Fame is so powerful that renouncing it can seem like the supreme power move. Celebrities who retreat from the public eye (Howard Hughes, J. D. Salinger, Prince) will always be legends, no matter what else they may be. Rumored comebacks tantalize. Paparazzi circle. The mystery deepens. In 1941, at the age of thirty-six, Greta Garbo, one of the biggest box-office draws in the world, stopped acting and, though she lived for half a century more, never made another film. For a star who, more than any other, “invaded the subconscious of the audience,” as Robert Gottlieb writes in his new biography, “Garbo” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), this was an abdication, a privilege of monarchical proportions. But it was also a decision made by one particular, peculiar person who had never been temperamentally suited to celebrity in the first place. There was a reason, beyond the exertions of the Hollywood publicity machine, that a single line she uttered in one movie—“I want to be alone”—became so fused with her image. What can look like a strategy for keeping the public interested can also be a sincere and committed desire to keep it at bay.
Few other performers have ascended as quickly to mononymic status as Garbo did—she started off the way most of us do, with a first and last name, but the first soon fell away, like a spent rocket booster, in the ballyhoo surrounding her. When she appeared in her first sound picture, “Anna Christie,” the ads proclaimed, “Garbo talks!”; for her first sound comedy, “Ninotchka,” it was “Garbo laughs!” Quite why she became such a phenomenon is a puzzle to which film critics and biographers keep returning. Garbo made only twenty-eight movies in her lifetime. (By comparison, Bette Davis made close to ninety, and Meryl Streep has made nearly seventy and still counting.) That slender output could be part of the mystique, compounded by her disappearing act. But Garbo had acquired an enigmatic mythos even before she ended her career—the Hollywood colony treated her like royalty. Nor has it seemed to matter that only a handful of her movies are much watched or admired today.
What Garbo had to offer, above all, was her extraordinary face, at a time when the closeup, with its supercharged intimacy, its unprecedented boon to the emotional and erotic imagination, was still relatively new. Many of the shots credited as the first closeups were unlikely to have set hearts aflame, since they were often of objects—a shoe, a wrench. But filmmakers soon grasped the centripetal seductions of the human face in tight focus. The screenwriter and director Paul Schrader picks as a turning point the moment in a D. W. Griffith film from 1912, “Friends,” in which the camera comes in tight on Mary Pickford’s face, revealing her ambivalence about which of two suitors she should choose. “A real close-up of an actor is about going in for an emotional reason that you can’t get any other way,” Schrader writes. “When filmmakers realized that they could use a close-up to achieve this kind of emotional effect, cameras started coming in closer. And characters became more complex.”
A face as beautiful as Garbo’s—the enormous eyes and deep-set lids, the way love or tenderness or some private, unspoken amusement unknit her brows in an instant, melting her austerity—was almost overwhelming when it filled the screen. She belonged, as Roland Barthes wrote, “to that moment in cinema when the apprehension of the human countenance plunged crowds into the greatest perturbation, where people literally lost themselves in the human image.” This is not to diminish her craft as an actress. But her acting was perhaps most effective in her silent films or in nonverbal scenes in talking pictures in which her face is the canvas for emotion. In the famous last shots of “Queen Christina” (1933), Garbo’s androgynous Swedish ruler stands at the prow of a ship bearing her away from her country; the body of her lover, killed in a duel over her, is laid out on the deck. Garbo stares into the distance, her face a kind of mask but no less eloquent for it. The film’s director, Rouben Mamoulian, had told her that she must “make her mind and heart a complete blank,” empty her face of expression, so that the audience could impose whatever emotions they wanted on it. The scene would then be one of those “marvelous spots,” he said, where “a film could turn every spectator into a creator.”
She was skilled at inciting such projection. More than one contemporary in Hollywood noted that her magic truly showed up only on celluloid, like a ghostly luminescence undetectable until the film was developed. Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo in seven films, recalled shooting a scene with her, thinking it was fine, nothing special, then playing it back and seeing “something that it just didn’t have on the set.” On her face, he said, “You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn’t have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other.” Garbo herself, with a kind of arch, adolescent indifference, never wanted to look at the rushes. According to Brown, she’d watch only when sound pictures were played in reverse: “That’s what Garbo enjoyed. She would sit there shaking with laughter, watching the film running backward and the sound going yakablom–yakablom. But as soon as we ran it forward, she wouldn’t watch it.”
Much has been written about Garbo over the years, but Gottlieb, a former editor of this magazine, has produced a particularly charming, companionable, and clear-eyed guide to her life and work—he has no axe to grind, no urgent need to make a counterintuitive case for her lesser movies, and he’s generous with his predecessors. By the end of the biography, I felt I understood Garbo better as a person, without the aura of mystery around her having been entirely dispelled—and, at this point, who would want it to be?
