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All the raw materials for a life in the spotlight

Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and a contributing writer to Book Review.

Ivan MOFFAT was a screenwriter of no more than modest distinction. He entered the business as an associate producer, working for director George Stevens, in whose photographic unit he served during World War II. He began writing anonymously for Stevens, attained his first (shared) screen credit on Stevens’ “Giant,” then, because he could at least fake the sort of high-toned but essentially vacuous seriousness 1950s Hollywood often favored, went on to write or co-write such easily forgotten films as “Bhowani Junction” and “Tender Is the Night.”

Later, he supplied uncredited writerly services to such films as “The Great Escape” and “The Heroes of Telemark.” In the last decades of a long and increasingly impoverished life -- Moffat died two years ago at 83 -- it is difficult to determine, precisely, just how he kept body and soul together.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 20, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Ivan Moffat -- A review of “The Ivan Moffat File” in the Oct. 10 Book Review said Moffat was 83 when he died. He was 84.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 24, 2004 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Ivan Moffat -- An Oct. 10 review of “The Ivan Moffat File” incorrectly listed Ivan Moffat’s age at death as 83. He was 84.

In short, his was a screenwriting career like many others -- all dispassion and reliably uninspired craftsmanship. But if you were a producer half a century ago, you could count on him to turn his pages in on time and not make a fuss if someone rewrote his rewrites. On the face of it, his accomplishments are not worth a book or even a Film Comment article. In assembling “The Ivan Moffat File,” which consists mainly of an unfinished memoir and various interviews and jottings that Moffat left behind, Gavin Lambert has very sensibly downplayed the movie work. What he has given us instead is something like an Evelyn Waugh novel. Or, more accurately, the raw materials of one -- “Vile Bodies” without the feverishness, “Sword of Honor” without the moral fervor.

His grandfather was the legendary English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. His uncle was the delightful satirist Max Beerbohm. His mother, Iris Tree, was an actress who managed somehow to work for both Max Reinhardt and Federico Fellini while pursuing her true calling as an international sexual adventuress (among her conquests was Denys Finch Hatton, who broke Isak Dinesen’s heart too). Moffat’s father, Curtis, was an American, a fashionable photographer more famous in certain circles for hosting impeccable luncheons.

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Naturally, his parents divorced, and at a tender age Ivan was shunted off to one of those awful English boarding schools -- canings, cold showers and the more subtle cruelties visited on lonely little boys by their apparently endemically bent teachers. In these years he developed -- perhaps significantly -- an interest in the insect world, with a particular passion for observing the praying mantis as it coolly, unemotionally devoured its victims. Later there was Darlington Hall, coeducational and deliberately founded to be a free-spirited alternative to traditional English schooling.

But Moffat’s real education occurred in the summers and weekends he spent at dozens of great houses in Europe, the United States and, of course, the English countryside, where he acquired the skills to be the perfect extra man at “important” social occasions. That’s something of an oxymoron, but it was his life’s major preoccupation. He learned manners, how to hold his liquor, how to bed innumerable bright young things. Most important, perhaps, he began compiling one of the world’s more admirable address books. He seems to have known everyone who was anyone, including Nancy Cunard, Dylan Thomas and Charlie Chaplin. He was not a great wit or a particularly dashing figure. But he was an agreeable, emotionally distant man with, as we would now dismally say, “a commitment problem.”

It seems all too typical of him that, with nothing but time on his hands in his late years, he never finished the memoir that is the centerpiece of Lambert’s book. It is titled “Absolute Heaven” because whenever his parents returned from a dull evening at the theater or a wet country weekend, they always described the experience as “absolute heaven.” When he discusses this tic of theirs with his cousin, she quite sensibly remarks, “But it wasn’t really like that, was it?” to which he replies, “I’m not so sure now. Maybe it was a bit.” He even admitted that some of his wartime service, which included the liberation of concentration camps, came close to the heavenly.

This, it seems, was the entitlement he treasured above all others -- the conversion of all experience into pleasantry, a life free of Sturm und Drang. At one point in London he was friendly with Peter Quennell, the literary critic, whose largest virtue, it would seem, was “that he bore me no grudge for having had an affair with his first wife and would be similarly tolerant of my indiscretions with his second.”

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At what point in a life does such sang-froid shade over from the merely English to the definitely eerie? For you could argue that Moffat, despite his long sojourns in America, was a very British type. In my time I have spent some long, slightly bibulous evenings with actors like Richard Burton and Roger Moore, and been reduced to hopeless hilarity by their wonderful tales of famous people -- themselves included -- behaving rather badly. It is only the next morning that you realize that these stories are a kind of smoke screen, behind which they hide themselves. They are always the shrewd and objective observers of human folly, but they are never wounded, saddened or angered by those follies. They just skip blithely along to the next anecdote, revealing nothing about themselves. I’ve come, of course, to realize that this trait is not confined to English males. It is how a lot of us process our emotions, no matter where we were born.

Despite a couple of miserable marriages and some children about whom he (and Lambert) have little to say, Moffat lost his cool only once. That’s when he embarked on an on-again, off-again affair with Caroline Blackwood -- heiress, beauty, novelist and last half-mad wife to the poet Robert Lowell. Her repute has suffered, perhaps deservedly, in accounts of their lives. But when Moffat met her in the mid-1950s, her anger and contempt for humanity (especially men) was more or less under control.

He seems to have sensed in Blackwood a darker version of his own distancing nature, and she turned him into something neither he nor anyone else believed he might be -- an intermittently passionate pursuer of another human being. She, sometimes literally, ran from him, but they did have a child together, though his fatherhood was only belatedly (and on his daughter’s part, resentfully) acknowledged. Eventually her dark side won out -- and Moffat had to admit that she became a figure of “incandescent rage,” her life “a series of unanswered questions, sorrowful, echoing, disappointing. Tragic really ....” She had always had, he said, “a somewhat malign or skeptical view of her own destiny -- that things were always going to happen for the worst.” Which, naturally, they did.

Yet she was the one person in his life who could act out, act upon, that dim view of human nature that his politesse, his reserve, protected himself from admitting. Lambert’s book stops short of analyzing the man’s character; he mainly wants to rescue his friend’s well-written but rather conventional memoir from oblivion. But the reader, less constrained by affection, cannot help but feel a certain sad impatience with this life. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster advised us. Ivan Moffat rarely mastered that vital skill. *


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