film gems from the past

By Patrick Summers
HGO Artistic and Music Director

The ubiquitous cinema—we all have our favorite films. I’m a voracious movie fan and love finding films I’ve never seen. Our era is not alone in producing mindless junk, but there are some extraordinary movies being made today as well. I think of films made in recent years like Little Miss Sunshine, Midnight in Paris, Her, and so many others. But I’m more likely to seek out old movies: I recently discovered a 1940 wonder, Night Train to Munich, with Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood, though it kept me up too late in these busy days.

I have a few films that I return to ritualistically with each season. No December is complete to me without a viewing of The Lion in Winter, Home Alone, and especially It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the most humane films ever made in Hollywood. Not only was this film not a hit, but it was such a flop that it closed the studio that made it, Liberty Pictures. What a reminder that we are not terribly good at immediate evaluations; we need time and distance. (We will be premiering an opera by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally based on It’s a Wonderful Life during the 2016–17 season, and I look forward to conducting this new work and experiencing the story through opera.)

One film in particular, Garbo Talks, a Sidney Lumet film from 1984, seems to draw me back every 18 months or so. It, too, was not remotely a box office success. I saw it as a college student on a date and we were the only two people in the theater.

The film touches so many subjects that I find moving: stardom, eccentric families, the army of people who make art happen, urban unease, searching for ourselves by projecting meaning onto stars. Garbo Talks tells the story of a political activist, Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft), a lifelong fan of Greta Garbo movies. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, she expresses a single wish to her son (Ron Silver): to meet the famously reclusive actress. The film is his odyssey of finding Garbo, sifting through a range of New York City personalities played by a dizzying range of actors in smaller roles: Dorothy Louden, Hermione Gingold, Adolph Green, Harvey Fierstein, and Howard Da Silva in his final screen role. Cy Coleman wrote the score, and it manages to capture the melancholy remembrances we have of old movies.

But the chief appeal of the film is the elusive Garbo, who was apparently aware of the project but refused, of course, to participate.  For the public, Garbo was ageless. She retired from the screen in 1941 and only close friends ever saw her again. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, even photographs of her were exceedingly rare. Katharine Hepburn made an attempt in the 1960s to get Garbo to return to the screen with her in an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Elektra at MGM, but the project faltered. Garbo Talks is a little gem of a picture, and now feels like an old friend.