The U.K. in L.A.  

Jacqueline Bissett

Julian Sands

Theyve come a long way, baby: Cary Grant and fellow British expats... (Courtesy LACMA)

Latin lover: Morrisseys pompadour and melancholic ennui drive the cholos wild

Ian Whitcomb (Courtesy KPCC)

Bob Hope

The U.K. in L.A.
or, How to be Cary Grant


The ocean appears suddenly. You turn another hairpin bend and the land falls away and there is a long high view down Santa Monica Canyon to the pale Pacific waters. A clear day is not often. Sky and air are hazed now, diffusing the sun and dredging the ocean of its rightful blue. The Pacific is a sad blue-grey, and nearly always looks cold.

Each time I drive down here it feels like the end of the world. The geographical end. Shabby and uncared for, buildings lie around like nomads tents in the desert. There is nowhere further to go, those pale waters stretch away to the blurred horizons and stretch away beyond it. There is no more land ever.

Gavin Lambert

Those deliciously foreboding words were written by Lambert in The Slide Area, the episodic novel he penned in 1959, just a few years after arriving in Los Angeles to write screenplays for his erstwhile lover, film director Nicholas Ray. And while such sentiments would seem to suggest Lambert was about to make a quick exit, the British novelist (Inside Daisy Clover), critic (On Cukor), screenwriter (Sons and Lovers) and film historian (Norma Shearer) stayed on in L.A. until his death last year at the age of 80.

I first came upon The Slide Area in the early 1960s, when I was in high school. Years later, the deathless clich Never meet your heroes proved wrong when the man most responsible for my decision to become a writer proved generous with his time and erudition as I wrote Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 19282000. I soon learned he was this way with everyone. When the film department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art kicked off this springs retrospective tribute to Lambert with a screening of Another Sky, the only film Lambert both wrote and directed, the gathering drew such equally fabulous British expats as Barbara Steele, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York and Julian Sands, all of whom, like Lambert, have made L.A. their second home.

As anyone even casually familiar with Los Angeles history knows, the town has long been a haven and inspiration for Englishmen (and women), from the writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood to others of lesser fame but no less interest. The singer/songwriter/pop-music historian Ian Whitcomb, who first came here to produce a rock & roll album for the ineffable Mae West, even made a documentary about the U.K./L.A. phenomenon, L.A. My Hometown (1977), dealing with everyone who wasnt Christopher Isherwood or David Hockney (like Playboy photographer Suze Randall) in a brisk and cheeky style

Isherwood has since passed on, but Hockney is as omnipresent as ever, evidence the recent LACMA retrospective of his portraits a reminder of how central the city has been to Hockneys work, and how that work has come to embody the image of L.A. worldwide.

People in New York said youre mad for going there if you dont know anybody and you cant drive, Hockney writes in his autobiography My Early Years, recounting how the city lured him away from coldest, wettest England to a world of bright sunshine, blazing color and beautiful naked men.

They said, At least get to San Francisco if you want to go West, Hockney continues. And I said, No, no, its Los Angeles I want to go to. I had read John Rechys City of Night, which I thought was a marvelous picture of a certain kind of life in America. It was one of the first novels to cover that kind of sleazy, sexy hot nightlife in Pershing Square. I looked at the map and saw that Wilshire Boulevard, which begins by the sea in Santa Monica, goes all the way to Pershing Square; all you have to do is stay on that boulevard. But of course, its about eighteen miles, which I didnt realize. I started cycling. I got to Pershing Square and it was deserted; about nine in the evening, just got dark, not a soul there.

But Hockney returned at a more auspicious hour to visit the studios of Bob Mizer, whose Athletic Model Guild magazines (softcore gay erotica considered daring in the 60s, but literally on par with todays Abercrombie & Fitch catalog) had inspired such Hockney works as Domestic Scene, Beverly Hills. However, as art historian Cecile M. Whiting has noted, Its Beverly Hills, not downtown L.A. Hockney has the boys move up a class. In other words, Hockney rescued the street hustlers who were Mizers principal subjects and turned them into upright, upper-middle-class gay citizens. Or at least a better class of hustler. Its just that promise of class mobility that has always attracted the English to western shores, even as they find traces of home in their new land.

There was a program I saw recently on Hockneys newest work, says Barbara Steele, the raven-haired British beauty who first gained fame in Italy in Mario Bavas Black Sunday (playing the most imposing vampire since Christopher Lee) and Fellinis 8½ (as a delectable philosophy student) before coming to L.A. under contract to 20th Century Fox. His latest paintings have the English light. Theyre very muted, and dont have those wild Matisse colors his L.A. paintings had. Hes really gone back now. To look at him, hes an English country gentleman in tweeds with a waistcoat and an English hat. Its just fantastic how people go back to their roots. And you know, Wash comes from the same area of England as Hockney.

