She was the archetypal English rose. Gore Vidal, a long-time confidant, once called Claire Bloom "one of the most beautiful of postwar screen presences and the finest interpreter of Ibsen in this generation."
In the early days of Bloom's career, the petite British actress was the toast of the Old Vic in London, on Broadway and the silver screen. Critics raved about her sensitive portrayals of Shakespeare's Juliet, Ibsen's Nora Helmer, Tennessee Williams's Blanche Dubois and Charlie Chaplin's Terry, the suicidal ballerina in the 1952 film Limelight.
Women envied her. Men fell at her feet. She had a luminary love life that included affairs with the likes of Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Yul Brynner and Anthony Quinn. Three marriages, to actor Rod Steiger, theatrical producer Hilly Elkins and novelist Philip Roth. One daughter, Anna (with Steiger). And three wrenching divorces.
At 70, her life is now much more placid. Still, looking back, the actress clearly sees the past seven decades as a grand, tumultuous adventure.
"There's been so many leading men, it's hard to pick my favourites," Bloom giggles a little shyly into the phone from her suite in Montreal, where she is currently shooting a movie, The Book of Eve,based on the novel by Constance Beresford-Howe.
"But I guess I enjoyed the most working with Burton, who was outstanding and we did so many things together." (Bloom had an affair with Burton, then married to his first wife, Sybil, and lost her virginity to him at 22). "And I have immense respect for Olivier, the greatest actor of the century, I'm sure. He was absolutely electric. He could play an enormous range of things, and had this terrific magnetism."
She has worked with some of the most talented directors in the business, including Woody Allen and Tony Richardson. Of them all, though, Chaplin stands out "as a genius of film.
"He was wonderful, fascinating, demanding, and difficult," says Bloom, who was discovered by Chaplin while working at the Old Vic in the early 1950s. "But above all else, he was a genius. Nobody has what Chaplin had. He was totally unique. You can't compare anyone with him."
For years, Bloom seemed to neatly sidestep the realities of age. She is still as regal, refined and self-assured today as in the bloom of youth. And far less vulnerable.
Bloom may be entering the so-called twilight years, but she shows few signs of slowing down. She still works like a Trojan, performing recently in a musical in Seattle, giving readings, doing some theatre and even making an appearance recently on the TV soap opera As The World Turns. She works partly because she needs to, but mostly, the actress says, to stay challenged and fulfilled.
"Acting keeps the childlike part of me alive," says Bloom, who lives in New York. "It keeps me young. It keeps my imagination working. I think I prefer film over the theatre because now I find the repetition of theatre tiring. I also like to work with a crew, the closeness one gets. It's very communal."
Bloom is just now finishing the shooting of The Book of Eve, an Anglo-Canadian production directed by Quebec filmmaker Claude Fournier ( The Tin Flute)and co-starring Canadian singer Daniel Lavoie as Bloom's love interest. To be released late this year, it's based on the 1973 novel by Montreal writer Beresford-Howe about a housewife who leaves an ungrateful husband.
The day Eva Smallwood gets her first pension cheque, she rebels, walks out on her spouse, home and grown son. She finds a small basement apartment and tries to rebuild her life, eventually having an affair with Johnny (Lavoie), a Romanian immigrant 20 years her junior.
Her heart is broken when she finds out he has been having an affair with a young waitress. She bans him from her life, pulls herself together again, and eventually makes peace with her son. The film also stars Susannah York and Julian Glover.
The story has some eerie parallels to Bloom's own life. Like Eva, Bloom came of age in the 1940s, when women still deferred to men. In the past, Bloom has admitted she has let herself be victimized. An explosive 1996 memoir, Leaving A Doll's House (about Bloom's relationship and bitter divorce from the novelist Roth) devotes a good 100 pages to her marital subjugation and eventual rebirth.
Today, Bloom does not want to dwell on the ugliness in her past, but she agrees there were times it was difficult to play the role of Eva because some things struck too close to home.
"I could relate to the whole story because I also tried to remake my life," says Bloom, who began her relationship with Roth in 1975, married him in 1990, and was divorced four years later. "Yes, I found very poignant the fact that she does fall in love, and gives herself in every possible way to this younger man. And then finds, of course, that he's been having an affair with a 20-year-old girl. Not amusing. But she rises above it," says Bloom in her soft British accent. "Yes, I found all that very hard . . . it goes deep."