Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Greta Garbo.

"Your joys and sorrows. You can never tell them. You cheapen the inside of yourself if you do tell them." Greta Garbo

WARNING: A long post follows. I will not be held responsible.

To anyone slightly familiar with the Swedish superstar's career and/or legacy, the name emits mystery, seclusion, and sadness. There have been enough books and essays dissecting this woman to fill a library. Some claim to have "solved the mystery", some honestly admit she still remains one. "I want to be alone" is a popular quote tied to the actress, a statement that has become almost as famous as Garbo herself, but at some point it was revealed to be nothing more than a simple phrase she whispered in Grand Hotel (1932). As Garbo herself cleared up, "I never said 'I want to be alone.' I only said 'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference."

She came to America as a young girl, most likely swept away by the cameras, the flowers, the compliments. But there I go making quick assumptions like everyone else, pretending to understand her. In the silent era, she quickly became typecast as the femme fatale, albeit a new kind of femme fatale. The modern femme fatale. The femme fatale we watched develop into a femme fatale. The femme fatale with a broken heart. For most of these films she played opposite John Gilbert, a major star, also known as "the great lover", who had enough swooning fans to rival Valentino. Maybe their romance was inevitable. After several proposals she finally agreed, the date was set, and Gilbert waited at the altar for a bride who never came. There are no definite answers when it comes to Garbo, no easy conclusions, though it has been said by some that the love of her life was the poet and playwright Mercedes de Acosta, who allegedly had affairs with both Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead (much later she played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939)).

When "the talkies" hit, Garbo's husky accent shot her even further to the top, and her first sound film, Anna Christie (the English version released in 1930, the German in 1931) cemented the star status that would stick with her the rest of her life. Publicized as "Garbo Talks!", imagine the audience, leaning forward in suspense, waiting for those first words. "Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby." Gilbert, unfortunately, wasn't so lucky, and his rather high-pitched voice literally ruined his career, leaving behind nothing but a merciless, snickering audience. He eventually became an alcoholic, but before he died at the age of 36, Garbo had enough star power to insist he play opposite her in Queen Christina (1933).

Like any old biopic, the film may be dated at times, but it hardly detracts from the sheer beauty of the cinematography, the gorgeous, crisp, film noir-like lighting, and the acting. Garbo's acting--which, unashamedly and enchantingly, relies heavily on her stunning face. The role of Sweden's androgynous, 17th century queen, who started her reign at the age of 6 and abdicated the throne at 28, was one Garbo fought to play on screen, and you can tell she savored every moment of it. The well-known scene where she memorizes the room she and her lover first spent the night in, touching objects in silence and consuming a vine of grapes, is enough to insist you see this film. As does the film's famous last frame, analyzed almost to death by scholars and critics, in which Garbo was allegedly directed to think of nothing, to remain a blank slate.

After the comedic success of 1939's Ninotchka, publicized as, you guessed it, "Garbo Laughs!", and co-starring Gilbert's ex and widow, Ina Claire, Garbo starred in the god awful Two-Faced Woman (1941)--a sad attempt to reproduce Ninotchka's success--before eventually withdrawing into secluded retirement amidst New York City's crowded streets. In her later years lucky fans and photographers caught her briskly walking through the park in sunglasses and a pulled down hat. She quietly died in 1990 of pneumonia and kidney failure. Almost 20 years later, after all this time, she still refuses to be categorized or understood, and for whatever reason, I admire that.

If you're interested in Garbo's films, here are a few recommendations:
Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Anna Christie (1930)
Grand Hotel (1932) -----> As much for the all-star cast and glossy sets as for Garbo's pouty ballerina.
Queen Christina (1933)
Camille (1937) ------> Perhaps her most famous film.
Ninotchka (1939) -----> Directed by one of the screwball greats, Ernst Lubitsch.

And if you have any interest in learning more about Greta Garbo, I highly recommend the fascinating biography, simply titled "Garbo", by Barry Paris.