Why do the best actresses have first and second names starting with the same letter? The question is posed in The Truth (2019), Hirokazu Koreeda’s delightfully low-key film about showbiz rivalries and regrets. It is prompted by a glimpse through a car window of an apartment in central Paris once occupied by Michèle Morgan (born Simone Renée Roussel), star of Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes, the acme of 1930s poetic realism. The evidence presented comes, with a single exception, from a roll-call of the most celebrated divas of 20th-century French cinema: Danielle Darrieux, Simone Signoret, Anouk Aimée, Brigitte Bardot. The actress asking the question has had to make do throughout an illustrious career with the relatively unsynchronised ‘Fabienne Dangeville’. She’s played by Catherine Deneuve, who co-stars with Juliette Binoche. The only other name on the list is, as it has to be, that of the diva to end all divas, Greta Garbo – ‘G.G.’ to her closest associates. With Garbo, the process of distillation out of which stars are made reached a limit so absolute that hardly anything remains by way of ascertainable mortal residue. To describe her life is to attempt the biography of a monogram.
The problem with Garbo is that she rapidly became, and still remains, iconically iconic. It isn’t just that when we talk about Garbo we’re talking about what it means to be talked about – to the extent that the person she was and the films she made now seem almost beside the point. It is rather that, to judge by the tone of much of the commentary, the person and the films were never the point in the first place. In its determination to define godhead by that which cannot be known about it, Garbo studies has acquired all the trappings of a negative theology. Garbo’s face is an idea, Roland Barthes declared in 1957, not an event: it projects an essential rather than an existential beauty. The ‘divine’ Garbo descended, Barthes wrote, ‘from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light’. By this time, new ways had been found in which to be beautiful. The face of the rising star Audrey Hepburn was an event, Barthes thought, rather than an idea. If anything, however, the imminent supersession of Garbo by Hepburn – and of cinema by television – simply served to reinforce negative theology’s insistence on the marvellous. Billy Wilder, who co-wrote Ninotchka, the Garbo film most likely to appeal to audiences today, was among the first to claim that divine grace had been bestowed on her by the medium itself, without discernible human intervention. ‘The miracle happened in that film emulsion. Who knows why?’ Writing in 1975, David Thomson compared Garbo to Christ – there were times in their lives when all they wanted was to be left alone – before concluding with a reiteration of the same ‘mysterious truth’: ‘She was photographed. She was all in the silver.’ Whether Garbo is still all in the silver in the age of Web 2.0, Thomson has since added, is open to doubt. But that doesn’t stop Robert Gottlieb from presenting himself, at the start of his new biography, as an unapologetic negative theologian. ‘She’s still hiding – no one will ever know what was taking place behind those amazing eyes. Only the camera knew.’
The story of Garbo’s discovery and transformation into a living legend has been told often enough: most notably by Barry Paris in his biography of 1995. Born on 18 September 1905, Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was raised by respectable, hard-working parents in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Stockholm. Her education ended with her father’s early death, and by the age of fifteen she was modelling hats in the mail-order catalogue of the department store that employed her as a clerk. Two years later, in September 1922, she earned a place at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre Academy: she had presence and a lovely deep voice. There she was spotted by Mauritz Stiller, one of the most sought-after directors in Sweden’s thriving film industry. Stiller became her Svengali. It was he who paired ‘Greta’ with ‘Garbo’ (can it be mere coincidence that the star of Erotikon, his greatest hit to date, a comedy of manners about the bored wife of an entomologist, had been Tora Teje?). The audition was for a leading role in The Saga of Gösta Berling, a lavish costume drama adapted from the novel by Selma Lagerlöf, the Swedish Walter Scott. The film’s success broadened Stiller’s ambitions, and he took Garbo with him to Berlin in search of more lucrative and prestigious contracts for them both. Meanwhile, Garbo’s performance in Gösta Berling caught the attention of G.W. Pabst, who cast her as a virtuous woman forced to the brink of prostitution by poverty in Joyless Street (1925). There were other eyes on Garbo, too. Louis B. Mayer, vice-president and general manager of MGM, the conglomerate formed in 1924 to rival Paramount and United Artists, was in Rome to troubleshoot the studio’s inaugural blockbuster, Ben-Hur. Mayer, who had already seen Garbo in Gösta Berling before he left Hollywood, travelled to Berlin to sign her up. Garbo and Stiller eventually arrived in Los Angeles on 10 September 1925, eight days shy of her twentieth birthday.
