Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar


An intimate, thought-provoking exploration of the mysteries of “star presence” in cinema

‘One does not go to see them act,’ wrote James Baldwin about the great iconic movie stars Wayne and Davis and Bogart, ‘one goes to watch them be’ . . . Of course. It seems obvious . . . Where else besides the movies do you get to see other persons so intimately, so pressingly, so largely even? Where else such intense and close, such sustained and searching looks as you have of these ...

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Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar

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An intimate, thought-provoking exploration of the mysteries of “star presence” in cinema

‘One does not go to see them act,’ wrote James Baldwin about the great iconic movie stars Wayne and Davis and Bogart, ‘one goes to watch them be’ . . . Of course. It seems obvious . . . Where else besides the movies do you get to see other persons so intimately, so pressingly, so largely even? Where else such intense and close, such sustained and searching looks as you have of these strangers on the screen, whoever they really are? In life you try not to stare; but at the movies that’s exactly what you get to do, two hours or more—safely, raptly, even blissfully.”

It’s this sort of amplified, heightened, sometimes transcendent “seeing” that James Harvey explores in Watching Them Be. Marvelously vivid and perceptive, and impressively erudite, this is his take on how aura is communicated in movies. Beginning where Roland Barthes left off with the face of Greta Garbo and ending with Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, Harvey moves nimbly and expertly through film history, celebrating actors and directors who have particularly conveyed a feeling of transcendence.

     From Marlene Dietrich to John Wayne to Robert De Niro, from Nashville to Jackie Brown to Masculine Feminine and the implicitly or explicitly religious films of Roberto Rossellini and Carl Theodor Dreyer, this is one man’s personal, deeply felt account of the films that have changed his life. They will also, Harvey suggests, change yours.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this sometimes tedious, sometimes brilliant, but mostly uneven book, film critic Harvey (Movie Love in the Fifties) takes up James Baldwin's comment—"One does not go to see them act, one goes to watch them be"—and embarks on a chronicle of film history seen through this lens. Part film aesthetics and part personal reflection, Harvey's book covers "icons" like Greta Garbo and John Wayne, through "realists" like Robert DeNiro and Robert Altman's "Nashville", to "transcenders" like Ingrid Bergman and Robert Bresson's "Balthazar". On watching Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown", Harvey observes, for example, that "the enforced intimacy you have with subsumes almost everything else going on." Harvey luminously reflects on De Niro's presence in "Once Upon a Time in America": "De Niro all but holds this massive movie together not only by his acting but by his presence and intensity." On Garbo: "Her fame was inseparable from her riddle…Garbo seemed to have taken into the movies." Whether you agree with Harvey or not, his book does drive you to watch the films he discusses once again or for the first time. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A movie critic considers the mystery of star power.Playwright and essayist Harvey (Emeritus, Film and Literature/SUNY, Stony Brook; Movie Love in the Fifties, 2001, etc.) takes his title from James Baldwin's observation about movie stars: "One does not go to see them act; one goes to watch them be." A star's personality, the author contends, transcends particular performances to generate "enforced intimacy" with the viewer. "A screen star," he writes, "generally appropriates her role rather than disappearing into it (as an ordinary actor might do)." Greta Garbo, for example, "offered something that approached sublimity," which emerged even in the "dead weight" of a movie like Anna Karenina (1935). Ingrid Bergman shone like "a goddess" even when miscast, "because it's her more than the character…that you respond to." Beginning with stars of the 1930s and '40s, Harvey analyzes performances by Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Bergman and Charles Laughton. In a section on "realists," he turns to Robert De Niro, notably his role as Noodles in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984); performances by Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975); and Pam Grier, the raunchy heroine of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997). Harvey also looks at directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, whose masterful close-ups celebrated star quality, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, "arguably the preeminent ‘religious' filmmaker of our modern cinema time." He cites Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), in which Maria Falconetti had an "overwhelming star turn" as Joan. "There is something religious about the movie experience," the author writes, and he ends his film journey with a worshipful exegesis of Robert Bresson's Balthazar (1966), in which the star is a donkey.Harvey's meticulously close reading of movies illuminatingly analyzes both the "controlling sensibility" of stars and the viewer's process of "intense watching."
From the Publisher
Praise for Watching Them Be

“A rare and special piece of serious film criticism . . . [Harvey] is unusually literate for a film scholar and has a killer turn of phrase . . . [A] marvelous book.” —Christopher Bray, The Wall Street Journal

“Harvey has a great strength: the ability to watch a movie closely and to describe his experience in the expectation that readers will share it . . . Harvey, who has to his credit such fine books as Movie Love in the Fifties and Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, sees, thinks and feels intensely when he watches a movie. More important, he has the gift of evoking what he has seen and thought and felt . . . [Watching Them Be] succeeds because of Harvey’s confidence and audacity.” —Charles Matthews, The Washington Post

“Delicious . . . [Harvey’s] prose is so engaging, conversational, and up close, his scholarship so unpretentious and smartly deployed, that it’s like sitting in a cozy bar for hours, listening to a congenial colleague with impeccable taste and unimpeachable judgment . . . I can’t think of another film historian who applies his scalpel so deftly, yet—and this is the beauty part—with such genuine sympathy.” —Tony Pipolo, Cineaste

