Occupying the number 145 spot on Box Office Mojo’s list of top money makers of 1984 is GARBO TALKS, a relatively small dramedy directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet. That’s certainly nothing to brag about, particularly for a filmmaker of Lumet’s caliber, but despite the lack of audience attendance in 1984 GARBO TALKS is a movie worth watching.
While audiences in 1984 didn’t respond well to GARBO TALKS it received mostly favorable reviews primarily due to the fine performances delivered, particularly on the part of Anne Bancroft, which is enough of a reason to watch this movie. However, of particular interest to fans of classic movies is the story depicted in the film, which centers on a fan’s love for one of the greatest stars of the golden age of the silver screen. For that reason I break a rule with this post, dedicating a write-up on this blog to a post-classic era film. Now, I won’t pretend GARBO TALKS is a great motion picture. In fact, it doesn’t even come close to the top films directed by Sidney Lumet who happens to be one of my favorite filmmakers. But, in a year replete with huge, memorable releases as was the case with 1984, this one tugs at the heart with memories of a reclusive former star and it deserves a bit of attention.
GARBO TALKS has two scenes, the two that depict the story’s resolution, that “get to me” as I assume they do others who can identify with loving the stars of the silver screen who’ve become entrenched in our hearts and memories. I discuss those below, but note that the commentary includes spoilers, so if you don’t care to know what happens in the movie, stop reading now.
At the peril of his job, his bank account and his marriage, Gilbert Rolfe (Ron Silver) makes it his mission to grant his mother’s last wish, which is to meet her idol, Greta Garbo. The feisty and opinionated Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft) – an eccentric, but typical Jewish mother – has been given a grim diagnosis, she has but a few weeks to live due to an inoperable brain tumor. Gilbert’s odyssey to somehow get close enough to the elusive Garbo to ask her for the favor of visiting his mother at New York Hospital tests his stamina and strains his dignity, but he’s determined.
Gilbert starts off by hiring a former paparazzo (Howard Da Silva) who’d gotten photos of Garbo in years past so he can stalk the star outside the building where she resides. When that fails he disguises himself as an ACME delivery man and works part-time for a deli in hopes of delivering food to Garbo. Again, those efforts fail as does his trip to Fire Island where he learns Garbo frequently “escapes to.” Then one day Gilbert attends a special screening of Ernst Lubitsch’ NINOTCHKA (1939) at the Museum of Modern Art and overhears a conversation about a frequent Garbo co-star who’s still acting. Gilbert finds the actress, Elizabeth Rennick (Hermoine Gingold) who tells him Garbo frequents the 6th Avenue flea market in the City. Well, Gilbert goes to the flea market and there, wandering the busy market is Greta Garbo.
The music begins casually as Gilbert walks through the crowded market that day. We simultaneously hear people whispering, “Is that…? I think it is” as we see the back of the woman wearing a distinct, hooded coat and a hat. It’s Garbo stepping from table to table perusing the items for sale. Gilbert finally catches a glimpse of her from afar. The music swells as he hurriedly makes his way through the crowds. He stops just in front of Greta Garbo. Now out of breath he asks, “can I have a minute of your time, please?” Garbo is ready to retreat but he begins to talk from his heart, “It’s about my mother,” he begins, “My mother is very sick…she loves you so…she loves you, maybe even more than me.”
Cut…to the next scene where we see Garbo, again from behind, as she walks toward Estelle’s room. She enters silently, staying in the dark until the bed-ridden woman does a double-take as the realization dawns – the face she’s admired for so long is now looking back at her. Clearly moved and nervous, Estelle doesn’t stop talking as the woman facing her sits – and listens. “I have no words,” Estelle tells her as she recalls seeing that face for the first time in FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926) and the other times Garbo movies marked important moments in her life. “You had me in the palm of your hand. Every time you moved I sighed.”
Garbo leaves Estelle’s room without us hearing her utter a word. But she spoke to Estelle, as the now elated woman tells her son. Her joy is absolute. One of the final moments of her life and her dream comes true – a supremely well-acted scene by Anne Bancroft.
GARBO TALKS may be a bit too sentimental, but it is also irresistible. The most unlikely of Sidney Lumet’s three comedies and it does supply laughs, GARBO shares little else thematically – outside of the prominent role played by New York City – with his other, more acclaimed films. It occurs to me he lets his guard down with this movie to expose his warm and fuzzy side.
Adding to the appeal of GARBO TALKS is a fine score by Cy Coleman, a wonderful, animated opening sequence and a memorable supporting cast, which includes a post RETURN OF THE JEDI (before it was an “episode”) Carrie Fisher who plays Gilbert’s soon-to-be-estranged wife, Catherine Hicks as his co–worker and Steven Hill as Gilbert’s father and Estelle’s ex-husband, Walter. Smaller roles are played by Dorothy Loudon and Harvey Fierstein with the added bonus of a few cameos by recognizable New York society faces. However, extra special are the appearances in the film by Howard Da Silva and Hermoine Gingold as this is the last film role for each. They both made their feature debuts in the 1930s. Finally, playing Garbo in GARBO TALKS in an uncredited role is Betty Comden and Greta Garbo herself by way of archival footage of her movies.
1984, the year of this film’s release and the theme of the blogathon event to which this post is submitted marked Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s diamond jubilee, its 60th anniversary and this year marks the grand studio’s 90th. So, I dedicate this post to MGM for small wonders like GARBO TALKS and the still impressive golden age movies that made me a classics fan so many years ago. AND, I also dedicate this to all our Garbos.
This post is my submission to 1984-a-Thon hosted by Forgotten Films to whom I extend a congratulations on a superbly hosted, impressively attended event. Please be sure to visit the host site to read about the films Big Brother was Watching.