The actress who came to embody a kind of unattainable elegance, who would someday wear sumptuous period costumes with a grace so offhand that they might have been rumpled p.j.’s, grew up in a cramped apartment with no indoor plumbing, in one of Stockholm’s most impoverished neighborhoods. She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905, to parents from rural stock. Her mother was, in Gottlieb’s description, “practical, sensible, undemonstrative”; her father, an unskilled laborer, was handsome, musical, and fun, and Greta adored him. But he was stricken by kidney disease, and Greta, the youngest of three children, made the rounds of the charity hospitals with him. “She never forgot the humiliations they endured as poor people in search of live-or-die attention,” Gottlieb writes. She was fourteen when he died, and she dropped out of school, leaving her with a lasting embarrassment about her lack of formal education. She went to work to help support the family, first at a barbershop, where she applied shaving soap to men’s faces, then at a department store, where she sold and modelled hats. She said later that she was “always sad as a child for as long as I can think back. . . . I did some skating and played with snowballs, but most of all I wanted to be alone with myself.”
Alongside her shyness and her penchant for solitude, Greta harbored a passionate desire to be an actress. As a kid, she’d roam the city by herself, looking for theatres where she could stand at the stage door and watch the performers come and go. The first time Garbo was in front of the camera was at age fifteen, in an advertising film for the department store that employed her. Sweden had a thriving film industry, and she soon quit her day job to appear in a couple of movies. At Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, to which she was accepted at seventeen, the young actors were instructed in a system that “scientifically” analyzed the semiotics of movement and gesture. Remarkably, some of her lecture notes from that time survive—she jotted down that “the head bent forward equals a mild concession” or a “condescending attitude,” and that “the throwing back of the head” conveys “a violent feeling such as love.” Barry Paris, an earlier biographer whom Gottlieb cites approvingly, notes that “Garbo in silent films would employ that system of gestural meaning to a high degree.” She did so in her sound pictures as well. When she plays the Russian ballerina in “Grand Hotel” (1932), her body language is jittery, neurotic. Depressed, she lets her head droop as if it were simply too heavy to hold up; surprised by delight at the prospect of a romance with John Barrymore’s gentleman jewel thief, she tosses her head back at giddy angles. It might have been laughable, but instead it’s riveting.
In the spring of 1923, the gifted film director Mauritz Stiller approached the Stockholm theatre looking for actresses to cast in his new movie, an epic based on a Swedish novel, “The Story of Gösta Berling.” Stiller came from a Jewish family in Finland; orphaned young, he had fled to Sweden to avoid being conscripted into the tsar’s Army. Garbo and he were never lovers—Stiller preferred men—but their relationship was perhaps the most important in both of their lives. With his commanding height, his taste for luxury (full-length fur coats, a canary-yellow sports car), and his domineering style with actors, he had more than a touch of the Svengali. But Stiller believed in Garbo at a time when, as one veteran actress put it, Greta was “this little nobody . . . an awkward, mediocre novice,” and he loved her. (He also seems to have been the one who suggested replacing “Gustafsson” with “Garbo.”)
When Hollywood came calling—in the form of Louis B. Mayer scouting European talent for M-G-M—it wasn’t clear whether Stiller was the lure or Garbo; the director was certainly better known. In any case, Stiller made sure that they were a package deal (and, Gottlieb adds, later upped Garbo’s pay to four hundred dollars a week, an “unheard of” salary for an untested starlet). The two sailed for the United States in 1925, arriving in the pungent heat of midsummer New York. (Garbo’s favorite part of the visit seems to have been the roller coaster at Coney Island.) Then it was on to Hollywood by train.
The studio moguls gave an unknown such as Garbo a very short runway. M-G-M signed up the Swedish girl for two pictures, “Torrent” and “The Temptress,” and, as the film historian Robert Dance writes in his smart new book, “The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood” (Mississippi), “if those first two films were unsuccessful financially M-G-M would not renew her contract for a second year.” As it happened, both were hits. Motion Picture was among the industry outlets declaring her début “a complete success.” (“She is not so much an actress as she is endowed with individuality and magnetism,” it said.) Garbo became a fan favorite, even though she was almost uniquely averse to the kind of goofy stunts and mildly salacious photo shoots that other stars put up with. When she got to be as famous as Lillian Gish, she told one interviewer early on, “I will no longer . . . shake hands with prize-fighters and egg-and-milk men so they will have pictures to put in the papers.” Instead, she worked with consummate portrait photographers who lit her gloriously. Eventually, her films were earning enough that she was able to negotiate an unusual contract, one that gave her the right to veto scripts, co-stars, and directors. And she shunned interviews so consistently that in the end her privacy became its own form of publicity.
Despite such badassery, she never really adjusted to her new country or her new destiny, at least beyond the movie set. What looked like carefully cultivated hauteur was partly the product of awkwardness, disorientation, and grief. She hardly spoke English when she first arrived, and, within a year, she learned that her beloved sister, an aspiring actress herself, had died back home. Stiller did not make a smooth adjustment to Hollywood and, in a blow to them both, he was not chosen to direct Garbo’s first American picture. Garbo wrote to a friend in Sweden about how miserable she was: “This ugly, ugly America, all machine, it is excruciating.” The only thing that made her happy, she claimed, was sending money to her family. At a young age, Gottlieb writes, she found herself “trapped in a spotlight extreme even by Hollywood standards,” and with no psychological preparation for grappling with the kind of fame—movie stardom—that was new not just to her but to the world.