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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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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."

In her book, Bloom says Roth sent her a bill for $150 an hour for the 600 hours he had spent rehearsing scripts with her, and demanded the return of everything he had provided in their 18 years together. After the divorce, when Bloom negotiated a $100,000 settlement, Roth faxed her a bill for $62-billion, one billion for each year of her life. Much later, she learned that when they parted the novelist was already involved with another -- younger -- woman.

Roth never publicly rebutted Bloom's book. But in 1999, he published a novel, I Married A Communist,in which he drew extremely unflattering characters that many believe the autobiographical writer based on Bloom and her daughter, an opera singer who now lives in Paris. (In another Roth novel, Deception,he has Philip, the narrator, married to "an actress by profession . . . who comes from a self-hating Anglo-Jewish family" and "is nothing better than an ever-spouting fountain of tears." The couple were still married when he wrote that book, in which he named the female character Claire. Bloom threatened to sue him. He took her name out).

She wrote the memoir, she explains, "because I felt a great need to express this tremendous upheaval in my life. I wanted to put it together on paper. It was a biography of my whole life. It wasn't just about Philip. At the time, I needed a big project, something to absolutely engross myself in."

Despite everything, Bloom says she has no regrets about her relationship with Roth. "I came out of that marriage enriched spiritually, by having lived with a brilliant man for 18 years."

Bloom says she was drawn to the Book of Eve script because Eva's story ends with an epiphany of sorts. "Just the fact that a marriage ends and a woman is by no means destroyed. I liked that."

She adds: "In fact, Eva is empowered by a kind of freedom at the end. She is lonely, there is no question about that, but she is a survivor and still gets great joy out of her life. That's what I like about the character. She not only survives but she enjoys everything, day to day. She has an innate optimism and a good temperament.

"I think I've become much more like that too. I wasn't that way when I was young. I was always worried and anxious. But you get to a point in your life when you realize that's ridiculous. You just want to enjoy everything you can."

Bloom says she was also attracted to the role because Eva takes chances, has guts and proves she can stand on her own two feet.

"Nora slammed the door in A Doll's House in 1890, and Eva slams the door in 2002. Society's attitudes to women have changed immensely, but I don't think women's problems have really changed all that much. It's still a big step to go out on your own, without a man or money behind you. But Eva, like Nora, was stifled in her marriage. She broke free and she just keeps rising above the various things that stand in her way."

Bloom's career started with an appearance in a BBC radio play. At 15, she made her stage debut as Private Jessie Killigrew in It Depends On What You Mean at the Oxford Repertory Theatre in October, 1946. She soon graduated to playing leading Shakespearean roles at Stratford-upon-Avon. Her London stage successes included The Lady's Not For Burning and Ring Round The Moon. She played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic Theatre and at the Edinburgh Festival. Chaplin's Limelight made her a star. Bloom's next major role was Lady Anne in Olivier's Richard III (1954).

Of contemporary screen roles, Bloom stood out as the sexually unstable housewife in The Chapman Report (1962),the lesbian psychic in The Haunting (1963) and Lady Marchman in Brideshead Revisited (1982).

Although Bloom was thrust early into the spotlight, she never became a top star in the Hollywood sense. But she's never been out of work. Two months ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally honoured Bloom's five decades in the business at a ceremony at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Now 70 and single, Bloom seems comfortable with growing old. "If you could tell me an alternative, I'd be interested, but everyone gets older. It's just a fact of life."

Now that The Book of Eve has wrapped, Bloom is gearing up to do five recitals in various U.S. cities, "which will take me through the end of March." Then she's going to Argentina to a film festival. She also has a visit planned with her daughter, the mezzo-soprano, in Paris.

"Then I don't know exactly what I'm going to do. Maybe read a book." -*** -*** Corrections
Constance Beresford-Howe is a Toronto-based author. Incorrect information appeared yesterday. (Tuesday, January 15, 2002, Page R2)

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