“The pleasure of James Harvey’s new book . . . comes from the feeling of being escorted through some great (and not-so-great) movies in the company of a witty and knowledgeable cinephile . . . His enthusiasm permeates this appealingly idiosyncratic study . . . The final chapter salutes what Harvey calls ‘probably the greatest movie I’ve ever seen,’ Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar . . . It’s a lovely and convincing tribute to an artwork, and to the majesty of an art form.” —Lawrence Levi, Newsday

“Harvey, in astute observations and rich descriptions, attempts to put words around the ineffable force of star power.” —Andrea Denhoed, The New Yorker

“[Watching Them Be] is a model of what film criticism always was at its best and what it continues to be at its best: the intersection of rare sagacity and insight with ever rarer literary and stylistic grace.” —Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

“There’s nothing more fascinating than a movie star—except, perhaps, trying to figure out the fascination that stars exert. The playwright and essayist James Harvey’s new book, Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar is a valuable effort in that direction . . . The title and the thesis of Harvey’s book come from a line by James Baldwin about movie stars: ‘One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.’ I agree with Baldwin, and approach Harvey’s bold attempt to describe that idea in action.” —Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“I was surprised by how [James Harvey’s] writing affected me. If I had seen the particular film he was discussing, I experienced the shock of recognizing the transcendent impulse he was describing. If I hadn’t seen the film, I felt as though I had—and seen into it as well—as a result of James Harvey’s evocative treatment. This seems to me an impressive feat . . . [Watching Them Be] offers insight into the cinematic experience that cannot be found anywhere else.” —Paula Marantz Cohen, The Times Literary Supplement

“Harvey’s meticulously close reading of movies illuminatingly analyzes both the ‘controlling sensibility’ of stars and the viewer’s process of ‘intense watching’.” —Kirkus

Watching Them Be is James Harvey’s best book, and consequently one of the best film books ever. The tender, penetrating gaze of the true movie lover, the depth of historical knowledge, the beauty of the prose style, the keen judgment about cinematic passages that range from the ridiculous to the sublime (sometimes simultaneously)—all add up to a delight, something of a miracle, in fact. And it’s not just about movies; it’s filled with a mature philosophical perspective and moral wisdom about isolation, connection, desire, limitation, transcendence, being—in short, the human condition.” —Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait Inside My Head

“James Harvey’s new book, Watching Them Be, is splendid. His observations about actors, actresses, and the stories they animate are profound and powerfully convincing.” —Paula Fox, author of News from the World

“There are few pleasures available to adults right now deeper than settling into James Harvey’s deliriously acute readings of the movies. Whether he’s fixing on the grown-upness of Garbo, the surprising desolation of John Wayne, or the ‘grave clowns’ of Godard, Harvey has a unique ability to make us understand how much our watching actors has shaped our own ways of being in the world. There are times—and this is one of them—when I think James Harvey may be the best writer working in America, and that he has chosen the movies as his subject is not a limitation but a huge blessing.” —Anthony Giardina, author of Norumbega Park

“James Harvey is one of our best film critics, a graceful and precise writer who describes a movie so well you feel you’re seeing it again, and at the same time brings such insight to it that you feel you’re seeing it anew. And when it comes to acting, the means and effects of performance on the screen, he is without peer. Every review of a movie or play talks about the actors, but almost never with the kind of attuned sensibility and eye-opening intelligence you’ll find here.” —Gilberto Perez, author of The Material Ghost

“No writer, past or present, can make a reader feel a film as intensely as James Harvey. He can also, literally, turn a donkey into a star. Poetic, witty, incisive and with a highly original structure, Watching Them Be is Harvey’s best and most moving book so far. A destination for all movie lovers.” —Diane Jacobs, author of Dear Abigail

“It's James Harvey watching them be, the star presences, Garbo, and Bette Davis, and Dreyer’s Falconetti's eyes, Laughton, and all the others, in all their circumstance of beauty and compelling power, their vulnerability and pathos. It’s his own intense, reasonable, attentive, documented gaze that teaches us, and powerfully deepens our own experience of watching them be. A great book; his writing is passionate, dispassionate, lucid, everything to learn from. It exemplifies what criticism ought to be.” —David Ferry, author of BewildermentPraise for Movie Love in the Fifties

“Wonderful . . . A luxurious book, intellectually and sensorily.” —Margo Jefferson, The New York Times

“[Harvey] notices what’s going on in a film about as well as anyone writing today . . . A superior exercise in criticism.” —The Washington Post Book World

Library Journal
The best film criticism comes from a personal point of view, and playwright, essayist, and critic Harvey (Movie Love in the Fifties; Romantic Comedy in Hollywood) has a uniquely personal approach that goes much deeper than a study of plot or structure. He examines a star's onscreen presence and what those actors truly communicate through their performance, as well as how directors frame those performances. Through a wide range of examples, from classic actors such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to more intriguing choices such as the casts of Jackie Brown (1997) and Nashville (1975), his perception takes readers beyond the reading experience and allows us to see film with our own version of his awareness. His chapter on Robert Bresson's 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar and its eponymous lead actor—a donkey—is the perfect way to prove his point about the power of an on-screen presence, as Balthazar has nothing but presence; he cannot speak or act. Yet the manner in which Bresson frames him on film conveys feelings as potent as when Garbo stares out to sea contemplating both her past and her future. VERDICT This is a very readable and fascinating look at the power of cinema, though its main appeal with be to serious students of film.—Peter Thornell, Hingham P.L., MA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571211975
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 7/8/2014
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 257,052
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

