An Appreciation of Greta Garbo: The Anti-Celebrity

The last image of Camille faded to black. Marguerite had died once more, and Robert Taylor had again collapsed onto Garbo’s deathbed. The applause from the audience in the repertory movie house testified to a general feeling of delighted surprise. Some of the younger viewers had never seen Garbo before and were obviously in the grip of a revelation. One girl, neither a simpleton, nor an exhibitionist, had been so incensed by Armand’s mistaking of Marguerite’s self-sacrifice for unfaithfulness that she had denounced the callow hero out loud and the rest of the audience had laughed sympathetically.

But after the lights came up, an elderly, well-dressed woman turned to her companion and remarked, “Garbo certainly was beautiful, but she wasn’t much of an actress.”

If frequency of repetition were the determining factor in the selection of epitaphs, the old lady’s stupid remark would be chiseled on Garbo’s gravestone. What else are the shallow to say about an art so perfect that it never called attention to itself? Some actors never let you forget that you’re watching a momentous operation, and their long, self-congratulatory pauses give you plenty of time to applaud. But Garbo achieved what only true acting genius can achieve: complex adult emotions displayed with a child’s unselfconsciousness.

Though Garbo’s art was seamless, she did give us some virtuosic sequences that make us push the rewind button on the VCR machine in order to study and to wonder. Take that scene in Ninotchka in which the beautiful Communist envoy first tastes champagne. In this close-up on her face, each of Garbo’s reactions is vivid in itself and flows effortlessly into the next: the trepidation before drinking; the split-second after she has sipped, before any taste has arrived; the childish grimace and shake of the head when the unfamiliar flavor registers; a moment of blankness as the initial unpleasantness fades; the premonition of a new sensation arriving; the look of wonder as the new taste reaches her brain; her awestruck whisper: “It’s good!” All this Garbo projects effortlessly and in less time than it took you to read about it.

When she turned her back on acting and, in effect, on all public life, Garbo did it with the same absolute commitment that she had brought to her craft. Her retreat (or was it an advance?) into privacy was no publicity stunt but a decision mysteriously motivated and decisively executed. One never felt that she was deliberately obeying Jeanne Eagel’s dictum (“Never deny. Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend.”) because one sensed that Garbo never cared about becoming a legend.

She never made a “comeback.” She never endorsed a politician. And, God bless her, she never wrote her memoirs.

Occasionally, literary friends wrote about her. Kenneth Tynan: “Like a Martian guest, she questions you about your everyday life, infecting you with her eagerness, shaming you into a heightened sensitivity.”

Photographs from the 1950s and ’60s showed her slouching down New York streets, always in the shadows cast by awnings, eyes behind sunglasses, face almost shrouded by floppy hats. She became the living ghost of our time.

Just before her death, she was snapped as she left her doctor’s office. Obviously very ill, she looked hideous. The photographs were put on the front pages of tabloids and in the midsections of supposedly respectable journals. It was the fourth estate’s revenge on her. In an age that celebrates people for merely being celebrities, Garbo had committed the supreme sin of first earning and then trying to evade her unique and unquenchable celebrity.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...