The Cult of Laurence Harvey Forever a Dandy in Aspic (Part One)

*contains spoilers

He was an AC/DC (no, not the band) playboy whose persona would swing between jaunty cynicism to debonair gloom. This together with his modern flamboyancy didn’t really endear him to audiences with great popularity. But enter his gallery of movies, especially towards the end, and there are some minor classics.

He is Laurence Harvey, who died in 1973 at the relatively young age of 45.

Larry was already dying of cancer when this photo was taken in 1973

Here, through his last wife Paulene Stone’s memoir, as well as other accounts from Matthew Brannon’s biography, we witness his last days as he battles cancer as we also look at a film that had him strip naked and also, his final directorial effort – Welcome to Arrow Beach – about cannibalism in the suburbs. Harvey was ahead of his time… but was sadly short of it.

Laurence Harvey and Paulene Stone met and began their affair in London in 1966, about the time the mini-skirt came into being and the sixties were in full swing. To Paulene, he seemed too arrogant and much too flamboyant although his voice had an “elegant sensuality”. But as she discovered upon getting to know him, there was much more behind the public dandy and pirouetting fop. He was, in fact, a sensitive artist.

Larry with third wife Paulene

Harvey was born in 1928 to Jewish parents in Lithuania. His father was a building contractor and his mother a housewife with a history of amateur theatrics. His mother was a typically smothering Jewish mother and Larry withdrew into private thoughts and private desperation. He had no memories of Lithuania or its language as his family moved to South Africa when he was six years old.

A teacher in Johannesburg called him “a defiant little boy – anti-everything”. And while this made him unpopular, it drove him to the top. As he said about himself: “I believe in Laurence Harvey. Even when no-one else did!”

Claiming to be an orphan and shouting at the top of his voice to break it – at fourteen he got accepted into the Royal South African Navy Service on a minesweeper.

Back home at fifteen, he entered amateur theatrics and became fascinated. It was World War II and he got sent to Italy and North Africa to perform in front of Allied soldiers as a part of the entertainment corps.

In Romeo and Juliet (1954)

After the war, he went to London, where after an audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), he got accepted in April 1946. He was poor and always had a very rakish figure. He kept it throughout his life with eating disorders and friends saw him throw up deliberately on occasions. Otherwise he would survive on burnt toast and burnt potato skins. He changed his Lithuanian name from Laruschka Mischa Skikne long before he settled on Larry Harvey after the British store Harvey Nichols. He was known to have lived with homosexuals and there is a report he was a male prostitute. He did, however, sleep with men.

His first serious female fling was with the much older actress Hermione Baddeley (1906-86 complications of strokes). They smoked, argued, dieted and lived together. Larry drank a lot of white wine. The dieter’s choice. Then he did Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon with his first wife the actress Margaret Leighton (1922-76 multiple sclerosis). His enemies, and he made more than a few, called these relationships the work of a conniving bastard who was only after success.

The I Am a Camera (1955) trailer hints at Larry’s “inadequacy”

But Paulene, who seems to be the only woman who truly knew him, said if he was devious and ulterior it was never with women – he was not a fortune hunter. Her marriage to Larry would be her second and she had a daughter from her first, very brief marriage. Paulene would give birth to Domino (1969-2005 drug overdose, fentanyl) – Larry’s only child – who would grow up to become a bounty hunter and inspire Tony Scott’s (1944-2012 suicide, jumped off bridge) movie Domino (2005).

Domino as a model

Meanwhile his marriage to Leighton, which was full of affairs, ended with her pursuing the stage and he the movies. It is thought he could have been a good Shakespearian actor if he had stuck to it. His acting though backstage was nothing more than throwing down a cigarette and stepping on it – there was no real preparation. He was playing Larry and yet the persona he affected was as if he were upper class when really he was plain old working class.

Playing bit parts on both sides of the Atlantic, he eventually was cast in the film lead of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1954), this led to I am a Camera (1955), the source material of which was used for Bob Fosse’s (1927-87 heart attack) Cabaret (1972). There were other roles.

