Friday, February 17

Claire Bloom

The bloom is still on this English rose. She would fit into most any decade I am highlighting in these pages because she started movie acting in the late 1940s and made a movie for television as late as two years ago.  There is a delicacy about her lovely looks but she was always tougher and more resilient than perhaps many people gave her credit for.  I think the greatest compliment to bestow upon her is the great respect she has been accorded over the years.  Any production is most lucky to have Claire Bloom.

She has appeared in 39 theatrical movies, not a great many considering how long she's been acting, and quite a number of those were smaller roles.  Many people would consider her primarily a stage actress, most often engaged in Shakespeare or other classical works. She has also done much television, mostly in prestigious projects, and from her start.  As a lot of movie actors did when television first came on the scene, they stayed away from the little box until their movie career faded.  Bloom's loyalties were not to the movies so she always went where the good roles were and if that was the telly, then so be it.

She did not have an idyllic childhood mainly as a result of a contentious relationship with her father.  She believes that it sent her on a life-long, often unrealized, mission to find a father in the men with whom she married or had liaisons.  Sex and love may have confused her for a time and sent her in directions she wished she hadn't gone.  She also claimed she really didn't have much of a childhood at all, partly because she had to grow up too soon and because she started acting so young.  Acting can be a refuge, she said, for those who are sexually, psychologically or socially wounded.

Turning 85 two days ago, Bloom was born in the north London suburb of Finchley to Jewish parents.  Her father was an intermittent salesman, something to return to when his numerous
own businesses went belly up.  Her father's constant change of work meant uprooting the family almost as often.  She was very close to her mother.  She was also very fond of make-believe, which, in turn, planted those early acting seeds.  It didn't hurt that her aunt, Mary Grew, was a prominent stage actress in London. Bloom was turned on to Shakespeare at a young age and took to it naturally.  She loved the sounds of those words.  She gathered her first notions about passion and romantic love from watching Romeo and Juliet.  She didn't know then that one day critic Kenneth Tynan would call her the greatest Juliet I have ever seen.

In 1941 when she was 10, she, her mother and younger brother went to stay with a paternal uncle in Florida, far from the German planes that were flying over her homeland and the news that England would become involved in war.  They remained in the Sunshine State for a year and then another 18 months in New York.  It was there for her 12th birthday she was taken to see The Three Sisters and she said later... from then on I only thought of going into the theater and playing Chekhov.  Chekhov was moving.  That's what I was looking for... something more moving even more than my own plight as a little English girl driven from my own home by the gods of war.

Returning to England after the war ended, determined to act on the stage, she received training at the Guildhall School and first worked professionally in some radio dramas. Bright as a klieg light and with an adult's determination to succeed, she was only 15 when she debuted at the Oxford Repertory Theater.  She was heralded as a great, young find in a number of Shakespearean works.

In 1946 she had a small role in a courtroom drama called The Blind Goddess.  Her movie debut is more interesting due to her role being comedic in nature and comedy is something that Bloom has rarely done.

Acting with the great love of her life

In 1949, at age 18, she appeared on the stage in The Lady's Not for Burning and she fell madly and passionately in love with her leading man.  The following year she was with him again as Ophelia in Hamlet.  Once she became a movie star, she would work with him four more times.  Their affair, through his marriage, would last for years. Who was he?  Did you recognize Richard Burton in the above picture?  She would go on to say he was the great love of her life. Rumor has it that when he lay dying, he asked a friend to get a message to her.  She would go on to three marriages and have numerous affairs with coworkers-- unsatisfactory ones with Laurence Olivier, Yul Brynner and Anthony Quinn, to name three, but it was always and forever Burton.   

Soon Hollywood and international fame would come calling.  A fellow Brit, none other than Charlie Chaplin, requested her to star opposite him in Limelight (1952).  She is a suicidal ballet dancer and he a fading comic who each find strength to help the other. Chaplin also wrote and directed and there is no question that it is highly autobiographical. He always did have a fondness for young girls and much scurrilous press on the subject always swirled around him.  He wanted it chaste with Miss Bloom and made sure everyone knew it was.  She is exquisite in the role, showing a range much beyond her years.  It remains one of her favorite movie roles.

