David Niven: More Than Just a Pencil-Mustached Face

04/14/2010 5:00 PM |

Niven and Flynn shared some similar tastes, and were offscreen friends, at one point sharing an L.A. bachelor pad dubbed Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea. With Niven a self-diagnosed sex addict, and Flynn being Flynn, it would take several chalkboards to tally the number of women, teenaged and otherwise, who were accommodated there. Their friendship fizzled when, as Niven told Michael Munn in a late candid interview, “he grabbed me… where a man doesn’t expect to be grabbed by another man.” Although he celebrates Flynn in his autobiography, he told Munn, “there was never a bigger shit.”

Niven’s ability to deflate tension with humor worked even on the tyrant Otto Preminger, who was gambling buddies with the actor. Their 1953 The Moon is Blue was condemned by the Breen office for its casual attitude toward premarital sex and inclusion of words like “virgin” and “pregnant,” so Preminger and the producers took the radical step of releasing it without Code approval. Its huge success dented the Code’s influence, but the film is a witty delight outside of that history, with brilliant sight gags (a commercial for Chloro-Foam beer) and Niven’s deceitful David Slater delivering the best odd rants (“You should never say your feet hurt. My foot singular hurts is an intriguing statement. My feet plural hurt is a rather sordid admission.”)

In the Death of Fun lament Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Preminger memorably alternated black and white (the bleak present) with color (the carefree Riviera past). In A Matter of Life and Death, made twelve years earlier, Powell and Pressburger shot Earth in vivid Technicolor, and the mysterious World Above in monochrome. It’s just one of the counterintuitive ideas that make this surreal fantasia, starring Niven as a downed RAF pilot inadvertently stuck in a sort of purgatory, a masterpiece. In both Preminger films, indolent caddishness is all that is asked of Niven, and he delivers. In A Matter of Life and Death‘s heartbreaking opening crash scene alone, however, he combines fatalistic bravery with flirtatious sweet talk, as he falls in love with the American girl (Kim Hunter) he’s radioed on the way down. Effects like Roger Livesey’s camera obscura, the celestial stairway, a behind-the-eyelid shot, and a frozen-in-midgame ping-pong match must be seen, but the movie’s soul is written on Niven’s cute, funny face. He deserves to live.