A Dying Mother has a Silver Screen Dream…
After Estelle tells her son she’d love to meet Greta Garbo, he tries to track down the reclusive Swedish actress to do just that.
Garbo Talks Trailer 1984, Video Detective
I do enjoy seeing feisty mother characters who light up the screen with a wonderful script. Needless to say, soap operas are full of good examples. Immediately Dynasty‘s Alexis Colby comes to mind and this mother was played with panache by the incomparable Joan Collins. Other honourable mentions for actresses, Stephanie Beacham in The Colbys (1985-87), Barbara Windsor in EastEnders (1985) and Barbara Bel Geddes in Dallas (1978-91).
In the movies, there are mothers as diverse in plot and character as Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 (1991), Cher in Mermaids (1990) and Rosalind Russell in Gypsy (1962). Not forgetting Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967). Garbo Talks (1984), a bittersweet comedy stars the last of these actresses, with another maternal role for Anne Bancroft.
Garbo Talks 1980’s film plot still felt fresh and original. This poignant film was directed by Sidney Lumet who brought an all-star cast and Agatha Christie book to the big screen in the majestic Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and the unlikely on-screen family of Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and
Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick together in a family heist film, Family Business (1989).
The film begins with some wonderful Greta Garbo inspired credits. These show an animation of a girl’s life through the years to her role as a present-day elderly mother, resembling Anne Bancroft’s character Estelle Rolfe. This animation is accompanied by film photographs of Greta Garbo. This animation beautifully sets the scene showing this now divorcee mother’s Estelle Rolfe’s lifelong love of this actress.
The film starts with the ending of one of Garbo’s films, Camille (1936). I’ve never seen this film, but it seems to be a tragic romance just judging from this ending scene. Anyway, Estelle is watching this film in bed, and sobs as the final credits roll. Meanwhile, her daughter in law Lisa (Carrie Fisher) tells Estelle’s son Gilbert (Ron Silver) that she is missing her home in California and how much she hates living in New York. He falls asleep as she’s talking.
After he’s late for work at an accountant’s company, he discovers his office has been moved to a windowless and soulless room. He tries to complain to the boss but he is talked over and then bustled out of the room. Gilbert gets a phone call and finds out his mother, Estelle has been arrested. This seems to be a regular thing for his outspoken mother and this time it’s for stealing courgettes from a supermarket.
Estelle (Bancroft) is seen – and heard – to be a feisty, strong and passionate woman who believes in peoples rights. She will literally go to any lengths to make a point. After he bails her out on her way home, she challenges a building worker for making lewd comments at a passer-by. This is after she uses their work lift to confront him on the building site.
Back at work, Gilbert meets Jane (Catherine Hicks), a pretty blonde wannabe actress. Jane is now working for the company, and he meets her as she’s doing some floor breathing exercises. He seems immediately attracted to her. His mother meanwhile is squabbling with an antique seller about a film still from a Greta Garbo movie, and the pair debate strongly about which one of her movies it comes from.
Lisa and Gilbert have dinner with his father Walter (Stephen Hill) and his present wife, Clare (Alice Spivak). Lisa talks enthusiastically about California life and tells them that her father has offered Gilbert a job there. Alone with Gilbert, Walter talks about his former marriage with Estelle. He seems wistful about Estelle but happy with Clare. Gilbert tells him Estelle has been having migraines and about her recent arrest.
Gilbert goes for lunch with Jane but he tells her he’s married. Estelle has dinner with Lisa and Gilbert, and it’s clear that she doesn’t like her daughter in law. Gilbert then learns that his mother has an inoperable brain tumour and she needs hospital admission for treatments. As he talks to his mother in the hospital, she tells him her lifelong dream of meeting Greta Garbo. As the script goes…
Estelle Rolfe: I wanna meet Garbo!
Gilbert Rolfe: Why?
Estelle Rolfe: Why shouldn’t I? I’m dying!
Gilbert then sets off on a quest to find Greta Garbo, who is now a reclusive actress living in New York.
Estelle becomes more and more unwell but she still keeps her fighting spirit and humour. Gilbert meets some interesting characters in his mission to find this actress and he takes on some new work roles and hours as delivery men to try to enter Garbo’s apartment block.
As he also spends his life savings, his marriage with Lisa crumbles. Lisa is now horrified at being poor and she leaves him. Meanwhile, his friendship with Jane develops and there is an obvious mutual attraction. And the full story is found in the usual ways…
I really enjoyed this film, but I was surprised to learn this was a flop at the box office. I disliked they made Carrie Fisher’s character and her motivations seem a bad thing. Lisa was painted as a woman who wanted to have the good things in life and selfish as she wanted to move back to California after her mother in law died. Bancroft also put down her daughter in law in a few lines, and there seemed no context given for her dislike of this character.
In contrast, Jane was more irritating as a character, she had little chemistry with Gilbert. This was despite her and Gilbert’s attraction. Personally, I would have meshed the best of these actresses’ character personalities and storylines together. This would have made a strong and supportive love interest for Gilbert. However, with the given material, Fisher shone beautifully in her role.
I also felt that there were not enough scenes with Anne Bancroft. I would have loved her to be more involved in the quest to find her idol. And to have met and Harvey Fierstein’s character, Bernie Whitlock, a fellow Garbo fan. Whitlock seemed a lovely – but lonely character – and I would have loved to see him in a scene talking Garbo with Estelle over dinner.
I was happy to see Bancroft starred in Torch Song Trilogy (1988) with Harvey Fierstein. Here she shone in another maternal role. I also felt there could have been scenes with Estelle and her ex-husband, Walter. His character also seemed underdeveloped but it did seem there were possibly unresolved feelings between them.
However, Bancroft was a real tour de force in all her scenes and she easily stole every scene. Her delightful wisecracks and script showed her skills as a great comedienne. These skills were seen but not heard in her silent film with her off-screen husband, Mel Brooks in Silent Movie (1976).
In this film her wisecracks included;
“If your head’s in the toilet, don’t blow bubbles.”
(Estelle to a construction worker who had made lewd comments)
“You know, I know everybody’s gotta die, but I really thought I was gonna be the first exception.”
(Estelle on finding out she’s dying)
“she could have read War and Peace””
(Estelle hearing her daughter-in-law took 3 hours to prepare a meal)
For her performance, Bancroft rightfully earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical. This award was won by Kathleen Turner for Romancing the Stone (1984). Having seen and loved both these actresses’ performances in these films, I personally felt after seeing Bancroft’s lengthy final speech and monologue that this showed a wealth of talent. And I would have easily chosen her for this honour for this scene alone.
And in answer to whether Greta Garbo does appear in this movie, and for more the ending of Camille (that Garbo in-film movie), I’m going to be a meanie and not elaborate on either of these. And so I won’t be approving any comments that tell-all, as it really would be a major spoiler for everyone – and their mother.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
The Anne Bancroft Blogathon 2021 No 26
This post was added to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’s Anne Bancroft Blogathon. Anne Bancroft stars in The Graduate and a future post coming soon on Silent Movie. Carrie Fisher is remembered HERE in a number of her movies and also starred in Appointment with Death. Catherine Hicks stars in Peggy Sue Got Married. Ron Silver in Romancing the Stone and The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective. Steven Hill in Heartburn, Columbo. Howard Da Silva in The Man from UNCLE. Harvey Fierstein in The Simpsons and Family Guy.