Nationality: American. Born: Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden, 18 September 1905; became U.S. citizen, 1951. Education: Attended Catherine Elementary School; Royal Dramatic Theatre School, Stockholm, 1922–24. Career: Worked as latherer in barber shop, clerk in Bergstrom's department store, and model;
appeared in advertising films for PUB and Cooperative Society of Stockholm; 1921—film debut as extra in A Fortune Hunter ; 1923—cast by the director Mauritz Stiller in Gösta Berlings Saga ; appeared in several other films by him, and went with him to Hollywood; 1925–41—contract with MGM, becoming leading Hollywood film actress, first in silent films, then, following Anna Christie , 1930, in sound films; 1941—last film, Two-Faced Woman . Awards: Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Anna Karenina , 1935, for Camille , 1937; Honorary Academy Award, "for her unforgettable screen performances," 1954. Died: In New York, 15 April 1990.
Films as Actress:
En lyckoriddare ( A Fortune Hunter ) (Brunius) (as extra); Herr och fru Stockholm ( Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm ; How Not to Dress ) (Ring—short) (bit role); Our Daily Bread (Ring—short) (bit role)
Luffar-Petter ( Peter the Tramp ) (Petschler) (as Greta Nordberg)
Gösta Berlings Saga ( The Atonement of Gösta Berling ) (Stiller) (as Countess Elisabeth Dohna)
Die Freudlose Gasse ( The Joyless Street ) (Pabst) (as Greta Rumfort)
The Torrent ( Ibañez' Torrent ) (Bell) (as Leonora); The Temptress (Stiller and Niblo) (as Elena); Flesh and the Devil (Brown) (as Felicitas von Kletzingk)
Love ( Anna Karenina ) (Goulding) (as Anna Karenina)
The Divine Woman (Seastrom) (as Marianne); The Mysterious Lady (Niblo) (as Tania); A Woman of Affairs (Brown) (as Diana Merrick)
Wild Orchids (Franklin) (as Lillie Sterling); A Man's Man (Cruze) (as guest); The Single Standard (Robertson) (as Arden Stuart); The Kiss (Feyder) (as Madame Irène Guarry)
Anna Christie (Brown—German and Swedish versions directed by Jacques Feyder) (title role); Romance (Brown) (as Rita Cavallini)
Inspiration (Brown) (as Yvonne); Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise ( The Rise of Helga ) (Leonard) (title role)
Mata Hari (Fitzmaurice) (title role); Grand Hotel (Goulding) (as Grusinskaya); As You Desire Me (Fitzmaurice) (as Zara)
Queen Christina (Mamoulian) (title role)
The Painted Veil (Boleslawski) (as Katrin)
Anna Karenina (Brown) (title role)
Camille (Cukor) (as Marguerite Gautier); Conquest ( Marie Walewska ) (Brown) (as Marie Walewska)
Ninotchka (Lubitsch) (title role)
Two-Faced Woman (Cukor) (as Karin Borg Blake/Katherine Borg)
By GARBO: articles—
"What the Public Wants," in Saturday Review (New York), 13 June 1931.
Article by Greta Garbo and Ernst Lubitsch, in New York Times , 22 October 1939.
"Garbo," interview with A. Gronowicz, in Journal of Popular Culture , Summer 1968.
"Ma vie d'artiste," reprinted from 1930 Ciné-Magazine , in Avant- Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 March 1981.
"Portion of memoirs," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 March 1981.
On GARBO: books—
Palmborg, Rilla Page, The Private Life of Greta Garbo , New York, 1931.
Wild, Roland, Greta Garbo , London, 1933.
Laing, E. E., Greta Garbo: The Story of a Specialist , London, 1946.
Bainbridge, John, Garbo , New York, 1955.
Wallin, John, Garbo en stjärnas väg , Stockholm, 1955.
Billquist, Fritiof, Garbo: A Biography , New York, 1960.
Conway, Michael, Dion McGregor, and Marc Ricci, The Films of Greta Garbo , New York, 1963.
Durgnat, Raymond, and John Kobal, Greta Garbo , New York, 1965.
Zierold, Norman, Garbo , New York, 1969.
Ture, Sjolander, Garbo , New York, 1971.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus , New York, 1973.
Corliss, Richard, Greta Garbo , New York, 1974.
Affron, Charles, Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis , New York, 1977.
