It’s her birthday today. She is a difficult subject, not just because she was a private woman, but because her onscreen persona was so fluid, mercurial, hard to grasp. Her gestures could be operatic and swanlike (watch Grand Hotel), but she could also be tough-minded, certain, literal (see Ninotchka). She could swagger across the screen like an androgynous pirate (see Queen Christina), and she could also collapse in floating feminine anguish (see Camille). It’s neverending. You could go on forever. Her face is one of the most famous in cinema. I think because it compels you to lean forward while at the very same moment repels you into leaning back. She beckons you but she won’t let you in. I have said this many times: it is that “come-hither-and-yet-stay-away” thing that really makes a great movie star – and is something almost entirely missing in today’s brightly-smiling conventional world of celebrity, where actresses obediently list “what they are wearing” on red carpets, and/or overshare about their lives, to the extent that there’s no mystery at all. (Kristen Stewart – one of Garbo’s heirs – said once that she stays out of politics, she is not on social media, she does not Tweet, she does not rally for causes – although I’m sure she has many strongly held beliefs. She has said that she watches actors flipping out on Twitter about this or that, and she said – and I paraphrase, “I do take those things into consideration when I see the person in a movie. I want to get lost in the performance.”)
Garbo’s time in Hollywood was initially quite disorienting. She barely spoke English, she didn’t know anybody. She was a star in Europe, but it was extremely difficult to cast her in things. It took a while for people to figure it out. This is because she wasn’t a “type”. She clearly wasn’t an ingenue. She wasn’t conventional in the slightest, and Hollywood loves conventional.
Salka Viertel’s excellent memoir The Kindness of Strangers provides an amazing portrait of Garbo through those years, from Sweden to Germany to California. Viertel was also a celebrated actress, in many different important hubs, with her husband, the theatre collectives she worked with, with Bertolt Brecht, with the vibrant Weimar world, with Murnau, etc. She and her husband moved to California. Like so many others, they fled Hitler in the early days of his rise. The couple settled in Santa Monica, where they quickly established their home as a “salon” for displaced and lonely refugee-artists. She organized fund raisers to get people out of Europe, she helped open the pathway into Hollywood for many many people. Beyond that, she was under contract at MGM, where she worked as a screenwriter. She and Garbo went way way back. She wrote the scripts (or at least heavily worked on them) for many of Garbo’s films – Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, and Two-Faced Woman. Viertel was thought to have a “line” on Garbo, a level of understanding completely missing in the studio executives. (At least the execs were cognizant of it).
Greta Garbo and Salka Viertel
Garbo could either shine or vanish. If she was mis-cast, she could barely be perceived. But when cast well, she was unforgettable. I highly recommend Viertel’s memoir as a personal story, very well told, but also a portrait of many different worlds: the final days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Berlin, Weimar, Santa Monica when Hollywood was still a small town.
I thought I hadn’t written about Garbo, but a quick search shows me I have. I’ll link to a couple of those pieces.
I interviewed Dan Callahan about his amazing book The Art of American Screen Acting, Volume 1. The chapter on Garbo is essential reading for anyone who wants to dig into what exactly it was that made this actress so unforgettable, someone who could never be replaced. A true individual. Dan and I discussed her – and many others – in our interview.
I’ve written a couple of times about the Garbo-Kristen Stewart connection. First off, here, on my own site, and then later, in a piece I wrote for Film Comment on Stewart. It’s the simultaneous “come closer and yet not too close” thing that connects them, not to mention their extraordinary unique beauty.
This is a really old piece, over 10 years old (wow), but back in the day, when Iron Lady came out, I wrote a piece about “Iron Ladies in Cinema“, all of the movies where women played heads of state. I wrote it for Capital New York, which was eventually bought by Politico, hence the URL. Anyway, in this piece – which I just re-read (it’s been years) – I include Garbo’s butch-as-hell performance in the indelible Queen Christina, with one of the most famous final shots in cinema.
And finally, the last piece I wrote for Film Comment – the print magazine – before it closed its doors in 2020, was a piece on the poet H.D.’s cinephilia, and Close Up, the film magazine she founded in 1927. H.D. was launched into a passion for this brand new artform through the work of director G.W. Pabst, in particular the film Joyless Street, starring a young green Garbo (I reference Joyless Street in both Kristen Stewart pieces). HD wrote an entire piece bemoaning what had been done to HER Garbo after Garbo’s move to Hollywood.
Before I leave you to your reading assignments ^^, here are some thoughts on Flesh and the Devil (1926), particularly the famous kiss between Garbo and John Gilbert. See here:
The kiss is famous, but it’s the buildup that makes it all so crazy. The two of them put it off … and put it off … and tease … and smolder … and smolder more … and there’s all this business with a cigarette (which goes from her mouth to his: SIZZLE) … and the erotic flare of a match … but still … no kiss … These people have the patience of Job. The buildup is worth it.
Garbo and Gilbert had true chemistry. His eyes burn when he looks at her (he was known as “The Great Lover” onscreen: his story is a tragic one, but here he is at the top of his game). Gilbert’s eyes don’t burn like, “I am a movie actor and I burn with passion because this is a love scene”. It’s something else. Something very true, and you can see it in the clip. Nobody fell in love onscreen like Garbo. With her, love was always a full-bodied response, closer to a death swoon than a love swoon. She quivers with orgasmic shudders, she throws back her head revealing her neck but – as Dan observes in his book – in her most famous love scenes, Garbo is the “top” in the relationship. Always. The man is always the “bottom”.
What Garbo does in Camille is some kind of high watermark in film acting never surpassed since. But it couldn’t be surpassed or even replicated because it is its own thing. It’s the Garbo Thing. There’s a tremendously emotional scene at the doorway of the country cottage where her young lover’s father (Lionel Barrymore) insists that she – the woman of the world party girl – give up his son so that he can have a chance at a good and honorable life. The scene is a gigantic one, for both characters. They start out one way – defensive, angry – but then it shifts, and she starts to realize she must make her great sacrifice and give up her lover, she must give him up to save him. This devastates her, and Lionel Barrymore sees it, and his energy shifts in response. Camille is not a “good” woman, but her love for his son is clearly authentic, and he suddenly understands what it is that is happening to her, what she is going through. He aches with compassion for her then, and shifts into huge tenderness, almost fatherly, he’s almost comforting her. (By the end of the scene, you’re wrung dry with emotion). He slowly goes to the door, his back bent, filled with sorrow. She follows him, and reaches out her arm to him, saying gently:
Goodbye, Monsieur. Don’t reproach yourself. You’ve done only what a man’s father should have done. Only don’t let him know it. He might hate you and I don’t want that to happen. Because he will need all the courage and comfort you can give him. For a long time, I think.
In the first part of her little speech, Barrymore is looking down, saddened and distressed. Around the time she says, with that pure generosity, “I don’t want that to happen” … he looks up at her, and suddenly his face transforms. He’s getting the Full Garbo at almost point-blank range and he is overwhelmed by her, by what she is giving him, and by the emotion that floods him in response.
She was … special. “Touched,” as they say.