James Harvey is a playwright, an essayist, a critic, and the author of several books on the movies, including Movie Love in the Fifties and Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. His most recent work has appeared in The New York Review of Books and The Threepenny Review. He is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he teaches literature and film, and he has previously taught film at the University of California at Berkeley, the New School, and Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt




SO WHAT WAS it about Garbo? In her time she evoked more widely felt and declared awe than any movie star ever has, before her or since. She was never the most popular star, at least in the United States (she was too austere for that). She was nevertheless for most people then the definitive one, even for those who had never seen her movies. Her counterparts at the time were not Gish or Gable or Fairbanks but Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse—icons beyond their movies. But where the latter two offered fantasy versions of the commonplace, Garbo—as she came to be seen—offered something that approached sublimity. Not an easy thing to pull off, at least persuasively, not only in a realist medium but in a Hollywood whose truest and most reliable bent was for a cinema of common sense, for the reductive and the comic. She could do the latter, as it later turned out, but only at the end (Ninotchka, her next-to-last movie).

She was famously, even pathologically, shy. Where other screen stars would try to make up for the distance between themselves and their fans—giving interviews, making public appearances, telling their carefully prepared “stories”—Garbo only compounded the remove by refusing all publicity. Her celebrity became a kind of public privacy as a result. By the time of her talkies, “I want to be alone” was the line that everyone knew her by—like Mae West’s “Come up and see me sometime,” or Charles Boyer’s “Come with me to the Casbah”—though in fact she had said it for the public record only twice, once to intrusive shipboard reporters and then once as a character in a movie (Boyer never said that Casbah line at all).

Her fame was inseparable from her riddle. A widely circulated photocollage from the mid-1930s showed her face imposed on the Egyptian Sphinx. She had become the most famous woman in the world—and her enigma seemed to haunt it. And no wonder. You take your secret with you when you die, it’s said: Garbo seemed to have taken hers—safely enough as it turned out—into the movies.

Camille (1937) was her greatest film and performance, but it was an earlier and lesser movie in which she had her most celebrated and most epiphanic single close-up: in the final shot of 1933’s Queen Christina. Where the eponymous heroine, having renounced her Swedish throne and then lost the lover she had renounced it for (killed in a duel over her), now gives the orders to the crew of the great ship to set sail nonetheless for the exile in Spain that she had meant to share with him. Now rising from her grief over his body, laid out on the deck by the sailors, she slowly crosses the ship’s length, as the men of the crew shout and climb the riggings and the enormous sails rise billowing around her. Until she reaches the prow—and the famous close-up.

It begins as a medium close shot (see preceding illustration), which frames her as she moves into place and stands, resting her elbows on the railing above the figurehead, leaning on her forearms and looking out to sea, her uncovered hair lifting gently in the wind (a mistake: even in old movies you don’t normally sail directly into the wind—but never mind). But then the camera tracks slowly in on her, with movie music swelling, to her face in extremest close-up, to her unblinking gaze, which the film holds until the final fadeout.

It was partly the duration of this shot, unusual for the time, even for a Garbo movie, that made it famous. A testament to the power of the Garbo image. But it was something more than that, too …

I first saw her on the screen in 1955, twelve years after she had retired from it altogether, in Camille, which MGM had rereleased that year with all the fanfare of a first-run movie and to wide acclaim. I remember the crowded theater in Chicago’s Loop, a mostly young audience, as new to her probably as I was at the time, and a feeling in the place like revelation: So this is what a movie star is … or was, at any rate.

You first see her in that movie inside a carriage as she lowers her face into a bouquet of camellias, smiling with her eyes at the motherly little flower seller who has just handed it to her with a blessing: “For the lady of the camellias.” What strikes you at first is not so much her beauty—which was then legendary—as her brimmingness, her feeling of eager life. It is that, as the movie goes on, which makes the beauty seem ravishing, irresistible. It’s a classically “perfect” face, without a single bad angle, according to those who photographed it. But its lack of sensual emphases—the lips are thin, the nose prominent, as far from being pretty as a beautiful face could be—could also make it look plain. Not everyone, even at the time, saw its beauty. Graham Greene, a movie reviewer in the 1930s, imagined his descendants puzzling over it, looking for something more obvious. For Roland Barthes, writing in the fifties (“The Face of Garbo”), its perfection evoked a Platonic heaven, “the Divine Garbo,” as she was called, seeming to him more of an ideal of beauty than a sensuous specific of it. That account of it at least might help to explain how she could be so moving in these first Camille close shots—descending to us, as it were, just as she “descends,” inclining her head, to those flowers.

It was the year after this that I saw Queen Christina, in a Harvard Square revival house. But I had already heard or read about the final shot. And when I did see it, I had no trouble understanding why it was famous. It was still overwhelming. Partly because it was so surprising—by the usual movie standards. Here was the tragic heroine getting her final big close-up—and what was she showing on the screen? None of the things we could have expected from the film we’d just seen—some stage of grief or prayerfulness, of desolation or heroic restitution. But no—instead something like impassivity, refusing the usual emotions, inviting us to do the same. But offering what instead? Blankness?—as her director Rouben Mamoulian later suggested in interviews. He had instructed her to empty her mind.

