My Nine Lives

JOHN DOYLE

(aka Rampaging Roy Slaven) I can remember when the film Tom Jones opened at the Theatre Royal in Main Street, Lithgow. The De La Salle brothers discouraged us from seeing it, and it definitely appeared as a recurring motif in more than one sermon from the pulpit by Father Gallen, then obsessed with Communism and sexuality. At the time, I didn't see the film - wasn't allowed - but Third form colleagues Mickey Benson, Chris Cullen and Linden Lawless saw it and they said that it was unbelievably great, almost as good as Sexy Day, Sexy Night, the film that really got them going the year before. And quite understandably, they were particularly struck by Molly - so much so that they spent the entire summer looking for a local Lithgow Molly. I can still see them huddled around the local swimming pool on a cloudy day, lying face down on the dark tessellations of concrete in dark discussion, revealing dark thoughts of even darker day-dreamy encounters with their personal imagined Mollies. The Swinging Sixties of London had well and truly taken root in every nook and valley of the Blue Mountains. And it had the gatekeepers of all faiths troubled. The sensual revolution was swirling and gathering force in the spiritual vacuum of yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy and, like the Stones, none of us could get no satisfaction.

 

I'd like to respond to the book as a reader but, before I do, can I say that to harness memory is fraught with danger -- but a joyful danger. To explore memory is to exercise a muscle. One memory leads to another, leads to another. And that's fine, but how do you make sense of it all? How do you corral it without staying a slave to chronology and self-indulgence? The trick is to make it a journey the reader wants to take and to do this requires considerable skill. My Nine Lives is rippling with skill. Diane's journey is really a picaresque romp through twentieth century thinking.

My Nine Lives is very much a story of the twentieth century. And the story of the twentieth century is a story of travel, portability and a wider search for a meaning for existence. This is summed up by a provocative Tony Shaffer quoted by Diane: There isn't anyone in this world who can convince me that they know why Man inhabits this planet or that there's any sensible reason for him to do so. Nihilism Rules. OK. There is no objective basis for truth. All established authority is corrupt. End of statement. Diane's journey is to question this and to conclude that there is a spiritual dimension for those willing to take up the challenge and discipline of finding it. And it is this great search that makes us human.

Diane Cilento's experience begins as a precocious and troublesome child who was almost impossible to educate or discipline. In reading the early years, it's difficult not to be transported to a more innocent time when the sun was not the enemy and community and parental expectations bore down on children like dead weight. What made things more difficult was the fact that her parents were highly skilled professional people who measured worth by how much one could contribute to society. How is a young, bright girl expected to react to this? She rebels, obviously. What is clear is that we had a creative, energetic girl who simply did not fit into any of the narrow boxes then provided by the then sleepy Queensland. And she was not alone. The history of the performing arts community in Australia during the forties, fifties and sixties is littered with the great leaking of talent to foreign shores -- mainly England and, to a lesser extent, the US. And it still goes on. The arts are treated abominably still, so much so that, even today, persons wanting to commit themselves to a life in theatre in this country would, generally speaking, have to be mad.

Diane was lucky in as much as an escape route was made available when her parents went to New York and she was lucky enough to stumble upon a vehicle for her tremendous imagination and energy: dancing, then acting. And acting is a commitment. I can recall the day when I got my Dad aside and told him that I intended to leave my very safe position as an English teacher in Newcastle to embark upon a life in the theatre. Dad being an immensely practical man looked at me and said,"You're mad!" And, in part, he was right. Acting does require a certain amount of madness. But Diane wasn't satisfied with just being an actor; she has involved herself in translating Pirandello's works for the English stage, immersed herself in the work of Yat and taken on the burden of direction.

There are moments of great theatre in this autobiography. How would a young Catholic girl married to an Italian and suffering from tuberculosis cope with being hospitalized in the Vatican, looking out upon the garden where Pope John XXIII spent time in prayer or cogitation? Naturally, it became a circus. Theatre friends are theatre friends. I'm lured to this incident because, years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days working on a mini-series with Frank Thring.

Having heard that I was ensconced in the heart of the Vatican, Frank decided to come and cheer me up. Armed with several bottles of Louis Roederer's best champagne, he presented himself at the Clinica Morelli's reception desk clad in a floor-length cape of purple velvet edged ermine. When asked his name, he replied in Italian, hampered by an undershot jaw and blatant Australian accent.

'Io sonno Ponzio Pilato,' he rasped darkly. It was no lie as he had played Pontius Pilate in the 1959 American epic Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 'I've come to see la Principessa Cilento!'

