Garbo: the Divine

Decades after her sudden and untimely retirement from the screen, and three decades after her death, Garbo (La Divina) remains one of the most luminous, mysterious, and legendary stars in Hollywood’s history.

September 18, 2005 marked the centenary of Garbo, the Divine, arguably the greatest screen presence that had ever existed in Hollywood’s history.

In Europe, on a talent hunt in 1924, MGM’s chief honcho Louis B. Mayer offered Stiller a contract to work in Hollywood. Louis B. had been impressed with Garbo’s second female lead in G. W. Pabst’s “The Street of Sorrow” (aka “The Joyless Street”), a film in which her rival-to-be, Marlene Dietrich, appears as an extra. Reluctantly, Mayer was forced to accept the director’s condition that his discovery, Garbo, would also be put on the MGM payroll. Stiller and Garbo arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 1925.

At first, the studio publicity was at a loss as to what kind of image to assign Garbo and how to sell it to the American public. Things cleared up after daily rushes of Garbo’s first MGM film, “The Torrent, when studio brass realized what a prize possession they had signed. As soon as the camera began to roll, the big, awkward, pragmatic girl with the stooped shoulders and droopy eyes suddenly came to life, electrifying the screen with her magnetic personality.

Before the film was finished, Louis B. offered Garbo a revised contract at a higher salary. When the film was released, in February 1926, the critical and popular acclamation was unanimous: A star was born! The Garbo myth began in full steam.

However, mentor Stiller was not to be part of Garbo’s triumph. He was assigned to direct Garbo’s next picture, “The Temptress,” but after clashing with MGM execs, he was replaced in mid-production by Fred Niblo. Stiller went to Paramount, where he directed several films, but was also at odds with his new employers. In 1927, he sailed home where he died the following year.

For a while, despite insatiable curiosity, Garbo protected her private life from the scrutiny of the press and the public. But neither Garbo nor John Gilbert, her co-star in the erotic melodrama, “Flesh and the Devil,” could hide from the probing camera or moviegoers that there was more to their passionate embrace than just good acting, or chemistry. When the couple teamed again, in “Love” (1927), an adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” (which Garbo will film again as a talkie), MGM’s ads slyly read: “Garbo and Gilbert in Love.”

The ever-elusive Garbo, tiring of the romantic bravado of the impulsive Gilbert, put an end to the affair in 1929. Over the years, she was reportedly nearly marrying Rouben Mamoulian, who directed one of her best pictures, “Queen Christina,” conductor Leopold Stokowski, and nutrition expert Gaylord Hauser. Garbo never married and was never able to dispel rumors of bisexuality.

Of all the stars that have ignited the audiences’ imagination, none, past or present, has projected the magnetism and eroticism equal to Garbo’s. Mysterious, unattainable, and ever-changing, Garbo, unlike other female stars, appealed to both male and female viewers. On screen as off, she represented a remote figure of loveliness—aloof and enigmatic. The line, “I want to be left alone,” which Garbo recited in at least four movies, forever became associated with her screen persona and personal life, too.

The publicity department put Garbo on a high pedestal. When she appeared in her first talkie, “Anna Christie” (1930), for which she won an Oscar nomination, MGM’s slogan “Garbo Talks!” filled much advertising space. When she appeared in her first comedy, Ninotchka (1939), for which she won her fourth and last Oscar nomination, the studio’s ads heralded: “Garbo Laughs.”
The public responded favorably to both campaign, to say the least. Though she never won a legit, competitive Oscar, Garbo was twice named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle: for “Anna Karenina” in 1935, and for “Camille,” considered to be her most accomplished screen performance, in 1937.

In his book, “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet,” the brilliant critic and historian Andrew Sarris deconstructs astutely Garbo’s mystique against the contexts in which she worked and lived. Garbo was under contract to MGM, the most puritanical of Hollywood studios, where she played exquisite creatures doomed to death or disgrace. Garbo’s writers had to sanitize her sexuality so that she could titillate audiences without offending them. Garbo’s screen persona was built on a vision of life without compromise, love without disenchantment, sexuality without sordidness.

Garbo was more sophisticated than the movies than enclosed her, and there was also disparity between the narrative’s text and the star’s subtext. In her cosmopolitan image, Garbo might have been too exotic for provincial Americans. Nonetheless, Garbo did benefit from the magic that prevailed at MGM, in terms of costumes and photography. And she may be the only star who depended more from her cinematographer than from her writers or directors. Indeed, photographer William Daniels, who shot most of her pictures, looms larger in the creation of her legend than her director or writers.

At the age of 35, after the huge success of “Ninotchka,” Garbo had achieved all of her great ambitions: She was the most famous, most beautiful, and most accomplished actress to have ever graced the screen. Then, rather suddenly, following the release of “Two-Faced Woman” (1942), Garbo announced her retirement. True to character, she never explained why, though many felt it was a direct result of that film’s failure.

After 1942, Garbo led the life of a recluse, sharing her time between Switzerland, the Riviera, and Manhattan apartment, on East 52nd Street. (Garbo lived in the same building where Rex Harrison resided, a fact I discovered when I interviewed him for my biography of “George Cukor”).

There was occasional talk of a projected comeback, but it never materialized. When Garbo died in 1990, at age 85, she left behind an estate values at $200 million. Far more important was her legacy, or rich body of work, which reflected a special time in American cinema.

The most remarkable thing about Garbo, is that six decades after her last film, her mystique and alluring appeal remain intact. Audiences continue to discover her magic on TV, in art houses, retrospectives, and film festivals. There have been at leas a dozen biographies of Garbo, who continues to epitomize for generations of audiences the glamour, sex appeal, and talent of a mega Hollywood star.

Offscreen, Garbo had one of the complex personalities, full of contradictions. According to one biographer, it wasn’t the disastrous reception of “Two-Faced Woman” that forced her early retirement but her need for personal growth. From the age of 17, Garbo had nothing but work and her success came before she had time to develop emotionally.

Garbo was always ambiguous about her celebrity, though her cherished privacy became a public game. Garbo’s narcissism was double-edged. : Despite formal loathing of publicity, she sat for numerous photo sessions, enjoyed looking at her pictures, and reportedly read almost everything written about her. She needed people to adore her, from afar: Garbo loathed the very recognition she had come to require.

In many ways, it was Garbo’s elusiveness that made her intriguing. The pursuit of a woman who effectively managed to be fugitive from the public eye undoubtedly assumed both comic and tragic dimensions. The irony of Garbo’s fame is that, had she cooperated with the press, her mystique would have vanished overnight.

Andrew Sarris summed it up most eloquently: Garbo was her own mise-en-scene. Her art dissolves in her myth, and her myth transcends the cinema that first gave it form.”