But Garbo doesn’t do vacancy. And Mamoulian’s story hardly touches the fact that we cannot help—especially at the end of the movie—but “read” this Garbo-Christina face. Somehow, and however uncertainly. That uncertainty is part of the effect. The real surprise is how exactly and deeply right the effect feels. She has gone beyond the narrative of her film, beyond the movie itself. Where then? To a kind of profound and mysterious acceptance—at the locus of the mystery itself? That she leaves us behind is one of the things that makes it moving. Definitively Garboesque.

“All art,” said Walter Pater, “constantly aspires to the condition of music”—to its combination of specificity and abstraction. And similarly, you can say that all movie stardom—even in all its diversity—aspires to Garbo. To her mystery and ambiguity and transcendence—to her near incarnation (closer than anyone else’s) of the hieratic visionary power of movies themselves.


IT WAS THE director Mauritz Stiller who found her—and almost immediately christened her Garbo (as opposed to Gustafsson)—when she was just a plump, shy (of course) teenage drama student in Stockholm. He was the one who saw her specialness when it was invisible to everyone else. Stiller was at that time one of the two most revered filmmakers in Swedish silent film (the other was Victor Sjöström) when he cast her in his The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924), an epic melodrama based on Selma Lagerlöf’s famous novel. It was the girl’s performance in this film that persuaded Germany’s G. W. Pabst, another first-rate filmmaker (though unlike Stiller, a novice one), to cast her in a leading role (an innocent girl almost lured to prostitution by poverty) in his The Joyless Street (1925), about the corruption and malaise of post–World War I Vienna.

And while she was thus occupied in Berlin, accompanied by Stiller, now her full-time mentor and manager, Louis B. Mayer, who had been impressed by Gösta Berling, tracked them down there and signed them both to come to Hollywood. There is still some controversy about which of them he really wanted, but for them it was either both of them or neither one.

First to New York, however—as always in those ocean travel days—where they languished in neglect, victims of a studio absentmindedness that made them look and feel even more like the long shots they surely were. They might even have returned to Berlin if it hadn’t been for the German-born photographer Arnold Genthe offering to do some portraits of her and then selling one of the results to Vanity Fair—where it appeared in full-page splendor in November 1925. Garbo was then nineteen.

You’d hardly know her from this photo. With frizzy hair and thick eyebrows, she’s in extreme soft focus, her outlines blending into the darkness behind, her face with hair swept back thrusting toward us out of the shadows, her rouged lips slightly parted, her hand clasping her throat, her eyes with a drugged, sensual look—at once inward-looking and fronting the storm, both moony and intrepid. And she was elusive even to Genthe. He took several photos of her at this session, “all so different,” he said, “that you would hardly know they were the same girl.” (Foreshadowings of the elusiveness to come.) At any rate, these photos got the studio’s attention once again. And so the two Swedes entrained for the West Coast.

She had been Stiller’s property. Now she would be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s—even more irrevocably. Stiller himself seems to have alienated almost everybody in the studio from the start. The genius type, as he was quickly seen to be, and a pain in the ass. He couldn’t get used to their methods, nor could the studio—especially the studio of Irving Thalberg, as it mostly was—get used to him. (He not only carried on, he did it in Swedish.) She, however, was more malleable. And the audience responses to her first picture, and then to her second one (from which Stiller, at first the director, had been quickly fired), told the studio which Swede they wanted to keep. Stiller left for Paramount, to direct Pola Negri, before returning to Sweden for good.

But they weren’t yet sure what they’d got in her. Neither of her two European films offered much help: two versions—the Stiller epic-romantic, the Pabst grim-realist—of virginal fragility at risk. But they seem to have seen (the Pabst film gave clues) that she was sexy. And so she is a vamp in her first three American pictures—each one ratcheting up her badness a notch or two. In the first, The Torrent (1926), she goes from being a rural innocent (the first twenty minutes) to the “woman whose amours are the talk of all Europe” (the last sixty), having been jilted in the first reel by her hometown sweetheart (Ricardo Cortez). In The Temptress (also 1926), her excuse for her abandoned lifestyle is a dissolute unloving first husband who sells her to a millionaire, which is then meant to account for the havoc she wreaks on susceptible males “from Paris to Argentina.” And what she does by way of aggressive lovemaking (the top position, the open-mouthed kiss) to the two lumpish leading men in these films (Antonio Moreno in the second) she does even more so to John Gilbert in the third, Flesh and the Devil (1927). No excuses here: she is simply out of control. Even flirting with blasphemy, kneeling at the communion rail and turning the cup around to savor the place where Gilbert’s lips (he is her husband’s best friend) had touched before hers—in front of a startled priest.

What was MGM doing to her? Stiller (by then at Paramount) wanted to know in his letter to Mayer. Hadn’t the mogul first warmed to her as the innocent young girl in Gösta Berling—wasn’t her performance in that character why he had signed her in the first place? But after her impact on audiences in Flesh and the Devil, and the sensation of the teaming with Gilbert (and their consequent and highly publicized love affair), the studio could hardly suppose they were doing too much wrong.

