Genius Jack

Genius Jack

by Thomas Wiseman


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For Jack Strawley, success came easy. From the start he was “Genius Jack,” cinema’s new golden boy. Even blessed with a beautiful wife, brilliant assistants, and an uncompromising flair for film making, the “genius” tag prove to be a burden. Women, pills and drink begin to take their toll and cracks appear in his fragile psyche.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780714530413
Publisher: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd
Publication date: 07/01/2000
Pages: 442
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

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Chapter One

The enthusiasms of one's youth can be dangerous. In later years I was to wonder if I had done Jack Strawley actual harm by my rash, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, coupling of the epithet 'genius' with his name. For I started a snowball rolling that was to grow to unjustifiable proportions, as almost everything does in the movie business, and in the long run the tag — and the role — 'Genius Jack' (which not I but the popular press bestowed upon him) did not allow him a tranquil life. But then Jack Strawley wasn't cut out for tranquility. I remember him saying with eerie prescience, when he was getting all that acclamation for his first film: 'Once you've been called a genius, what else can they call you, except a fake genius?'

    It has been said that as a journalist, biographer and memoirist I have been overly attracted to birds of the brightest plumage. It is a charge to which I plead guilty. To trace giant footsteps, where they have come from, where they are going, has been for me a passionate pursuit, as well as a livelihood. Which may explain why I was trudging through the snow-bound streets of New York, in the winter of '88 — no cabs to be found, wind howling about my ears — in response to a phone call out of the blue (yes, that was the way things happened with Jack in life as well) from a girl called Alice, saying that Jack wanted to see me urgently.

    The address that I had been given turned out to be an industrial building in Lower Manhattan, with a handsome façade from which quite a lot of the decorative fake French and Italian Rennaissancemotifs had fallen off in the course of time. The immediate vicinity was uncertainly poised between seediness and chic. There was an art gallery in the former loading bay of the building next door. On the corner there was a car park. Some of the buildings were still in use as warehouses, and there were big trucks drawn up along the kerb. It was a far remove from his former house in London's Carlyle Square. On a vertical panel of door bells I saw one marked 'film shoot' and pressed it, and when nothing happened I pushed at the graffiti-embellished door, found that it opened and went in. There was no elevator and it was a long climb up, passing the doors of small businesses: Fabulous Fabric Stylesetters, Inc.; J.G. Landau, literary, theatrical and film agency; Eisenstoffer and Bucci, attorneys-at-law. When I got to the top floor, the door was ajar: in the triangular wedge I saw an upright manual typewriter on a table, and on the floor a pile of scripts; an Arriflex with its body harness; cans of film covered in stickers. A large bed standing well away from the wall. There was someone in the bed and a girl in a grimy smock was bent over him, working on his face with a bushy make-up brush. She looked up and said: 'Jack, I think it's Stephen. Stephen Dall?'

    The man on the bed struggled upright, frowning.

    'Stephen? Well so it is. So it is. The Critic in person, the Lord protect us.' Gathering his breath, which seemed to call for some considerable effort, he added, 'Glad you came, Critic. Alice explain to you?'

    'Only that you'd like to see me and ...' He cut me off, was not going to waste time on social niceties, perhaps due to being in the middle of shooting, or his shortness of breath.

    'See, we're doing this film, which is about a once-famous film director who's suffered a fall.' He gave a sour chuckle, wincing as he did so, which may have been due to the battering that his face had recently received. The puffiness beneath the eyes, the blue bruise patches, the scar tissue on the forehead were not make-up, as I had momentarily thought. 'I got mugged,' he explained, 'so we wrote it in. This film is part fiction, part fact. As to which is which, I wouldn't know, I've never known. It's about this ... this famous movie director who's fallen on hard times, and he has a scene with a critic who once called him "a genius". Long while back. We make up our own dialogue. Because it's supposed to be true, you see.'

    A couple of movie lights threw their luminosity onto silvery reflector panels held in stands. The light falling on Jack Strawley gave his pallor a phosphorescent glow. He laughed and it was as if iron filings were rattling around in his throat. His breathing was becoming more strained; he reached to his side, picked up a mask, and took a deep drag of oxygen from the cylinder by the bed. I knew that he had, for many years, suffered from emphysema, and it seemed to have now reached this advanced stage. He minimized it. 'Picked up a chest cold. It's this glacial weather. Getting mugged didn't help. Be okay soon's I get my breath back.'

    His pallid-grey face, beyond the recent injuries at the hands of muggers, showed the signs of the sort of life he had led for a long time. Craggy fault-lines could be made out through three or four days' growth of white beard. His hair was an ash-coloured mane. His eyes were pale violet, other-worldly.

    'This film, it's a story of what it meant to be a film-maker in the fifties, sixties and seventies ... the times you and I knew well, Stephen. From our different ends.' His breath was rattling in his throat, the harsh raw sound of the body's struggle to obtain air. He stopped speaking. 'Oh, damn and hell, I ... got ... to ... rest minute.' He lay there, chest heaving as if he'd just done a 100-metre sprint. The camera had started rolling on some signal that he must have given: evidently he wished to be filmed in this state. The new realism. It seemed pretty sick to me.

    'Listen,' he said, speaking with difficulty on camera, 'remember those tapes we made years ago, when you were going to do that book with me? When you were going to help me write my autobiography. Be my ghost! You still got those tapes?'

    'I think I have, yes.'

    'Well bring them. I could use some of that stuff as voice over. I seem to remember we got onto some clue there somewhere.'

