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Thursday, 18 February 2010

Garbo Talks (1984)

Occasionally a minor movie based on the slimmest of premises can become a thoroughly satisfying viewing experience. This is a lightweight concoction from prolific director Sidney Lumet whose vast output includes such classics as "12 Angry Men", "The Pawnbroker", "Dog Day Afternoon", and "Network", as well as a number of other less-known but equally gritty dramas.

Set in New York City, Ron Silver plays a nerdy accountant, uncomplaining and overworked, married to a Californian, moany JAP Carrie Fisher. He is forever having to bail out his constantly-arrested mother, a major turn from Anne Bancroft, who nurtures dozens of self-righteous causes and who protests violently at the drop of a hat. This ended her marriage some years previously and her ex-husband, while still fond of the firebrand, has married a nice, quiet woman. Bancroft's only non-political obsession is with the actress Greta Garbo and a wonderful montage of her old films plays under the front credits while other classic scenes punctuate the action.

When Bancroft is diagnosed with an inoperable tumor and hospitalised with only a short time left, she informs her son that she wants to meet Garbo before she dies. This presents a major challenge for her duitful son, as the reclusive actress, while often seen about in the city, is notoriously private. Staff at her apartment block deny her existence and only a very few charmed souls have any access to the elusive star. However no obstacle is too much for Silver and and his determined mother-love. He pays and hangs out with a celebrity photographer staking out her apartment. He takes a part-time job as a deliveryman (to Fisher's absolute horror), but gets thrown out of her building. He fruitlessly looks for her on Fire Island where she is known to visit, wading out in the surf when he thinks he sees her. He finally spots her at a flea market, approaches her, and pitches his heartfelt plea. Presumably moved by his words, she accompanies him to his mother's hospital room where, left alone with Bancroft, we do not hear her speak (and she is only glimpsed from the back throughout). Bancroft indulges in a heart-rending soliloquy, telling her of the highpoints of her life and pointing out how each of these were marked by various Garbo movies. She later tells her son of their conversation and how very alike she and Garbo are in many ways, while obviously appreciating how Silver has fulfilled her dying wish.

On many levels this film is really a series of episodes rather than a continuous piece of action but they afford opportunities for some wonderful cameos from the likes of Howard DaSilva, Harvey Fierstein, Hermione Gingold, and lyricist Adolph Green. There is also a sweet turn from a potential new love interest, Catherine Hicks, after Fisher sensing looming poverty has high-tailed it back to California. Although still both active, neither Silver nor Hicks have had recently brilliant careers, but they both do wonderful work in this film. The never seen-Garbo is played by two women, one of whom, Betty Comden, is Adolph Green's writing parner. Her character has only one line of dialogue towards the end of the movie which nicely enhances the growing Silver/Hicks attraction.

With its underlying themes of lost opportunities and impending death, this is not quite a 'feel-good' movie, but it is, despite its underlying melancholia, a triumphant celebration of life and devotion.
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