Any “inadequacy” was briefly dispelled by Room at the Top (1959)

If indeed Larry was a social climber, it served him well for his Academy Award nominated performance in the 1958 movie Room at the Top, as Joe Lampton, the ambitious and manipulative Northerner. It was one of the first movies to deal with sex as passion and not just to make babies. The sixties were about to arrive! After this movie, he was snapped up by Hollywood, appearing with John Wayne in his epic The Alamo (1960), Elizabeth Taylor who plays a call girl in Butterfield 8 (1960), the Tennessee Williams adaptation Summer and Smoke (1961), which also explored sexuality or the lack thereof and what is probably one of my favourites, Walk on the Wild Side (1962) starring Jane Fonda.

Saul Bass’ incredible opening credits for Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

While not the exploration of prostitution and lesbianism that it ought to have been, the film is still an interesting attempt at frankness on the issues. Featuring Barbara Stanwyck (1907-90 heart failure and emphysema) as a madam who has a “thing” for Capucine (1928-90 suicide, jumped off eighth floor balcony), the film opens with a great Saul Bass (1920-96 no info) credit sequence featuring a black tomcat. The credit sequence is bookended with the cat again at the close of the film. Apparently Walk on the Wild Side had an intensely troubled production among its actors, which is probably why it is so interesting. Larry told Capucine she couldn’t act which didn’t go down to well with the depressive actress. Jane Fonda who steals all her scenes with Larry said: “Acting with Harvey is like acting with yourself – only worse!”

Fonda stole every scene from Larry who wore Lee jeans for the role and not the usual suit

Of these films, which is the most crowded and peak of his career, the critics called Larry’s performances little more than “still” art. His notices weren’t especially good and the box office was obviously carried by the other stars and not him. Butterfield 8 was big box office. The films were cutting edge in terms of their material including the interracial relationship of A Girl Named Tamiko (1963), which is another good movie well directed by John Sturges. He directed his first film around this time entitled The Ceremony (1963) starring Sarah Miles, who said of her director/co-star: “He’s a rude man – a horrible man!” That movie was beautifully lensed but a little boring and misses the mark as it tells a tale of capital punishment.

French The Ceremony poster

Even after his marriage to Leighton and experience, mainly with older women, Paulene said when she first started dating Larry in late 1966, it was like “courting a virgin”. He was 38 and after his marriage to Leighton ended in the early sixties, he had been long courting former Columbia chief Harry Cohn’s widow Joan. She was said to be so tense that she caused Cohn’s fatal heart attack.

Actor John Ireland, a long time friend of Larry’s, knew about Paulene and him in London, even though he was carrying on with Joan on the other side of the Atlantic. It would seem that Larry liked to compartmentalise his life. But Joan, who was very rich, still had connections within the movie industry and Larry knew he was only as good as his last film.

The man who shaped Larry: Producer Jimmy Woolf

Going back to his early days as an actor, the man who shaped Larry into an elegant wine and cigars, Rolls Royce driving type character instead of a jeans and t-shirt type – a glimpse of that would come later – was Jimmy Woolf (1920-66 heart attack, in bed sitting up with a book in his lap, said to be Valley of the Dolls) who first employed Larry in his Romulus films. Romulus produced Room at the Top. Woolf had bad teeth and was a known pill popper and yet he and Larry were very close if not lovers. Larry was more of a student to Woolf and Larry’s penchant to spend money wildly on the good life and affect an upper class image was apparently all Woolf’s influence.

