Greta Garbo: The face that continues to fascinate
CHARLIE CONNELLY on an actress whose last years have fascinated as much as her relatively brief career on the screen.
They always called her a recluse but that was not strictly true. Greta Garbo lived not out of sight but in the heart of Manhattan where it is impossible to disappear. She was a regular guest at auction houses, shopping in department stores, visiting art galleries, and was a familiar presence for New York’s “Garbo-watchers” as she walked the streets of New York. flat shoes, dark glasses and fedora.
There were rumors of eccentricity, of course. The way, every week, she would buy a pair of gloves at a particular store and always return them the next day. Sometimes she just walked up and down the elevator in her apartment building. That she made her coffee in a casserole dish.
Her love life was a source of gossip and innuendo about endless relationships with familiar names of both sexes. There was no point in confirming or denying them. If Greta Garbo had learned anything, it was that the truth that people wanted, even if it was an invention, could be projected onto her.
When the press referred to Garbo as a recluse or a hermit, they just meant she was private. She did not play the game that public figures were supposed to play, did not dance when the media grabbed the headlines, chose not to live her life as the property of others because she had played in some successful films.
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“It’s a testament to his continued fascination that such a strictly low-key figure should always rank at the top of the list of journalists and celebrities of our time,” said the New York Times in 1965 on Garbo’s 60th birthday, nearly a quarter of a century after his last film role. Yet even during her screen career, she left the stardom treadmill almost as soon as she was persuaded to do so.
Arriving in Hollywood from Sweden in 1926, Garbo made a remarkably different figure than the Hollywood fairy-tale and sylphonic women popular at the time. Tall and stocky, she was immediately dispatched by studio publicists to participate in an excruciatingly staged track reunion with strapping athletes from the University of Southern California. Reluctant in her early interviews by a combination of nature reserve and an early lack of confidence in her English, she found her words rendered phonetically in the print to mimic her accent. Enough to put anyone out of the stardom of stardom for good.
However, it was not just the press that she sought to exclude. Isabella Rossellini recounted how, when her mother Ingrid Bergman first arrived in Hollywood in 1939, she sent Garbo flowers with a note hoping the star could help a compatriot settle in with advice on dumplings. of meat and aquavit.
“Garbo sent a telegram accepting the invitation, but not until three months later, just as the mother was about to leave town,” Rossellini said. “Mother told George Cukor, who was a friend of Garbo’s, and Cukor laughed. “Of course, Greta wouldn’t have sent the telegram unless she was sure you were leaving.
There was immense depth and substance behind the public’s chimerical perception. His on-screen presence was unlike anything before and had been rarely seen since: the camera adored Garbo, something in his face suited the big black and white screen perfectly. Primitive cinema was full of exaggerated gestures and expressions, hammered to compensate for the lack of dialogue. It would be wrong to say that Garbo single-handedly turned this drama school upside down, but his sheer presence made overt gestures unnecessary, with every little facial nuance being successfully conveyed to the back row of the bigger cinema.
“There is no lesson in cinema acting like a half hour of attention to Greta Garbo,” said the Guardian as early as 1927, reviewing his second role in Hollywood in The temptress. “She fully understands this art of significant movement, as understood by artists or philosophers. She takes life in pieces and puts it back together as a fresh thing.
Her roles tended to be women battered by injustice, disillusioned with the world and its flaws, breaking out of convention and still capable of love. She was in pain, she was mistreated, the lives of her characters often ended in tragedy, and everything was expressed through Garbo’s natural understatement which hinted at torrents of passionate emotion beneath a cold recklessness. This was evident even in the first rushes of her Hollywood debut in 1926. The torrent, whose studio views led to an immediate salary increase.
Almost 80 years after that Hollywood debut, Zadie Smith summed up in a 2005 essay what made Garbo special.
“A close-up of her face seems to reveal fewer features than the rest of us – such an expanse of white – punctuated by minimal detail, just enough to let you know it’s flesh, not flesh. ‘spirit,’ she wrote. and it was that expanse of white that made Garbo almost a screen on which we could project our own interpretations, making her whatever we wanted. She seemed so simple that she could get the audience to do the job for her.
Swedish film pioneer Mauritz Stiller was the first to recognize this extraordinary quality when he saw young Greta Gustafsson at the Royal Swedish Academy of Dramatic Theater in her mid-teens. She already had difficulties to lean on, growing up in the poorest part of Stockholm and losing her beloved father to alcoholism when she was only 14 years old.
“I was born, I grew up like everyone else, I didn’t like going to school,” is how Garbo described, with characteristic understatement, his journey in a rare early interview. When Stiller named her Garbo and chose her to play Countess Elizabeth Dohna in the epic The saga of Gösta Berling, released in 1924, she was able to leave Greta Gustafsson behind. The film was also enough to send Stiller and his protégé to Hollywood.
Garbo was an instant hit but Stiller struggled to fit into the Hollywood machine and within two years he was forced to return to Sweden, where he died in 1928. Garbo received the news of the death from his mentor via a telegram to the set and immediately passed out. When she was resuscitated, she went out right away and finished her scene. Some say she never got over Stiller’s death, but that might just be more projection.
Unlike many of his European Hollywood contemporaries, Garbo made a relatively smooth transition from silence to sound, with audiences hearing his voice for the first time in the 1930 film. Anna christie, billed with the simple slogan “Garbo speaks!”. “Give me a whiskey with some ginger ale on the side,” she said to a waiter in a living room as she called out, “and don’t be stingy, baby.”
At the start of World War II, Garbo was making up to $ 270,000 per movie. She had always invested skillfully, mostly in Sweden, which protected her from the worst of the Wall Street crash of 1929, but when war meant smaller budgets for film, she didn’t want to compromise on her star worth. Woman with two faces, from 1941, in which Garbo, 36, played twin sisters vying for the same man, turned out to be her last on-screen role.
It was also a turkey, described by the New York Times like a “dismal jape … a confusing and unnecessary masquerade” in which Garbo’s supposedly comedic performance was “one of the goofy shows of the season.”
Contrary to accepted legend, she did not officially retire after Woman with two faces and there was no big drift out of the industry. In 1947, she reportedly agreed to appear in a George Sand biopic that was never made, and two years later she was to star in an adaptation of Balzac’s Walter Wanger. The Duchess of Langeais, but when Wanger is Jeanne D’Arc, with Ingrid Bergman, was an expensive flop, this project was shelved.
And that was it. Keep in mind an inadvertent background appearance crossing a Manhattan street in a shot over setting Adam and Yves, a 1974 slice of gay erotica, Garbo never turned on a screen again.
She has made 26 Hollywood films in 15 years, a period that does not cover even a fifth of her life but enough to make her immortal. Despite all the Garbo-spotting of his later life, it is these sumptuous black-and-white images that remain timeless, like the last moments of Queen christina when standing at the bow of a ship, the camera moves for an extended close-up as the soundtrack reaches its final cadence, her face looking towards the horizon expressing while expressing nothing.
It was exactly as Roland Barthes said when summing up the difference between Garbo and Audrey Hepburn. Where Hepburn’s face represented an event, he says, “Garbo’s face is an idea.”
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