Garbo’s apprenticeship in the methods of European filmmaking had been short-lived but thorough. She didn’t at all appreciate Hollywood’s more rapid turnover, or its attempts to refine her rather lumpy shyness by means of diet, dental surgery and the sort of publicity shot that featured the USC athletics coach fondling her biceps. There was a further – enduring – problem. Hollywood profited hugely from the sheikhs and swashbucklers (Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks) whose advances no red-blooded woman could resist, but felt altogether less confident when it came to doing things the other way round. Female desire had in effect been outsourced, first to the vamps – mature women of vaguely Eastern European origin who used sex to drain men of money, status and self-esteem before discarding them – and then to the more youthful flappers, with their casual disregard for social and moral convention. In 1926 MGM cast the unequivocally European Garbo in two vamp films, Torrent and The Temptress. In both, she sinks her fangs into her prey with elegant conviction, before either relinquishing the broken carcass – ‘I do not want to come between a man and his mother’ – or being relinquished by it. To Garbo’s distress, MGM fired Stiller from the direction of The Temptress: he was taking too long over it and he had ordered the leading man, Tony Moreno, Hollywood’s top post-Valentino Latin lover, to shave off his signature moustache. The Temptress made a loss, but everyone now knew just how hot Garbo was. Louise Brooks said that MGM had at last found itself a heroine ‘with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic’.
MGM decided to double down on Garbo by pairing her with its most bankable male star, John Gilbert, in the costume drama Flesh and the Devil (1926). She plays a femme fatale who comes between two childhood friends by marrying one of them while in love with the other. Even in the more adventurous vamp and flapper films, sex was something you did while remaining, as far as possible, in an upright position. Garbo and Gilbert, however, are soon found sprawled on a bed. Rapt close-ups capture each lingering, open-mouthed kiss. There was an added bonus. By good fortune or by design, Gilbert and Garbo fell for each other. Such was the intensity of their love scenes that the director, Clarence Brown, felt it would be an intrusion to yell ‘cut!’ Instead, he would call the crew over to another part of the set and ‘let them finish what they were doing’. Garbo moved into Gilbert’s house. The publicity department couldn’t believe its luck. Garbo Mark I – her career up to and including Flesh and the Devil – was the star machine’s pure product: unforeseen, exhilarating and under control. The film made a profit of $466,000.
The affair with Gilbert lasted a little over two years, and Garbo seceded from it long before it came to an end. She had no intention of marrying him – which was what he wanted. It’s hard to tell how much she cared about him; a lot, perhaps, although the reliably cynical Brooks had her doubts. ‘There is enough dyke in me,’ Brooks later said, ‘to know that Garbo must have detested him.’ Garbo, she thought, had slept with Gilbert ‘for the sake of her career’; once on solid ground at MGM, ‘she gave him a fast broom.’ That is altogether too pat. But it does draw attention to the ruthlessness of which Garbo was capable. The next people to find this out were MGM, who now needed her more than she needed them. Unsurpassable box-office appeal had delivered power, but also a deepening discontent with the roles she was asked to play and with the intrusiveness of fame. No sooner had Hollywood canonised her than she withdrew from it. She was not going to co-operate with the machine: no public appearances, no stunts, no fashion spreads, no commercial endorsements, no interviews. Visitors, however eminent, were barred from the set when she was working. Off-screen Garbo assumed a deliberately unremarkable appearance: sweater, slacks, dark glasses, tennis visor or slouch hat. That’s what greeted her intimates when she decided to drop by, or summoned them for a walk on the beach. Her eager public had to content itself with publicity stills and glamour portraits; and, of course, the films. When Garbo withdrew from the star system, withdrawal became – for a time – the definition of stardom. Groucho Marx may well have been the only insider to call her bluff. Encountering her one day in an elevator on the MGM lot, he lifted the brim of her hat to peer underneath: ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I thought you were a fella I knew from Kansas City.’
