On Cammell’s Side

Cammell was a big fan of threesomes.

I wanted to end my backyard film series with a bang, so I picked Performance – a film that was released in 1970, but written in 1967 and shot in 1968. The film marked directorial debuts for both Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, but Roeg is the one who most people remember. Even at my screening the one person who had not only seen Performance before but said she’d seen it five times seemed to have forgotten about Cammell. Now for the surreal bit: when I went to my bookshelf to consult Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia (“The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Cinema in a Single Volume”) and David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film (“indispensable,” “revised,” “up to date” etc.) both featured generous overviews of Roeg, but not a single thing on Cammell. How is this possible?


I understand how Roeg could overshadow Cammell, especially in the seventies; the famed cinematographer-director would go on to direct Walkabout (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) – all strong, enduring, and influential arthouse staples. Then… boy, did his career take a strange path. Granted The Witches (1990) was pretty good, but has anybody seen Full Body Massage (1995) or The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (2000)? Maybe he’ll turn things around next year with Night Train, a thriller starring Sigourney Weaver and Nick Nolte.

While Roeg continues to work, Cammell’s career was cut short by a self-inflected gunshot wound in April of 1996. I’ll leave out the day because it was not a quick death and according to Wikipedia he even asked his wife for a mirror “so that he could watch himself die.” This brings us back to Performance because in this, Cammell’s directorial beginning, are clues to Cammell’s physical end. (Need I say spoilers ahead?)

Originally titled The Performers after gangster slang for lads deemed “reliable,” Cammell wrote the script based on frequent trips to London in the sixties where he became part of the bohemian “Swinging London” scene. Then, as now, it really helps to have connections, and in Cammell’s case it came in the guise of a high school friend, Ken Hyman, who had become the head of Seven Arts-Warner, and Anita Pallenberg, whom he’d met in Paris when he had a studio there and was painting (Cammell had been an art prodigy at a young age and in the ’50′s became a celebrated portrait painter).

Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg.

Anita Pallenberg and Keith Richards.

Pallenberg was vital to Performance because she helped get Mick Jagger on board and was in so many ways the embodiment of someone going out on the ultimate head-trip – she is also an uncredited writer on the film. At the time of the shoot she had broken up with Brian Jones (who Jagger based his character on) and was going out with Keith Richards. Originally, Marianne Faithful was supposed to star opposite Mick Jagger, but when she became pregnant Pallenberg stepped in. It was long rumored that Pallenberg had an affair with Jagger while shooting Performance, one that she has denied. But the following excerpt from Victor Bockris’ biography of Keith Richards refutes that:

Donald Cammell quickly saw that Keith was deeply uneasy about Anita’s role as Mick’s lover, which was as mischievous and alluring as her role with the Stones. Their costar, James Fox, who would be changed irrevocably by his involvement with Jagger, was appalled to discover Mick and Anita fucking in the dressing room three days into the shoot.

Another great quote from the Richard’s biography regarding Performance:

“Whatever you do, don’t try to play yourself,” Marianne urged Mick. “You’re much too together, too straight, too strong. You simply can’t play yourself. That would be a disaster. The character must be a combination of Brian and Keith. Mix up and combine Brian with all his torturedness, all his paranoia and his coked-up movements, and Keith with his torturedness but his cool, and put them together to make this character. You’ve got to imagine you’re poor freaked-out, deluded, androgynous, druggie Brian, but you also need a bit of Keith’s tough, self-destructive, beautiful lawlessness.”

Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger

Marianne Faithfull also put it another way: “You must become a mixture of the way Brian and Keith will be when the Stones are over, and they are alone in their fabulous houses with all the money in the world and nothing to spend it on.” Of course, Jones would never make it that far and, fortunately for Keith, the Stones keep rolling on. But when one thinks of Kurt Cobain the point is well taken. Money aside, it also applies to Cammell.

The studio had no problem putting down money for what they thought was going to be a pop film. The Beatles were huge and came out with quirky success stories like A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Surely any associations to The Rolling Stones, who were also huge, would power this oddball pic to the top. Of course, this ignores another huge thing: putting aside all those psychedelic drugs, The Beatles were cute and wholesome. The Rolling Stones were not. They were messy, always getting busted by the cops, often strung out on dope, and they hung out with a tough crowd. And that’s why they were perfect for Performance, and that’s also why the studio freaked out when it finally saw the end result – and thus shelved it for several yeas while they tried to figure out how to market it.

Chaz gets a makeover.

On the surface you have a story about a violent gangster who seeks refuge with a washed up rock star only to find his paradigms get seriously whacked around by the musician and the sexy women living with him. Put Jay Roach in charge and you’ve got an Austin Powers film. But Cammell didn’t have a track record yet so what the studios didn’t know was that Cammell had a strong appetite for avant garde films, the literature of Jorge Borges, eastern mysticism, and issues surrounding identity, authenticity, chaos, and madness.

Trust me on this: when you are making a movie about gangsters and drugs and your two male leads are literally enmeshed in the underworld and smoking dimethyltryptamine on the shoot, this is authenticity. And when Keith Richards is about to have a nervous meltdown because he thinks Jagger is shagging his girlfriend on the set, that is chaos. And when your film ends with a case of blurred identities that lead to accepting your death by gunshot only to blur yourself into that same acceptance of death by gunshot decades later, that is madness.

Often referenced as one of the key lines in Performance is the moment when Jagger tells Fox that “The only performance that makes it, that really makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.” In Cammell’s case: mission accomplished – on celluloid and in death. But when it came to pulling the trigger, he didn’t get there alone. He was helped along the way by Marlon Brando and Nu-Image – the latter precipitating the ultimate twitch of Cammell’s death nerve when they completely cut and re-edited his last film, Wild Side. Did I say it helps to have connections? Sometimes it doesn’t.

Anita Pallenberg and Donald Cammell.

If you’re still intrigued about the Brando reference or simply want to read more about Cammell I highly recommend the very informative link below, which I’ll supplement with two youtube clips for “scenes of derangement” that get a special nod. None of these excerpts are safe for viewing at work, but all of them will make you want to see more Cammell. Because even when they didn’t work, or were butchered, his films still deserved to be seen and, more importantly, they deserve to be remembered.




0 Response On Cammell’s Side
Posted By Andy Seven : August 30, 2009 1:42 pm

The DVD documentary about the making of “Performance” revealed that towards the end of production Nicolas Roeg demanded to have his name taken off the film, ironic considering his name and not Donald Cammell’s is so easily connected to it.

Posted By Andy Seven : August 30, 2009 1:42 pm

The DVD documentary about the making of “Performance” revealed that towards the end of production Nicolas Roeg demanded to have his name taken off the film, ironic considering his name and not Donald Cammell’s is so easily connected to it.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.