From The Times May 08, 2004
Anita Pallenberg - romancing the Stones
Performance closed the 1960s with a Molotov cocktail of drugs, debauchery and death — off screen as well as one, Anita Pallenberg tells Chris Sullivan
“This film is about the perverted love affair between Homo sapiens and Lady Violence.” So read a telegram sent by the director of Performance, Donald Cammell, and his star, Mick Jagger, to the president of Warner Brothers early in 1970, attempting to convince him to release their film. “It is necessarily horrifying, paradoxical, absurd. To make such a film means accepting that the subject is loaded with every taboo in the book.”
Warners had thought that it was buying a crime caper starring the lead singer of the world’s biggest rock combo, that would capture “swinging London” and allow them to break into the coveted teen market. Instead, it received a violent, hard-nosed London gangster flick; a sado-masochistic, homoerotic, free-loving, psychotropic bag of snakes that didn’t introduce its most bankable asset (Jagger) until halfway through, and caused the wife of one of their executives to throw up at a test screening.
Performance, which is re-released this week in selected cinemas by the British Film Institute, is the twisted tale of Chas (James Fox), a smart-suited gangland heavy who falls foul of the Mob boss Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas hides out in the spooky Notting Hill townhouse of the reclusive former rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and his insatiable inamoratas — the gorgeous Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the androgynous Lucy (Michèle Breton). As Chas is sucked into Turner’s sybaritic world, he is plied with hallucinogenic mushrooms, becomes the butt of the trio’s twisted revelry and accepts the sexual advances of all three.
“Performance was Donald’s vision,” says Pallenberg now, still living in Chelsea and resplendent in a black Bella Freud pullover that proclaims “Ginsberg Is God”. “He was notoriously into threesomes, rock stars and criminal violence. He injected all of his deviant sexual fantasies into the movie.”
Cammell had been part of the Chelsea Set which was, as Nik Cohn so eloquently describes in his book Today There Are No Gentlemen: “A gaggle of public schoolboys, in search of a riot. Some of them dabbled in chicanery, some made exotic marriages, some turned homosexual.” Rumoured to be the godson of the notorious black magician Aleister Crowley, Cammell had been a painter in London but moved to Paris in the early 1960s to pursue a career in film. “That is where I met him,” says Pallenberg, who became involved in a ménage à trois with Cammell and his model girlfriend, Deborah Dixon. “He was completely star-struck and had all these mad movie scenarios, mostly about rock stars.”
When Pallenberg started her much publicised relationship with the Rolling Stone Brian Jones in 1965, Cammell was enraptured and became a frequent visitor to the court of King Brian. “I guess Turner was based on Brian,” says Pallenberg. “But it was all very superficial; Brian would ask me to do his hair and his make-up. He wanted to look like Françoise Hardy.”
If basing Turner on Jones was inspired, then recruiting Jagger to play him was a stroke of genius. After the infamous drug bust in February 1967 at Redlands, Keith Richards’s country house, both the police and the press were all over the band like a tattoo. By the time that Cammell and his co-director, Nicolas Roeg, started shooting, the mischievous singer was perceived by half the population as a glamorous, enigmatic desperado, and by the other half as the manifestation of every social evil. Having sold the movie as a Jagger vehicle, Cammell enrolled the services of Pallenberg who, as filming progressed in the late summer and autumn of 1968, found herself in the middle of a nightmare. “Donald was a real prima donna,” she recalls. “He would go into fits of rage and then disappear, while Nic Roeg would spend seven hours lighting one shot as we waited in the basement. I was often so stoned that even though I wrote my own dialogue, I didn’t know whether or not I had done my lines.”
The other problem was Keith Richards, who had saved Pallenberg from the physically abusive Jones in Tangiers in the spring of 1967, and with whom she was now living. He was scornful of the movie and jealous of her intimacy with Jagger. So, after returning home from filming, she would have to listen to Richards’s jibes, before jumping out of his bed the next morning and returning to Jagger’s four-poster.
So, how real were those sex scenes? Pallenberg now admits that they went beyond the call of duty. “But I put it down to method acting.” At one point she spent a whole week in bed with both Jagger and Breton: “There was a camera under the sheets. It was like a porno shoot.” Cammell and Roeg flanked the happy trio with a 16mm wind-up Bolex, and Roeg has said that even today he can see Cammell’s smiling face emerging from beneath the bed linen asking: “How was it for you?” Some of the footage was so explicit, however, that the film processing lab called to say that it flouted the obscenity laws and they were legally obliged to destroy it — which they did, with hammer and chisel.
Cammell, meanwhile, thrived on the friction. “Donald wanted my character to wind everyone one else up, which I was more than happy to do. I used to tease James Fox by saying that I had spiked his coffee with LSD. It was not an harmonious shoot, but that’s what Donald wanted: chaos, paranoia and grief,” recalls Pallenberg. “It was horrendous.”