But they also had to deal with her growing unhappiness—at having to play all those “bad women,” as she put it, not to mention the scripts they came in (and for the salary they were paying her). And in her next movie, again with Gilbert of course, she is still adulterous but more the reluctant pursued than the pursuer. Love (1927), directed by Edmund Goulding, is a modern-dress reduction of Anna Karenina but with a happy ending (Karenin dies)—except in Europe (she goes under the train). The film was even more successful at the box office than Flesh and the Devil had been. And never again would Garbo play so unsympathetic a heroine as she had in that earlier film.

She had held out to get Goulding as her director, but now, even better, she got her compatriot Victor Sjostrom (billed as Seastrom in Hollywood), and as her costar Lars Hanson, who had played Gösta Berling in Stiller’s film. It was called The Divine Woman (1928), and she is a stage star (Bernhardt was the original idea, soon abandoned) who gives up her career to marry Hanson’s army deserter. It’s the only one of her films that’s been lost. And though it sounds unpromising, a fragment of it that turned up much later in Russia gives another impression: a ten-minute scene between her and Hanson where the soldier comes home on leave and they spend the night is gay and tender and altogether magical. And The Mysterious Lady, which followed, may represent the height of her youthful beauty and photographic splendor. (It was during the shooting of this film that Edward Steichen asked to photograph her between takes—arguably the most ravishing portraits she ever sat for.) Like the Divine Woman fragment, it’s another buoyant performance (at least in the film’s early scenes), though in a more flamboyant mode: she is (it was only a matter of time) a spy, falling in love with the one she’s spying on.

But the talkies were looming; 1928 was nearly the last year a silent film could be made in Hollywood. And MGM, wanting to get the most out of their investment before or if she tanked in the talkies—as so many would do (Gilbert did), especially if they, like her, had foreign accents—rushed her through four films all released in 1929, the last year that silents could be widely marketed, at least domestically. The first was a bowdlerized adaptation of a scandalous novel and play, Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, with its daring modern-woman heroine, Iris March. It was a famous role, played by Katherine Cornell on the stage—too famous, however, for the censors. So the movie became A Woman of Affairs, the Garbo heroine became Diana Merrick, and her husband’s syphilis (the most sensational element in the play) became his habit of committing embezzlement. It’s Gilbert again (not as the husband but as the true love she never gets to marry) and director Clarence Brown (Flesh and the Devil)—neither of whom does it much good. Still, it was seen, as well as remembered afterward, as a triumph for her.

One could imagine she needed that to get through the next two—both of which subject her image to some domesticating. She is a faithful wife to an older husband in the first one, Wild Orchids—besieged throughout by a whip-wielding, eye-flashing Javanese prince (her friend and fellow Swede Nils Asther) who only desists once he gets shot by her husband. In the second one, The Single Standard, she is a free-woman type again, flouting convention in an affair with a boxer-poet-yachtsman (Asther again) who then dumps her, prompting her marriage to a decent man who yet requires a massive effort to remain faithful to (she finally succeeds) once the yachtsman returns and wants her back again.

Not that these films, though leadenly directed (by Sidney Franklin and John S. Robertson, respectively), are so much worse than her others—or even much different. But they demonstrate—especially after the others—that emptiness can have a weight. And that weight was beginning to seem like her specialty. “I don’t see anything in silly lovemaking,” she said in a rare interview (with The New York Times), after she had filmed Wild Orchids. A story she’d like to do, she said when asked, was Joan of Arc (she had seen and admired Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc). “But it probably wouldn’t go so well,” she added. She would be scheduled for The Single Standard next.

But then—and happily—came The Kiss (1929), her final silent. It’s a dazzlingly made film by a first-rate director, Jacques Feyder. And though it puts her through familiar paces—a loveless marriage, an adulterous romance—it does so with such brio, with such sheer filmmaking skill (masterful tracking shots, inspired camera placements, exhilarating successions of high- and low-angle shots), all so far from the slow, relentless plod of most of her other films, that you almost don’t feel the familiarity. Even her obligatory suffering (as when she is tried for her goatish husband’s murder) is rather briskly gotten through, with an undercurrent of playfulness even that suits her nicely. Especially so in her scenes with the young Lew Ayres, who is not her lover (that’s once again the improbable Conrad Nagel) but the one who gives her the eponymous kiss that causes all her trouble.

She is supposed to have said, when an MGM publicity man was urging her to endorse Palmolive soap, “I don’t understand English very well. Wouldn’t good pictures be enough?” But good pictures were exactly for the most part what she didn’t get. And most of these early films of hers are bad enough to raise the question of how such a legendary career—as hers already was—could have come out of them. But then all you have to do to answer that question, so it seems to me, is to look at her in the kind of moments that people at the time would have left the theaters remembering—and would go on remembering long after the mechanical plots and would-be emotions were forgotten. And almost all these movies—and their directors—gave her such moments.

