall him as a very handsome kid, one who belonged to the best fraternity, and I can still remember his family coming to visit him in a spectacularly huge green Pierce Arrow. Not too long ago, I wrote to him, trying to interest him in my plan to film ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ and I got a letter back from him saying, ‘I am so pleased with your many successes, so very proud of you. But you must realize that a man in my position has his priorities.’ It was the most pompous thing I ever read."

While he may never be able to raise the loot for the Proust project, Losey does command a pretty penny for his directorial services these days. Certainly much more than the peanuts he was forced to toil for when he fled from America. At one point, he was hired to work anonymously on a psychological thriller called "The Sleeping Tiger," in which Alexis Smith, as a sexually tense married woman, surrenders herself to a cad played by Dirk Bogarde.

"Poor Alexis had a rough time, and I have nothing but admiration for the courageous way in which she handled herself. It was the height of the blacklist and the producers did not have the decency to tell her what she was getting into. Alexis was scared silly, but she refused to back out of the picture. We were both staying in an English country inn, and one night—as we’re having supper together in the grill—who should walk in but Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers! I left the inn the next day."

The witch hunt waned, Losey received screen credit again and went on to surpass his Hollywood achievements. He is now midway through "The Romantic Englishwoman," a harshly comic dissection of a bourgeois marriage written by Tom Stoppard and starring Micahel Caine and Glenda Jackson, and his services are sought by some of Hollywood’s biggest names, from Elizabeth Taylor to Richard Burton.

"I succeeded in directing the first movie of the Burtons not to make money—‘Boom.’ I’ve enjoyed working with them, though there is no doubt that their star behavior is sometimes tiresome and disgusting. Yet they have behaved very well with me. It’s unfortunate that they have cultivated the kind of image they have. It’s just not what they’re really like. I’m especially fond of Elizabeth. Actually, they’re better separate than together. I was quite pleased with Elizabeth in ‘Secret Ceremony’ (above), and I think I had success with Richard in ‘Trotsky,’ too. And I assume that if I work with them again, it will be separately."

Losey’s most challenging films are undoubtedly the darkly ambiguous studies of class conflict, sexual warfare and smothering domesticity he has turned out with Harold Pinter. Oddly enough, the two had trouble entering into the team spirit of things.

"Harold and I had a long, long night of heavy drinking before the start of ‘The Servant,’ and we simply were not getting along. Finally, we agreed to part company at dawn and to come back together later in the day to see where we stood. Luckily, it worked out fine and since then, we’ve always gotten along perfect…except when there’s a cricket scene to shoot. Harold is a big fan, and I can’t stand the bloody game. Still, I think I can play I better than he can."

It was "The Servant" that brought Losey back to his native land, when it was selected to play the first New York Film Festival in 1963. "I returned to this country with a certain amount of trepidation. After all, I had been gone for 13 years and now had a family in England, so I certainly didn’t want to be detained here. When I got off the plane, I felt very strange. I was given the VIP treatment and the customs man thought I must be somebody very special. ‘Welcome to the home of brave and the land of the free,’ he said. ‘You must be kidding,’ I answered."

In the not-so-free ‘50s, had Losey in fact refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities committee?

"No. I was named by the committee when I was in Italy making ‘Stranger on the Prowl,’ with Paul Muni. It was announced that they had a subpoena for me, but I was in no hurry to rush back and pick it up."

Who could have turned his name in to the committee?

"Charles Laughton turned my name in to the FBI. He went to them and denounced Brecht and me."

But why would Laughton do such a thing?

"Why did anybody talk to the FBI? To save their own necks. Laughton was a naturalized American, so maybe they threatened to have his citizenship revoked. He never pretended to be a brave man, so we can’t condemn him for being a coward. But we can condemn him for being dishonest. In his authorized biography, he claimed that he had been duped by Brecht and me. That wasn’t true. He always knew where we stood. I was furious and horrified when I read that book.

"Laughton sometimes rather scathingly referred to me as his conscience, something he insisted he didn’t need. He had a schizophrenic character, definitely a Jekyll and Hyde from one day to the next. I never saw him again, though somebody I know told me that he died with great courage. He had been a Catholic and once, when we were doing ‘Galileo,’ he had gone back to the church and had made a confession. He said it helped him in playing his role. But when he died, he did not take refuge in religion, and he died a horrible death by cancer of the spine. Obviously, there are contradictions in man, which is what ‘Galileo’ is all about."

Will the time come again when Americans of seeming integrity are reduced by fear to playing the role of informer?

"I hear that the House Un-American Activities committee is being disbanded," Losey says, but there is no smile of triumph on his weathered face. "They claim they will destroy the records they’ve kept on 750,000 citizens. But I doubt it. I suspect the reason they are disbanding the committee is so that they can set up another one, one which has not been so thoroughly discredited. I think it can happen again."