WHEN I was in Rome last May, I was given the script of "Ten Days That Shook the World," based on John Reed's book about the Russian Revolution. The idea of working with Serghei Bondarchuk, who is Russia's finest director, was enough to make me accept the part immediately. That I would get to play Louise Bryant, Reed's wife, made it all that more exciting.
After I accepted, the Italian co-producers backed out of the offer; when challenged, they admitted that the Russians had insisted on using a Russian actress. I was disappointed and couldn't understand how a Russian actress, no matter how brilliant, would be able to play a Bohemian woman from Portland, Ore.
Three months later, they had changed their minds once more. They had to fire the Russian actress, the producer explained, because she didn't have anything to do with an American from Portland after all. He then told me the part was again mine, but that I had to be in Russia in 10 days.
I frantically tried to pack everything up and to get some reading done: Trotsky's "The Russian Revolution" came first, followed by "The Romantic Revolutionary" by Robert Rosenstone and "So Short a Time" by Barbara Gelb. Most of all I remember driving around Beverly Hills trying to get all the little things together. I wanted to buy long underwear because I thought I was going to freeze there, and I had to buy gifts for the people on the set. I had heard that they loved blue jeans, but for space reasons I chose instead bikini underwear for the women and athletic socks and T-shirts for the men, as well as an assortment of little soaps and perfumes.
I couldn't imagine what I would talk to the Russians about: I had so little in common with them. "They don't know about houses or homes," I thought. "I'm sure they don't know about feminism, so that is out as a topic of conversation. And they can't speak a lot about fashion because they don't have that much fashion there. Why am I going so far away from my background?"
Before the panic could really set in, though, my sister Lisa and I were on the plane to Rome, where we would meet Bondarchuk and spend the night before leaving for Russia. I had imagined the director would be a heavy-set, swarthy man who smoked too many cigarettes and drank too much vodka. But as we passed by the customs station, an attractive man dressed in what seemed to be Giorgio Armani from head to foot with long, white hair and a moustache smiled and waved to me from behind the customs station. "He's got to be an Italian fan," I thought. But he came over, said he was Bondarchuk, hugged me, told me I had nice eyes and left.
That night, the Italians started talking about all the things that the Russians didn't have. The costumes, they warned, would be totally disorganized. There would be no costume lady. I would even have to wash the clothes myself, they said, because the Russians didn't believe in washing clothes a lot. One would think that a film that cost $50 million would demand the greatest organization in the world, but the Italians claimed otherwise.
I decided I ought to cut my hair and darken it because Louise, who was Bohemian and practical, definitely did not have long, flowing hair in 1917. When I got to the airport the next morning, Bondarchuk asked coldly why I had cut my hair, and then turned away. He didn't talk to me for the next 48 hours.
Landing in Moscow brought more complications. I was immediately rushed into a VIP room that looked more like Kennedy Airport than Moscow, and was offered vodka and caviar. We sat there and talked while everyone else, including my sister, had to stand for hours in the customs line. I had gone into this thinking that everyone would be treated equally in a communist country, but I realized instantly that there was a strong class system in operation and that, as the lead actress in the film, I would be treated better than my sister or the rest of the crew.
I kept asking if someone could go get Lisa. They said, "Yes, we'll go look for her," but she never arrived. This was indicative of what was to happen the entire time; there would be a lot of yeses and a lot of "we'd better do that," and then they would just disappear, along with the things they said they would do.
Finally someone came to get me because they were having trouble with the suitcases that held my books. Trotsky's book posed a real problem because Trotsky has been officially written out of Russian history. (I was delighted when I learned that Trotsky's character would be in the film, but now fear that he will be edited out of the Russian version.)
Before they could figure out what to do, my Russian interpreter, who was to become my constant companion, voice and friend, ran up and said, "No, no, no, you mustn't take any of these books because Sydne is the lead in a film with Bondarchuk." She kept repeating his name as if it were magic, and they agreed not to take Trotsky away. They did, however, confiscate the life of Lenin in comic-book form; they must not have approved of the format. They also tried to take away Newsweek and Time, as well as my copy of Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park," but I hadn't finished reading it yet and convinced them to let me keep it. So I got to read it in Russia, which made it even better.
