“One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema … she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting.” — David Thomson
Louise Brooks is one of the most enigmatic, charismatic, and hard-to-pin-down movie actresses. It even seems wrong to call her an “actress”, although obviously she was. But she was more like a walking talking shimmering fluid persona, open to the camera in a way that is still startling today. She is FREE. Whatever she is doing, it’s not what we normally think of as “acting”. She’s hard to discuss, because … what is she actually DOING? And what did she FEEL about what she was doing? She’s so unbelievably free on camera, she beckons you into her headspace, her world, it’s an extraordinary relationship with the camera. In fact, she often looks directly AT the camera which … you just don’t DO in film. But she did.
To my mind, the best thing written about her as a performer – the most insightful – is the chapter devoted to her in Dan Callahan’s book The Art of American Screen Acting, Volume 1. I interviewed him about the book, and we discuss Louise Brooks quite a bit.
Her career was not long. She had a lot of trouble during her heyday. Her talent was untame-able. She couldn’t “fit in”. She couldn’t “behave”. She was really set free when she went to Europe, and collaborated with the German master G.W. Pabst. She said he was the first director to treat her with respect, the first to “set her loose”. He wanted her emotionality to have free rein. All he had to do was point her in the right direction. The films she made with him were extremely controversial, and still can be somewhat shocking (because we may fool ourselves into thinking we have “progressed”, but we have not. Sorry.) Louise Brooks wrote: “So it is that my playing of the tragic Lulu with no sense of sin remained generally unacceptable for a quarter of a century.”
Her career did not last into the sound era, and she had a very rough road over the following decades. Poverty, obscurity. But eventually came the arthouse revival era of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and her star rose again. And she was still around. She lived to see her work celebrated, her memory revered. Not to mention the fact that she could WRITE, and her book Lulu in Hollywood is a classic. She turned herself into a wonderful writer and an amazing memoirist and anecdotalist. The book is filled with character portraits – of Pabst, of her good pal Humphrey Bogart, and more. She intersected with everyone. She is able to describe her own process, and how it developed. This is extremely valuable. Lulu in Hollywood is not just an actress memoir. It’s a book of cultural and social history unique in the canon. She was there. She lived it. Lots of people lived it, though. Not too many can also write. If you haven’t read Lulu in Hollywood, I urge you to pick it up.
And watch Pandora’s Box, first off. You can still feel “it”, whatever “it” was.