I confess to a feeling of presumptuousness here. To write about Garbo is to join a long line of delirious observers who have offered insufficient explanations of the famous mystique for the better part of a century. (So much talk about a woman who shied away from describing herself. But that isn't an irony, it's nature. Questions are so much more intriguing than answers.)
Also, I was born in 1958, which puts me at least one generation away from Garbo's stardom. I think she changes for every generation, her orbit becoming more remote; I know she has always been a puzzling star to me. She doesn't have the vitality of Stanwyck, the pitilessness of Davis, the command of Crawford, or the intelligence of Katharine Hepburn. Unlike Lillian Gish and Marlene Dietrich, she had no ongoing transforming relationship with a director who could help make her great and make great movies around her. Clarence Brown arranged her ravishingly, and certainly George Cukor and Rouben Mamoulian were sympathetic directors. (Lubitsch, of course, made a Lubitsch movie: Ninotchka, in which her persona is playfully tweaked.) It has been very nearly a conventional wisdom that Garbo is not a great actress, but some magic thing.
Perhaps. Here is a sinister suggestion: “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.” That, from Kenneth Tynan, is one of the most frequently quoted attempts to summarize the mystique. I find the phrase sort of cute and self-satisfied, but there's something dark in it that won't go away. First, the implication that Garbo exists in order to be seen: to be looked upon and interpreted and imagined. Second, that we may be sober yet still feel drunk when we see Garbo. The intoxicant, in this case, is cinema itself, which puts us so near to her goddesshead that we might be sitting a breath away from her, examining her face as we drink champagne over a late supper in her chambers.
At these moments, she is the perfect movie star, and there is something glorious and disturbing about that. Disturbing, I mean, if the thing that makes her perfect is her capability to be watched, and imagined, and consumed like a drink. The central moment of her movie life is the final shot of Queen Christina, when the camera tracks in for its astonishingly lengthy closeup. Mamoulian's famous direction for this shot was to encourage the actress to make her mind a complete blank, and Garbo's expression is indeed perfect nothingness, a vacancy. Should it trouble us that this is her transcendent moment? Or has Garbo simply led us to something essential about the film image? Garbo may be a great star, a great actress, because of what we bring to her. Each of us is a projector, and she is a screen. We watch our dreams upon her.
Is this acting? Well, yes, the orchestrations of director and cinematographer and costumer all join in creating film acting, and the editor and composer shape a performance long after the actor has forgotten his or her lines. But could Garbo act?
Look at her first scene in Anna Christie, when she makes her much-anticipated entrance into talking pictures. Discovered in a saloon doorway, she slides her way over to a table and slumps behind it. She appears uncom fortable, and when she speaks she seems to be having trouble moving her body parts and talking at the same time. Her epochal first line–“Gif me a visky,” etc.–is simply badly delivered. Her technical uncertainty gets the sequence off to a slow start, and her voice is like a record played on a sluggish turntable that just gets itself up to speed by the time the scene is ending: Curiously, as the passage continues she becomes impossible to stop watching, despite the early-sound jaggedness of the production. Garbo is not exactly authoritative here, but she's also not easy to forget.
Some of her performances reveal lapses of concentration that imply she would have been ill-equipped as a stage actress. But the concept of her on stage, playing the great roles, is irrelevant. Even a sketch of her career beginnings–a Stockholm department-store salesgirl selected to appear in a promotional short, which lead to a role in a comedy film, which led to Royal Dramatic Theater school, which led to a role in a major film by Mauritz Stiller (Gosta Berling's Saga)–suggests that once the camera got a look at her, it kept propelling her forward, holding her in its gaze. The camera loved her, but she looked as though she did not love it back, and her unhappiness came across onscreen, translated into the dissatisfaction of the women she portrayed.
Her unhappiness, her gravity, her beauty: The men in her films would see and try to explain her mystery, and create their own myth around her. In Camille, Robert Taylor rapturously tells her, in detail, of the first time he saw her on the street, and how he fell in love with her without knowing her. (She listens, but does not look at him, keeping her mind a private place where men cannot come.) In Queen Christina, she isn't even of her own sex–she's dressed as a boy–and John Gilbert still entertains some erotic impulses at the prospect of sharing a bed with the “boy” in a crowded hotel. Her immediate beauty is dazzling enough to justify the sappy dumbstruck look on Gilbert's face when he first spots her in Flesh and the Devil at a train station (trains, snowscapes, opera houses–Garbo never strayed far from her doomy romantic surroundings). Later, Gilbert stares at her in the dark and asks, “Who ... are ... you?” And she replies, “What does it matter?” There is her self-erasement again, which climaxes when she vanishes completely into a black hole through the white broken ice of a frozen lake.
The first shot of As You Desire Me, directed by George Fitzmaurice, is a long journey across a crowded room that records the reactions of men to a singer. We do not see the singer–Garbo–until after the song is over. This is fitting, for the film is about the re-creation of Garbo in other people's eyes. She is living with an overbearing writer (a film director plays the role, appropriately enough: Erich von Stroheim, sporting a kooky Middle American accent), who has based a novel about “a woman without a soul” on her. She's white-blonde and slutty, and von Stroheim knows her well enough to ask, “Since when do you object to anything vile?”, a line he must have enjoyed delivering. She leaves him to take part in an artifice, pretending to be the long-lost wife of Melvyn Douglas. Everybody seems to understand that she's not really the wife, but the fiction is played out and her former life obliterated, until she comes to resemble Douglas' huge painting of his dearly belove. As You Desire Me is a mad little film; it needs Buñuel to tug out all its perverse possibilities. But it is fascinating commentary on the idea of Garbo, on her willingness to become the thing we want to see. “Willingness” may not be the right word; it was a more resigned quality, resigned to expending the energy it takes to make herself over, like an actress gloomily moving from role to role.
At least one thing about Garbo that seems self-created is her grasp of, and attraction to, the transitory nature of experience. Even before she and Gilbert have ended their hotel love tryst in Queen Christina, she walks self-absorbed around the room, touching objects so she will remember them. She is so often looking past her stupidly staring lovers, anticipating the moment when the affair is over. In Romance, itself a flashback film recounted by an aged cleric who remembers his great youthful love affair, Garbo tells her suitor (Gavin Gordon) that the present is one little minute that will never come again: “When the morning comes, love dies.” Garbo is rarely without her fatalism; it's why she smiles to herself, why she looks so superior to her ardent leading men. She's looking forward to remembering this experience–maybe that's why she wants to be alone.
No wonder she seems aloof. And in her aloofness she is responding to the aloofness of movies. We watch her but we cannot touch her, and in two hours she is gone. She may be touched onscreen; John Gilbert or Melvyn Douglas might kiss her, and William Daniels will light the scene so that we are there, in a lush silvery interior or a black night stroked by cigarette smoke. But they do not fathom her any more than we do, and eventually she will withdraw and the movie will be over. And we will be remembering her.
She directed herself in her final act, which was to retire from movies before the morning light could reveal lines and cracks. No longer wishing to be seen, or heard, she covered herself and left us to make our own interpretations. Tired of men creating her, she vanished into fifty years of anonymity, broken only by the occasional intrusive photographer, men with cameras still wanting to look. “I like the fog,” she says in Anna Christie, “it makes me feel as though I were out of things altogether.” Rest in peace.