We eventually got to go to the hotel in Leningrad, where we were ushered into an imperial suite with a baby grand piano. The suite was gilded, huge and absolutely magnificent. Sitting outside in the hall was a woman who collected the key each time we left the suite.
We also met the people from the film. Bondarchuk was there, as was Nellie, the costume lady I had been warned not to expect. While the Italians were mistaken about that, they did not overstate the extent of the disorganization. Nellie, for instance, would continually bring me costumes that were cut badly and that were totally wrong for Louise. She would look at them and say they were wonderful. Then I would say, "No-o-o, Nellie, I don't like it at all." She would whisk them away, and be very pleasant about the whole thing.
Next the cameraman and the assistant director came in. Someone asked to see the costumes I had brought from Rome, so we had a fashion show and the costumes went over very well. Since everyone was there, I asked them to help me pick out what I should wear the next day.
They evaded the issue, saying that they were unsure which scene we would be working on. Since they had had 2 1/2 years of preparation, I was a little surprised. So I asked what part of the script the scene was in. "Somewhere in the middle," they said. From that, we could deduce that it was to be late autumn, cold and outdoors, so I had Nellie go through the costumes. She brought me a period coat with a mink collar. "Louise wouldn't wear this," I said. "She was not rich and would never have worn a mink coat."
They got all up in arms about that. In 1917, they said, mink cost nothing, not even $10, so Louise would have worn it. I refused, saying that Louise should be in something shabbier. "No," they said. "She has to look at least as wealthy as a schoolteacher; she's not a peasant or a bum on the street." They were so insistent that I agreed to wear the mink collar.
I then asked them what time we were going to start work the next day. They said they didn't know that either, but that I probably would be picked up around 2 in the afternoon. "How can this possibly be," I thought. "I'm in this epic film, and they are going to pick me up around 2." I was ready to get up at 5 every morning.
At the time, I put the lack of an answer down to massive disorganization, but now I know better. In Russia, you are not told what they or you are doing simply because they do not want you to know. Their system is based on the idea of your knowing only what they tell you when they tell you. And no matter how much you ask, how often you ask or how hard you stamp your foot, you will still get, "It's going to be all right. Don't worry." If you press further, they say they have to talk to someone else and won't know until midnight.
I arrived on the set the next day to find 5,000 extras dressed like 1917 with all the paraphernalia, including tanks, cars and motorcycles, in place. Obviously someone knew what scene was planned.
It turned out to be the most important scene in the film, set in the beautiful square of the Hermitage, and my costume wasn't right at all. It was too late to do anything about it, so I put on a hat and a red scarf, and decided that the outfit would probably turn out to be correct for the film. It was only then that I managed to calm down.
When I looked around the square, it seemed that the entire Army was there, complete with real generals who were directing their men. The shot was of the Bolsheviks taking power in October 1917, and the generals were all taking orders from Bondarchuk. The extras filled the square, helicopters hovered, log fires glowed and wind machines caused papers and hats to blow all over the square.
The extras, I noticed, were acting beautifully, doing exactly what they should be doing, and doing it professionally. I had never seen that happen before and had to conclude that while the set seemed terribly disorganized to me, it was incredibly organized.
So everyone got into place and we did one shot. Then Bondarchuk came over, kissed my hand, said "Grandiosa," and told me that we were done for the day. "This can't be it," I thought, having memorized 8,000 pages of dialogue. I was ready to get in there and act, but we were indeed finished for the day.
The next day, as Lisa and I were drinking coffee, Nellie and her assistant came up to the room and began what was to become a morning ritual that would last for the three months of filming. First Nellie would look through every single costume on the rack in my room, taking notes. Then she would think about them. "Nellie," I would finally ask, "should I wear the same thing today?"
"Yes," she would say. "I think you could wear the same thing today."
She did this even though the scene was the same scene as the day before and would be for some time to come. I didn't understand her behavior then, and I still don't.
It took us the rest of the week to shoot what was to be the biggest scene in the film. It opened with flames and dust blowing and brilliant beams from the klieg lights flooding the square. As it begins, Louise is standing in front of 10,000 peasants who are about to storm the palace. She turns to John Reed and says, "Are you sure we're doing the right thing? This is not our country." Then the camera moves on as the peasants run screaming past them. That line, which was my first, was so appropriate; I'm sure I had the same feelings Louise did at that moment in history and was just as overwhelmed.