At the opening of The Temptress (directed by Fred Niblo, Stiller’s replacement) she is a shadowed figure at a masked ball, in the midst of a festive crowd, running to escape an ex-lover, when she is seized and held by the hero. She is wearing the flimsiest of little masks, lacy, nearly transparent, and molded to the face, concealing it hardly at all. But when she removes it to oblige her savior, the impact is real. It’s as if she really had been hidden before that, the force of her emerging is so emphatic. “You are beautiful,” the hero gasps (in a title card) as she looks up at him, a how-about-that glint in her eyes, with the slightest fleeting smile. It’s not only that she can show us her beauty—it’s almost as if she can conjure it up as we watch her.

Her close-ups become like arias, they can negotiate so many meanings. The ground of all of them, of course—as in the one above—is her extraordinary beauty. In The Kiss (after she’s broken off with her lover), Feyder fades into an early scene by an extreme close-up of her eyes—looking into ours, it seems for the first instant, until we recognize a mirror gaze: she’s looking into her own eyes, coolly appraising, clearly pleased (why not?), looking down (that’s enough) at her lips, lifting a fingertip to lighten the rouge, turning her head, even more pleased—as the camera pulls slowly back—and we suddenly see (so suddenly it’s almost startling) her unhappiness: a darkening in the eyes, a tightening around the mouth—like a shadow falling and it’s gone. As she turns to shake out a powder puff and go on, making dismissive little moues into her image in the hand mirror she’s holding. She is giving a party for her husband, and a title card has already told us that she is “Striving To Forget”—as of course she is. But the banal meaning has been nearly transformed by her—and Feyder’s—subtlety.

Of course her characteristic mode—it was what bowled over early reviewers—was understatement. Not that she couldn’t be over the top at times, especially in her earliest silents—the arm-flapping, eye-rolling tantrum she throws in Love when Vronsky has his racing accident, or the even more embarrassing shitfit she flies into when a pious girl prays for her in front of her in Flesh and the Devil. But even in much quieter moments—and they multiply almost with each film—she could be too much if she wasn’t cautious. Her face was almost haplessly expressive: a frown could feel like a shout-out.

But she had learned more than caution by the time of The Mysterious Lady—one of her most beautifully modulated performances, reuniting her with director Fred Niblo of The Temptress. She is sitting in an opera box watching a performance of Tosca as the hero (Conrad Nagel) enters unnoticed behind her. She is leaning forward toward the stage on her elbow, head in hand, her other arm extended in a long languorous line rightward. An image of both holding on and yielding, she has the look of someone being seriously moved. Then she does something only she would do, I think—as the lights go up and the spell breaks, she recovers and laughs. It’s the laugh after great feeling—coming to herself, as it were, resuming her distance, rejoining that inner witness of hers who’s been watching her watching all along.

No one—either then or now—seems to talk about her wit. But it’s much in evidence here, when she is at the business (spy business) of seducing Nagel’s German officer. The lights have gone out in her palatial quarters, and after showing herself to him from behind, as she looks out the window at the night rain, with her sinuous slouching posture, braless (very notably) in her clinging white silk gown, she goes with her taper to light some candles, so they won’t be altogether in the dark. She moves in on a candelabra with four candles, and proceeds—very slowly and in several close-ups—to light each one. She knows how he’s looking at her (and we can imagine)—we can see that on her face, which is poised in the frame between looking at him and looking at us. You half expect her to wink. Each careful illumination prompting another glance at him, another small sly smile—then a little frown, for the more serious business of lighting this next one. And voilà!—soon she is done, and turning to accept his approval as he comes charging to stand at her side. In close-up, she blows the taper out, in his (and our) direction, so that his burning gaze—in the next close-up—is literally smoking. She leans back, a laughing look now. “Happy?” she asks silently (there is no need for a title for this line). Is he happy?—is he ever! In the next shot she practically has to knock him down to get away from him. But she doesn’t send him away. And the next day they go to the country together—a sure sign (as in Camille and the countless other such narratives at the time) of the real thing.

But it’s not just her close-ups that dazzle you: she uses her whole body with the same witty expressiveness. After their lark in the country, she is standing with her back to us at her ceiling-high window, holding the drape with one hand and waving with the other to say goodbye to Nagel as he drives off. She is unaware of the uniformed and rather nasty-looking man (another spy) in the room—presumably there to recall her to her duties. As she waves out the window she stands with pelvis thrust forward, then pulls it in as the car departs (it’s like a visualized sigh), her hand falling from the drape onto her hair and then to her hip as she turns to see her visitor, settling into an almost challenging stance, one hip cocked, the other clasped in a firmly placed hand. It’s one long sinuous line, and you follow it almost with suspense to its conclusion (you almost want to applaud when it gets there). Especially when you notice that Tania (her spy name), in spite of her impressive control, is breathing quickly. And it’s all there: I love him and what can you do about it? Except that that cliché formulation leaves out the grace of its unfolding, and the complication she leaves you with (her defiance is closer to wariness, and not unfriendly).

In A Woman of Affairs, a movie where everything is more serious (though no less incredible), she appears at another window—an ordinary hotel one—and we look at her front-on. Her young husband (Johnny Mack Brown) has committed suicide from the same window, and she has been confronted not only by the police but by his family survivors, who blame it all on her (here, she is a fake bad woman). When she looks toward John Gilbert, her real love, who should know better, and whose blustering father is her chief accuser, he only turns away, to follow his domineering parent out the door, leaving her behind in a close shot … and it’s one of those moments she gives you when you can feel as if you’re looking at the most grown-up person in the world. Her look after him is stricken but clear-eyed, devastated but honestly not all that surprised, as the small smile tells you.