The underrated A Girl Named Tamiko (1962)

It was around the time when Larry met Paulene that Woolf died, something very painful for Larry – in fact it left him slightly lost and he stood at Woolf’s grave staring into it for ages after the funeral service. Virgin-like Larry was 38 and his relationship with Paulene in the beginning was, like his relationship with Woolf, one very much of student and tutor. By the time he was making the comedic The Spy with the Cold Nose (1966) Paulene and he were inseparable. Shortly after he made the first film I will discuss, the somewhat classic, and oddly titled, A Dandy in Aspic (1968). I guessed at first the title related to Larry being caught in his image, which had become dated by this time. The Brylcreem in his hair and his cigarette holder were at odds with the flowing locks and joints and LSD of the younger generation. He gave a good performance in Darling (1965) but had passed on Alfie (1966) and it made a star of Michael Caine. Times were moving on and Larry was ageing quickly due to his lifestyle of chain-smoking and heavy drinking. The meaning of the title of A Dandy in Aspic somewhat eluded me as I didn’t read the apparently complex book by Derek Marlowe (1938-96 leukaemia).

Director Mann with Larry and Paulene in Berlin days before his fatal heart attack

While Marlowe also wrote the screenplay, the complexities are apparently in place if all a bit obvious as it tells the story of espionage in Berlin during the Cold War. Larry plays a double agent, who goes by the name of Eberlin in the West – then George Dancer – and Krasnevin in the East. He is a Russian assassin who spies for the British but whose cover is about to be blown or already has – and all he wants to do is return to the Soviet Union to live his life in peace. Beautifully directed by Anthony Mann (1906-67 heart attack), whose early films include the film noir Railroaded! (1947), starring Larry’s friend John Ireland – Mann is also well known for his westerns with James Stewart which include Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953). Fired from Spartacus (1960) he directed the epic El Cid (1961). The camerawork in Dandy uses locations in London and in West Berlin to great advantage. They are strikingly and beautifully framed at times. It shows Mann was still at the top of his game.

A Dandy in Aspic (1968) trailer

Larry is also striking and still iconic looking. He’s looking his best before the decline. The film also stars Mia Farrow (1945-) with a short and boyish haircut fresh from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Tom Courtenay (1937-) and a very good Peter Cook (1937-95 gastrointestinal haemorrhage). It is one of the best of the Cold War spy movie cycle of the mid to late sixties for several reasons.

Larry directs sans Brylcreem A Dandy in Aspic

“Mia is terribly unhappy,” Larry told Paulene, about her marriage to Frank Sinatra. As innocent and sweet smelling as Mia was, Paulene sensed one of the shrewdest, smartest ladies she had ever met. Paulene said Mia didn’t care much for other women. During the production of Dandy, Mia would keep Larry talking in her suite until three in the morning while Paulene waited in theirs.

Filmed in mid-1967, Mann died in West Berlin of a heart attack during production. With less than a week of filming to go, it was Larry who stepped in to finish the movie. He did so enthusiastically at full pelt, thriving on the position as director. It was the week I was born. It was an experience that would drive Larry to direct his second full feature Welcome to Arrow Beach several years later, his last movie as star and director.

Aspic was a Columbia movie, and Harry Cohn during his lifetime had been notorious for using spies, so it was not surprising that after Dandy wrapped, Joan Cohn turned up in London, knowing about Paulene. Larry and Joan would soon wed, much to Paulene’s surprise when they eloped. John Ireland was the best man and knew that Larry was making a mistake. But it wouldn’t be long after that Paulene would be pregnant with Domino…

Iconic Larry in A Dandy in Aspic – Forever in celluloid

When you study A Dandy in Aspic, you can’t but help think the whole thing was written about and for Larry. Larry, like Krasnevin was “stateless” until his father became a South African citizen and thus part of the Commonwealth. Larry was originally from a state in the Soviet area and was Slavic/Lithuanian. Larry compartmentalised his life like Krasnevin must. Furthermore there are the changes of names that Larry went through on more than one occasion.

If Joan Cohn helped in getting Larry the role, she gave him a part and situation that captures Larry’s life at the time, almost fully – and it makes for a good performance – even if it is trapped in aspic.

