Brooksie and Faust
- Louise Brooks by Barry Paris
Hamish Hamilton, 640 pp, £20.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 241 12541 3
I once showed G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film version of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Louise Brooks’s starring vehicle Pandora’s Box, to a graduate class at the University of Iowa. I was apprehensive; these were children of the television age, unfamiliar with the codes of silent movies, especially of German silents, the exaggerated gesture, the mask-like make-up, the distorted shadows. But I badly wanted to show them this great film about the unholy alliance between desire and money as part of a course about 20th-century narrative I’d titled, quoting from Thomas Wolfe, ‘Life is strange and the world is bad’; nothing else but Pandora’s Box would do.
Happily, they did not fidget or shuffle, but sat like mice. Finally Jack the Ripper stabbed Lulu just as, or just because, she turns towards him the full force of her radiant sexuality; he cannot bear to look at her for long, as we can’t look at the sun for long. The film was over. There was a silence. Then a young man said: ‘That was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in the movies.’
And they all said: yes. The most beautiful. The best performance. Who is she? What else did she do? This biography provides a comprehensive answer to that question. Note how no attempt has been made to gussy up the title: Louise Brooks is a name that carries with it all the resonance of a quotation, a name that instantly evokes her personal logo, that haircut, those eyebrows. There are sumptuous photographs on the front and back flaps – oh! the patented Brooks version of the Giaconda smile, the one that, as Barry Paris says, isn’t so much a ‘come hither’ look as a look that says, to each and every gender: ‘I’ll come to you.’ (If, that is, she likes the look of you – a big if, in fact.)
That straightforward look of hers is what makes these 60-year-old photographs of Louise Brooks so provocative, so disturbing, so unchanged by time. Like Manet’s Olympia, she is directly challenging the person who is looking at her; she is piercing right through the camera with her questing gaze to give your look back, with interest. ‘This provocative eyeful’, as Picturegoer magazine called her in the brief springtime of her youthful fame, is not presenting herself as an object of contemplation so much as throwing down a gauntlet. She is ‘the girl in the black helmet’, she’d have you know. She is the one they call ‘the exotic black orchid’. She has a Cartier watch and a copy of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu tucked into her purse. Essentially, her attitude is one of: ‘Now show me what you can do.’
It is still an unusual attitude for a woman to adopt. Many men, even if aroused by it, would think it was a bad attitude; so would those women who were neither aroused nor felt complicitous with her.
‘Women of exceptional beauty are doomed to unhappiness,’ says Theodor Adorno. Beautiful is as beautiful does: Brooks’s features in repose can look doll-like, chocolate-boxy. The spirit that animated them was the exceptional thing. On the evidence of this book and her own book of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, I don’t think she was unhappy, exactly. She was certainly, as she says, ‘inept’ at marriage, trying it briefly twice. She quarrelled with her best-loved brother shortly before he died, as if to insure herself against grieving for him. She was a vain, imperious bitch with a tongue like a knife, yet she was loved far more than she deserved, or acknowledged, and even during her bleakest periods of despair, she always seems to have been buoyed up by a mysterious, self-sustaining glee. Drunk or sober (more often the former than the latter), flush or destitute, star, salesgirl, call-girl, or, final incarnation, grande dame and monstre sacrée, she never lost a talent for living memorably. Born a self-dramatiser, she always enjoyed the spectacle of herself.