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Greta Garbo: The face that continued to fascinate

Greta Garbo is seen in out and about in a series of candid shots from the 1930s - Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on an actress whose later years have fascinated every bit as much as her relatively brief screen career.

They always called her a recluse but that wasn’t strictly true. Greta Garbo lived not out of sight but in the heart of Manhattan where it’s impossible to disappear. She was a regular attendee at auction houses, shopped in department stores, visited art galleries and was a familiar presence for New York’s ‘Garbo-watchers’ as she walked the streets in flat shoes, dark glasses and fedora.

There was rumoured eccentricity, of course. Of how on a weekly basis she would buy a pair of gloves from one particular store and always return them the following day. That she would sometimes just ride the lift up and down in her apartment block. That she made her coffee in a casserole dish.

Her love-life was a source of gossip and innuendo regarding endlessly mooted relationships with household names of both sexes. There was no use in her confirming or denying them. If Greta Garbo had learned anything it was that whatever truth people desired, even if it was invention, could be projected onto her.

When the press talked about Garbo as a recluse or a hermit they just meant she was private. She didn’t play the game that public figures were expected to play, didn’t dance when the media struck up a tune, chose not to live her life as other people’s property because she’d starred in a few successful films.

“It is a testimony to her continuing fascination that so stringently uncommunicative a personage should still rank high on the list of the newsworthy and the celebrated of our time,” said the New York Times in 1965 on the occasion of Garbo’s 60th birthday, nearly a quarter of a century after her last film role. Yet even during her screen career she stepped off the treadmill of stardom almost as soon as she’d been coaxed onto it.

On arriving in Hollywood from Sweden in 1926 Garbo cut a figure strikingly different to the fey, sylph-like Hollywood screen women popular at the time. Tall and stocky, she was sent immediately by studio publicists to participate in an excruciating staged track meeting with the strapping athletes of the University of Southern California. Reticent in her early interviews through a combination of natural reserve and an early lack of confidence in her English, she found her words rendered phonetically in print in order to mimic her accent. Enough to put anyone off the trappings of celebrity for good.

It wasn’t just the press she sought to exclude, however. Isabella Rossellini told of how when her mother Ingrid Bergman first arrived in Hollywood in 1939 she sent Garbo flowers with a note hoping the star might help a compatriot settle in with advice over meatballs and aquavit.

“Garbo sent a telegram accepting the invitation but not until three months later, just as mother was about to leave town,” said Rossellini. “Mother told George Cukor, who was a friend of Garbo’s, about it and Cukor laughed. ‘Of course, Greta wouldn’t have sent the telegram unless she was certain you were leaving.’”

There was immense depth and substance behind the chimerical public perception. Her presence on the screen was like nothing ever seen before and rarely seen since: the camera loved Garbo, something about her face suited the black and white big screen perfectly. Early cinema was rife with exaggerated gestures and expressions, hammed up to compensate for the lack of dialogue. It would be wrong to say that Garbo single-handedly upended that school of screen acting, but her sheer presence made overt gesture unnecessary, every tiny facial nuance successfully conveyed to the back row of the biggest cinema.

“There is no lesson in film acting like half an hour’s attention to Greta Garbo,” said the Guardian as early as 1927, reviewing her second Hollywood starring role in The Temptress. “She understands this art of significant motion perfectly, as artists or philosophers understand it. She takes life to bits and puts it together again as a fresh thing.”

Her roles tended to be women battered by injustice, disillusioned by the world and its flaws, stepping outside convention and always capable of love. She suffered, she was mistreated, her characters’ lives often ended in tragedy, and it was all expressed by Garbo’s natural understatement that hinted at torrents of passionate emotion beneath a cool insouciance. This was evident even in the early rushes of her 1926 Hollywood debut The Torrent, studio viewings of which led to an immediate increase in her salary.

Almost 80 years after that Hollywood debut Zadie Smith summed up in a 2005 essay what made Garbo special.

“A close-up of her face appears to reveal fewer features than the rest of us – such an expanse of white – punctuated by the minimum of detail, just enough to let you know that this is flesh, not spirit,” she wrote, and it was that expanse of white that made Garbo almost a screen herself on which we could project our own interpretations, making her into anything we wanted to. So effortless did she appear she could make the audience do the work for her.

The Swedish film pioneer Mauritz Stiller was the first to recognise this extraordinary quality when he saw young Greta Gustafsson at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre Academy in her mid-teens. She already had hardship to draw upon, growing up in the poorest part of Stockholm and losing her beloved father to alcoholism when she was just 14.

“I was born, I grew up like everybody else, I didn’t like going to school,” was how Garbo described, with characteristic understatement, her background in a rare early interview. When Stiller gave her the name Garbo and cast her as Countess Elizabeth Dohna in the epic The Saga of Gösta Berling, released in 1924, she was able to leave Greta Gustafsson behind. The film was also enough to send Stiller and his protégé to Hollywood.

Garbo was an instant hit but Stiller struggled to fit into the Hollywood machine and within two years he was forced back to Sweden, where he died in 1928. Garbo received the news of her mentor’s death via a telegram on set and immediately passed out. When she revived she went straight out and finished her scene. Some say she never got over Stiller’s death, but that might be just more projection.

Unlike many of her European Hollywood contemporaries Garbo made a relatively smooth transition from silent to sound, with audiences hearing her voice for the first time in the 1930 film Anna Christie, billed with the simple strapline ‘Garbo talks!’. “Gimme a whisky with ginger ale on the side,” she says to a waiter in a saloon, calling after him, “and don’t be stingy, baby”.

By the outbreak of the Second World War Garbo was earning as much as $270,000 per film. She’d always invested shrewdly, mainly in Sweden which protected her from the worst of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, but when war meant smaller budgets for cinema she was unwilling to compromise on her star value. Two-Faced Woman, from 1941, in which the 36-year-old Garbo played twin sisters vying for the same man, proved to be her last screen role.

It was a turkey, too, described by the New York Times as a “dismal jape… a bewildering and pointless charade” in which Garbo’s supposedly comic performance was “one of the awkward exhibitions of the season”.

Contrary to accepted legend she didn’t officially retire after Two-Faced Woman and there was no great flouncing out of the industry. In 1947 she reportedly agreed to appear in a biopic of George Sand that was never made, and two years later was due to star in an adaptation by Walter Wanger of Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais, but when Wanger’s Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman, was an expensive flop, that project was shelved.

And that was that. Save for an inadvertent background appearance crossing a Manhattan street in an establishing shot during Adam and Yves, a 1974 slice of gay erotica, Garbo never lit up a screen again.

She made 26 Hollywood films in 15 years, a period that covers not even one-fifth of her life but enough to make her immortal. For all the Garbo-spotting of her later life, it’s those sumptuous black and white images that remain timeless, such as the final moments of Queen Christina when she stands at the prow of a ship, the camera moving in for a lingering close-up as the soundtrack builds to its final cadence, her face looking towards the horizon expressing everything by expressing nothing.

It was exactly as Roland Barthes said when summing up the difference between Garbo and Audrey Hepburn. Where Hepburn’s face represented an event, he said, “the face of Garbo is an idea”.

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