Sands, Frederick, and Sven Broman, The Divine Garbo , New York, 1979.
Walker, Alexander, Greta Garbo: A Portrait , New York, 1980.
Linton, George, Greta Garbo , Paris, 1981.
Brion, Patrick, Garbo , Paris, 1985.
Agel, Henri, Greta Garbo , Paris, 1990.
Broman, Sven, Greta Garbo berattar , Stockholm, 1990; published as Conversations with Greta Garbo , New York, 1992.
Gronowicz, Antoni, Garbo: Her Story , New York, 1990.
Haining, Peter, The Legend of Garbo , London, 1990.
Bunsch, Iris, Three Female Myths of the 20th Century: Garbo, Callas, Navratilova , New York, 1991.
Krutzen, Michaela, The Most Beautiful Woman on the Screen: The Fabrication of the Star Greta Garbo , Frankfurt, 1992.
Paris, Barry, Garbo: A Biography , New York, 1993.
Souhami, Diana, Greta and Cecil , San Francisco, 1994.
Vickers, Hugo, Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta , New York, 1994.
On GARBO: articles—
Tully, Jim, "Greta Garbo," in Vanity Fair (New York), June 1928.
Virgilia, S., "Greta Garbo," in New Yorker , 7 March 1931.
Booth, Clare, "The Great Garbo," in Vanity Fair (New York), February 1932.
Maxwell, Virginia, "The Amazing Story behind Garbo's Choice of Gilbert," in Photoplay (New York), January 1934.
Canfield, M. C., "Letter to Garbo," in Theatre Arts (New York), December 1937.
Huff, Theodore, "The Career of Greta Garbo," in Films in Review (New York), December 1951.
Tynan, Kenneth, "Garbo," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1954.
Current Biography 1955 , New York, 1955.
Idestam-Almquist, Bengt, "The Man Who Found Garbo," in Films and Filming (London), August 1956.
Fleet, S., "Garbo: The Lost Star," in Films and Filming (London), December 1956.
Barthes, Roland, "The Face of Garbo," in Mythologies , Paris, 1957; London, 1972.
Brooks, Louise, "Gish and Garbo—The Executive War on Stars," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1958–59.
Whitehall, Richard, "Garbo—How Good Was She?," in Films and Filming (London), September 1963.
Nordberg, Carl Eric, "Greta Garbo's Secret," in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1970.
Culff, Robert, "Greta Garbo's Hollywood Silents," in Silent Picture (London), Autumn 1972.
Thomson, D., "Waiting for Garbo," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1980.
Corliss, Richard, "Greta Garbo," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Lloyd, A., "Stars Oscar Forgot: Greta Garbo," in Films and Filming (London), May 1984.
Lubitsch, Ernst, "Mon travail avec Greta Garbo," in Positif (Paris), June 1985.
Matthews, Peter, "Garbo and Phallic Motherhood: A 'Homosexual' Visual Economy," in Screen (London), vol. 29, no. 3, Summer 1988.
Cohn, Lawrence, "Garbo, Screen's Classiest Siren, Dies at 84," obituary in Variety (New York), 18 April 1990.
"Garbo Dies," obituary in New Republic , 7 May 1990.
Kauffman, Stanley, "Greta Garbo," in New Republic , 21 May 1990.
Horton, Robert, "The Mysterious Lady," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1990.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 20 April 1991.
Horan, G., "Greta Garbo: The Legendary Star's Secret Garden in New York," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.
Golden, Eve, "Garbo: the Mysterious Lady," in Classic Images (Muscatine), June 1994.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 24 September 1994.
Desjardins, Mary, "Meeting Two Queens: Feminist Film-making, Identity Politics, and the Melodramatic Fantasy," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1995.
Jastermsky, K., "And For a Moment I Saw Myself In You," in Michigan Quarterly Review , no. 1, 1996.
Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1997.
Levy, S., "Greta Garbo in Anna Christie ," in Movieline (Escondido), March 1997.
* * *
Peter Matthews describes, in "Garbo and Phallic Motherhood: A 'Homosexual' Visual Economy," that a photograph reproduced in Photoplay in the early 1930s shows "Garbo's face in enormous closeup, a white oval emerging from a field of undifferentiated blackness, disembodied . . . as a kind of iconic mask, an eerily suspended object of desire." Her mystique, her unknowability, prevalent both on screen and in real life, daunts and haunts movie viewers long after her early retirement into absolute seclusion.
