Life & Culture

Claire Bloom - a star who lives up to her name

Actress Claire Bloom talks to the JC about her past successes, and regrets, and her hopes for the future


Shes made more than 60 films, is lauded for her stage, TV and radio work, is an Emmy and double Bafta award-winner, and has worked with almost every great actor of the 20th century. 

So why isn’t the luminous Claire Bloom a Dame? Now a scarcely believable 85 and still radiantly beautiful, the woman who was picked by Charlie Chaplin to star opposite him in the iconic 1952 film, Limelight, was given a CBE in 2013 for services to drama. But she smiles quietly and says: “Well, I don’t know. All my contemporaries are Dames.”

We are talking because, on Sunday, this most soignée of actresses is appearing at London’s JW3 to take part in a Q&A after the screening of her seminal horror film, The Haunting.

Made in 1963, The Haunting is one of the world’s most acclaimed horror films, voted by the Guardian as one of the top 20 horror films ever made, and rated highly by Spielberg and Scorsese. Directed by Robert Wise, who made West Side Story before it and The Sound of Music immediately after, The Haunting stars Bloom, Julie Harris, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson.

Based on the novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the story follows Johnson’s Dr John Markway, a paranormal investigator, who persuades two women to help him explore the haunting of a sinister house — Eleanor (Julie Harris), a timid spinster plagued by guilt, and Theo (Claire Bloom), a hip young woman with psychic ability.

As Bloom recalls, the filming took place “in a most horrible house, physically ugly.” In an audio commentary for the DVD of The Haunting, Harris complains that Johnson, Tamblyn and Bloom poked fun at the script and found herself unable to relax and socialise with them.

That’s not the way Bloom remembers it. “We weren’t poking fun at the film; she didn’t understand. Actually, we were poking fun at her, because she took it all so seriously. It is a very remarkable film, there’s no question; and it was very difficult for us, because all those special effects of doors expanding or eyes in the statues, or terrible noises, well, we didn’t see or hear any of that, but we had to react as though we had. We had to imagine, and I think it was very well done.”

Bloom had been attracted to the film by Wise, who was the editor on Citizen Kane. “That impressed me mightily, as indeed it should have done. And when you see The Haunting, the wonderful shots must have been of Robert Wise’s devising, and they are very Orson Welles-esque, with extraordinary angles”.

To underline her character’s kookiness — in fact, Theo is supposed to be gay, but that is a very subtle message — Bloom suggested that her clothes should be produced by the hippest designer of 1963, Mary Quant. Her first appearance is in a stunning Pop Art coat and co-ordinating black turban, an even more pointed contrast with the meek-and-mild wardrobe worn by Julie Harris’s character.

Bloom remembers getting on well with Tamblyn and Johnson and “giggling” during some of the filming although Harris refused to speak to her. “But a few days after the filming ended, my mother had an antiques shop on Walton Street and Julie turned up there to see me, with this beautiful antique beaded pillow, which she gave to me. And she said, ‘I’m just so sorry that we didn’t speak but I couldn’t, because of my attitude to you in the film.’ I was so glad she explained it to me, because I really thought she disliked me”.

By 1963, when The Haunting was made, Bloom was an acclaimed actress, but her early life gave few clues to her later success.

Born Patricia Claire Blume in Finchley, north London, to Elizabeth Grew and Edward Max Blume, her early childhood was peripatetic in the extreme. Her father was a not very successful salesman, and the family moved all over the UK, from Cornwall to Bristol and New Milton in Hampshire.

Bloom’s maternal aunt, Mary Grew, was a successful West End actress and became a mentor to the young Claire. Her grandmother, Pauline, the daughter of a Frankfurt rabbi, underpinned the family’s Jewish identity with Friday-night dinners and festival observance.

In 1941, Bloom’s father’s brother David and his wife invited Elizabeth, Claire and her younger brother John to live with them in Fort Lauderdale, Florida while her father stayed in England. Bloom is affronted when I ask why her father did not go, too: “A man wouldn’t leave his country in time of war”. The rest of them went, but it was not a happy time. “I didn’t understand it then but I think I do now, I think they meant well, but to have three strangers living with you, it was very difficult. My mother was told she had to work in Aunt Estelle’s dress shop, but she proved to be a dreadful saleswoman, and they just weren’t very nice to us.

“Eventually, after about a year, my mother asked David to give us $50 a month and she would take us away — and she did; she had a cousin in Forest Hills, New York, and we had a room in someone’s apartment.”

The family went back to London while the war was still on — her parents divorced later and Bloom did not see her father for a long time — and after a short period in a “crammer” to try to get some educational qualifications, Bloom entered the Arts Educational School,“run by three marvellous sisters, Miss Tracy, Miss Lilian and Miss Valerie.” This was followed — at her Aunt Mary’s insistence — by time at the Guildhall School, and then at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Her first job was “a marvellous part: Ann of Oxford Street in Thomas De Quincey’s Opium Eater on BBC radio.

“I went to the director of the school and told her the wonderful news that I had this part, and she said, well, we don’t think you’re ready, so either you stay at school and lose the job, or take the job and leave the school.” Bloom left and, at just 17, began getting high-profile stage work, such as Ophelia in Stratford opposite the alternating Hamlets of Paul Scofield and Robert Helpmann.

Limelight in 1952 was Bloom’s break-out film; chosen by Chaplin himself, the 21-year-old turned in a bravura performance as a young, suicidal ballerina saved by Chaplin’s ageing, music-hall clown.

In the years since, Bloom has been a sometimes poignant, sometimes regal presence in theatre and cinema. Among her favourite roles are parts she played in Look Back In Anger (opposite her first great love, Richard Burton); Richard III (with Laurence Olivier) and in the film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, again with Burton.

“I always played the parts I wanted to play,” she says, although she never played Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth and seems slightly wistful about it. Nor did she play Portia, or Masha in Three Sisters, both parts she would have loved.

She has been married three times: in 1959 to actor Rod Steiger, with whom she had her only child, Anna, now a well-regarded opera singer; in 1970, to American Broadway producer Hillard Elkins, who persuaded her to leave Steiger (a short-lived marriage which Bloom now regards as “an enormous mistake”); and, most convulsively, to writer Philip Roth, marrying him in 1990 after 15 years of living together.

Famously, Bloom asked Roth to marry her, and cruelly, he agreed, on condition that she signed a pre-nuptial agreement that would give her very little in the event of a divorce — which he duly demanded two years later.

Even more cruel, from an outside perspective, was Roth’s insistence — and Bloom’s seemingly inexplicable compliance — when they were living together and Anna was a teenager, that Anna could not live with them.

This led to 18-year-old Anna moving to a student hostel and a long estrangement between mother and daughter, long since mended.

Unsurprisingly Bloom doesn’t care to talk about the Roth years these days, though she once described the relationship as the most important of her life.

It seems extraordinary that this great actress hasn’t appeared on stage, screen or TV in the past two years — and she admits that she would still like “to do something interesting.” Arguably Anglo-Jewry’s greatest star, Bloom, like Theo in The Haunting, is still ready for adventure.

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