Bloom and Charlie Chaplin

I may have seen her for the first time the following year in a fascinating film noir, The Man Between.  I recalled having little understanding of it until a second viewing many years later.  Why I was even there is mystifying but I was taken with the leading man, James Mason.  He plays a shadowy smuggler of secrets in postwar Berlin and Bloom is his star-crossed lover.  I wish she and Mason had worked together more.  They were a fabulous team.  

She was Lady Anne to Olivier's title role in Richard III (1955). The following year it was her first film with her Richard I... Burton in Alexander the Great.  Hers was not a great role by any means but it put her back in her great love's arms.  It was a reliably but sadly fictional version and very popular.

It was television and stage work that occupied her for two years and when she returned to movies, it was back-to-back films with Yul Brynner, both in 1958.  First up was The Brothers Karamazov, which I'm sure is nowhere near as great as the Dostovesky novel about a greedy Russian family but it more than satisfied my need to be entertained.  Bloom played Katya, Brynner's wife, but not the woman he was in love with, who was played by Maria Schell.

I have always thought something Bloom brought to her roles, aside from her obvious intelligence, was elegance and poise, traits used very well in period roles where she got to get all gussied up in those big skirts and all those layers.  But in The Buccaneer, she played, of all things, a pirate girl, one who takes a fancy to the big pirate of the day, Jean Lafitte (Brynner).  Looking dirty, scruffy and a bit butch, she must have required a little more hygiene off screen a little romantic juggling with both Brynner and first-time director Anthony Quinn on the same set.

Look Back in Anger (1959) was the apogee of kitchen-sink realism, as it was called at the time, a harsh look at the British cultural movement which showed protagonists as angry, unreasonable, working-class slobs whose lives are very clearly not working. Few yelled more eloquently than Burton and while he is married to Mary Ure in the film, who could play his (snooty) mistress better than Claire Bloom?  It was almost a home movie.

She met Rod Steiger in 1959 when both were appearing in a stage production of Rashomon.  They married that same year and her only child, daughter Anna (today an opera singer), was born the following year. The two remained married throughout the decade and rough as the union was and fierce as the arguments were (their mishaps often made the gossip columns), she speaks more kindly of him than she does her subsequent two husbands.

The same year they divorced, 1969, they made back-to-back horrible movies, The Illustrated Man and Three Into Two 
Won't Go. It is astonishing how bad these films are and they certainly tanked at the box office. What were they thinking?  One supposes their desire to work together clouded their good senses.

Bloom said that although she didn't like living in California, she did like was working in Hollywood.  That's a pretty amazing statement considering most of her Hollywood-based films were not her finest. Examples of that came when she joined Laurence Harvey for the silly The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and stayed to play one of the four sexually-anxious women from The Chapman Report, a sudsy take-off on the real-life, earlier Kinsey Report.  Jane Fonda, Shelley Winters and Glynis Johns joined Bloom who had the showiest role as a nymphomaniac.

From left, Bloom, Johns, Fonda and Winters reporting

If we say that Bloom is mainly a renowned British stage actress who did some movies, Julie Harris is the American version. How interesting that these two women, in particular, would be thought of to star in a horror film.  A horror film!!!  But that is exactly what The Haunting (1963) is.  It's even got a set-piece well known to the genre... the big, spooky mansion... creaking doors, strange sounds with one or more participants getting a little wackier as time winds down.  It is not my favorite genre but I gotta say these actresses force me to give this one a favorable vote.

Let's get it right out there now.  I so liked The Outrage (1964) and so many others didn't.  It has been savaged by the critics and the public alike.  It has a famously blue-eyed Ohioan playing a Mexican bandit and a woman from London and a man from Lithuania playing an aristocratic southern couple.  Paul Newman was the bad dude and Bloom and Laurence Harvey as the couple. It was a western update of Kurosawa's Roshomon, where three different versions of a kidnapping, rape and murder are told for the viewer to contemplate. These two guys were among my top favorite actors and it was a western.  Hello...?

