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Garbo at 100

The Stanford Theatre revives five by the enigmatic star Greta Garbo

By Richard von Busack

THE POET Stevie Smith wrote a review of a 1959 picture book titled Cats in Colour. There, Smith lifted the veil of fancifulness that allowed her not only to write poetry about cats but to write it well.

"How nice, then, to turn to the indifferent cat who can be made to mean so many things ... being as it were a blank page on which to scrawl the hieroglyphics of our own grievance, bad temper and unhappiness, and scrawl also, of course, the desired sweet response to these uncomfortable feelings."

A sphinx is a species of cat. In 1931, there was a famous postcard of the actress Greta Garbo. Photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull superimposed Garbo's face on the sphinx at Giza. "One of the most popular and widely reproduced image of her ever," notes Garbo's indefatigable biographer Barry Paris.

Five Garbo films scheduled for Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre (newly painted and refreshed after three months' work) allow film fans to revisit cinema's most famous sphinx. Nothing became her like the way she left the movies. The industrial quality of movie-making at MGM annoyed Garbo; Hollywood bored and disgusted her, and she retired early with that famed line attributed to her: "I want to be alone."

Garbo was born on Sept. 18, 1905. In the following 100 years, the actress has been unpeeled by theorists and historians, who scrawl their own hieroglyphics on her. Even in a bad movie, and Garbo made plenty of them, it's her striking presence that matters.

Noted G.W. Pabst, a key early director for Garbo, "Such a face you see once in a century."

The mystique began early. As a working-class Stockholm student named Greta Gustafson, she was enough of an enigma that one fellow actress commented that you never could tell if she knew everything or knew nothing. Garbo's natural unwordliness was refined by her different directors.

Maurice Stiller, who directed Garbo in her first hit, The Saga of Gosta Berling, told her to always receive the press with her feet up—they'd respect her more if she looked tired. The cool immobility of the upper lip was probably a gambit to conceal teeth that she later had fixed.

Her refusal to do publicity drew from an experience with film reporters, who—as Paris writes—can make you look foolish even without trying to. Even Garbo's horror of signing autographs may have been because she was embarrassed by her bad penmanship.

Garbo's paleness turned luminescent in the hot lights of early cinema. She was a monarch of the close-up; her face brought intimacy to wedding-cake-size tragedies that were MGM's A-pictures.

Abandoning the stage early, Garbo advanced the art of cinema acting by learning to leave emotions out. When I first saw her in Camille, what excited me was Garbo's reluctance, refusal or inability to "nail down" a part in the often stagey MGM films of the early 1930s.

The experience of seeing Garbo functions on different levels, whether one is observing her mixture of frailty and dignity or hearing the low, murmuring voice. "It's hard to talk about Garbo, really," said George Cukor, who directed her in Camille, "for she says everything when she appears on the screen. That is Garbo ... and all you can say is just so much chitchat."

Throughout Garbo's cinema, we pick up clues about the ordinary woman behind the mask. At one point, in an adaptation of Pirandello's As You Desire Me, she plays a girl who may or may not be amnesiac. "There is nothing in me, nothing of me," she shouts.

Later, in Mata Hari, she leaves a note for a newly betrayed lover: "One day you may know that I am less than the woman you think me." The secrecy of her personal life has evaporated over the century. More and more evidence arises that Garbo was what used to be called "woman-identified"—a woman who may or may not have acted on her lesbian tendencies. Androgyny was key to one of her best parts, the queen in man's livery in Queen Christina.

Director Rouben Mamoulian led Garbo through her most famous scene, where she caresses the furniture in the room she has shared with a lover. Mamoulian synced up her slow movements with a metronome ("The movement must be like a dance," Mamoulian told her). In the film's finale—a close-up in silence—he asked her to chase feeling from her face, to display a blankness that audiences ever since have been peering into.

Was Garbo a sphinx without a riddle? This revival gives a modern audience a chance to try to solve the question of Garbo. Or, as the singer Iris DeMent put it, they can let the mystery be.

The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto shows Grand Hotel and Anna Karenina, Sept. 14-16; Ninotchka and Queen Christina, Sept. 17-20; A Woman of Affairs, Sept. 21. (650.324.3700)

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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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