Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Garbo says a word or two

One of the movies stuck on my DVR that I finally got around to watching is Garbo Talks. It's available on DVD, so I can feel comfortable doing a full-length blog post on it.

Ron Silver plays Gilbert Rolfe, an accountant with one of the big firms in New York City liing with his wife Lisa (Carrie Fisher). Gilbert also has a mother Estelle (Anne Bancroft) who is quite the character. She loves the movies of Greta Garbo, and she has principles to the point that she's willing to get arrested for them. Indeed, at the start of the movie, Estelle has just gotten arrested again, in a dispute over the price of some produce. It's up to Gilbert to bail her out of jail. What a mother!

Things, however, are about to change. Estelle has been suffering from headaches recently, and they've been getting more severe. When she goes to the doctor, she gets the terrible news: she's got a brain tumor, and it's inoperable. There are some treatments, but they're probably going to be futile, so in all likelihood she's only got six months or so to live. She can't live in her apartment any longer, so it's off to the hospital while the doctors treat her as best they can, and while Estelle waits to die. While having a conversation with Gilbert at the hospital, she comes up with a daffy wish: she'd like the opportunity to meet Greta Garbo before she dies.

It was well enough known that it didn't take the sort of people who nowadays read movie blogs to be aware that there's a big problem with this wish. Garbo was famously private. Not quite reclusive, since she could be seen in shops in the vicinity of her Manhattan apartment; but private in that she wasn't about to let anybody get close to her and didn't do any public appearances. How's a regular schlub like Gilbert Rolfe going to find Greta Garbo, much less convince her to see his mother?

With this begins our son's quirky quest to fulfill his mother's dying wish, regardless of the consequences. There's a substantial monetary commitment in trying to find her, which puts a strain both on his work and on his marriage. But along the way, Gilbert meets a number of interesting characters played by a series of actors not quite of the prestige of an Anne Bancroft. Howard Da Silva (in his final film) plays a photographer who used to stalk people to get photos of them; Hermione Gingold (also in her final film) plays a woman who made silent films with Garbo, although she was well down the cast list; Harvey Fierstien plays a gay man Gilbert meets on Fire Island; and Dorothy Loudon has a hilarious scene as a cat lady/agent.

All in all, Garbo Talks is a pretty good journey, although I have to admit that I found the Estelle character to be terribly irritating. It's easy to understand why Lisa would find her difficult and why Gilbert's sudden chasing of Greta Garbo would put a huge strain on her marriage. Not that Lisa is a saint, of course. But the problems Lisa poses Gilbert seem more for comic effect, while Estelle is the sort of person you'd think seriously about not bailing out the next time she got herself arrested. It is, however, a testament to Anne Bancroft's acting that she makes Estelle a compelling character to watch.

Especially if it shows up on TV anywhere, give Garbo Talks a chance.

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