In film history, Claire Bloom will be remembered as the vibrant young star of one of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest works, Limelight (1952). On the stage, she appeared in historic revivals of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In television, she scored a brilliant success in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. Although she acknowledges that her career has had its ups and downs—an unevenness that plagues most actors and actresses who are at the mercy of fashion, producers, and a range of factors beyond their control—Bloom has had an extraordinary success in London and in New York, the two cities where she has spent most of her life. Her triumphs, however, have been darkened by a personality that is both vulnerable and tenacious. She has been willing to sacrifice nearly everything—including her daughter—to please a man, yet she seems never to have stopped working, and never to have stopped trying to reconcile her personal needs with her obligations as a mother and wife. Bloom calls herself a passive personality, yet she also recognizes the strength of her resilience and her desire to break out of self-destructive patterns.
Bloom has written a book that is remarkably without vanity, the common evil in autobiographical accounts of artist’s lives. Her writing seems an effort to take control of her life by admitting her weaknesses as well as assessing the power that has pulled her through innumerable crises. As her title suggests, she is rather like Nora, the character she played in an important revival of Ibsen’s classic play. At the beginning of that drama, Nora seems passive, childish, and all too willing to please and appease her dictatorial and pompous husband. She allows herself to become a plaything of the male sex—a walking and talking doll. Yet her husband’s need for such an infantile mate eventually suggests to Nora that she has been stronger than she realized. lt has been her job to maintain her husband’s fantasy of a what a woman, a wife, and a mother should be. When Nora realizes how much cunning it has taken to live this “role,” she is released to lead her own. She walks out of the doll’s house determined to live her own life, which is exactly where Bloom leaves her readers at the end of her book—a woman in her mid-sixties determined to take possession of her own life.
Yet what made Bloom a Nora for so many years? She explains in ruthless chronological fashion, starting in her first sentence with the announcement that she was born on February 15, 1931. This simple declaration is a dramatic one for an actress, since aging is exactly what most actresses still worry about, dreading the onset of their middle years when a career usually sags, if it is not ended because of the scarcity of roles for women who are neither young nor yet old.
By announcing the year of her birth, Bloom is implying she was a child of the worldwide economic depression and of World War II. Both of those events instilled great fear and courage in people of her generation. Like many others, Bloom endured but was scarred by traumatic family and world history. In her case, she grew up in an Eastern European Jewish family that grimly but triumphantly adapted to the rigid English class system. She had a supportive mother and aunt who recognized early that Bloom had extraordinary talent. At the same time, Bloom saw herself and her mother at the mercy of a wayward, feckless father, who never could seem to make a living and who deserted the family for another life abroad. Bloom suggests that much of her later experience with men has to do with her father and her fear of abandonment. During the war, she was separated from her father and her native land and lived, like many other British children, in the United States. It was a bitter experience, for her American relatives treated her and her mother as ungrateful burdens.
Although a strong woman, Bloom’s mother, Elizabeth (called Alice by her family,) put up with her errant husband and hectoring American relatives, desperately clinging to the semblance of a family life and stability for her talented daughter. Bloom herself sublimated much of her grief and insecurity in acting, finding that fashioning roles gave her confidence and put her in touch with herself in a way that her family and society could not provide.
Yet the terrifying lesson that Bloom seemed to learn was that no matter how strong she might be, the world—and specifically men—could undermine, if not destroy, her sense of security and accomplishment. In what amounts to a classically Freudian story, Bloom turned again and again to powerful men who became substitute father figures, often lovers, and then destroyers of her peace of mind—as if she wanted to reenact the truths of her childhood.
Bloom has nothing but praise for Charlie...
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