After that scene was over, I felt much more comfortable. The day before, I had told my interpreter that my father's family came from Lithuania. Because I had been told not to, I had not told her I was Jewish, so I was surprised when she brought me some gefilte fish. It was not like any gefilte fish I had ever tasted, but I did find out that Russian food was more than caviar, potatoes and bread. More than anything else, it is delicatessen food. In fact, Russia is the real home of chopped liver, borscht and chicken soup. Even so, during the time we were there, we ate caviar the way an American could eat Cheez Whiz.
I discovered early on that it's not as easy for the Russian masses to get caviar or, for that matter, the basic necessities of life. Driving around Leningrad one day, I noticed huge lines in front of the stores. On one line, people were waiting to buy bread. On another, people had to stand for hours hoping to buy woollen gloves, even though there was no guarantee the supply of gloves would last until they got to the head of the line. Once I even saw a line for blankets and wondered how they could wait in that freezing cold for something as necessary as blankets. My heart went out to these women who were forced to wait so long for their most basic supplies, even though they had to work all day and cook and keep their families united at night.
At the end of the second week, I found out that Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. I was outraged, sad and worried about what was going to happen in the Middle East.
I asked the first three people I saw on the set what they thought. No one knew anything about it, and that, it turned out, was because in "Pravda" it wasn't mentioned until the fourth page, where a tiny paragraph said he had been wounded. When I tried to open up a discussion, two people walked away and no one else seemed interested. This lack of information and interest taught me that I never could talk about politics if I wanted to have a good relationship with the Russians.
Bondarchuk never talked about politics. He confined his conversation to love, romance, acting and charming anecdotes about his adventures in Hollywood. In our conversations, he never offered an opinion about America; whenever I asked him a direct question, he would reply with an obscure and romantic fable that I would have to decipher later on.
I began to realize that I had been thrusting my own feelings and values on the Russians and that this was disturbing to them. I never talked about politics to them again.
My real breakthrough with the Russians came about a week later at an official dinner for the most important people in the film and the minister of culture. We were seated at long tables loaded with caviar and salmon. No one touched the food, but instead started making toasts. The minister, who was sitting next to me, went first and saluted the alliance of Mexican, Italian and Russian filmmakers. Since I was the only American at the dinner and was sitting next to him, I couldn't help but feel slighted by the omission.
After he sat down, Bondarchuk made a toast. Then someone else. And before long, everyone was very drunk and loving. I, too, was forced to speak up. "Even though I am an American," I said, "I always studied Stanislavsky and Chekhov and the other Russian greats, but what I had learned about the Soviet Union made it seem very mysterious, foreign and far away. Before I came over, I was even afraid that we were so far apart that I would never be able to have any kind of contact with your people or any kind of accord with what went on. But I have found out through your great Stanislavsky and now your great Bondarchuk and all the actors and filmmakers how easy it is to have a meeting of our two worlds." When I was through, the women were crying and Bondarchuk told me that I should become a diplomat. After that speech, their behavior toward me changed noticeably.
As they became nicer and more sincere, I became aware of how much I wanted them to like me and how seriously I took being a representative of my country. However, even though their attitude toward me changed, they still did not tell me what scene we were shooting next.
We finished shooting in Leningrad and were off to Moscow. The first day's shooting was John Reed's death scene, which happened in a hospital room in 1921. The evening before the shooting, Nellie brought out the same costume I had worn throughout the film.
Because this scene was important, I said that the costume would never do, that four years had passed and Louise needed to wear something different. So she went into her portfolio and pulled out three costumes she had designed in Leningrad. Unfortunately, she showed me the designs, not the costumes, which could never be made in time for the next day's shooting.
By this point, I was so upset that I went to Bondarchuk, determined not to give in. "I can't shoot tomorrow," I told him.
"But that's the only day we have the set," he said.
"It's the last scene in the film and it is very important," I said, "and I have no costume."
Then he patted me on the shoulder, laughed, and said, "It's going to be okay. Why don't you wear a nice white blouse and skirt?"
"That's what I wore through the entire film."
"It's good and simple," he said.
