GARBO CASTS A SPELL OF SILENCE OVER THOSE WHO KNOW
HER WELL. THEY CANNOT TALK ABOUT HER EVEN WHEN THEY
TRY. WHY IS THIS?
GRETA GARBO has probably been interpreted in print more often than any other woman living. She has been explained in al the languages, including the Scandinavian. Ninety-nine–or maybe it's eight hundred–times she has been described as “an anomaly.”
Pardon me, ladies and gentlemen, if I seem to be heretical just here. I don't think that Garbo is an anomaly at all. I consider her a thoroughly consistent woman and actress. If the woman and the actress appear to diverge sometimes, it is because the woman is an actress. Somehow, people have always seemed to confuse the woman with the roles she plays, and the roles have been many and varied.
On the screen, Garbo has been exotic, winsome, earthy, tragic, mysterious, and much else. In private life she has been simple, frightened, lonely, homesick, eager for companionship and understanding.
When you confuse he with the roles she plays, it is as though you identified a painter with the characters on his canvases a novelist with the people who move between the covers of his books. Garbo doesn't “live” her roles, as many actors will tell you they do. She creates them carefully, studiously, conscientiously, according to her own rigid standards. She works over them. When she isn't working she becomes herself again, and a rather stark and pathetic self it is.
Let me tell you a little about how Greta Garbo lives. She has never owned a house in California. In her early picture days she occupied a suite in an ocean front hotel with wide windows which opened to the sea. Since then she has been a sort of nomad, occupying rented dwellings. All she has asked has been space and sunlight and a garden, hedged and fenced from public view.
She doesn't care what is inside the house. Apparently she doesn't even see what is there. She never moves a vase or changes the angle of a chair or the position of a picture.
The astonished owners return to find everything exactly as they left it, not one telltale detail to prove that one of the world's most glamorous women has been living there.
Nothing is marred–Garbo never gives parties–no china has been broken, everything is spotless. The gardens have been carefully tended. If there is any damage at all it may be some fading of rugs and curtains because all the windows have been open all day, every day.
Just now Greta is occupying the Neil Hamilton house in Brentwood. She rented this when the Hamiltons went to England. She has made no changes except to erect a tall fence about the estate which leads you to believe, as you approach it, that here is a very special sort of baseball park.
She employs a butler-houseman, a cook, and a gardener and she changes servants rather often. Once a pair of trusted servants betrayed her friendly confidence–and too money for it.
Amid such quiet surroundings she studies the scripts of her pictures, reads and reads and reads the books which will help her to understand the character she is to portray. In the garden she rehearses her lines, pacing to and fro among the flower beds, murmuring to herself.
She is always letter perfect when she arrives on the set for work. This is partly because of her shyness. She is terrified at meeting new people and the preliminary rehearsals with a new cast reduce her to a pitiable state of nerves. She wants to recite her lines as quickly as possible and then flee. This terror of people is not a pose. It is as real as toothache, and psychologists have a name for it.
Years ago I dropped into the office of a scenario-writing friend on the MGM lot and found him just entering, looking rather sheepish. “I've been down watching that new girl work,” he confessed. “Her name is Garbo. I don't know what it is that she has but I do know that every one on the lot who can get away for a few moments from whatever he is supposed to be doing goes to watch her. There is a stillness about her, a power, or–oh, I dunno!”
Later I visited the set, myself, and was introduced to Miss Garbo. Her English was sketchy and we didn't get much further than “How-do-you-do?” and a couple of “How nices!” But she didn't seem any more shy than any other stranger, working in a strange land with scant knowledge of the language, might have seemed. She had an engaging and hearty giggle which bubbled forth unexpectedly when she became entangled with words and courtesies. She still has that giggle but it doesn't bubble so frequently nowadays.
The reticence and shyness began to grow upon her after she had been asked incredible questions by interviewers, had read blunt and unkind remarks about herself in print, after she had been mobbed and nearly torn to pieces by importunate fans. She simply did not understand these things. They terrified and bewildered her. She exaggerated their importance and began to distrust every one.
But the further she withdrew into her protective shell, the more determinedly did the public try to penetrate it. People whom she liked and trusted and invited to dinner sold their “impressions” of her to the newspapers. She became, literally, a fugitive from a sort of fame which seemed false and vulgar to her.
Those canvas screens which they erect about her when she is to make an important scene in a picture were not Garbo's idea. She never requested them. Directors simply found that she worked better, with much more ease, if she was protected from staring eyes. The directors order the screens.
If Garbo has seemed happier, more approachable in the past few months than she was before, perhaps it is because she is beginning to realize that the praise heaped upon her for recent performances has not been empty praise.
One of her closest and mot trusted friends in Hollywood is Adrian, MGM designer to whom the studio gives much credit for having helped to discover Garbo's valuable qualities.
