A Walk in the Woods
These guys still know how to not just hold our attention but grab it, even if their current film needs them more than they need…
HOLLYWOOD - Out in Devil's Gulch on the back lot at Warner Brothers, where Josh Logan is making "Camelot" with the whole studio hanging over his shoulders, David Hemmings sits in his dressing room and waits. It is a good time of year for waiting, not too hot, 65 or 70, the sun falling lazily on the green hills of Hollywood. Hemmings came out here four months ago to play Mordred, King Arthur's illegitimate son, and in that space of time he has worked, oh, maybe four days. The wait has given Hemmings an opportunity to feel out Los Angeles, to shape the dimensions of this strange new world, and to grow his own wispy beard to replace the makeup man's.
During most of that time, Hemmings has had the advantage of being unknown, of being able to move unobserved. With actor Dennis Hopper, who photographed him for Vogue, he has been exploring the city for subjects to add to their projected "Los Angeles Primer" exhibition.
But now the secret is out. Michelangelo Antonioni's new film, "Blow-Up," in which Hemmings plays the lead, has been released in the United States, and the moderate fanfare that introduced it has been shamed by the frantic reception which has greeted it.
It is all the thing now to try to figure out what in hell Antonioni was up to, and at cocktail parties "Blow-Up" is analyzed scene by scene, almost shot by shot, and even the Hollywood people, even the studio PR men, are going to see it. It is a dazzling accomplishment, they agree. Rarely has color been put on film with more skill. A virtuoso performance. But, the tennis game? The whiteface clowns? The airplane propeller? Hemmings is the star of the film, and perhaps its archetype as well.
He says "Blow-Up" means what you want it to mean, which is all very well, but nobody wants it to mean anything. They want to know what Antonioni wants it to mean. Hemmings will tell you that, too. He sits on the back lot at Warner Brothers in a portable dressing room, which is wheeled around to a spot near each day's filming. The exteriors for "Camelot" were shot in Spain last year, and now Logan is back on the lot, finishing the film on vast, exquisitely detailed sets. He has not required Hemmings very much for the shooting to date, and so Hemmings has a certain amount of free time.
And Hemmings likes to talk. He is not tall, perhaps 5-7 or so, and his face looks from certain perspectives like that of a youthful Peter Ustinov. But in giving interviews he grows dynamic. He stands, frequently, and paces back and forth while making announcements in a clear, confident voice.
"Antonioni is perhaps the greatest director in the world, and certainly one of the elite few," Hemmings said.
"A lot of people think he doesn't care about actors, which is not true. He uses actors as part of his total composition, rather than simply as the subject of his camera.
"Antonioni cares about actors the way Van Gogh or Turner cares about the color yellow on his palate. He does not care that it is yellow now, he cares only about what it will be in the final work of art. And to be on Antonioni's palate is an honor."
"Blow-Up" was Hemmings' first major film, and Antonioni's first in English. Its protagonist is a fashion photographer who discovers by accident that some photos he takes in a park seem to reveal a murder.
The murder takes its place in a day during which the photographer indifferently shoots fashion models, joins in an orgy involving two girls and a roll of purple backdrop paper, just barely misses being seduced by Vanessa Redgrave, attends a pot party, and buys an airplane propeller.
"I saw it for the first time over here," Hemmings said. "When I am making a film, I never go to see the daily rushes. I think that's bad for an actor.
Besides, Antonioni wouldn't let us in. So I went to see the preview here.
"The first time, of course, I couldn't be objective I was watching my own performance. But the second and the third times I saw the film, I began to realize that Antonioni had made a great film, a masterpiece. It says in the only honest way I've ever seen in any medium exactly what kind of life we live today.
"You know," he said, "that is the sort of life we live today in London. We are all socially promiscuous. Not sexually promiscuous, socially. We are all available to whatever happens to come along. We do not exercise choice in our lives.
"And the photographer, after all, is the person who makes our whole scene, simply by recording it. The people who you think are the swinging scene and all that are really boring and apathetic.
"The life of London comes from people like Antonioni who have decided to go there and do things - the Continentals and the young Americans."
Hemmings used one hand to shake a cigarette from a package, and then stripped off the cellophane and carefully extracted a coupon.
He will be finished with "Camelot" in April, he said, but after that he has a very busy schedule right on into 1968. "I'm unhappy unless I'm working under tremendous pressure. On April 27, I go to England to do 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.' Vanessa will be in that, and Tony Richardson will direct it.
"Then I'll make 'Long Day's Dying,' and 'The Birthday Party' by Harold Pinter, and then a very interesting movie based on Anthony Burgess' novel 'A Clockwork Orange.' Terry Southern is doing the screenplay. Then 'Alfred the Great' for MGM."
In addition, Hemmings said, he is working full tilt on the "Los Angeles Primer" exhibition, and polishing up his play "The Early Morning After Love," for production on the BBC. Oh, and he is writing a stage anthology on Winston Churchill in collaboration with Sarah Churchill, although there is some difficulty at the moment over copyrights held by Randolph Churchill. And he is also continuing to paint and do magazine illustration.
Hemmings was born in Guildford, Surrey, and was singing at the Hampton Court Palace by the age of eight. He was a juvenile member of the English Opera Group and has been an actor ever since.
Antonioni saw him as DyIan Thomas, a poet he slightly resembles, in a Hampstead Theatre production of "Adventures in the Skin Trade," and cast him as the photographer in "Blow-up."
And so now, at 25, David Hemmings is the star of an immensely successful film and has been cast in "Camelot," which may be Warner Brothers' greatest success since "My Fair Lady," and then again may not. "But whatever happens, I don't want to devote myself entirely to acting," he said. "Acting is not the most important part of my life. I have other needs. Just now, I am very interested in getting around, in seeing how this generation is living.
"You take Los Angeles, now. London is supposed to be the swinging city, but Los Angeles has the opportunity to become the next great city of the world.
"What Dennis Hopper and I are going to show in our 'Los Angeles Primer' is, we hope, an exhibition of what is happening in Los Angeles. Some of the artifacts that make the city a work of art. Cheap restaurant glasses that, in a century, will be collector's items. Street signs. Buildings. And the people."
Will he and Hopper use photographs?
"Yes, where they are appropriate."
And the actual objects?
"Yes, the actual objects in some cases. And the people, too, who are the real artwork of this city." But surely you aren't going to put people in an art gallery?
Hemmings smiled enigmatically. "Just you wait and see."
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