And she goes to the window, first with her sidelong gaze, then in person—standing in it, settling on her hips, raising her arms with their trailing black sleeves, and propping herself with her hands in the frame, in order to look down, first with her eyes, and then with her head slowly dropping downward—to fadeout. This, too, is one pure continuous line, though the mode is more outsize, more glaringly theatrical—but done with such intentness and dignity, such inwardness, that it’s transformed, from the banality of both its style and its “point” (a foreshadowing of her own suicide). She could do that.

But in this film it’s “the scene with the flowers” that people remember more than any other. Her character lies near death in an alpine hospital, tended by the inevitable nun in lip rouge and Lewis Stone as her doctor. Gilbert has arrived, but with his new bride. In the meantime he has sent Garbo a lush bouquet, which sits by her bed as she sleeps. Stone orders it removed and goes out to greet the Gilberts. They have gathered in the waiting room, the gift of flowers now prominently placed in a vase on a table at its center.

When suddenly into the corridor she comes out of her room—bursts out, really, staggering and holding her head, riven with confusion and distress: Where are they? She comes forward, fevered and delirious, sees them on the table, and comes down the long hallway toward them, stretching her arms out. Then, reaching them, like a desperate swimmer reaching shore—taking them in with her eyes, then with her arms, lifting them out of the vase, rocking backward with the contact, shutting her eyes and burying her face, then drawing back and gazing at them. Anxiety again: Hadn’t she lost them, almost? But now they are here, as she touches and parts them again, hovering and then sinking into them again, tearful and laughing. “You are all I care about,” she says in a title card. But then he is here, too, as it turns out. Oh— … She refocuses—it takes her a moment—hands the flowers off and goes to him, eagerly. (Until she’s reminded of the wife, also standing nearby.)

All that—about flowers? It’s almost as if Gilbert had become the metaphor, instead of them. The whole episode feels perilously over the top—and you see where and how far it’s going almost as soon as she bursts out of that sickroom. And yet she carries you along to the end, with the anguish on her face, the animal intentness of her walk down the hall, the sensual relief and release when she reaches and claims this luxuriance they almost stole from her. Elia Kazan once described Marlon Brando as a kind of genius animal. And the description seems to fit Garbo, too—“the screen’s great instinctual artist,” as Pauline Kael called her. Except that at her greatest she has a generalizing power that exceeds even Brando’s, it seems to me—the way that her sensuality shades into self-transcendence. As here, with these flowers—she seems to be registering the poignance of creation itself.

Did they really want her to talk—too? No one was too sure, in fact. Both she and the studio delayed the inevitable event as long as they could. Even her fans were nervous, it seemed. The box office returns made her final silent, The Kiss—filmed and released well after most U.S. pictures were talking—into her biggest hit since Love, three years before.


BUT HER VOICE recorded on film—a plangent contralto, as expressive as her face—was everything they could have wanted. Her shrewdly chosen first talkie was a mostly faithful version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (1930). And her famous opening lines, spoken to a waterfront bartender—“Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby”—felt genuinely thrilling at the time: that was “talking” and then some. And her performance, as a Swedish American whore reunited with her runaway father and falling in love with an Irish sailor, both of them ignorant of her past, was greeted as an unqualified triumph.

In her next talking film (the only one she couldn’t bear to sit through when they screened it for her at MOMA many years later), Romance (1930), she is an Italian opera singer whose attempt to seduce an English clergyman (the preposterous Gavin Gordon—his first and last leading man role) ends in her refusing him when he finally succumbs to her, all because of the newly virtuous woman he has turned her into by then (“My heart will always go with you, if you will only let me keep my soul”).

The contrast between these, her first two talkies—both lamely directed by Clarence Brown—was of course designed. In spite of the popular success of Anna Christie, there was a felt danger in having the “new” and speaking Garbo become identified with such naturalist drabness. Romance, on the other hand, gave her Adrian’s most sumptuous turn-of-the-century outfits to wear, some Big Moments in them in front of ornamental fireplaces, an “Italian” version of her Swedish accent, and not a single true or less than ludicrous moment, let alone a privileged one. It was far less popular than Anna Christie had been—which it followed into movie houses only a few months later—and it was curiously underpublicized. But it made its point.

And given the success she had made in the original, the studio decided to remake Anna Christie for the German market next—filming on the same sets with the same photographer (William Daniels, as nearly always with her) and many of the same camera setups, but with a different (German-speaking) cast and director, Jacques Feyder of The Kiss. Who would once again do well by her. (For the final time, unhappily—he would soon go the way of Stiller and Sjostrom and other of her friends before them: back to Europe to stay.)

She is more at ease in German, it seems, and her Anna this time has a gathering power the first one never quite finds—the character’s exasperation rising into anguish over the two thick men, father and lover, who she knows in spite of her bravado hold her fate in their hands. Her baffled rage and sorrow at this almost leap off the screen.