After much consternation, with Frank bellowing his request repeatedly, they capitulated and he was escorted to my room by a bevy of nervous nuns. They stood inside the dorrway preventing him from closing it, but Frank was having none of that. With a deft flick of the wrist and a pivot on his heel, he managed to oust the nuns, fling the door shut and have the top off the first bottle of bubbly in one orchestrated movement.

We could still hear the nuns whispering outside. After embracing me for real,,, Frank continued to make lewd kissing noises into the air, giving me a huge wink.

'Mmmmmmmm...Yes, darling, yes. I love it! Do it again. Oooooooh...ovely, sweetheart. Oh, ooooooh, yes, that's soooo good,' he began to pant. 'Oh, please keep doing it, darling. Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! I think I'm coming! I AM! Yes1 Agh!..Agh...Ahhhhhhhh! Mmmmmmmmm. That was so good.'

It did not help matters that I could not stop laughing helplessly at his wicked performance. I knew all the nuns standing on the other side of the door were beyond outrage at the imagined scenes of debauchery taking place within. Frank couldn't resist jerking the door open. He offered champagne to the flustered nuns, who fell into the room, but neither of us was surprised when they scuttled out, shaking their heads and muttering invocations. One or two even crossed themselves. I knew with deadly certainty that that there would be a few more rusty needles in my already bruised backside before the week was out.

The resultant annulment of her first marriage meant saying goodbye to the Church and saying hello to one of the most celebrated marriages of the century, that to Sean Connery. What is clear not only in the text but the subtext is the overwhelming sense of equality that existed between the pair of them in the early days. It was the classical fusion of man and woman, singing from the same song sheet, shoulders to the same wheel, but living in the glare of a ferocious media - so much so that their home was being burgled regularly and the children were under constant threat of molestation or kidnapping by lunatics. The pressure placed on the relationship can only be sustained while the singing is from the same song sheet. How disappointing, then, when the relationship degenerates into paranoia and violence. On the way, Diane became what she describes as a 'golf widow'. From the heady life of an actor, mother, writer, wife, director and producer came the expectation that, in the relationship, she would forego everything but wife and mother and be there to feed the golfers when they arrived home full of stories of grand adventures on the fifth hole.

Whether 007 changed Sean or 007 reinforced the kernel that was always there is impossible to say but, while the sensibilities of the Scottish actor demanded a wife from the 19th century, it was clear that the one he had married was definitely a woman of the 20th. In the glare of the flashbulbs of cameras, the disintegration of the relationship released a shocked and shaken Diane to embark upon the most demanding journey of all, the voyage into mysticism and philosophy.

If you want theatre stories, they are all here writ large - outrageous and comic asides from Noel Coward, dressing room stories of Alec Guinness, long lunches with Rex Harrison, the vanity of Sir Larry Olivier in his demolition of Anthony Quayle's production of The Idiot, practical jokes onstage that go wrong, massive egos, searches for the Method, the inevitable burn-out of too many performances and the insecurity of never being able to say no - but this autobiography is much more than that. Here is a much more interesting journey.

One of the great bonuses of the fifties and sixties was the arrival of geographical portability and an exchange of ideas and lifestyles that, before this time, were unthinkable. To be a star, a celebrity in film, was to be a world celebrity - as familiar to those in London as Lithgow - and with that comes an enormous price. But what also comes is access to some of the great minds, great thinkers of our times. Through Gurdjieff, Diane chose the world of Sufism, an esoteric form of Islam that comes with its fair share of mysticism and the dream of a 'future community' predicated on the not unreasonable assumption that the world will run out of the resources that presently are the lifeblood of our economy.

Naturally enough, the autobiographical circle is completed with Diane's return to Queensland with the noble ambition of creating an idyllic and creative space called Karnak. And it's fair to say that Far North Queensland has changed from the cultural backwater it was, encouraged to stay under the Bjelke-Petersen regime, and changed for the better in no small part due to the dedicated work of Diane Cilento. Being a bloke who is fairly cynical about matters spiritual and mystical, I can unreservedly recommend My Nine Lives. It is wonderfully well written and, given the frank nature of its author, with many intersections of truth and beauty and, despite its title, is totally free of any cattiness. Here is laid bare a life that, by any yardstick, is remarkable - and remarkable still is the clear fact that it is far from over, with many, many chapters as yet unwritten but ready to be lived.

 

Signed copies are available from Karnak Playhouse or you can order here.