Sunday 3 February 2019

In memoriam: Verna Bloom (Telegraph 14/01/19)

Verna Bloom, who has died aged 80, was a vivacious, versatile American actress who emerged in the late 1960s into a film industry that struggled to fully integrate her talents. She memorably brandished scissors at Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973); as Dean Wormer’s hot-to-trot wife Marion in Animal House (1978), she flirted with Tim Matheson in the fresh produce aisle, schooling a generation of teens in the difference between “sensuous” and “sensual”. Yet her career would be stymied by Hollywood’s indifferent attitude to ageing female performers. As she noted about Animal House, “It’s my first comedy role... I have friends who tell me I’m the funniest woman in the world, but never give me a comedy role.”

She was born Verna Frances Bloom on August 7, 1938 in the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts to grocer Milton Bloom and his wife Sara (née Damsky). She was a practical child, who took over running the family store after her parents’ divorce; later, she worked as a bookkeeper for a haulage firm. She developed an interest in acting while studying at Boston’s School of the Fine Arts, and after training at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio, eventually upped sticks to Denver, where she and first husband Richard Collier founded the Trident Playhouse. Even here, she was a hands-on presence, treading the boards while simultaneously manning the box office, running PR campaigns and even acting as the theatre’s janitor.

The multitasking was either too much, or not enough: by the mid-1960s, Bloom had divorced Collier and relocated to New York, aiming to make it big on Broadway. Her big break came in 1967 when, as an understudy, she replaced an unwell Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday in the Martin Beck Theatre’s staging of Marat/Sade. She booked her first TV role in The Questions (1967), a one-hour drama in NBC’s Experiment in Television strand, then compiled multiple television credits, including an appearance on long-running Western Bonanza in 1969. Around the same time, she met Jay Cocks, the film critic and long-time Martin Scorsese associate, who was to become her husband for the rest of her life.

As a couple, Bloom and Cocks were at the heart of an emerging cinematic counterculture. (It was Bloom who introduced Scorsese to Bob Dylan’s road manager Jonathan Taplin, producer of the director’s Mean Streets (1973).) Upon a recommendation from Studs Terkel, who’d seen her triumph in the 1967 run of his Amazing Grace, Bloom was cast in epochal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), as the single mother thrust into the (terrifyingly real) tumult around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; a balloting quirk saw her nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress by the National Society of Film Critics. Thereafter, she filmed alongside Cocks and Harvey Keitel in Street Scenes (1970), Scorsese’s document of the growing Vietnam protest movement. 

Two striking roles in notable Westerns followed. In The Hired Hand (1971), Peter Fonda’s slightly undervalued directorial debut, she was haunting as a wife faced with the return of the husband who’d previously abandoned her. In High Plains Drifter, she briefly appeared a match for Eastwood’s diabolically mysterious stranger, hissing “I knew you were cruel, but I didn’t know how far you could go” before being manhandled into the bedroom. Yet for all the impression she made, she was quickly returned to small-screen roles: as the mother of a troubled Linda Blair in starry afterschool special Sarah T. (1975), then in passing, single-episode spots on Kojak (1976), Police Story (1976) and Lou Grant (1977).

As Marion Wormer, she flashed a mile-wide smile, impressing her young co-stars with her willingness to enter so gamely into Animal House’s hormonal free-for-all. Yet this notional comeback cued only fitful career progress. She reunited with Eastwood on Honkytonk Man (1982) and returned to Broadway in 1984 as Aunt Blanche in Brighton Beach Memoirs; Scorsesean loyalty saw her cast first as the sculptress plastering Griffin Dunne in After Hours (1985), then as an altogether lived-in Virgin Mary in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Her remaining screen time was played out on TV, with roles on The Equalizer (1988/89), Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993) and The West Wing (2003) as the stepmother of Allison Janney’s press secretary C.J. Cregg.

In later life, she was diagnosed with dementia, and it was from complications connected with the condition that Bloom eventually passed. She was a devoted wife and mother, a keen animal lover, and an enthusiastic cheerleader for Animal House whenever it cropped up in the cultural conversation. (Her final screen credit came with a short film on the comedy’s 25th anniversary DVD release.) Speaking to the New York Times, however, Cocks observed that the character Bloom most identified with was The Hired Hand’s Hannah: “A very independent, strong, sensual, vulnerable, demanding woman… A lot of her was in that role.”

She is survived by her husband and a son, Sam, a prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney’s office.

Verna Bloom, born August 7, 1938, died January 9, 2019.

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