“At first they hung spangles and glass beads on her,” Adrian told me. “They considered her a sort of decorative prop. I saw that she was like a tree, with roots deep, deep in the earth. You must never, never put an artificial jewel or imitation lace or fur on Garbo. Not that it would be noticed on the screen. But it would do something to Garbo and her performance.”
He means it and the studio believes him so thoroughly that it spends many, many dollars providing Garbo with the real where the false might answer for another actress. I have seen dozens of women at work in the wardrobe department, making intricate bead work, fine hand embroidery, for Garbo's costumes. Some of these costumes–notably some of those she wore in “Mata Hari”–have become museum pieces.
Her interest in clothes, however, is academic and purely professional. She will spend hours over conferences for costumes for a picture, to make sure that they will express the character she is to play. She will stand patiently and endlessly for fittings. But her personal taste in clothes is for garments which are tailored, simple, comfortable.
Hollywood's best-known tailor, Watson, has a shabby top coat of Garbo's hanging in his shop. Every now and then she telephones him and asks him to make another, “exactly like that one.” When he notifies her that it is finished, she goes to his shop, ascends in the squeaky elevator–it amuses her to operate it herself–tries on the new coat and usually wears it home.
She wears slacks, sweaters, brogans, and berets. She is devoted to a old corduroy jacket with deep pockets in which she can sink her hands. She probably does not own more than one evening dress at a time and this will be white or black and completely unadorned.
She will lie for hours in the sun without moving. She seems to soak up sunshine and store it away like a lizard. In slicker and sou'wester, she will walk for hours in the rain alone. She especially likes to do this at night. She is a strong swimmer and occasionally, when she is in a gay mood, she likes to show off her prowess. But her chief love is tennis. Dolores del Rio and Cedric Gibbons play with her often. She is appalled at any suggestion of table games or parlor games.
She likes to talk for hours with cronies like Zoë Akins and Salka Viertel. On these occasions she sometimes sits on the floor, but usually she sprawls on a divan or in a big chair and drinks strong unsugared tea and eats pickles. Dozens and dozens of pickles.
She loves to shop in delicatessens and about three times a week she arrives home laden with large brown paper parcels, filled with odorous smoked fish, cheese, olives, peppers. She is usually proud of her purchases and is childishly pleased if some one sells her a new kid of sausage. Later these purchases accompany her to the studio for her lunch and she frequently sends to the commissary for rye bread and sweet butter to go with them.
The hamper also frequently contains a mystery story, not just the ordinary “whodunit” yarn but something really grisly, well besprinkled with corpses and lots of horror. For some reason these things make her chuckle. She never misses an important concert, even though she must arrive late, wear dark glasses, sit in an undesirable, because inconspicuous, seat and run like everything down a dark alley afterward to avoid unwelcome attention. She listens to the radio when she thinks of it but she is more likely to listen to her victrola. She owns an enviable collection of fine records.
When they tore down the building which housed her dressing room at the studio, she was appalled. Afterward she became interested in decorating the new one. It is an astonishing hodgepodge of mulberry draperies, wine-colored upholstery, brown rugs, and tiny gold bands running all about everything. You never saw anything quite like it before. But it is effective and interesting. It doesn't look as if it had been planned. It looks as if it had just happened.
“It is the first room I ever planed,” she says, placidly, but with just the merest touch of pride.
Just about then another change came into her life. The famous eight-year-old car really breathed its last. Garbo grieved briefly, sighed, and then bought what she called “a new second-hand-car.” A car which looked as much like the ponderous old limousine as possible. She is growing used to it, she says.
Somehow the people who really know her will, who are really close to her, simply cannot talk about her. She exerts some amazing personal power over them so that they are completely, almost slavishly devoted to her. But they can't describe her. This applies to hairdressers, taxi drivers who have served her consistently, prop men, as well as to personal friends.
Sensitive and intelligent people who meet her briefly fall under this spell, too. A prominent writer who had occasion to talk to her frequently during the making of a picture was offered a sizable amount of money to write something about her. He consented. The studio approved. The writer bought some new Typewriter ribbons and called for his favorite stenographer. Then he just sat (he reports) and looked blank. “I simply can't do it,” he notified his editor at last. “There is too much to say about her, and I can't say it well enough, no matter how much you pay me!”
A witty woman writer met her, talked with her and came away to say, in a surprised voice, “I am stimulated. I am inspired. But all that I can tell you is that her long eyelashes are her own.”
George Cukor, who directed “Camille,” said of her, “She can walk across a set and give every other actress in the world a lesson in grave and poise.”
Some one else said, “She can do more to you with one short, quiet line than can many another actress with paragraphs and hysterical dialogue.”
Norbert Lusk said, “Remember in ‘Romance,' when she said, ‘Thank you for having loved me'?”
I insist that she is a consistent woman. I think the critics agree that she is a consistent actress. But, you know, I like to remember that giggle and to hope that she is using it more and more often.
from: Picture Play October 1937
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