The Face Of Any Century

Garbo’s centenary celebration in film homages and museum retrospective

When does one first become conscious of beauty? For me, it may have been at age seven, when I was struck by an image on the television –a vision of unearthly loveliness, a tall, beautiful woman dressed in a white organdy froth of bustle and picture hat, playing croquet. This woman haunted me for years, until I discovered that she was Greta Garbo, in “Anna Karenina.”

By that time, the television programming in Hawaii had ceased to show classics from the MGM library, so I was forced to sate my curiosity about her in books and library microfilm, devouring her every published photograph.

I was wild to actually see a film of hers but, in that pre-video, pre-Turner Classic Movies time, this was well nigh impossible. I finally coerced my eighth grade science teacher, a serious movie buff, to rent a 16-millimeter print of “Camille,” which he ran for me, my best friend, and his family in a classroom on a Sunday night. I recall feeling some trepidation—could she possibly live up to all my stored fantasies, not to mention the hype as, not only the greatest star, but also the greatest actress on screen?

Miraculously, she did, and even with the tinny sound of the projector and the improbable, darkened classroom lab setting of our screening, her magic engulfed me. She gives what is widely accepted to be the most beautiful performance in film history, an endless source of inspiration to fellow artists, ranging from Maria Callas to Charles Ludlam. As febrilely directed by George Cukor, Garbo’s full radiance, harnessed to a beautifully written adaptation by Zöe Akins of a role she was born to play, is released, along with her innate, incomparable elegance, wit, and soulfulness.

What I did not realize as a teenager was the force of all the gay personalities involved in this, which remains my favorite film. Cukor, Akins, and Adrian, the designer responsible for the dazzling Second Empire costumes (as well as that first “Anna Karenina” vision), were all gay, and Garbo, as I was to discover, herself was at least bisexual. Ironically, after “Anna Karenina,” the next thing to strike me as deeply and, I believe, from what can only be termed a gay aesthetic in me as a child, was the film “My Fair Lady,” specifically Cecil Beaton’s costumes. How astonishing it was to learn years after seeing it, that Garbo and Beaton, these two icons of my youth, shared a very special, difficult relationship.

Everyone’s own personal stories of Garbomania will be unleashed in this year, the centenary of her birth, September 18, 1905. Warner Home Video is releasing “Garbo–The Signature Collection,” which includes 11 of her films, sound and silent, as well as “Garbo,” the Turner Classic Movies original documentary. TCM has been showing this, as well as her other films, all month long in their tribute to her as star of the month. The doc is well made, and especially notable for its finale–rare test footage of her, shot in 1949, for a feature film, Balzac’s “La Duchesse de Langeais,” to be directed by the great Max Ophuls, which never came about. In these tests, the 43-year-old Garbo is more gorgeous than ever–her beauty has the majestic maturity of some mythic exiled queen, her smile bewitchment itself, and her hair, windblown by some unseen fan, baby-fine, yet refulgently thick.

In her face you catch glimpses of other great cinematic beauties, Rita Hayworth, perhaps, around the mouth, Ava Gardner in the eyes, Joan Crawford bone-wise. But then you realize that hers was, truly, the face of faces, almost beyond gender in its massive, sculptural perfection, an impossible, ne’er to be duplicated, beyond-human ideal. This silent footage, lasting about two minutes and shot by the superb cinematographers William Daniels (Garbo’s favorite) and James Wong Howe, says volumes about her ineffable, eternal appeal, far more than all the cliché-ridden pontificating by a particularly unprepossessing group of Garbo “experts.”

All the tired old theories are trotted out, like how bad her final Hollywood film, “Two-Faced Woman” (1941), is, and how its failure forced her into retirement at age 36. Everyone concurs that this is, unquestionably her worst movie, but everyone happens to be wrong. It’s a sophisticated, glamorous, and often very witty romantic comedy, written by S.N. Behrman, George Oppenheimer, and Garbo’s close friend, Salka Viertel, in which the goddess hilariously satirizes her screen image as an all-conquering vamp. Cukor gets Garbo to laugh at herself in a much lighter, more in-on-the-joke way than Ernst Lubitsch did in her more celebrated “Ninotchka,” and her outrageously brazen actions in a New York nightclub drive even that most polished of comediennes, Constance Bennett, to distraction.

