What is absent from the early part of “Garbo” is her personality, and I don’t mean that as a criticism of Gottlieb, because “personality” seems to have been absent from Garbo herself. She was shy, a bit dour, could laugh with friends but then turn cold — in short, a cipher.
Gottlieb suggests that, given its first glimpse of her, “the world simply grasped that she was unique and to be treasured.” Stardom, even in Hollywood’s formative years, was rarely that free of machinery, but in Garbo’s case, one has to credit a certain kind of alchemy; what could seem withholding, blank, even dull in life felt deep, adult and mesmerizing when projected onto a screen. And once Garbo steps in front of the camera, Gottlieb’s book comes gloriously into its own, a tour through a career offered by a shrewd, deeply perceptive docent, brimming with knowledge and insight.
This seems an apt moment to mention that the author turned 90 this spring, not only because, come on, bravo, but also because the fact that he was born in 1931 proves an invaluable asset to his understanding of his subject. To Gottlieb, the 1930s studio movies in which Garbo made her mark aren’t relics of history to be discovered in film class or on TCM. They’re just the stuff he grew up on, made efficiently to be consumed quickly, and he brings to his assessments a fan’s appreciation, a connoisseur’s acuity and an amused impatience with the aspects of them that are and always were ridiculous.
Maybe it takes a nonagenarian to be this tartly un-gushy about Garbo’s “Grand Hotel” co-star Lionel Barrymore, “whose overacting is unbearable even by Lionel standards. (Lonely, dying old men don’t have to be hams.)” Or to contextualize a long-forgotten movie like “The Single Standard” thus: “Here she’s natural, happy (when not being noble), fun to watch — likable! You see once more what she might have been in talkies if she and M-G-M hadn’t conspired to keep her in lugubrious romances and high-flown ‘classics’ and historicals.” His writing about “Camille” — remembered, and often dismissed, for its over-the-top melodrama and death scene — is the first I’ve read that helped me understand the esteem in which generations of worshipers have held her performance. This is what we want film books to do — to send us to the work with sharper eyes and more open minds.
Any attempt at a life of Garbo faces inevitable second-act trouble. She abruptly departed from the screen in 1941 (“I had made enough faces,” she told David Niven), and … then what? Gottlieb details the mostly uneventful remaining half-century (!) of her life fitfully, which may be the only way to detail an existence seemingly shaped to avoid excitement. She moved into a nice Manhattan apartment on 52nd Street. She bought some Renoirs. She had few close friends, and her relationships with them were fraught with various suspicions and betrayals. She went to dinner parties and Gristedes and the florist and took long walks. She appears not to have said a single interesting thing. And then she died, leaving an estate worth between $32 million and $55 million, and stiffing everyone but her niece. The rest is (even more) silence.