One of the more recent émigrés, Wash Westmoreland has quite a way to go before turning into a Town & Country squire. Quinceañera, the Sundance-awarded, critically acclaimed cinematic slice of Echo Park Latino life he co-created with his American work-and-life partner, Richard Glatzer, has its roots in the British lower-class kitchen sink realism of the 1960s. But that doesnt mean Westmoreland is pining for home.

I never thought of myself as staying here, Westmoreland says. My report back to my friends in England was that L.A. is a city without a soul. You know the feeling that you get in a great city like London or New York? Do you get that in L.A.? But when Rich and I moved to Echo Park, I finally felt this was a place with a soul where I could live. Its interesting that so many people think of coming to L.A. as coming to Hollywood, whereas for me the real interest lies everywhere else in the city. I guess Im an outsider by two degrees by being white and by being English. So when Latino people say to me that Quinceañera is true, thats the greatest compliment I could ever have.

British pop star Morrissey encountered a similar phenomenon during his own nine-year L.A. residency, when tribute bands began springing up in the Latino community (as documented by William E. Jones in his 2004 film Is It Really So Strange?), having discovered in the lower-class British dandy a kindred spirit. Morrisseys ultraemotional singing style, coupled with his look particularly his pompadour hairdo is very much in keeping with Mexican pop singing. But Mexican pop stars dont have the special edge of melancholy regret and worldly-wise ennui that drives his L.A. Latino fan base wild. As Jones film notes, tough-as-nails cholos have been known to break down sobbing at Moz concerts.

At first, being here was strange and isolating and completely spacy as far as I was concerned, recalls actress Jacqueline Bisset of her mid-60s introduction to L.A., when she was chosen to be part of Foxs new-talent program. I was very much on my own. There wasnt a soul I could call. I was living in the Beverly Hillcrest Hotel on Pico, which is now something else. There was nothing around there. I arrived at midnight. The person who had been warning me about the perils of Los Angeles promptly tried to seduce me.

A look of dark disgust briefly flashes across Bissets comely features. She has no interest in identifying this soi-disant masher, but she has a lot to say about the L.A. she first encountered in that hotel.

My room was orange. Everything was orange. Id never seen a king-size bed. The cover on it was orange. The drapes were thick and closed. And I had a little fridge in my bathroom. That was the coolest thing. I couldnt find a market anywhere. I didnt know where to go. I was on the moon. When I turned the radio on, I heard people talking about thefts and murder for very small sums of money. So I thought, I think Id better stay in the room.

Still, there was an upside.

I thoroughly enjoyed the new-talent program at Fox, says Bisset. I would see people like Henry Fonda and Raquel Welch wandering around the dining room. I must say Henry Fonda was a smashing-looking man. He gave it class. It was the end of the studio system. I said no to a contract, but I had a 10-picture deal. I didnt want to be owned by anybody. If anybody tried anything dodgy, Id just go home to England and be fine. Youre not touching my eyebrows, youre not touching my hair color, etc. It was all very defensive, but people accepted it.

Of the citys British expat community, Bisset says shes not quite connected to it: I think if Id had an English boyfriend, I would have been part of a circle here. But for many years, when Michael Sarrazin and I were a couple, I lived a very closed kind of life. I remember articles questioning why I wanted to live in sin when there was cash to be had. I remember girls asking me, Why dont you get married and get something out of it? That was a very strong attitude here getting some money off the marriage contract. It shocked me a lot.

Resembling nothing so much as a French farmhouse (My cleaning lady said theres nothing American in here except the light bulbs), Bissets Laurel Canyon residence was previously owned by Vincent Price, an Englishman who made so successful a transition to America that few think of him as being English at all. But the absolute transatlantic champion is, of course, Cary Grant, a lower-class Englishman who, thanks to Hollywood, became the embodiment of class and sophistication for the entire world.

Cary Grant! Bisset exclaims. Oh, he was so tanned he was a knockout. The English look of him was great, but he had very much a royal quality. It was something of an upper-class accent with cockney cadences. He wouldnt fit easily into England. If you put him into England, where would he fit? But then again, he could go anywhere he wanted.

And that he did.

The mention of Grants name also brings a smile to the lips of actor Michael York, who first caught moviegoers eyes as a sprightly Oxford student in Joseph Loseys Accident, achieved movie immortality as Christopher Isherwoods quasi surrogate in Cabaret and more recently has popped up as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series.

Cary was a friend of mine, says York. I forget when I met him. He used to love going to the races. I loved going with him. Not so much for the sport of kings, but to be with Cary Grant. The week he died, we were at the track, and David Hockney was there, and he [Grant] was picking our brains for jokes.

