Monday, December 5, 2011
We Are Who We Are
A film about looking back towards the past and desperately trying to find a way into whatever the future will be, GARBO TALKS doesn’t have much to do with the holiday season but in its own sentimental way it is about family and that combined with how it takes place during a cold New York winter made me want to take another look at it at this time of the year. Maybe I thought it would be a sort of substitution for any of the family members I knew I wouldn’t be seeing and, fitting for a movie that seems to take place in a dusty, worn down world, since it’s never been released on DVD I had to make due with a dusty, worn down used VHS tape purchased at the Rocket Video closing sale. If you just happened to start watching GARBO TALKS without knowing anything about it you could hardly be blamed for thinking that the film, released in October 1984, was helmed by a typical journeyman of the Herbert Ross-Arthur Hiller school, presumably hired to bring life to what could very well be thought of as a Neil Simon knockoff script. But you’d be wrong because, somewhat surprisingly, GARBO TALKS was directed by none other than the great Sidney Lumet in what I assume was an attempt at a change of pace for the filmmaker, a gentle story which doesn’t have very much in common with any of his other films beyond its look at family dynamics and a particularly vivid New York portrayal. It’s a mildly sweet, somewhat aimless film about mortality and coming to terms with where one’s life has ultimately ended up, in many cases nowhere near the luxury apartments you may once have dreamed of living that overlook the great city down below. The nostalgia people feel in the film is also something made more bittersweet now considering the amount of people associated with it who are no longer with us--Sidney Lumet of course died earlier this year and both stars of the movie, Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver, tragically succumbed to cancer over the past decade. Of course, the legendary figure referred to in the title died less than six years after this film’s release as well. If there’s somebody out there who hasn’t seen this film since it was released there’s probably only one thing they remember about it which I’ll get to soon enough and I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying this is one of the most unjustly neglected Sidney Lumet films but at the very least it has been forgotten. So it makes just as much sense to look at it now. Hell, the holidays are coming up. Like I’m going to be tough on this film?
Gilbert Rolfe (Ron Silver) is a Manhattan accountant who spends more time than he would like dealing with the antics of his mother Estelle (Anne Bancroft), stubbornly forever getting into trouble by getting thrown in jail for picketing various causes and she’s also just about the world’s biggest fan of Greta Garbo. The relationship is going along as it always has along while Gilbert deals with various problems in his own life including being given a smaller office at work by his overly officious boss Shepard Plotkin (Richard B. Shull) and his wife Lisa (Carrie Fisher) who would be perfectly happy to movie back to her home in Beverly Hills. But things soon change when Estelle is diagnosed with a brain tumor and only given several months to live. Out of nowhere, she reveals her one desire: to meet Garbo before she dies. Gilbert begins his quest to find the reclusive legend, getting spunky co-worker/aspiring actress Jane Mortimer (Catherine Hicks) to help him, as he desperately tries to locate the famous star and bring her to his mother before it becomes too late.
In spite of its plot GARBO TALKS isn’t about death so much as simple resignation, of an awareness that, yes, we’re all going to the same place in the end but maybe we can find a way to not hate ourselves while we’re getting there. It’s a film set in a New York of forgotten rooms containing neglected black & white photos of long ago on the walls, populated by forgotten people who just seem worn down by life’s missed opportunities--the aging paparazzo played by Howard Da Silva who Gilbert hires to help him doesn’t want to be involved with this messiness anymore, his father Walter (the always great Steven Hill) looks back on his ruined marriage to Estelle with wistful regret and even Harvey Fierstein’s Fire Island denizen isn’t the expected over the top stereotype, just another lonely soul in this world who says he doesn’t care about sex anymore and just wants to find somebody to talk to.
Actually, the whole film seems to be set in a world of people who hate to eat alone, who seem to want nothing more than to just get a sandwich with someone. Anne Bancroft’s Estelle Rolfe desperately dreams of meeting Garbo to bring some sort of focus to everything that occurred during her existence and her son ultimately uses it as a chance to find some focus in his own life, to not get dragged down into that level of resignation in his soul-sucking accounting job where he’s been moved to a windowless office without even being asked. Some of this really is a little like wannabe Neil Simon without all the incessant one-liners so early scenes involving Bancroft’s Jewish mother who gets repeatedly thrown into jail, refuses to cross picket lines and thinks nothing of confronting construction workers who are whistling at the girls down below play a little more forced than when the film is able to relax and just go with the emotions. There are also comical stops on this tour of remnants of another time that include a photographer’s agent (Dorothy Loudon, the original Miss Hannigan in the Broadway run of ANNIE) astonished that someone wants to hire one of her clients and a batty old actress played by Hermione Gingold in her final screen appearance, all framed by a blaringly upbeat music score by Cy Coleman that seems a little too insistent on slathering as much charm as possible, with a few pieces that feel like they could have been used during segments of some sort of PM Magazine-type show around the time. A good amount of the plotting in the screenplay by Larry Grusin is a little too rote and when Gilbert begins his search for Garbo he never seems to formulate a precise plan so much as just throwing stuff at the wall to see what will stick and a few stretches do feel a little like the movie treading narrative water such as where he becomes a delivery man to try to get into her building, even if it does add to the ongoing narrative subtext of the upper class forever separated from everyone down below. In fairness, what Gilbert does in his quest feels like a fairly realistic approach to the matter in the pre-internet world but it never feels all that satisfying in how it comes across when the solution to this mystery finally presents itself.