Larry gives another good performance in Expresso Bongo (1959) with Cliff Richard

Krasnevin is trapped between two worlds. Larry is also a man trapped between two worlds of sexuality. He is not exclusively gay, or straight. He is also trapped between two women – Joan and Paulene. This “dandy”, or fancy dresser, to use one definition, that Larry certainly was, has been captured forever in Aspic/on film and in the act – well just for the moment as aspic doesn’t last forever. He had taken Paulene to West Berlin and carried on with her in front of the press, Joan would have known and yet it is the place where Larry cemented his love of Paulene.

Was it a copy of Aspic on the bed?

Larry comes home late to Mia/Paulene in the movie (was he kept by the real Mia late in her suite?) and she is asleep with a spy novel paperback on the bed. A Dandy in Aspic by another name?! Larry’s friend, Jimmy Wolff, was found dead in bed, by Larry, a paperback beside him. And that is another aspect. The spies are exclusively men like the film industry. In fact, the head spy is played by Harry Andrews in one main scene. Andrews who was the butch sergeant major in many a movie was openly gay. “I’ll see you in the bathroom at the end of the hall,” Larry tells another spy. Often a secret meeting place for homosexuals. In fact the gays were just allowed to practise sex legally around the time the film was shot as the Sexual Offences Act was passed around July allowing gay men to have sex over age 21 without prosecution. Mann died during production in late April. So it was all happening during production.

Do they use scotch tape? Well, fancy that! Cook is great.

The “sexless” level on which Larry operates shows in a scene when he talks to Peter Cook’s sex obsessed spy, who is thumbing through a pornographic magazine. “A bloke told me once they hold these things up with scotch tape. Do you believe that?,” says Cook, straight-faced. He could be talking about women’s breasts but Larry reacts as if he never had a pin-up in his life. Cook dismisses it as neither here nor there – which is Larry’s sexual state. Does a person’s sexual mores define the person? The main question asked in the movie is who is Krasnevin/Larry? Is there any substance to the character behind the façade/mask? And all that loathing?! Was it self-loathing? Was there any real love at all? Or was it just sex? Joan Collins said in her biography that Larry loved Larry and nobody else and the critics wrote of Larry’s “inadequacy” on the screen and tied it to his sexuality/sexlessness. But Larry carried some substance and it was growing behind the scenes.

Mia/Paulene in Berlin

When Mia and Larry are alone she asks about his marriage a long time ago: “Did you love her?” Larry could be talking about Leighton: “Love her? I don’t know”. For the writer, who I would say is writing about Larry, this is a defining moment, as Mia asks if there is anything else but love? “Nothing,” says Larry, flatly as if he has known a life of only nothing. Without the love of a woman/man Larry rings hollow and it is this hollowness that is wrongly seen as inadequacy. His loss of Woolf left him rudderless but Paulene completed him and took away that emptiness. Was the film created to lead Larry into enduring love?

Oscarsson ready for bed like Woolf

Even if Joan Cohn thought it would be her? Per Oscarsson’s (1927-2010 burnt to death in house fire) character who dies near the beginning of Aspic is a drug-addicted/pill popper and stateless/sexless friend just like Woolf. That he refuses to kill Oscarsson/Woolf upon his own request, shows Larry’s “weakness” or “inadequacy” in the sense he feels love for the man. Here the weakness of the spy is love – whether it is seen as a love for/of a fellow man and the “real” love of a woman. It shows just how close and one and the same the men are in this violent world – Larry could be violent – and it is the ambiguity of that love, which is central to understanding Larry – and the man behind the persona. Woolf, incidentally, was Jewish like Larry, which also adds to the paranoia of the piece. Despite being christened with a new name and further compartmentalising his life, Larry or George Dancer or Krasnevin are still one and the same. And everyone knows it. That’s the thing about Larry, he was the total package and he didn’t hide his dalliances – and people liked what they saw despite the affectations and his apparent disdain for the world. In Aspic he is trapped and a victim of circumstance. That Oscarsson was an actor of social realism, was born a twin and was Larry’s exact age also contrasts and adds depth to Larry’s “inadequate” performance.

