TIM WALKER recalls an interview with English film and stage actor Claire Bloom who became a star after starring opposite Charlie Chaplin.
Occasionally stars give performances that are so convincing it’s hard to disentangle them from the people they really are. There are few better examples of this for me than Claire Bloom’s glacially cold Lady Marchmain in the classic television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I realised as I knocked on her dressing room door that I was psyching myself up to meet her ladyship. The Miss Bloom inside still retained the character’s poise and elegance, but it became clear soon enough that she was contrastingly human, fallible and likeable.
This was 14 years ago when she was about to appear in the West End in a play called Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. She was then 75 and conscious that a run lasting several months was going to require her to ‘ration’ her energy. I was lucky to see her as she had expended it on very few interviews. She abhorred ‘the cult of celebrity’ and found it tedious when members of her profession felt the need to hold forth on issues of the day. ‘What this or that actor thinks about politics is really neither here nor there,’ she said. ‘Who cares? I most sincerely hope no one takes any notice when they do start talking about such matters.’
That is not to say she’d ever held back when talking about her own mistakes in life. In her memoirs Leaving a Doll’s House, she recounted with painful honesty her bitter divorce from the writer Philip Roth. She’d even admitted that to try to salvage the relationship, she’d thrown Anna, her teenaged daughter from her union with Rod Steiger, out of their house. ‘Philip had given me an ultimatum, but I shouldn’t have written that. I was ill-advised. There are some things it’s better to keep private. Anna and I have, however, come through that. She’s now distinguished herself in the world of opera and I regard her as my best friend.’
Bloom had no wish to see or hear from Roth again. He cost her a great deal, not least in therapists’ bills. ‘It took 10 years for me to come to terms with what happened, but now I can evolve the experience into something that’s positive.’
I noted that all the men in her life had happened to be famous: Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Anthony Quinn and Yul Brynner. There were also, of course, her three husbands: in addition to Steiger and Roth, she had for a time been married to the producer Hillard Elkins. With no formal education to speak of – she was shunted from school to school during the war years – she said she deliberately sought out intelligent and successful men. ‘I learnt a lot from all of them. They kept me on my toes. It was exciting and I’ve always looked for excitement in my life, and, goodness knows, I found it.’
She’d once been quoted as saying that women, when they are involved with great men, always have to ‘fight for their existence’, and had added, darkly, that all the most accomplished artists are also, by definition, monsters. ‘I think if I said that I must have been thinking about a specific experience in my life. I am sure some great artists are very dangerous to women – one thinks of Picasso – but not all of them.’
As a little girl, she had read Screen Romances and dreamt of being a film star. That happened to her when she was 21 and Charlie Chaplin cast her in his film Limelight, in which she played a suicidal dancer to his washed-up comedian. She consolidated her reputation as a serious actress on stage in productions such as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Doll’s House.
In Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, her character observes ‘everyone pays for sex, one way or another’ and that struck her as very true. ‘We always pay an emotional price,’ she said. I asked her if it had ever been too high for her. ‘I’m still here, so I would say it has been fair,’ she replied. I suggested that maybe the greatest and most satisfying relationship of her life had been with acting and she did not demur. ‘I seem somehow to have kept alive in me that sense of wonder that we all have when we are children and we pretend to be someone we are not,’ she answered.