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High life

Menace and danger

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

26 November 2005

12:00 AM

26 November 2005

12:00 AM

New York

A letter to the mother of my children from the greatest living French writer, Michel Déon, one of the 40 immortals of the French Academy, shows me to be a philistine. Michel kindly points out that Mozart’s Don Juan was inspired by a Molière play, not by a Beaumarchais one, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago while defending womanisers. I think I knew that, but I guess my mind was on Harold Pinter and the prize he got for writing unwatchable plays, and I scribbled the wrong name. Michel also writes that he doubts Marie-Laure de Noailles ever had a German lover because she was too ugly. This I find quite funny. Michel Déon obviously likes beautiful women, ergo he judges Prussian officers by his high Gallic standards. Unlike in the case of Molière, however, I’ve got an excuse for this one. I was quoting from Duff Cooper’s diaries about Marie-Laure, although it is a fact that in wartime even ugly women manage to get shagged by good-looking officers. (They say that some Prussians received iron crosses for sleeping with some very ugly Belgian women.) Just kidding, Michel.

Never mind. As someone wrote, where would Hollywood be without its snarling Germans, jackboots and Sieg Heils, and its innocent, cornfed GIs and cigar-chomping corporals à la Telly Savalas? War has been good for American movies. The trouble is only one American film-maker has ever seen combat, Sam Fuller, of The Big Red One fame. Sorry, make that two, the grotesque Oliver Stone fought in Vietnam and was awarded a bronze star. My favourite military character in films is the Panzer colonel in Battle of the Bulge, played brilliantly by the late Robert Shaw. Shaw is very blond and ramrod straight. When Conrad, his subordinate, expresses a desire to go home and see his family, Shaw sneers at his weakness. ‘It is only because of your long, faithful service that I don’t have you shot…’ Shaw’s character was based on Colonel Peiper, who under Sepp Dietrich attacked in December 1944.

Mind you, Americans make lousy war films. They always try to get a message across that war is hell, as if anyone in their right mind thinks differently. In that wonderful John Boorman movie Hope and Glory, a little boy, watching his school burning after a bomb has landed, yells, ‘Thank you, Adolf!’ — something no American director could get away with. Too unpatriotic. I didn’t think much of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, nor of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. On the other hand, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 classic Paths of Glory is a masterpiece, with Kirk Douglas giving his finest ever performance as the humane captain trying to shield his men from the callous indifference of the higher-ups in the first world war.

Why am I telling you all this? I had dinner with Matthew Modine, a very nice man and actor who has just published a book about the making of Full Metal Jacket, the classic Vietnam movie directed by Kubrick in London, of all places. The last scene, when a company of Marines attacks a warehouse where some Viet Cong are dug in, reminded me very much of Hue in the spring of 1972. Everything was rubble, mines were everywhere, and everyone was scared shitless.

Kubrick never served, but he knew what he was doing. He didn’t shove the anti-war message down your throat. The atmosphere of menace and danger was enough. And speaking of actors, who would have thought I would meet not one but two nice guys and both actors? Three weeks ago in London, I went to a party at Tramps and sat down with the Bismarcks and the Hoares. A very pretty girl across the room kept staring at me. I pointed at my white hair, meaning that she could not be looking at an old man, that she was either blind or suffering from extreme gerontophilia. But she kept looking, so I crossed the Rubicon and went up to her. Me: ‘Oh, hello, how are you…’ She: ‘What do you want?’ Me: ‘Well, I thought perhaps you’d like to come over and have a drink…’ She: ‘Are you a friend of Rob Lowe’s?’ Me: ‘Er, not really, but my friends are…’ She: ‘I only care to meet him…’ In other words she told me to bugger off.

Once back at my table, the penny dropped. Rob Lowe was sitting with us and exactly between the girl’s view and me. The pretty one was trying to catch his eye. So I told my sorry tale to the lady next to me, who, having heard me out, told me her name — Mrs Rob Lowe. He is appearing in A Few Good Men until Christmas, and not only is Rob Lowe a very good actor but he’s also a gentleman of the old school and a hell of a tennis player. Even more surprising, I am told that he’s a Republican, as rare in Hollywood as a non-name-dropping agent. Next week I will tell you all about Bill Buckley’s 80th birthday, and how for once I managed to get through a great party without passing out.

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