Sisters Under the Mink

Sisters Under the Mink

Sisters Under the Mink

Reading between the lines.
March 5 1997 3:30 AM

Sisters Under the Mink

Claire Bloom and Mia Farrow do deserve compassion.

Leaving a Doll's House: A Memoir
By Claire Bloom
Little, Brown; 251 pages; $23.95


What Falls Away: A Memoir
By Mia Farrow
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 370 pages; $25

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Has anyone noticed the spooky resemblance between these two memoirs? Both were written by actresses famous for playing ethereal, damaged, or somehow incomplete souls. Both actresses chronicle restless, unstable childhoods, capped, in each case, by a quick rise to fame. Both regretfully conclude that they were unprepared for this early acclaim, and that missing out on the trial and error of adolescence caused them permanent damage. Considering how successful these women have been, each of them spends surprisingly little time talking about her work and quite a lot discussing her ill-chosen romantic adventures. The great love of each woman's life was a difficult genius known for his neurotic, darkly comic musings on the battle of the sexes. In Bloom's case, it was the novelist Philip Roth. In Farrow's, of course, it was Woody Allen. In both cases, the affair was a long, ugly, and finally public catastrophe.

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Which leads us to another intriguing similarity between Leaving a Doll's House and What Falls Away: Both have met with awkward, squeamish reviews. Critics have asked tough questions about the writers' judgment and motives: How could these women just sit by and let this happen? Why should we believe either one when she says that her book is an attempt to understand what happened, and not a bid for revenge? In The New Yorker, novelist Daphne Merkin complained that Bloom asks for more sympathy than she deserves. In a pitiless review in a recent New York Times Book Review, novelist Kathryn Harrison wrote that Farrow exaggerates the emotional damage wrought by an early bout with polio, unfairly vilifies Allen, and tries to "solicit sympathy in the court of public opinion." Merkin doubts Bloom's claim that she was helpless: "One can discern, through the pious gloss Bloom puts on the events of her life, the shrewd maneuverings of a stage brat." Harrison accuses Farrow of exploiting her celebrity and touting her famous friends ("the glitterati chorus"), and says that the account of her battle with Allen "will satisfy a Peeping Fan readership."

Why the discomfort? One suspects, in part, a generational explanation. Feminists today--or at least, feminists within the small circle of women assigned to write about women for the elite media, many of them a decade or two younger than Bloom and Farrow--are more upbeat than they used to be, but also more arrogant and hardhearted. They have a "buck-up" attitude. They want women to stop harping about men and start taking care of their own lives. Most of all, they think that women control what they do with their bodies. As long as they consent to something, they can't be victims. This last idea is, in fact, rather weirdly prominent in the work of both Merkin and Harrison. A few months before she reviewed Bloom's book, Merkin wrote a long personal essay for The New Yorker about how much she likes to be spanked. Harrison's review of Farrow precedes by a few weeks her much-gossiped-about new memoir, The Kiss, about her consensual love affair with her father.

Or maybe the reaction points to a new, jaded distrust of celebrity. The days when we felt sorry for the famous are over--nowadays, we dislike stars who plead confusion, insecurity, and no common sense. While this sounds reasonable enough, it overlooks the most gruesome similarity of all: that in the case of Bloom and of Farrow both, it is crippling passivity that brought them to the public eye in the first place and crippling passivity that kept them there.

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E arly on, both Farrow and Bloom demonstrated a flair for acting--and an eerie inertness in their relations with other human beings. Bloom started appearing on stage at 15. But for all her worldly ambition, she writes, "to become an actress as young as I did was to enter a cloister of my own making. ... Woefully, painfully ignorant of the most basic facts of life, I was always ill at ease in the company of men." Farrow's entry into the cloister was even less thought out. She was born into it. Her father was a Hollywood director--another difficult genius, and a violent alcoholic to boot--and her mother was the Irish beauty Maureen O'Sullivan. Dead earnest even as a child, Farrow planned to escape the narrow, competitive world of acting, to become a Carmelite nun or a pediatrician in Africa, until her father's death forced her to start earning money. Thereafter she never left the fishbowl, and when she says she never enjoyed it, you believe her. She bounced from one famous husband (Frank Sinatra, who made her sit around while he drank until dawn with the Rat Pack) to another (André Previn, who made her schedule her work around his).

