Films and Filming celebrates
GRETA GARBO's 80th birthday
YES, yes, we know: the Divine, the Face of the Century and all that. So tell us something new about Garbo. It must be the desire to hear something different which still gives rise to periodic rumours that she is going to give an interview; that she is writing or has written her autobiography; even, still, that she will make another film. Typically, in her eightieth year the element of Cecil Beaton's new “official” biography which has created more interest than all the rest of it put together is the revelation – or apparent revelation – culled from unpublished portions of his diaries, that for some months he actually had a fully-fledged, physical affair with the Goddess.
So who cares? And why should anyone care? As Hitchcock used to say, “It's only a movie”, and surely the doings of one of yesterday's screen puppets can hardly concern anyone now, nearly forty-five years after she made her last film? And yet they undoubtedly do. It is tempting to see Garbo as the first of the new twentieth-century breed of celebrities, those who are famous for being famous. Certainly she has become more lastingly famous for not making films that she was for making them: a phantasm of the media, speculated upon all the more because she would tell no one anything, pursued by photographers precisely because, far from seeking their attention, she has spent most of the last half-century concealing her face and running for cover. A convincing demonstration of the truth: if you want them to run after you, just walk the other way?
All those things are true, and yet they are not enough to explain the Garbo phenomenon. After all, what made her famous originally was not the media, but herself, her work, her films. And they are primarily what has kept her famous. Wanting to be alone, not wanting to be pictured, might have been a good gimmick for a year or two, if the sole intention was to encourage publicity by the back door, but just think of the number of stars, big stars, who have wanted to retire, wanted to shun publicity, and have been allowed, distressingly, to do just that. Perhaps that is because they were never totally sincere, or over-estimated their ability to live away from the bright lights and the audience adulation, or unconsciously saw their professional suicide as, like many literal suicide atempts, a last-ditch call for attention. If this was so, the public has an uncanny skill in sussing it out:
paradoxically, you have to be sincere.
And that Garbo has surely been. It is recorded – one of the few spontaneous pronouncements – that practically the only thing she said to Laurence Olivier during his soon-terminated stint as her co-star in Queen Christina was “Life's a pain anyway”. She must genuinely have felt that, as well as possibly being very acute and sensing at once that there was little future for her in Hollywood during the war, when, bereft of the sophisticated European audiences which had always been the backbone of Garbo's following, her studio wanted to transform her into a hearty all-American girl. Significantly, during all the years since, there has been only one comeback suggestion in which she has shown the slightest practical interest: a version of La Duchesse de Langeais to be directed by Max Ophuls in Italy in 1950, co-starring James Mason. And even that fell apart, it seems, mainly through lack of involvement on Garbo's part, though there are tempting tales of colour tests of her actually shot. (Did they ever exist, and if so, whatever happened to them? Just think: Garbo in colour!)
“Garbo has become more
lastingly famous for not
making films than she was for
But if the legend is genuine enough, it is remarkable – though not, finally, surprising – on what a confined basis it is built. Garbo's whole Hollywood career, after all, was crammed into just fifteen years: Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, for instance, have been starring in Hollywood longer, and we do not exactly think of them as veterans nearing the end of their career. Admittedly stars made more films then, so a short career was likely to be so packed with incident that its effect was doubled or tripled, but even so, Garbo was not as stars went immensely prolific: just 24 Hollywood films, preceded by two starring roles in Europe. And most of those for long unseeable (one, Sjöström's The Divine Woman, is still among the missing), so that the legend had to grow in absentia, fostered mainly by the final handful of films, in which Garbo has definitely become divine and unapproachable.
Hence a number of misunderstandings, or at least very partial views. We tend to think of Garbo on screen, as in later life, as being remote and goddess-like. In that regard, recent television showings of some of her silent films have been revelatory. Because what emerges from them is a young and passionate woman, warm, breathing, even sexy. In some ways Garbo is even more compelling as a woman than as a goddess: you can see at once why the whole studio, the whole film industry, was thrown into a tizzy when the first rushes on The Torrent (1926) were seen, and then even more when the film was released. Clearly no one, not even Garbo, becomes a legend just by setting out to become one, a being apart. As she turns eighty, still with her personal mystery intact, it is Garbo the woman, Garbo the girl even, who still retains the ability to surprise.
That is why, with all the most famous, composed, divine, incomparable images to choose from, we have selected as our way of making Garbo's eightieth birthday this extraordinary, unpublished, unretouched image by Ruth Harriet Louise (see opposite page), from the bottomless files of the Kobal Collection. If we want to know something new about Garbo, this tells it all. Just after her arrival in Hollywood, hardly known, a girl not yet quite twenty. Look at the magic, the radiance, the infinite potential. Even then, it was no doubt possible to meet Garbo and think her just another attractive if not exceptionally pretty young woman. In the life, that is. But as soon as she stepped in front of a camera, even a stills camera in a portrait photographer's studio, something special and indefinable happened. This girl, in all her passion and intensity, might burn herself out, but if she did she would first flash across the sky like a comet. She would never be nobody.
Nor was she, even several generations after she had disappeared from view. Nor is she, nor will she be as long as celluloid holds together. We may be sceptical about the legends of Bernhardt or of Duse or of Pavlova, since they depend almost entirely, fragments of film notwithstanding, on out taking them on trust. But Garbo is that unique phenomenon of the cinema age, a legend whose legendary status can be constantly put to the test. And astonishingly, not found wanting. It even seems like a solecism, or at least absurdly beside the point, to be saluting her 80th birthday.