For a time, before I settled here, I was a resident of Monaco, and I got to know Princess Grace. At one of the first lunches I went to at the palace, there was Cary Grant. He came in, and as he went to say hello to my wife, Pat, he tripped and fell into her arms. Without missing a beat, he looked up and said, Theres nowhere else Id rather be.

For her part, Pat York recalls a meeting with another Anglo-American, whose status as such is rarely acknowledged: Bob Hope. I was seated next to him at dinner one night, and he told me this incredible story. He had gone back to visit his hometown, Elton. He saw a man walking down the road, and he said, Im Bob Hope, and I was born here and lived here, you know, and the man said, I know, and walked on. So he went to the house and knocked on the door, and a woman answered. He said, Im Bob Hope, and I was born in this house, and she said, Yes, I know, and slammed the door in his face.

Michael York has felt that same chill. After a time, your accent inevitably picks up overtones, he says. I remember being accosted by a London cabdriver and asked, Why are you speaking American?

Now 95 years young, director Ronald Neame got into the business by a circuitous route. I came over in 1944, he recalls. I was sent over here by [British movie mogul] J. Arthur Rank the man with the gong who was a very important gentleman, because he owned somewhere around 880 theaters. He asked me to visit all the studios and assess what we need in England to bring us up to date with Hollywood when the war was over, which we knew was going to happen

There was no question of flying over back then, Neame continues. I came on the Queen Elizabeth. It had half ordinary passengers, 800 wounded American soldiers on their way home and 800 German POWs who were on their way to prison camps in America. The reason we had the 800 POWs was, the feeling was Hitler wouldnt sink us if we had German prisoners onboard. We zigzagged across the Atlantic. Then I arrived in New York, this magical city. I cannot tell you how extraordinary it was to come out of war-torn Britain, with blackouts and shortages of everything. It was pure magic.

But Neame was on his way to L.A., where he found any number of fellow countrymen (We had a cricket team. There were a lot of people who played croquet. Ronald Coleman, I remember), along with American equipment, much needed after the war. We were a great little group of filmmakers, and we had a wonderful eight or 10 years, he says of the postwar period, during which (with the help of that U.S. equipment) he produced such David Lean classics as Great Expectations and Brief Encounter and photographed Leans film of Noel Cowards Blithe Spirit as well as Powell and Pressburgers One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. We thought it would go on forever. But then [the industry] collapsed. So then United Artists adopted me. The Horses Mouth, Scrooge, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie they were all British pictures, but the finance came from America.

And so Neame found himself, purely out of professional necessity at first, buying a home in L.A., which he still lives in today.

[Producer] Harry Saltzman came up to see me here about making a film, which was never made, and he said, What a lovely little place youve got here. Exactly the kind of place I would like, Neame says. I told him I wanted to sell it. He said, Well, look, I want to give you some advice: A few weeks ago, I went home and my wife was writing a letter. She has cancer. I said, Who are you writing to? And she said, Im writing to you. Why? Well, when I die, I want you to promise me that you wont sell this house for one year, because after that year, you may find that you want to keep it. Thats my advic

These days, Steeles name can be found everywhere from the thank you list at the end of the indie film The Fluffer to the executive-producer credits of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Its no surprise, as Steele embodies what drives so many British souls to live here: an instinctive antipathy to the social status quo, a restless intellectual energy, and a desire to explore new things, new ways and new people. And for Steele, nobody embodied that ideal better than...

Cary Grant. He was the best-pressed suit you ever saw. I have several letters from him, and the signature is divine because its one of those iconic signatures like Picasso had or the Coca-Cola logo: Cary! I met him a thousand years ago in London. There was an article about me in Life magazine because of a movie I was in for about 30 seconds. He wanted to put me in a film with him. He put a bid in on my contract. It was really strange because at the time, I had never seen a Cary Grant movie. My mother was thrilled. He was fabulous. He sent his car around this cream-and-brown Rolls from the Savoy came to my parents house in London, with this ravishing-looking chauffeur. Id get in and spend the day with Cary. He took me everywhere. I met everyone with him. Playing charades with Tennessee Williams. We just had this fantastic time.

No, I didnt have an affair with Cary Grant, Steele says, answering a question I would never have dared to ask. But he was the movie star. I remember having dinner with him at the Savoy and somebody trotting over to him and saying, So sorry, Mr. Grant, and having an autograph book all ready, and he said, Im sorry too.

Despite her fond memories of London, Steele says shed never move back. Europe gets further away every year, she muses. We [Brits] have this rapturous life here, which is like an insane drug, an incredible mistress. But its so much better here now than when I first came. Its much more global. And its timeless. Theres not a deep sense of time. It just sort of glides along and you dont have a sense of urgency. Maybe thats why the most difficult journey you can make is from here to the airport.

I dont know what it is about this town, she says, with a deep, rich chuckle. Were all trapped in its golden arms!

LA Weekly: The U.K. in L.A.

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