As a kid my perception of Greta Garbo was predominately shaped by the eerie void that her early retirement created. Unlike most of the stars of the classical period of cinema, in the 1970s and 1980s there were no Garbo appearances on talk shows like Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson, or print interviews to plug an autobiography, in fact, there was no autobiography to plug. The star hadn’t spoken to the press since before the advent of sound pictures. There was only silence and the afterglow of her short but brilliant career, which began in her native Sweden in the early 1920s, and peaked during the late silent period and through the 1930s, during which time she was MGM’s most highly paid actor and undisputedly the biggest female star in the world.
“Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyze this woman’s acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera.”
Bette Davis, in her autobiography A Lonely Life
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the legend of Garbo was all there was—the idea of Garbo—and the occasional paparazzi photograph you’d see in the New York Post of the women herself hidden by a large camel hair coat and large sunglasses on her daily walk around the upper east side of Manhattan. She existed historically in films you couldn’t watch unless you happened to catch one on television, and in popular culture, (mentioned, for example, in Kim Carnes’ 1981 pop hit Bette Davis Eyes, Madonna’s 1990 mega-hit Vogue, and as the titular subject of Sidney Lumet’s 1984 film Garbo Talks, which starred Anne Bancroft as a dying women with a Garbo fixation). But there was no actual person there to accept awards, mentor younger people, or bask in the glow of past achievements. Garbo’s behavior ran counter to all conventional wisdom about how to manage a career or the legacy of one. Indeed the Garbo’s post-career vanishing act more closely approximated actor’s who literal deaths ensured eternal youth and mystery, like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean.
Of course, as a kid I knew what “the divine Garbo” looked like from reading my books—I was drawn to her face’s unusual combination of masculine and feminine qualities—but I never actually saw a Greta Garbo film until I was much older. When I did finally begin to pay attention to the films themselves, I was astonished by the true legacy of Garbo: her incredible skill in front of the camera and a personal style of film acting that somehow seemed to define the mysterious qualities that made an actress a movie star. Garbo was both. My research began with Camille (1936) and gleeful hopscotched around a body of work I still find extremely compelling. Though she frequently starred in big costume films and retired in 1941 at only 36 after the failure of Two-Faced Woman, there is a contemporary quality in Garbo’s acting style that transcends the weight of period films or the decades that have passed between her world and ours.
“She had a talent that few actresses or actors possess. In close-ups she gave the impression, the illusion of great movement. She would move her head just a little bit and the whole screen would come alive, like a strong breeze that made itself felt.”
– Director George Cukor
Garbo on film is a revelation. There are many great actors but fewer great movie stars, which requires something different and something, perhaps, more elusive. If mystery is a component, it might explain not only why Garbo was such a big movie star but why there are so few today. Perhaps it has to do with the planes of a face and their relationship to the camera or the alchemic ability to merge subtle aspects of oneself with the our collective needs as a culture. Timing is everything: different stars serve different needs at different times. Some stars fit enduring archetypes, say the way Tom Hanks is a modern version of Jimmy Stewart and others are fixed and, ultimately, unrelatable. Watching Garbo today is to experience something altogether unique and unlike anyone or anything. I agree with Bette Davis’ assessment that it is almost impossible to analyze her instincts around the camera. You just have to see it for yourself. By the way, my favorite of all Garbo films is the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka, the penultimate film of her career and a complete joy from beginning to end.
As a latecomer to the Garbo oeuvre, I was suprised to learn that the star had actually signed a contract in 1948 to make a film for producer Walter Wanger and director Max Ophuls of Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais. She arrived in Rome in the summer of 1949 to commence filming, but according to biographies, financing collapsed and the project shelved. All that remains are the screen tests which were thought to be lost for over forty years and turned out to be the last time the actress willingly stepped in front of a camera. In these brief tests Garbo still projects “her mastery over the machine,” her ability to affect us without words remarkably in tact. I am touched by the symmetry of the former star of silent films saying goodbye with one last silent “performance.” In this screen test, freed from the burden of narrative, we are free to create our own or substitute the story of a woman who was complicit in becoming a ghost. Thus we are left with a magnificent moment that distills the essence of the “witchcraft” and that made Greta Garbo an enduring star for the ages.
“How sad a thing for an artist to abandon his art: I think it’s much sadder than death…”
Tennesse Williams in his Memoirs
Addendum, November 29, 2012: I’ve been reading the memoirs of Tennessee Williams (published in 1972) and I came upon some interesting anecdotes he relates about Garbo, whom he met four or five times beginning in the late 1940s. I thought these passages were of particular interest and quite relevant to what I’ve already written:
Garbo made a terrific impression, she was radiantly beautiful…the lovely face had aged but the beauty was still there. And also the terrible shyness. I believe I had five meetings with Garbo and one occurred during that December of 1947 when Streetcar had just opened in New York. I happened to tell George Cukor that I had written a screenplay called The Pink Bedroom. Cukor was a dear friend of Garbo’s and he said, “I want you to show it to Garbo. I’ll arrange for her to see you.” To my surprise the fabulous lady received me alone in her apartment at the Ritz Tower. We sat in the parlor drinking schnapps. I got a big high and I began to tell her the story of The Pink Bedroom. There was something about her curious and androgynous beauty that inspired me out of my characteristic timidity. I told her the story and she kept whispering, “Wonderful!” leaning toward me with a look of entrancement in her eyes. I thought to myself, She will do it, she’ll return to the screen! After an hour, when I had finished telling the scenario, she still said, “Wonderful!” But then she signed and leaned back on her sofa. “Yes, it’s wonderful, but not for me. Give it to Joan Crawford.”
The Garbo screen test for Walter Wanger would appear to fall neatly in chronology between the two anecdotes Williams relates
The second occasion when i saw Garbo was about five years later, I’d guess, when I was invited to a little party given by that fabulous old character actress Constance Collier. Garbo was there and I approached her and said, “You are the only great tragedienne that the screen ever had, you’ve got to resume your career! Garbo jumped up and exclaimed, “This room is stifling!” She rushed across to a window, threw it all the way up as if about to leap out and stood there with her back to us for several minutes. The old character actress leaned toward me gravely and said in a whisper, “Never speak to her of acting again. She always goes into a fit at the suggestion.” There must have been something a bout her screen career that profoundly revolted her—in Hollywood, I mean. And so she turned into an imperishable legend and we are left with her Camille and her Anna Karenina and the vibrations of that marvelous voice that surely must have been as great as Duse’s.