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Neither actress knew what she wanted, and each was rewarded for her ignorance. When Claire Bloom was 19, Charlie Chaplin recognized that her preposterous inexperience and eagerness to please made her the perfect actress to star opposite him in Limelight as Theresa, "an ideal of pre-Victorian self-immolation." Farrow says that after Roman Polanski cast her in the career-making role of the young, pregnant woman in Rosemary's Baby, he took advantage of her lack of an instinct for self-preservation and filmed a scene of her threading dangerously through oncoming traffic. ("There are 127 varieties of nuts," he marveled approvingly. "Mia's 116 of them.")

In their love lives, each actress served as Miracle-Gro to an especially prized kind of male creativity. Roth coolly plumbed his relationship with Bloom for material. At one point, he even planned to name a character in his novel Deception--a hideous, dowdy actress and an "ever-spouting fountain of tears"--Claire. (She found out, and made him change it.) Allen, of course, made repeated cinematic use of Farrow's skinny, creepy beauty, and her pained, abstracted stare. (She accurately describes herself as "eyes perched on a stalk.")

To be fair, Roth emerges as the tamer monster. But here, too, the analogies are uncanny. Each courtship begins with the great man sending charming but oddly formal notes to his beloved or having his secretary call to determine the time, place, and sometimes the precise length of their meeting. Both Roth and Allen hold forth on the subject of their favorite artists (for Roth, Céline and Kafka; for Allen, the old jazz greats Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton), but are less interested in the women's recommendations. Both loathe their lovers' children and strive to avoid them. Each acts as if everything is all right, then lets loose with crushing invective. Roth resents having to go to the opera, having to make arrangements for Bloom's mother's funeral, and (less unreasonably) having to deal with Bloom's nervousness in the face of illness. Allen throws a tantrum when he and Farrow are walking together on the Upper East Side and Farrow points to a house and asks if it belongs to William F. Buckley. Her sin: She was forgetting that he had pointed out Buckley's house to her the year before. There were explosions, too, writes Farrow, "when I didn't know the name of a certain kind of pasta; and again when I was off in my estimate of the weather by only four degrees."

To put up with any one of these things, let alone all of them, requires an almost monstrous lust for effacement--a taste for masochism. These women are character studies in the most terrifying sort of selflessness, the kind that results from the failure to develop a self. Their celebrity didn't shield them from the consequences of their passivity. In fact, we have watched them be passive on screen for years, and we have applauded. The Passive Woman has long been one of the most cherished staples of our culture, high and low. Who better to play her on screen?

Not that any of this justifies the truly rotten choices both Bloom and Farrow have made. And you can't help but be glad that women these days are at least being told to take care of themselves. But it is curious that these actresses should be attacked instead of encouraged in their efforts to change. (Or maybe it isn't so curious: Philip Weiss tellingly led his attack on Farrow in the New York Observer last week with a little temper tantrum at his mom.) Leaving a Doll's House and What Falls Away seem less like vindictive, manipulative performances than like baby steps in the right direction. They're every bit as awkward as their critics accuse them of being. It's unnerving to hear the muse speak at last, as if a character had escaped from fiction to tell her story for the first time. Her voice is unsteady, and her conclusions sometimes seem canned, evasive, not yet complete. Bloom glides over her motives. Farrow is humorless and steeped in a bottomless melancholy. Still, better late than never. The Passive Woman deserves a little more of our support. It'll be a good thing for all of us if she finally gets into the habit of speaking for herself.