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Another Honor for Claudette Colbert

Veteran actress looks back over a rich career as she prepares to accept Kennedy Center laurels

CLAUDETTE COLBERT is waiting in the wings of her 10th-floor apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park. In a minute there is a waft of lily-of-the-valley perfume, and she appears, hands extended, as though greeting a house guest, a wide, radiant smile on her famous face. It is a surprise to find that the star who is known for her cooly funny romantic comediennes is so warm in person. She urges the interviewer to a comfortable chair, a cup of hot tea, a slice of frosted orange pound cake. Then, when we are settled, she looks directly at me and says, ``There's nothing new I can tell you. My life has always been an open book. What's great is that I'm still here.''

Not just still here at what she candidly points out is 85, but still picking up glittering prizes for a career that has spanned nearly 60 years and 64 films. This weekend Miss Colbert will put her star in marble as one of the five Kennedy Center honorees saluted annually for their life-long achievements in the performing arts. Honored with her will be singer Harry Belafonte, actress Mary Martin, dancer Alexandra Danilova, and composer William Schuman.

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The Dec. 3 gala will be taped for airing on CBS on Friday, Dec. 29. And for Colbert and the others, the weekend will also include a reception at the White House and a ceremonial dinner at the State Department.

Colbert has already won many major honors: an Oscar for best actress, in ``It Happened One Night'' with Clark Gable; two other Oscar nominations (``Private Worlds'' and ``Since You Went Away''); a Drama Desk Award for ``Aren't We All?''; and a Film Society of Lincoln Center gala in her honor.

``Don't forget the Legion d'Honeur,'' she smiles, getting up and bringing over the medal in a red box.

Born Claudette Lily Chauchoin in Paris, she came to New York as a child of six and grew up American. She says of the Kennedy Center Honors, ``It's very exciting, the White House, the gala at the Opera House... . It's thrilling. Long-time friend Gregory Peck will introduce her. She plans to wear an Adolfo gown of black velvet with a skirt of black tulle. ``It could have come straight off the set of `Midnight''' (1939), she purrs.

She has played Cleopatra, a snake charmer, a spoiled young heiress, Troy Donahue's mother, Lady Frinton, a bogus baroness, Poppaea, and a psychiatrist among her dozens of roles. Are any of her roles at all like her?

``I don't think so,'' she says. ``That's what you're an actress for, isn't it? I haven't been an heiress; I haven't been the Queen of Egypt. The only reason I harped on doing serious pictures is that people think comedy is easy, and it is not. ... Some actresses have such an attack of the cutes in playing comedy, but comedy should be played dead seriously. ... No role that I've done is like me. ... That's the reason I love acting.''

The face that launched five dozen films is framed by milk-chocolate-colored hair, softly curled, with the familiar trademark bangs, fluffier than her screen image. The wide, dark-brown eyes are subtly made up, with feathery, long lashes, and smoky blue eye shadow that gives them great depth. With the careful lipstick and her heart-shaped face, it is a seasoned version of the same image that made her a Hollywood star. And there is a vibrancy about Claudette Colbert, a look of loving life, that may be the best cosmetic.

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She wears a silk blouse in a leopard print with a black scarf, long black silk pants, black silk pumps and matching hose. At her ears are gobs of gold, earrings in the shape of seashells for the woman who spends half her year at Belle Rive, the seafront plantation in Barbados she shared with her husband, Dr. Joel Pressman, until his passing 20 years ago.

There is an effortless quality about Colbert's acting that suggests she's worked hard to make it look easy. She's delightful as the pampered heiress romanced by Gable in ``It Happened One Night,'' or light as meringue on stage with Rex Harrison in the drawing room comedy ``Aren't We All?'' or indisputably upper-crust as the socialite mother in the TV version of ``The Second Mrs. Grenville.''

She works at it: ``When I felt strongly about a scene with a director, I would say, `Will you do something for me? Will you shoot it both ways?' If you feel violently about something, most directors would do it. I didn't count, but on the average [the director] was right. ... When you do a play, the audience tells you what you're doing. The screen never does. Only the director will tell you.''

She made three pictures with Cecil B. DeMille, who had a reputation for being difficult. ``Difficult?'' she says, ``Not with me. He worried about every little thing. He was a big fussbudget. I was one of the few who talked [back] to him, as you know'' - even though he put her in a swamp to shoot a sene right after she'd had a operation. Then, she told him off: ``I told him he had no feeling for any human being.'' In her first hit, ``Sign of the Cross, DeMille ordered her to take that famous bath in ass's milk.

FRANK CAPRA who directed ``It Happened One Night,'' wrote about that film in his autobiography, ``Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title.'' She says she leaped at the role opposite Gable. Capra says she didn't, was taking off on a vacation and wanted double pay. He quotes her as telling friends, ``Am I glad to get here. I just finished the worst picture in the world.'' Colbert calls his account all ``hogwash.'' She says Capra got it confused with another episode, in 1935, when she was offered a role with a thick French accent to replace Simone Simone in ``Under Two Flags.'' Initially she turned it down because she was about to leave on her honeymoon.

Colbert goes on to say she was dying to do the role in ``It Happened One Night'' opposite Gable. ``I was his third choice. He had asked for Constance Bennett and Miriam Hopkins. I would have given anything to work with him. He was wonderful to work with. And yes, he was fun.''

The only director she found fun to work with was her favorite, Ernst Lubitsch. ``After all, there aren't too many laughs on a set.''

Colbert smiles and laughs a lot. ``I've had a life; I'm happy'' she says. Around her in the rosy beige living room, filled with comfortable furniture covered in white and rose chintz, are dozens of photos of friends and family.

This famous star of the heyday of black and white films says she hasn't seen enough ``colorized'' movies to have any opinion on that controversial subject. She does have opinions, though, about black-and-white film vs. color. ``Black and white photography is an art. Color photography is not, unless you're shooting the Grand Canyon. ...

``The camermen are real artists. Charles Lang, for instance, was a great artist. He could do things for my face that no one else could. I had a lot of complexes. I'd had my nose broken when I was 8.

``As a child, I had a phobia about my face. I had a beautuful mother, and when I brought boyfriends home the boys would say, `Gosh, you're not as good looking as your mother.' It left her with a feeling of inferiority that continued even after she became a star. In close-up, she insisted that the ``good'' left side of her face be shot and that the right side be done only in long shots. In our interview, she denied the Hollywood rumor that she demanded sets be built to accommodate this wish. ``That's nonsense,'' says Colbert, ``[but] I do have a better side,'' she adds.

Asked what she thinks is the secret of her success, Colbert says: ``I think I'm a good actress. I have a good sense of humor, which I also think helps you through life. And I never lied about my age,'' she says in the familiar, velvety contralto.

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