But I wouldn't give in either, so they called for Nellie and made a big show out of dressing her down. I knew all the time that they were humoring me--it simply was not that important to them what I wore. Finally the assistant director and Nellie hit upon the perfect solution, to have me play the scene in a hospital robe. It worked beautifully; we filmed the scene, evoking much weeping, and everyone was satisfied.
What was most interesting to me about this episode was the Russians' apparent inability to understand what seemed to them my perfectionist attitude. Like every other American, I've seen the posters and the pictures of the Russians working. I had assumed that the Russians were great workers. But they really don't like to work at all. And since they don't get paid more if they work harder, there are no incentives for them to excel. Rather than work, they would much rather drink vodka or tea and talk about their heroes.
In fact, the only time they had to work under real pressure was during the last week of the filming. The Italians had refused to pay the actors overtime and were letting us go at the end of the week. Before we could leave, however, we had to shoot two scenes, which had to be hastily organized, set up and shot. Somehow the Russians pulled it together and, within minutes of the deadline, finished. "Well," Bondarchuk smiled, "we worked like real capitalists today."
While Bondarchuk and the other men I met joked about work, the women were more serious. One day, I was the invited guest at my interpreter's Women in Leningrad meeting. It is an official organization of professional women who get together every month to discuss the status of women. I wrote out some questions for them; even though I knew the responses would be monitored, I wanted to find out about abortion, divorce, children, fashion and plastic surgery in the Soviet Union.
They told me that they loved their work and that their work organizations sometimes alleviated the burden of their daily chores by offering them shopping, hairdressers and child care. They were most interested in how American women spent their spare time and why they worked. I admitted that many women in America spend their spare time watching television. I told them that most women work because they need to round out the family budget but that, given the choice, they would rather stay home with the children. They all laughed, and I knew that they felt the same way. This friendly exchange relaxed the women enough to where I felt they would confide in me.
I then asked them if there was a feminist movement in the Soviet Union. "Of course not," they screamed. "We already are the most important sex and the strength of the working society." Abortion, they said, was the only measure of birth control available to them. Divorce was on the upswing, they felt, because the single life seemed preferable to life with an alcoholic husband. Although they could get plastic surgery, most women don't care to avail themselves of it. The only time the women got indignant was when I asked if they were interested in fashion. "Of course we are," they said. "We are women." Even so, the main stylistic influences I could see were '50s makeup and beehive hairdos.
When I asked how they saw themselves in their old age, they replied that they could only envision themselves as workers.
My image of the Soviet male was based on Serghei Bondarchuk, a romantic through and through. In the other countries I have worked in, the first words of the language I have learned have been vulgar or aggressive words, but the first phrases he and the others wanted to teach me in Russian were endearing. Serghei felt that perhaps I would need to know "ach te mia duschenka," which means "You're my dear little soul." He thought I might need it as preparation for any romantic encounter I might and should, he added, have while there.
To the delight of everyone on the set, I did have a romantic relationship and found out firsthand how charming the Soviets' romantic strain could be. I met a wonderful artist in Moscow and was surprised that he even spoke to me because the Soviets do not approach foreigners--mainly to avoid problems with their work or with getting visas in the future. At the beginning, I feared that this artist was jeopardizing his position and his chance to travel in the future.
I had a very nice friendship with him that lasted a little while. One day, I asked him about his girlfriend. "If you have a girlfriend you like," I said, "why do you see other girls?"
He looked at me and very, very seriously said, "You're not another girl. You're a sylphid" (a fairy). He was telling me that I had nothing to do with anything he knew about, that I had come into his life as if from another planet and could never be considered a normal person from his viewpoint.
Afterward I told a friend what he had said and she immediately understood. "He's right," she said. "You are a sylphid. Men cannot go with other girls in our country, but they can always go with a sylphid."
This extraordinarily romantic way of thinking came as a relief to me. It removed any melancholy and, more importantly, any responsibility that I might have felt from the relationship's ending. I stopped worrying that he would now be unhappy with his life. His total commitment to romance eliminated any possibility of those complications for either of us.
This romantic episode helped make my entire Soviet experience a very tender one. Although I could criticize much of the Russian way of life, it would be a criticism based only on my standards. Instead, I sincerely choose to look at the experience as magical. While they do not live with the freedom, frivolity and glitter that we enjoy, the Soviets have managed to keep the spirit of romance alive--and it is that testament to the human spirit that I will remember the most.