If anything sets GARBO TALKS apart from how it would have played if directed by someone with a completely nondescript style it’s an undeniable level of sensitivity brought to the material by Lumet. There’s a genuine sense of yearning that’s always felt in the characters, whether focusing on Silver’s hangdog expression when he doesn’t get any sleep but also paying attention in his close-ups to moments like Steven Hill’s genuinely affecting regret over what went wrong with his marriage, although it’s not seen to best advantage on this ancient VHS tape, which seems to crop the 1.85 frame—there was a recent TCM airing which I’m guessing looked better but power outages from the recent L.A. winds caused me to miss it. Always better at dealing with absurdity that emerges from a situation within his naturalistic style in films like DOG DAY AFTERNOON or NETWORK it’s clear that the director isn’t really the one to go to if you’re looking for flat-out comedy but when he’s willing to dial things down, like how Catherine Hicks’ Manic Pixie Dream Shiksa is never played too broad, the film achieves a nice, pleasant vibe. And Lumet demonstrates his innate narrative economy, as aimless as the plotting sometimes is, with occasional cutaways back to Bancroft in her hospital room to chart how she’s getting progressively worse. The cold, snowy New York location work is vividly presented along with a brief tour of some New York bookstores around Fifth Avenue that provide some particularly pleasant flashbacks in a Sunday Times Arts & Leisure section sort of way. All this builds to what is sort of the raison d’etre for the whole film (spoilers ahead, if you care) which is Bancroft’s one-take seven minute monologue when she finally meets Garbo in her hospital room, essentially telling her entire life story and how the legend always seemed to play a part--she even references the famous final shot of QUEEN CHRISTINA which ‘went on and on and on’ and what we get to witness is essentially the exact opposite of the frozen visage which ended that film. On one level it overwhelms the smallness of the material and it’s easy to imagine someone arguing that you should simply cut away when Bancroft looks up and sees her—it does feel more than a little like a blatant full court press for an Oscar nomination (didn’t happen, sorry) and maybe is a bit much particularly since by this point in the movie Gilbert really has become the lead character. But at the same time it gives a genuine sense of purpose to all the running around and when Bancroft in the afterglow of meeting her idol tearfully remembers, “She said that we were very much alike,” well, I’ve got a mother. I can’t help it, I kind of tear up. I could spend more time nit-picking about some things but GARBO TALKS is ultimately such a gentle, well-meaning film that there doesn’t seem to be much point and is a nice reminder of a time when people still cared about the long ago movies of classic Hollywood, about that Hollywood that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s minor and, yeah, nobody ever really wants a nice, minor Sidney Lumet film but if he wanted to give it a try in between some of his more serious minded projects there’s no point in criticizing the result too much.
Considering how our mental picture of Ron Silver (RIP) throughout his career may always be as a cocky, well-dressed guy with a beard it’s a nice change to see him clean-shaven playing a total mensch, a completely decent person. His unblinking eyes sell the big speech he has to give late in the film and that one detail is all he needs to provide the moment with all the emotion necessary, setting the performance apart from the rest of his career while also showing just how good an actor he really was. Anne Bancroft (also RIP), while impossible to ever dislike here, has a role that is maybe a little too familiar in its broadness but maybe because of how much emotion comes through in the final stretch that’s maybe all that seems to matter. Catherine Hicks, who I’ve always had an odd fondness for, is downright pixieish in a completely charming and unforced way while Carrie Fisher, much as she seems to be obvious casting as a Beverly Hills Jew, comes off totally flat as Gilbert’s impatient wife with no real variation from one line reading to the next in that zoned-out way I suppose she sometimes affected during the RETURN OF THE JEDI days. It’s not that she plays the role as a selfish bitch, it’s that she doesn’t seem to play it as much of anything and it leaves a small hole in that section of the film. The eternally underrated Steven Hill (all hail Adam Schiff) is extremely affecting as the ex-husband and some of the familiar faces who appear throughout also add a great deal of color particularly the always welcome Richard B. Shull as Gilbert’s smiling cobra boss. Mary McDonnell can be spotted very quickly as a Shakespeare actress if you look fast enough and appearing in cameos as themselves during a MOMA reception are the likes of Adolph Green, George Plimpton, Liz Smith and Michael Musto (Michael Musto in a Sidney Lumet film—that has to be good for some kind of trivia question). Apparently an uncredited Betty Comden appears as…well, if you know what the title is you can probably guess.
In its own humanistic way GARBO TALKS focuses on individuality and how ultimately to get by from day to day some people need to step in line with the rest of the world while others couldn’t do it even if they tried. Some people take life as it comes, some make waves. Both ways of doing things can be valid. “I allowed it to happen,” says Gilbert repeatedly about what was done to him at his job by an eternally smiling prick, a realization he finally comes to. If the last scene says anything, it’s that once you’re willing to take that leap and make a few waves what you’re looking for might appear right in front of you at a moment’s notice. It reminds me of a few things that happened to me at various points in my life. Of course, I probably screwed up every single one of those opportunities but as well all know life isn’t always as simple as it is in the movies. Still, it’s nice to dream.