The rap on most Hollywood documentaries is that they’re too fawning or, because only friends agree to go on record, too one-sided. BBC’s “Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance” is the exception: a probing, anything-but-gilded portrait in which everyone who ever knew or worked with the subject comes forward to defend, condemn or lionize. If sex- and death-obsessed Cammell, who killed himself in ’96, wasn’t an auteurist’s darling before, he will be after this docu’s richly deserved fest, cable and PBS bookings.
Best known as co-creator (with Nicolas Roeg) of the enigmatic “Performance” in 1970, Cammell comes off as a modern-day Casanova whose profligate lifestyle made him fascinating company but a maddening collaborator. “He was a complete original,” says James Fox. “He was a Pan creature,” recalls actress Barbara Steele. “Death seemed like a friend to him,” opines Mick Jagger, who co-starred with Fox in “Performance.”
And so it goes — flashes of brilliance mixed with hints of madness as the pieces of this strange, schizoid personality slide into place. Helmers Kevin Macdonald and Chris Rodley, with the blessing of Cammell’s widow, China, trace the trajectory of Cammell’s career, from Paris years as fashionable portrait artist to Hollywood Hills collaboration with Brando (on the legendary nonstarter “Jericho”).
Appropriately, doc’s emphasis is on cult classic “Performance” and Cammell’s immersion (in the name of research)in London’s criminal underworld. Actor Fox tells how he was “taken over” by his role of the gangster who hides out with a dissolute rock star; Jagger recalls intense rehearsals that sometimes degenerated into group gropes and dangerous mind games.
Cammell, in second of three clips, laughingly complains about “historical gossip” even as he substantiates rumors of wife-swapping and bisexual dalliances. The gender-blurring “Performance” and, later, equally troubled “Demon Seed” and “White of the Eye” were, it slowly becomes obvious, as much personal credo as they were offbeat psychological thrillers. By cutting between a homoerotic set piece in “Performance” and a canvas by Francis Bacon, pic also makes strong case for Cammell’s ambitious esthetic sense.
An uncomfortable Roeg recalls the machinations behind “Performance” and his eventual falling out with Cammell, whom he refuses to vilify in absentia. After what Warner Bros. deemed “disastrous previews,” pic was feverishly re-edited by Cammell in Hollywood. Cammell’s response to previews: “If it doesn’t upset audiences, it’s nothing.”
Avant-gardist Kenneth Anger, who cast Cammell in “Lucifer Rising” (1973), recalls his friend’s fascination with black magic and his many failed attempts at out-there projects, such as a William Burroughs vehicle about a kidnapped chief justice.
In later years, Cammell became increasingly reclusive and weird, obsessing on death as the ultimate high and taking meetings with a revolver at his side. Friends and colleagues chalk up problems to a “dissociative personality” and fear of failure. Cammell’s swan song, the severely compromised “The Wild Side,” with Christopher Walken and Anne Heche, was programmed to fail: It was Cammell’s justification for an early exit.