For lovers of John LeCarre's books particularly, there's 1965s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  It has always been lauded as one of Burton's finest performances as a bitter, disillusioned cold war spy who is and then isn't sure he wants to continue in his nasty business.  As his rather naive communist girlfriend, Bloom is equally impressive.  I'm sure it was nice seeing one another again.

In 1968 Bloom was lucky to get to star opposite Cliff Robertson in Charly.  I say lucky because Robertson won a well-deserved Oscar and therefore she garnered some lovely attention too. Charly is a mentally handicapped person who undergoes an experiment which gives him the intelligence of a genius.  It was a touching tale which partly dealt with how people treat the less fortunate.  Bloom,
as always, turned in a vivid performance as Charly's teacher and mentor.

In 1969, shortly after her divorce from Steiger became final, she married producer Hillard Elkins.  There was a problem of sorts from the very beginning... Elkins and Steiger were friends.  Even though he was a mere two older than she, she has said it was a father-daughter sort of relationship and it was a mistake.  She tends to dismiss him or their life together... and yet he produced two of her greatest stage triumphs.

Bloom is regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Ibsen.  She received rave reviews for her impressive turn in his Hedda Gabler and playing Nora in A Doll's House was triumphant.  She claims the latter was a cathartic experience of sorts.  Playing Nora allowed her to fuse two conflicting sides of her nature... the spoiled child and the independent woman.  It's interesting to note that her favorite stage role of all is not in an Ibsen or Shakespeare work but rather as Tennessee Williams' tragic heroine, Blanche DuBois, in A Streetcar Named Desire.  The author, it's said, was riveted by her performance.

She is spot-on as Richard Thomas' less-than-ideal mother in the  coming-of-age story Red Sky at Morning (1971). More television and stage work intervened and she didn't appear on the big screen until Islands in the Stream (1977), an adaptation of a Hemingway work.  She is loving and feisty as George C. Scott's ex-wife who visits him in his Caribbean home to see if there's anything left of their relationship.  I loved this movie.

She spent the next 20 years doing mainly television.  Most of the work stands with her movie work... something of which she can be proud.  There was Backstairs at the White House (1979), Brideshead Revisited (1981), Ellis Island (1984... and her last with Burton) and Shadowlands (1985).  On the big screen she again played Olivier's wife, this time in Clash of the Titans (1981), and even Woody Allen came calling for roles in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Mighty Aphrodite (1995).

During these same 20 years, she managed to write two wonderful memoirs.  The first, in 1982, largely detailed her career and was called Limelight and After.  It sits on my bookshelves next to two bios on Richard Burton.  (I've told you I'm a sucker for love.) The second, Leaving a Doll's House (1996), is a devastating picture of her life with third husband, novelist Phillip Roth. They were a couple for more than a decade but when they wed in 1990, the marriage only lasted three years.
Many could not believe that this most elegant and stylish actress could write so harshly.  The truth is she has always been a forthright individual.  Roth, of course, was grossed out at her candor and took revenge as best he could.  He thought some aspects of their life should have been left private (and many agreed with him as they blushed and continued reading) even though he cloaked his own life (Jewish angst, sexual longings and materialism) in 
autobiographical fiction like Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint.  And there was the day that he wanted her to read a treatment of his upcoming novel, Deception, in which he wrote about a Jewish actress named Claire whose husband cheated on her with regularity.

Quite naturally she pretty much puts everything that went wrong with their relationship on Roth's shoulders.  We all know that it generally takes two to make a marriage turn sour.  Both are apparently tense people, both likely given to high drama and her friend, Gore Vidal, once apparently claimed she had a neurotic temperament.  It seems to be a time and a marriage that she deeply regrets and yet... and yet... years later she claimed she still loved him.  Oh I dunno... I just dunno.

In 2010 she had another splash of celebrity when she appeared as Queen Mary in the Oscar-winning best picture, The King's Speech. Her last appearance on the big screen has got to be one of her oddest, playing Jerry Lewis' wife in the marital drama Max Rose (2013).

In Bloom, her old buddy Chaplin said that he found an actor with beauty, talent and great emotional range.  Oh Charlie, I so agree.

Next posting:
A good 70s film

No comments:

Post a Comment