    'A clue?'

    'Yeah, probably a lot too many clues. Difference between detective stories and life, in detective stories there always too few clues, in life too many. Anyway, bring the tapes, will you?'

    I nodded and said I would.

    This was all being filmed and recorded, and I realized that I had been unceremoniously drawn into the film, like it or not.

    'Want you to play yourself, Stephen,' he said, 'because ... who else can play you ... as well as you play yourself ... hah? Want to have people who had some role in my life, even if they weren't aware of it.'

    The loft was serving as a film set and at the same time being lived in by Jack and the girl called Alice. It looked as though everything was being mixed up quite deliberately, life and cinema, fact and fiction.

    He was having a lot of trouble breathing now, was gasping, and it was distressing to watch, although he was making gestures for the cameras to continue rolling, since he didn't want to lose any dramatic material. When he was eventually able to spill out a few words, he said:

    'Not so good today. We'll do our scene next time, Stephen. Bring the tapes, huh? Bring the tapes.'

At my apartment, looking for the tapes, I remembered our long recording sessions in his suite at the Hotel Alphonse XIII in Seville, back in 1974 when he was making Heart of Darkness. If he couldn't sleep, which was often the case, we'd sometimes work all night — memories pouring out of him in a rush of chaotic images spiced with his ribald black commentaries. I was supposed to keep him to some sort of storyline, but it was an impossible task. Invariably one story led to another, with no respect for chronological order, or any of the unities of time and place, and indeed there were chunks of time that he had totally obliterated from his recollections and I was supposed to track down what had happened to him in those periods. There were other areas of his past of which he could forget nothing: was plagued by an eidetic memory that reproduced images of great accuracy and amazing detail. With his inability to forget certain things — and to forgive, which I suppose was part of it — he was in thrall to his images, and his ghosts.

    I thought at the time that it was all rich material coming up, but so uncontrolled, so hopelessly indiscreet, unrespectful of anyone's privacy — his or of those who'd been involved with him — that I couldn't imagine much of this stuff getting beyond a first rough draft. As it happened, the autobiography was never written, it was one of many projects of his that were to fall through at this time, and so there had been no occasion to edit his calumnies and indiscretions.

    After some searching, I found the cassettes in a shoe-box on a high shelf of the hall closet, where I kept other material for which I had not foreseen any immediate use. There was not much interest in Jack Strawley at this time. During the past ten years or so he had disappeared from view and been largely forgotten, but now that I'd seen him again I had a sudden shivery feeling that it was wrong to have written him off, and that even if he was a name out of the past, that past was a part of movie history, as he had been.

    What clue had he been talking about? Clue to what?

    I got down the shoe box and started reading my index notes: they indicated the free-wheeling leaps and bounds of his mind, as we worked at recollecting his life. Now I was remembering some of the material that had come up, and how he'd contain himself, sitting completely silent, until the tape recorder was switched on and he could see the spools turning. There'd be a bottle of brandy on the table, and he'd be hunched up on the sofa, hardly looking at me, addressing the table microphone as if it were the interlocutor to whom he had to answer. I had the odd feeling that for him I was simply an instrument, like the tape recorder, through which he was seeking to come to terms with the events of his life.

    I put the tape marked 'Seville 1' in my machine, and without bothering to rewind to the beginning, since there was no consistent chronological order to his recollections, pressed 'Play', and I had come in at a point where he was talking about his mother.

    'My mother, she got swept out the way. Part of the ground clearing. It was — awful to say — something that couldn't be helped. She suffered with her nerves. If you want to know, she was a hysteric. Finally had to go into a "rest home". History of that in her family. She thought I didn't love her. It's true, I couldn't love her on the scale that she demanded love. I don't let myself be swallowed up. So she had to be cleared. And there was Carl ... he had to be.'

    There was a gap here on the tape, a longish silence, and I remembered how he'd got up and started pacing, his face deeply lined, and that there was a painted-on smile in his eyes that didn't budge. Frothing saliva had dried on his lips, giving him a white clown's mouth in a rigid face. There was the long gap, and then he continued in a kind of snarl:

    'That's another story that we'll have to get to eventually ... Carl's another story, I loved Carl, and when Gloria said, that time, what I was doing to him was going to destroy him, I said: "I'm afraid I don't care." It's what I said. I can't believe it but others have confirmed it, so I must have said it. In addition to "Genius Jack" I was also known, to some, as "Jack-the-Talented-Shit". Leave Carl out of it for now. He's a chapter to himself.'

    I remembered the wolfish flash of the eye. You could see him speeding up, wildly speeding up, his eyes shiny with the flashing pictures racing through his overfull mind, which he was trying to empty, trying to empty into the tape recorder, into me. The horror when the visions all stay there, impressed in minute detail, unwipeable matter.

    There'd be periodic interruptions to the restless flow of words: sometimes he paced, sometimes he got up and went to the window, and sometimes he called room service for smoked salmon sandwiches, or another bottle of brandy, or coffee ... and some nights, with the tape recorder recording some steamy love affair or other, his mouth suddenly opened wide, his eyes closed, and he'd drop off. Not altogether surprising since he was getting so little sleep during the shooting. He'd re-awaken with a start and continue from where he thought he'd left off, but now he'd picked up some other thread: about how he'd gone off to New York, as a kid, and lived the life of the streets, always mad about films, looking at everything with that intense eye of his which he thought of as the 'the eye of a savage'.

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