September in Melbourne finds me melancholy. The sun is bright but the wind is cold; the flower is out but the sadnesses of winter hold on.
It is at this time that I return to my Lamberts – three quiet, perfect books by Gavin Lambert, the English film critic who decamped to Los Angeles in the 1950s and chronicled the beautiful and the tarnished with affection equal and curious. The books are : The slide area (1959), Inside Daisy Clover (1963) and farewell people (1971). In the same way Operating time (1982) they form Lambert’s “Hollywood Quartet”.
If I am melancholy at this time, I am also psychically open. September is for tarot readings and removals. It’s during this alluring month of expectation that I’m most able to transport myself into the narrative – and there’s no place I’d rather wander than Lambert’s LA, with its talkative star children, its solitary screenwriters, its “failed mystics, its uprooted sun-worshippers”. [and] exiled from the harsh realities of another civilization.
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Inside Daisy Clover
I first came to Inside Daisy Clover. I discovered it when I was living in England, and I’m sure the moment – being abroad, feeling like a true citizen of the world – deepened my attachment to it.
But there’s also Daisy’s voice – harsh, eccentric and full of nostalgia. Daisy is a precocious, restless, teenage, “pushing fourteen” fantasy figure. She lives with her mother “The Dealer” (so called because she usually has multiple games of solitaire at the same time) in their trailer in Playa del Rey, “a cockeyed dump between two other cockeyed dumps called Hermosa Beach and Venice”.
Daisy’s hobbies include keeping an eye on her mother, moonbathing and thinking about SEX, but what she really loves is the recording booth on the old pier in Venice, “I pay my twenty-five cents […] and I go inside and face this old man with a nervous tic running the machine and I SING.
At first, Daisy blackmails her to herself, but as The Dealer becomes increasingly unhinged, she turns outward. When Daisy enters the Magnagram Studios talent show, studio boss Raymond Swan and his frosty wife Melora send up a limo.
Daisy’s social skills are sloppy. She shows up for her screen test for Little Annie Rooney wearing “a sickening little white number with too many ruffles”. She passes out during her audition, shocked by the heat and bright lights, but is somehow able to transcend the moment and blow everyone away. A star is born!
Things are moving fast. Daisy’s hated sister Gloria becomes her guardian and the merchant is placed in a sanatorium. Daisy becomes the “orphan songbird”. Production starts and it’s all work-work-work and sometimes Benzedrine. First one film, then another. Daisy has little agency and no friends other than her Magnagram “family” – the Swans, her dodgy director, a varied film crew and her literature teacher, Caroline, who calls her “a person with imagination is also a person with some degree of dementia”.
At her first company Christmas party, Daisy meets up-and-coming actor, Wade Lewis, who is older, an alcoholic, and in the closet. His preferred methods of communication are Bessie Smith records and great gestures. “Refuse to do it their way,” he says, against the Swans and the system. “Their manner is an insult to human dignity.” Daisy pursues Wade, even if it means losing everything. But in her eyes, she has already lost everything.
For much of the novel, her dream is simple – freedom – just her and Wade and the merchant in a house near the beach. It’s not until Wade abandons her after their “Hollywood” wedding that she realizes a new dream is in order. And then it is only by abandoning the cinema, the life that was built around her talent, that she finds freedom and becomes herself again.
“In America,” Lambert wrote in The Slide Area, “Illusion and reality are still often the same thing. Dream is fulfillment, fulfillment is dream.
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Hollywood at the dawn of change
Inside Daisy Clover perfectly describes a moment in time when Hollywood was about to change and the new moralities of the 1960s shunned the old ways. Lambert was there for the end of the studio system. He left dreary England to become Nicholas Rayin 1955, the protege of and pursued a long career as screenwriter, novelist and biographer.
Her friend and subject Natalie Wood plays Daisy in the film adaptation of Inside Daisy Clover — it’s funnier than I’d like, but I still get it for nothing — and Robert Redford plays the elusive Wade. Redford would not have been happy with his character being portrayed as strictly gay.
In the film, Wade simply disappears, but in the novel, he is found living with his boyfriend in Mexico; later they run a hotel in Tangier. Lambert also found himself in Tangier, leaving LA because he felt it was time: he had received a “message”. When asked if he considered himself an exile from Los Angeles, he replied, “I consider myself a period of exile.”
But I found a kind of home in his books and in his characters. It is that even if they are lost, they do not resign themselves. And because no matter what happens to them, they are always looking. Lambert’s description of the city also fits the dreamer’s schema:
something unfinished but always reshaping, changing with no basis for change […] So much visible impatience to be born, to grow, so many wild spaces to fill…
At her most lost point, Daisy Clover wonders, “What’s the point of all this?” Where will all of this end? As with most things, it ends where it begins. Or rather, it ends with a metaphor of a seashell Daisy is carrying. It rings out long after she puts it in her ear, reminding her that “the waves were always breaking elsewhere too”.
For some people, quitting, settling, accepting is like dying. There is always something there. The promise of this one is trying.