The on-set shenanigans took their toll. They have been variously blamed for Fox’s rejection of acting for the next decade in favour of Christian vocational work, for Breton never performing again and for Cammell’s suicide in 1997 — he shot himself in the head, re-enacting the movie’s climax. Pallenberg is unconvinced. “James had already considered the road to Jesus when he had a breakdown and Michelle was never an actor anyway. As for Donald, he was always on the edge. But the myth is so much better.”
Rumours also abound that the actors were taking as many drugs as their on-screen counterparts. Spanish Tony, the Rolling Stones’ infamous drug dealer, claimed that both Jagger and Fox were smoking DMT between takes, a strange psychotropic drug that produces a 15-minute trip. “I didn’t see anything like that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. In those days things were a bit hush-hush,” says Pallenberg. “Spanish Tony was bringing me other things. By the completion of filming I was heavily into drugs.”
The other point of debate has been which co-director should take the greatest credit for the movie: the mercurial, doomed Cammell; or Roeg, who went on to have the more glittering career? Sanford Lieberson, the film’s producer, is emphatic that “Donald and Nic worked together in an immensely positive way. They discussed everything, and were inseparable. It was Donald’s concept. He wrote the screenplay, but the interpretation was a collaboration.”
“Nic and I had been friends for years,” said Cammell in a rare interview not long before his death. “We both read the same books, which to my mind is more important than seeing the same films.” Certainly Roeg’s dazzling use of different lenses, stocks and camera angles helped give the film its unique look. Whatever the case, their combined genius managed not only to paint an authentic portrait of London’s Bohemia, but also another 1960s archetype — the London gangster. They based Harry Flowers on Ronnie Kray, who by that time had an apartment in Chelsea and could be seen most nights mixing with the likes of Lord Boothby at the Krays’ gambling club, Esmerelda’s Barn in Wilton Place.
David Litvinoff, who was given the title of Dialogue Consultant and Technical Advisor, acted as their guide to the underworld. Marianne Faithfull described him as “a genuine mob boss”, and he was certainly a good friend of Ronnie’s. According to Christopher Gibbs, the film’s design consultant: “He didn’t have an affair with Ronnie Kray, but he used to pick up boys with him.”
It was Litvinoff’s job to help the decidedly posh Fox prepare for the role of Chas. “There was a sort of decisive moment,” said Fox. “Donald and Nic got terribly fed up with me being me. They sort of kicked me out and said: ‘Don’t come back until you’re Chas.’” Fox hung out at the gangsters’ favourite haunts and was trained in the pugilistic arts at the Thomas a Beckett pub on the Old Kent Road by Henry Cooper’s corner man, Johnny Shannon, a former heavyweight boxer who would eventually play Flowers.
“I made sure he worked the bag,” remembers Shannon. “He also did a bit of skipping and some sparring. When I first met him, he used to dress very flamboyant — floppy hats, long hair, flowery scarves, all that. I suggested to him that the “chaps” really don’t walk round like that. That was it. He wore his nice suits everywhere after that.”
Litvinoff also recruited the acting talents of John Bindon, who once bit off a man’s ear in a brawl — when he was berated by his friends, he gave it back to his lopsided adversary in a cigarette box. Bindon later killed a gangster named John Darke outside a pub in Putney. With Ronnie Kray as their model, and a gang of non-actors as the villains, Cammell and Litvinoff exhibited the distinctly homoerotic side of the capital’s underworld. “Donald was very interested in all of that,” says Pallenberg. “He was most upset when he had to cut the scene where Jagger and Fox kiss each other.”
In the autumn of 1969 the finished cut was sent to Warner Brothers. Utterly appalled, they destroyed the print and ordered the directors to Los Angeles to re-edit. Roeg, however, had to fly to Australia to make Walkabout, leaving Cammell and the experienced editor Frank Mazzola (a former LA gang member who taught James Dean how to wield a switchblade for Rebel Without a Cause) to rework the film. In trying to fulfil the studio’s brief of losing much of the sex and violence, the pair employed a series of rapid cuts that proffered less of the offending material, but which also effectively upped the tension and revolutionised for ever the art of film-making.
Released in the US in the summer of 1970, Performance was panned by the critics. Richard Schikell of Time magazine called it the “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing”. Britain, though, was more understanding. In January 1971, after a charity premiere for the drug charity Release, it was embraced by the underground press, the youth turned out in droves and it became an instant cult classic.
“The movie seems to me to be about the end of an era of hippy innocence, free love and sexual experimentation,” reflects Pallenberg. “It’s about how all these exterior forces personified by Chas came in and changed everything.” Its uncanny prescience had become only too apparent by the time of its release: Jones had by then been dead for two years; the Kray Brothers were in prison; and the murder at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont had chilled the international psyche.
Still as powerful and perplexing today as it was on release, Performance is best summed up by its succinct tagline: “This film is about madness. And sanity. Fantasy. And Reality. Death. And life. Vice. And Versa.”
Performance is out on selected release; visit www.bfi.org.uk or phone (020-7255 1444) for further details