All so bloody fascinating… Larry is quintessential Larry in A Dandy in Aspic

When Larry leaves Mia’s place he accidentally walks into the toilet. “There’s no future in it,” says Mia, reflecting Larry’s true life excess time spent on the toilet and his addiction to laxatives to keep his weight down. Something that may have caused his cancer. He is hung in the toilet/toot (Ahem!) in A Dandy in Aspic as all aspects of Larry’s life are put on display and spoken of albeit coded at times. He doesn’t even know it and neither did critics at the time… And it’s fascinating as his life is a work in progress…

I think as the Aspic gels during the film’s production, so did the artist in Larry both in terms of his sexuality and career – it began a period of change for him, although it would be a little tumultuous. Mann’s death was the defining moment in terms of Larry’s career as a director. But it is Joan’s capture of her lover on film and in real life – as an adulterer, even though they weren’t yet married – that also makes the film classic. They would marry even though Larry really loved Paulene. Joan Cohn’s fostering of Larry continued but Larry found the four gold watches as opposed to one as empty… and hollow. Nothing.

The plot to A Dandy in Aspic is secondary – and is obvious from the start – and I’ll say it again, it is the reflection upon Larry and his life that makes it so interesting…

By being so busy Larry kick-started Michael Caine’s career. The Ipcress File (1965) trailer

Mia/Paulene plays the only innocent in a city full of duplicity – East/West Berlin as it was before the fall of the Wall. For the whole movie, we know that Larry’s character is doomed. That it is Tom Courteney’s character as a rival spy who kills him also relates as it was Courteney who helped introduce Caine to the Alfie role, effectively killing Larry’s commercial career.

But as Larry/Krasnevin runs toward his fate on the airport tarmac to escape his British captors, his cover now completely blown – he remains positive to the end and thinks the Russians have come to take him home. It is Courteney in the car that runs him down. So Larry remained positive and believed in himself to the end. “You are dead,” are the words which echo on the tapped line, which is one of the most effective moments in the film. Larry would later have to face almost the same line when he is diagnosed with cancer.

Peter Cook is just as delightful as the devil in Bedazzled (1967)

It is Peter Cook’s delightful turn as a female mad spy who gives the best performance in the film apart from Larry. He is totally honest right down to when Larry is about to get shipped back to London. Larry fires a gunshot though the windshield of Courteney’s car as it rams him. There is “modern” use of image and editing but I don’t know how much Larry had to do with that part of post-production. There are a couple of flourishes in the film in terms of focus and movement that are quite effective in showing Larry’s giddiness upon almost being unmasked.

DVD cover

Then the credits roll. The motif used in the beginning credits of a puppet on strings at the mercy of an unseen puppeteer is worthy of Saul Bass. The puppet’s strings are grabbed by another unseen person and tied up into knots, which ends with the puppet falling down, appropriately dead. It’s an end of an era as Larry would not look as good, perform as well, or have as good quality material at his disposal. He tackles A Dandy in Aspic with his usual aplomb albeit another “still” life and despite his “inadequacy”. You can’t call his character a pussy as the mental stress of the character is well conveyed. I could go on but I think you get the picture! It is a film about not having a loving home.

Larry marries Joan despite loving Paulene

With its great use of location, not all of it pretty, intriguing story of hope despite there being none, Larry gives what would be called a typical performance with his cigarette holder intact in some scenes. That Mia says to him in the movie, she had heard gossip that he was a “dreadful snob” and “sexless” – something that may have been Paulene’s view in real life, given his original virgin-like status with her – is further proof that the film is sincere. A friend who lived in London in the swinging sixties says Larry was a “poof” but Larry had finally found a woman who really listened and loved him in Paulene. But Joan pounced on him when the couple returned to London after the shoot and took him away to marry… Paulene had to wait. And so will you as we take a break in this epic for PART TWO

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