Garbo made the transition to sound with ease, introducing herself in Anna Christie (1930) with a throaty laugh. When her initial contract with MGM came to an end in 1932, she drove a very hard bargain. She got the money she wanted ($250,000 per film), as well as power of veto over the choice of director and co-star. Garbo had always played women whom destiny withdrew from circulation, either through their self-destructive tendencies, or, failing that, a car crash, firing squad or other abrupt termination. While in Sweden, she assiduously researched the role she really did want to play: that of a supreme female ruler who frequently wore men’s clothes, had affairs with people of both sexes, disdained marriage and – above all – eventually chose to withdraw, by abdicating. Queen Christina (1933) was directed with sympathy and flair by Rouben Mamoulian. But it earned more in Europe than it did in America. Garbo Mark II, created in 1927 by the success of Flesh and the Devil, had begun to lose her mainstream appeal. Some significant films were to follow: Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), Ninotchka (1939). But the outbreak of the Second World War blocked access to the European market. The tepid Two-Faced Woman (1941), which packaged Garbo as a homelier sort of heroine (well, a ski instructor) in a vain attempt to re-enthuse American audiences, was to be her last film.
There is a special circle in hell known only to Garbo biographers: the rest of her life. Once out of employment, Garbo did more or less what she wanted while keeping a remorselessly inquisitive world guessing as to what that might involve. She moved house. She travelled a lot, incognito or on the Onassis yacht. She invested her money wisely. She bought some paintings. Sam Green, the art dealer recruited in 1970 to act as the New York minder of the world’s most over-exposed recluse, amassed hundreds of hours of telephone recordings. Gottlieb quotes a passage from the tapes to demonstrate how unrevealing they are. (I believe him.)
The more decisively Garbo withdrew, the fiercer the static of gossip and rumour generated by her occasional ventures into the outside world. The biographies can filter out much of that. In doing so, however, they tend to rely too extensively on evidence supplied by professional self-publicists. Being held at arm’s length by Garbo, preferably for an agonising length of time, was the fast-track to celebrity. Cecil Beaton’s diaries reveal that he spent decades in pursuit of the perfect trophy wife to ornament his stately pile in Wiltshire: when Garbo visited, she was soon, he wrote, ‘on the best of terms with the vicar, the butcher and the gardener’. Equally tenacious was Mercedes de Acosta, screenwriter, activist, socialite, and, as Gottlieb puts it, ‘ubiquitous lesbian rake’, whose friendship with Garbo lasted almost thirty years. Some hints in de Acosta’s autobiography, Here Lies the Heart, provide the main source for speculation about Garbo’s lesbianism. Like Beaton, de Acosta was to discover that the one sure way to get a fast broom from Garbo was to publish a kiss-and-tell memoir. After Here Lies the Heart appeared in 1960, Garbo never spoke to her again. Gottlieb includes a wonderful photograph of the two women – each, in her own way, iconically iconic – striding along Hollywood Boulevard ‘dressed’, as the accompanying newspaper caption put it, ‘in men’s clothes’.
Gottlieb suffers, like others before him, from a distinct lack of new information about Garbo’s life. Nothing to see here was the general consensus when a cache of 55 letters from Garbo to de Acosta was made available for inspection in 2000, ten years after her death. The feminist critic Maryanne Dever, sifting through the collection in 2006, found less to interest her in the letters than in the slight traces of physical intimacy which clung to some of the objects de Acosta had also chosen to preserve: florists’ cards, handwritten mailing labels, a yellow cotton ankle sock with a lipstick kiss imprinted on it. Gottlieb doesn’t appear to have investigated the sock. He neatly fillets Garbo Mark III – almost fifty years of retirement – into a series of brisk thematic chapters: ‘Garbo and Some Men in Her Life’; ‘Garbo, Money and Art’; ‘Garbo at Home and Abroad’. There isn’t a great deal more to say. Garbo in retirement turned out to be an enduring force not of nature but of willed inertia. She had always allowed herself to be led, whether by a father figure, or an importunate suitor, or a trusted ally, to wherever it was she meant to go. Now she dwelled in so exact an equivalence between performing and not performing, possessing and not possessing, having sex and not having sex, going out and staying in, that equivalence itself constituted her chief pleasure. Homeostasis became her.
But what about the films? Garbo Mark II was a skilful, dedicated and adventurous performer who, given that she did not aim so much to imitate a person experiencing an emotion as to embody and enact the emotion itself, was not significantly held back by the poverty of the scripts with which MGM supplied her, or the lacklustre efforts of some of her leading men. That much was established long ago by Charles Affron in his book on Star Acting (1977). Gottlieb also quotes at some length from Mark Vieira’s monumental Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy (2005). But these accounts still leave the impression that negative theology has proved a hard habit to shake off. Of course it’s not that Garbo could ever be fully understood apart from the radiant dream vision – the face, the eyes, the silken lashes – that caused all the fuss. It is rather that the dream vision, once set as a cinematic default, enabled other kinds of performance to flourish in its generous shadow. We need to talk about what happened below the neck.