It’s true that Garbo doesn’t look her best here, in an assortment of unflattering gowns by Adrian, with Bennett’s sly input. I say “sly,” because Garbo had turned to Bennett, the chicest actress in Hollywood, for style advice on this picture, in which she sought to modernize her image. From the onscreen result, one can only surmise that Bennett, perhaps steaming over Garbo’s close relationship with her husband, Gilbert Roland, purposely steered her wrong.

And insofar as “Two-Faced Woman” being Garbo’s worst film, I defy anyone to find more merit in deadly bores like “Inspiration,” “As You Desire Me,” “The Painted Veil,” or “Conquest,” which merely bask leadenly in her beauty, giving her absolutely nothing to do except suffer nobly. Incidentally, other rare footage in the TCM doc consists of overhead shots of an unsuspecting Garbo, walking in Manhattan, which comes from a gay porn film, “Adam and Yves.” The director, Peter De Rome, happened to see her from a window while he was shooting it in 1974, and captured her, for a final, ironic screen appearance.

That face is celebrated in an exhibit at Scandinavia House, “Garbo’s Garbos,” which features photos from the star’s personal collection. She stares out from matchlessly vintage prints and will doubtlessly stun the uninitiated viewer, while more familiar Garbomaniacs may suppress a yawn or two, having seen so many of these classic portraits before. Most of them were shot by MGM photographer Clarence Bull, the one most responsible for her static iconography. Interestingly enough, Garbo was shot only once by George Hurrell, that universally accepted master of Hollywood glamour photography. She didn’t like the results, and you can see why from this exhibit.

The sitting was for “Romance,” her 1930 vehicle in which she played an Italian opera diva, written by Edward Sheldon, who was inspired by Lina Cavalieri who, before Garbo, was the woman deemed most beautiful in the world. This was relatively early in Hurrell’s career and he had not yet refined that shimmering sensuality of light play, which became his signature. In one pose, Garbo’s face looks as wide and as flat as a pancake, and in another, she glowers at the lens, as if thinking “What the fuck are you doing?” Hurrell was noted for the loud jazz music and sexually charged comic antics he’d employ to get his subjects to loosen up, antics which may have put Garbo off.

Garbo’s niece, Gray Reisfield, was at the Scandinavia House opening, and spoke of her aunt’s sense of humor, which sometimes gets lost in all the adulation: “She was marvelous. My father was her older brother and when the two of them were together it was no holds barred with the jokes. He was a painter.”

Reisfield admitted to me that he had painted his sister and that, maybe some day, these unseen portraits will also be revealed. Her daughter, Gray Horan, affirmed her Great Aunt Greta’s sense of humor: “She was very witty, considering that English was her third language. But she had the nuances of language down pat and could really come back with some zinger comments. I remember when I was learning to drive and had a fender bender that we were all talking about. She said, ‘I used to drive in Los Angeles. The trees were not safe!’”

“She and I wore the same size clothing which was really great for me,” Horan said. “She left me several pieces of Valentina [Garbo’s couturiere, neighbor, and one-time friend and romantic rival]. She was a very exacting, meticulous person who collected a few things that she really thought were special and took great care of them. I have a fabulous Valentina black woven silk cocktail dress, perfectly tailored with a fitted top and a lot of skirt, like a ‘50s Dior but much more subtle. It’s so beautifully made you can wear it inside out.”

Garbo passed on certain beauty secrets to her great-niece, as well: “She was ahead of her time. She believed in really good nutrition and ate very well, brown rice before anyone had ever heard of it. She did a lot of yoga. She used to tell me about necklines: ‘Your neckline should either be high or low, but never in between.’ Her taste was actually very demure.”

“It’s amazing to see this exhibit,” Horan said. “There were 1,100 photos stuck away in a couple of boxes, and somehow saved by fate, but my brother, Derek Reisfield, understood that we had something there that we had to investigate and take care of. It’s so neat, because it’s our family heritage, and now it’s the world’s, an unbelievable archive of photos that doesn’t really exist anywhere else.”

Dr. Maurice Schachtel tells a story about going to visit a patient and entering a New York elevator to discover the famously private Garbo inside. When she realized he recognized her, she covered her face with her hat and turned aside. The next day he went to visit the same patient on the same elevator. The door opened and it was Garbo again, getting on. This time, he was the one who covered his face and turned away, causing Garbo to laugh uproariously.

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