George Cukor recalled that Irving Thalberg visited the set of Camille during the first days of shooting, glanced around, and expressed himself as well satisfied with the young director's skill in handling MGM's premier star. "How could you know?" Cukor asked, and Thalberg, indicating the actress sitting silent and alone between takes, said "Look at her. She's unguarded."
Garbo unguarded was a rare commodity. For a decade, MGM strip-teased the star that her admirers saw as the epitome of restraint, dignity, and private emotion, selling Anna Christie with the slogan "Garbo Talks!" and Ninotchka with "Garbo Laughs!" When, years later, a publicist confessed his authorship of the latter slogan to her, she said moodily, "How can you forgive yourself?"
It is debatable as to what extent the Garbo taciturnity was a pose; she may have had nothing to say. She never married, and her relationships were limited and private. That she was, like most stars, a woman to whom sexual appetite was less important than fame, is clear enough. But long before the solipsism of meditation and the "Me Decade," Garbo, a fanatic for health foods and ascetic living, found contentment in restraint.
Her strong following in Europe—always greater than in the United States—encouraged MGM to cast her in period roles. They obscure her standing as the first great modern of the cinema—the emancipated woman, surrendering to passion by choice, but resigned always to repentance at leisure. Her best films are set in this century. Wild Orchids , with its silky shadowed textures of a fantasy Asia, is a film of immediate eroticism, a living sculpture in Art Deco, and so successful that MGM tried to repeat the effect in The Painted Veil five years later.
Feyder's courtroom melodrama The Kiss , and the splintered realism of Anna Christie , with Garbo's burred drawl successfully evoking the Strindbergian squalor of O'Neill's original, perfectly express their time. Even seducing Ramon Navarro (in Mata Hari ) into blowing out the votive candle that will signify his surrender, or prowling the nightclub stage, crop-haired and draped in black, for the travesty of Pirandello's As You Desire Me , Garbo is as contemporary as Brando or Streep.
Of the period films, few stand the test of repeated viewing. Under the influence of New York stage directors such as Cukor, and emigrés such as Lubitsch and Garbo's tame writer Salka Viertel, Garbo declined into a parody of the Continental heroine. Camille and Conquest offer little but elaborate tableaux morts , triumphs for decorators and the close-up director who scrutinized each shot for inappropriate indications of modernity or emotion. Garbo among the bibelots of Camille is a stranded fish gasping for life. In Conquest she faces Boyer's Napoleon with an upper lip no less stiff than Clive Brook's in Shanghai Express . Surrounded in these films by waxworks such as Henry Stephenson, an aging Lewis Stone, and the Prussian correctness of Basil Rathbone, the vivid, living Garbo was overshadowed, extinguished. She is better in the least of her modern films: despite being physically unsuited to the role as a ballerina in Grand Hotel , she achieves the poignancy of a woman betrayed at her most vulnerable.
Among the great absurdities of Garbo's career is its ending. Allegedly horrified by poor notices for Cukor's Two-Faced Woman , she retreated, never to return, not even at the prospect of starring in Proust's À La Recherche du Temps Perdu . Ironic, then, that the film from which she retreats is at once her most modern, and, of all her contemporary performances, the least inhibited. To watch this stringy lady in her mid-thirties bluff her way through a nightclub slanging session, then, gaining confidence, lead the floor in a frenzied dance of her own devising, is to see acting no less skilled than that of such stars as Cagney and Davis who persisted into the 1980s with productive work. But if "Garbo Talks!" and "Garbo Laughs!" were unforgivable, "Garbo Dances!" is surely the last straw. As so often with Garbo in the films, one laments the loss but respects the impulse. Nothing so much became her career as the leaving of it.
But, "we love it, the mystery," exhilarates Robert Horton about his bewilderment of Garbo in an almost cheerfully dazed tone after the screen goddess's demise in 1990. It is only fitting that she received an honorary Oscar in 1954 for her "unforgettable screen performances." Coming 13 years after she left the big screen, this recognition served not only as a token of her lasting presence immortalized on film, but also as a prophecy foretelling the ongoing fascination surrounding the hereafter all the more invisible actress. Garbo, an ultimate movie icon, as the disembodied face forever suspended larger than life, epitomizes an unreality that perhaps only exists in the world of cinema.
—John Baxter, updated by Guo-Juin Hong