William Daniels, cameraman for 19 of the 25 films Garbo made for MGM, noted that she was ‘always taken in close-up or long shots, hardly ever intermediate or full figure. The latter do not come out well.’ It was Garbo’s face, shot in glowing close-up, and to all intents and purposes severed from her body, which became iconically iconic. That the intermediate or full figure shots do not come out well had a good deal to do with her physique. ‘The Swede isn’t a bad looker,’ Gilbert is said to have remarked after their first encounter on the MGM lot. ‘Bones are too large but she has amazing eyes.’ The large bones remain a focus of discussion: you won’t get far into anything written about Garbo before you come across the word ‘gawky’. The camera, dealing in close-ups and long shots, did its bit to elide the gawkiness, but other measures were required too. Adrian, MGM’s magician of a costume designer, swathed her in billowing gowns and mountainous fur coats. Contemporary settings posed a particular challenge. The striped pyjamas Garbo wears in The Single Standard (1929) enable her to blend seamlessly into the geometric patterns of the Art Deco sets designed by Cedric Gibbons: the icon as dazzle-camouflage. The emphasis on close-up and long shot was a formula devised by MGM’s alchemists for the extraction of essence from existence. But a formula so well established so early in a career is ripe for manipulation. Hedda Hopper, who played Garbo’s sister in As You Desire Me (1932), and later established herself as a hugely influential Hollywood gossip columnist, pointed out that Adrian did not devote all of his ingenuity to framing the dream vision. ‘Adrian studied Garbo like a surgeon would an X-ray. She was big-boned, square-shouldered, mannish. He accentuated these obstacles to femininity and had a great deal to do with her screen success.’
Flesh and the Devil shows what could be done with big bones. When Leo (Gilbert) first catches sight of Felicitas (Garbo) as she descends from a train, the alternations of long shot and close-up, with the entire middle distance elided, create cinema’s version of the coup de foudre: the lightning flash of rapt mutual attention that singles hero and heroine out for each other. But there’s another romance already underway in Flesh and the Devil. The scenes between Leo and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) – from boyhood expedition through army camaraderie to the joint pursuit of Felicitas – are nothing if not ‘ardent’, as Gottlieb rightly points out, in their depiction of male friendship. Whenever the men meet, an eager embrace ‘leaves their lips barely apart, an inch or so away from a kiss. Didn’t anyone notice this?’ Yes, they did. Interviewed in 1975, the director, Clarence Brown, proved uncompromising in his assessment of the dilemma posed by a final scene in which Leo and Ulrich bury their differences over Felicitas in a passionate renewal of friendship (she, meanwhile, has fallen through the ice on a frozen lake). ‘How do you have the woman die and the two men embrace without making them look like a couple of fairies?’
The film had in fact itself created the dilemma by its imaginative exploration of the middle distance in which Garbo appears as something other than an icon. In a superb scene, Felicitas stands between Leo and Ulrich as Ulrich proposes a toast to their eternal unity. We see Garbo in medium long shot (from the knees up), in a dress whose plainness removes any suggestion of contour. No icon, in this instance, she merely exists, a shapeless impediment in someone else’s story. Ulrich clinks glasses with Leo, but too vigorously, so that the glass breaks and he cuts himself. The gash powerfully recalls an earlier scene in which the two young friends had sworn eternal blood brotherhood with the help of a penknife. Garbo’s gawkiness was not just something to be disguised or hidden away. From The Temptress onwards, her films more often than not include a scene that requires an intermediate or full figure shot to show her acting on the warmth of her feelings for children – or, in Grand Hotel (1932), for the elderly woman she shepherds into an elevator during a rare foray from her room.
