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
Remembrance of Things Past" is the tale that taunts Joseph
Losey, the elusive chronicle he dreams of putting before the camera.
Its the pet project upon which he and Harold Pinterhis
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 todays
market no movie mogul can muster the price of production. But if
Prousts expensive "Past" fails to materialize in
Loseys 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 thenbiff,
bam, boomthe 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. Its
early morning and shivery-cold in the Algonquin suite where hes
been deposited by Ely Landau for the purpose of promoting Landaus
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. Ill 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.
Im 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 didnt
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 Loseys face red, but he has never felt one
seconds embarrassment over his 1950 film, "The Lawless,"
a tough indictment of racial prejudice and mob violence. Hes
saddened, however, by the thought of the movies leading lady,
a pathetically vulnerable woman whose life was wasted in alcoholic
"Gail Russell had the most beautiful eyes I ever saw, except
for Elizabeth Taylors, and she was a lovely, painfully insecure
girl. She used to say to me, I never wanted to act. Im
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 couldnt get it right. She
finally came to me, shaking uncontrollably, and said, Ill
never get this scene right if you dont 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
After "The Lawless," and roughly a year and a half before
his self-imposed exile in Londonwhere Losey now lives with
his fourth wife and his 17-year-old sonhe 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 Trumbos voice for the disc jockey
whos never seen in the movie, the husband of Evelyn Keyes
who gets murdered by Van Heflin. It was our little way of protesting."
(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 figureand the society which nurtured his greedwas
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 blondea
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 dont suppose Ford could be any worse,
but I do think Rockefellerin combination with Kissingeris
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."
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 nightas were having
supper together in the grillwho 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
Hollywoods biggest names, from Elizabeth Taylor to Richard
"I succeeded in directing the first movie of the Burtons not to make
moneyBoom. Ive 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. Its
unfortunate that they have cultivated the kind of image they have.
Its just not what theyre really like. Im especially
fond of Elizabeth. Actually, theyre 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."
Loseys 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, weve always gotten along perfect
when theres a cricket scene to shoot. Harold is a big fan,
and I cant 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 didnt 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 cant 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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
theyve 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."