Oscar Scandals: Garbo–Why the Divine Had Never Won Legit Award

The late, great Greta Garbo offers the best ammunition for those who wish to put the Oscar down as a merit award, one created to celebrate skillful performances and talented actors.

Despite numerous distinguished performances, Greta Garbo never won a legit Oscar, but Sally Field has won two Oscars out of two nominations in the Best Actress category! (Field received a third nomination as Supporting Actress in 2012 for “Lincoln”)

Would anyone remember Field’s Oscar winning turns in a decade or so? I doubt it.  While Field’s first Oscar, for Martin Ritt’s “Norma Rae” (1999) was justified, the second, for Robert Benton’s earnest period melodrama, “Places in the Heart” (1984) didn’t even deserve a nomination.

Garbo is the one to laugh the most.  Decades after her death and over six decades after her retirement, the legend of Garbo, the Divine, continues to thrive. However, when the Oscars are concerned, despite talent and stature, Garbo was a victim of MGM’s internal politics and her own nonchalant personality, refusing to play by the industry’s rules. Even so, Garbo was Oscar-nominated for four of her indelible performances.

First and Second Nominations: Anna Christie and Romance (1929-1930)

Garbo Talks!

ngz0xhtk0fpOn her first two nominations, for Anna Christie and “Romance,” Garbo lost out to Norma Shearer, who won for “The Divorcee,” also an MGM movie. As is well know, Shearer, a decent if elegant actress, was married at the time to wunderkind Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production.

In “Anna Christie,” a stagy adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s famous play, Garbo plays a down-on-her luck waterfront shady woman who attempts to find love with a sailor (played by Charles Bickford). Garbo’s first sound film provided MGM with a proclamation that became one of the classic ad lines in movie history: “Garbo Talks!”

“Anna Christie” was also nominated for Direction, Clarence Brown, who became Garbo’s most frequent director, and Cinematography, for William Daniels, Garbo’s favorite lenser, who found a special, glowing way to light her. More than any other collaborator, Daniels, who shot most of her films and was responsible for creating the Garbo legendary look.

In the same year, Garbo was nominated for “Romance,” an early, primitive talkie, marred by an inadequate leading man. Garbo was cast as an Italian opera star, forced to choose between her wealthy “patron” (Lewis Stone), and a young clergyman (Gavin Gordon), who falls in love with her. Director Clarence Brown was also nominated, but lost to Lewis Milestone, whose anti-war drama, “All Quiet on the Western Front” received the important awards.

Third Nomination: Camille (1937)

camille_3Garbo’s greatest screen performance, one that prompted playwright-actor-celeb Noel Coward to declare in public: “This is the greatest performance ever committed onto the screen.”

Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, the Parisian courtesan who’s supported by the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) but falls in love with Armand Duval (the young and handsome Robert Taylor). However, Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) persuades Margyerite to break off the relationship and she consents to some tragic results. Cukor’s sensitive direction, Daniels’ luminous lighting, and passable script by Frances Marion, James Hilton, and Zoe Akins (based on Duma’s novel and play) elevate the film.

Thalberg died of heart attack in 1936, before the completion of “Camille.” Rather absurdly, his last film, “The Good Earth,” received five nominations, whereas this gem, one of MGM’s best films, received only one nomination, for Garbo. At her third nomination, Garbo lost out to another lesser actress, Luise Rainer, in “The Good Earth.” Rainer was then strongly supported by Louis B. Mayer, though three years later, he would drop her and her career would terminate. Today, Rainer, a two-time Oscar-winner, is all but forgotten.

Fourth Nomination: Ninotchka (1939)

Garbo Laughs!

Ninotchka_4A wonderful romantic comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch with the famous Lubitsch touch, “Ninotchka” was nominated for four Oscars: Best Picture; Original Story, Melchior Lengyel; Screenplay, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Billy Wilder, and of course, Best Actress to Garbo.

Garbo plays the eponymous heroine, a Soviet official sent to Paris to track three commissars who have gone to the City of Light to sell jewels and have stayed there, having been seduced by the decadent bourgeois lifestyle. Ninotchka meets and falls in love with an exiled Russian count (played by Garbo’s most frequent star in the sound era, Melvyn Douglas). “Ninotchka” is Garbo’slast nomination and next-to-last film; she made only one more picture, “Two-Faced Woman,” directed by George Cukor, before retiring from the screening in 1941.

There are moments in “Ninotchka” in which Garbo seems to parody her own screen image. Nonetheless, the role was tailor-made for Garbo skills, suggesting repressed desire behind a mask of impassivity, a technique she had used before in her tragedies and melodramas but not comedies. Indeed, extremely insecure at playing comedy, especially the scene in which she gets drunk on champagne, Garbo insisted on closing the set to cast and crew members who didn’t have to be there.

Garbo lost out at her fourth nomination to Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind,” which swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and Writing. Unlike Garbo’s previous competitors, Leigh at least gave an exuberant performance.

Honorary Oscar as Compensation

In 1954, the Academy bestowed on Garbo an honorary Oscar for her “unforgettable screen performances.” Garbo didn’t even bother to collect the statuette, which was then sent to her Manhattan home, on East 52nd Street, left outside her door (It’s the same building where Rex Harrison used to live, trust me).   But Garbo never displayed her Oscar statutette in public–or talked about it.