The influx of European émigrés into the studio system from the mid 1920s did a good deal to foster the inventiveness required to incorporate more than one kind of event into a star vehicle without altogether compromising its focus on the main attraction. The best guide to Garbo’s Hollywood hinterland is Salka Viertel’s absorbing memoir, The Kindness of Strangers (1969, republished by NYRB Classics in 2019). Viertel, almost uniquely, avoided Garbo’s fast broom. She was too wise, loyal and sympathetic a friend to lose. The Kindness of Strangers is in any case about much else besides Garbo, as Donna Rifkind emphasises in The Sun and Her Stars, her recent biography of Viertel.Its first section concerns Viertel’s upbringing in the garrison town of Sambor, in Galicia, and the years spent treading the boards in Weimar-era Germany with a husband and young family in tow. Berthold, the husband, had begun to establish a reputation as a playwright and director. In 1927, F.W. Murnau, flush with the success of his first American film, Sunrise, commissioned him to write a screenplay. By the end of 1928, the family had settled in a modest house in Santa Monica through which an entire Who’s Who of the anti-fascist migration was to pass. Christopher Isherwood lived above the garage. Equally impressive was the tireless support Viertel gave to the many other, less glamorous, European refugees who washed up in LA. Having appeared in the opening scene of the German-language version of Anna Christie, she became known as a ‘Garbo specialist’, working on several of her scripts and acting as a go-between with the executives at MGM. Of equal interest is Viertel’s role as the trusted confidante of two experimental European directors courted by Hollywood: Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein. Murnau was gay, and the often malicious gossip about him found much to feed on in the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death in 1931 from injuries sustained in a car crash. Garbo was one of only eleven mourners at his funeral. Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, had long since set the standard for equivocation in film narrative. Is it the story of a young woman who sacrifices herself in order to eradicate evil from the world? Or of a young man whose employer has procured him on behalf of an elderly queen?
Garbo was at her absolute best in films such as Queen Christina and Ninotchka, which gave full expression to her gawkiness. (At least in the films’ first halves, before the reconstitution by close-up of a face formed and perfected in the clear light of heaven.) Thalberg told Viertel to keep the lesbian theme in mind in the script of Queen Christina because if ‘handled with taste’ it would give them some ‘very interesting scenes’. Trouser-suited Garbo prowls the palace in a fever of androgyny, slamming doors behind her, slumping in chairs, necking enthusiastically with a female courtier. The freedom asserted is as much moral and political as it is physical. This is a monarch who not only decries bellicose nationalism and promotes efforts to ‘remake the world’ through intellectual enquiry, but – even more remarkable – steps down once she realises she will never accomplish what she had set out to do. In the most interesting scene of all, she shares a bedroom at a rural inn with a Spanish ambassador, John Gilbert, who can see no reason to doubt the manliness of her buccaneering attitude and attire. After a brief interlude of homosocial banter about swords and serving maids, the time comes to undress. Gilbert’s look of goggle-eyed amazement is already well past its silent movie sell-by date. But it does nicely cue a couple of telling shots that show Garbo at first in intermediate and then in full figure, having removed her doublet and sword belt, backlit by a blazing fire. Head bent, she pushes one knee forward, so that her hips sway ever so slightly, in a kind of melting. The invitation nonetheless falls some way short of a swoon. Garbo quite simply owns the middle distance in which androgyny can continue to have it both ways. Thereafter the film obediently winnows the buccaneering away until it arrives at the ultimate Garbo money-shot: the iconic face, expressionless, perfect in its beauty, at the prow of the ship carrying a queen into exile. But we shouldn’t suppose the film’s first audiences were too mesmerised by this deluxe apotheosis to remember anything that had gone on before. Queen Christina was apparently one of the last Hollywood films to be shown in Nazi Germany. Viertel reported that old friends and complete strangers alike had written to her ‘praising it for its pacifist tendency and “abdication of power”’.
In Ninotchka, an inspired twist on the screwball formula has hatchet-faced Soviet special envoy Garbo sent to Paris to oversee the sale of some White Russian jewellery, sparring as mordantly with her three male minders (‘Don’t make an issue of my womanhood’) as she does with playboy capitalist Melvyn Douglas. Adrian’s accentuation of the obstacles to femininity results in a variety of quasi-tunics whose severity Garbo further accentuates by clasping her hands behind her back, or sticking them in her belt, or in her pockets. Once again, she owns the ambiguous middle distance – at least until Douglas’s ignominious pratfall in a greasy spoon café releases the natural woman within her (‘Garbo laughs!’). After that, there are some good jokes about hats as the camera settles with steadily intensifying delight on her face, but you miss the antsiness. By a nice coincidence, Alexander Granach, who excels as one of the minders, had played the sinister agent-procurer in Nosferatu. Did he and Garbo ever find the time to reminisce about Murnau and the pleasures of equivocation?