The English-speaking Anna, on the other hand, had been a much softer sort, frailer and more damaged from the start. When she said “Don’t be stingy, baby” to her bartender, it was with a plaintive inflection that would touch the whole performance. The German version eliminates the line and the plaintiveness: from her first entrance, this Anna is tougher, tartier—a more realistic version of a young but experienced streetwalker (she wears a more blatant getup as well, still by Adrian, by now as inevitable as Daniels her cinematographer was). But she is also, paradoxically, a marginally better-natured Anna—less prone in scenes with her delinquent old man to seem simply grudging or aggrieved. And she is more openly tender in their moments of rapprochement, which now become more genuinely touching as a result.

Partly because Feyder stages and directs them better, his framings and rhythms give the emotional currents more clarity, the conventional sentiments more conviction. Not to mention the relation of Anna to her sailor suitor, Matt—thanks to Hans Junkermann, who plays him, and who really seems hot for her (and she for him). Unlike the stentorian Charles Bickford in the earlier film, who performs the role with her at times as if he were practicing it in another room.

But it was the plush hokum of Romance, not the grim surface realism of Anna Christie, that signaled her future in MGM talkies. They put her back into vamping again. On the Camille model: regretting her lifestyle almost as soon as she meets (and, it’s implied, deflowers) the virginal boy-man who is attracted to her—the pious clergyman in Romance, the stuffed shirt in Inspirations (1931), the gallant flyer in Mata Hari (1932). But when she was paired, to huge box office effect, with the more manly than boyish young Clark Gable—in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931)—the pattern was slightly altered. He is the experienced one, launching Garbo’s virginal farm girl on a course that takes her from homelessness to cooch dancing in a carnival to her name in Broadway lights (a quick montage) to a Park Avenue penthouse to a low dive in the tropics, all in her oblique pursuit of Rodney (Gable’s most unfortunate character name), who turns up in each episode to reprove her for her newest career choice. Yet even in that sleazy off-the-map saloon she still sustains some options. Like the millionaire (John Halliday) who keeps hoping she’ll visit his nearby yacht. “I’m not interested in yachts,” she tells him. “You know,” he says, “I’m beginning to believe you.” If only Rodney would. In each of her films from Anna Christie on she has at least one big scene in which she has to reassure the hero that all those other men—even if they were “half the men in Paris,” as in Inspiration (“and the other half are trying to forget her”)—meant nothing before him.

Her voice may have enhanced her allure, but the words she was given to say rarely seemed to. And in those early talkies, actors were expected to talk a lot—in front of the newly immobile cameras. Long speeches like the climactic one she makes to Gable’s Rodney, explaining to him (and to us) why the two of them should finally get together: “The hurt that we’ve inflicted upon one another became a bond, nothing can break it. Just like two cripples, twisted—only together we can become straight,” and so on. (“You have a queer way of looking at things,” Gable replies.) And her discontent with her films was already something of a legend. While shooting Inspiration, a fan magazine reported, she refused to learn the lines she especially disliked ahead of time—requiring them to be given to her on the set when she got there—though always on time, they conceded.

“I tank I go home now,” she supposedly said to her studio bosses at one point. Who took it calmly until they realized she meant Sweden. So the popular story went. And the line itself with its vaudeville dialect became as commonplace a way for the radio comics to evoke her as the ubiquitous “I vant to be alone.” To most observers her discontent with the studio seemed warranted. Her reviews were still often rapturous, but almost never for her movies. “She never grows tiresome even in tiresome roles,” wrote The Nation’s critic Margaret Marshall, “probably because unlike most of her rivals she has personality and intelligence as well as physical beauty.”

But after the dreadful Susan Lenox, her next film, Mata Hari (1932), comes almost as a relief. As it may have done for her, too. A movie where the absurdity, at least for its first two-thirds, is flagrant and unapologetic, from her first appearance in it—as a celebrated exotic dancer (like the historical Mata) performing on a stage before “the god Shiva,” a multiarmed golden idol, which she slowly advances upon, treading heavily forward, arms angled as if for flight, festooned with transparent veils and wearing a triple-tiered pagoda on her head (her pelvic grinds were done in long shots by a double). She seems, in fact, here and elsewhere, to be enjoying herself. And why not? For one thing (among many), she gets to mistreat Lionel Barrymore at his most querulous and repellent, as a thwarted lover—dodging his attempt at embrace with a little hand-pat to his uniformed chest and a saunter away: “I must help you to give me up,” she says merrily.

But the fun is over, more or less, once the unlikely leading man, Ramon Novarro, gets permanently blinded in a plane crash. Mata is reunited with him—in front of the obligatory weeping nun—at his bedside hospital. When he is well again and the war is over, she tells him, they will see the world together. But he can’t see, he reminds her, in his plaintive voice (much higher than hers). “Here are your eyes!” she exclaims, lifting the back of his hand to her own and pressing it into them. It became one of her most famous lines. And it manages—even near the end of this by now quite creepy movie—to be almost moving.

Okay—that’s impressive. But you still have to feel—and more and more with each film—something like: What is she doing in this shit? Her authenticity at unexpected moments makes the surrounding falsity feel all the more oppressive, makes you resent all the more that she is serving such meretriciousness. She had a gift, her three-time costar Melvyn Douglas would later observe, for making the flattest banality sound like the profoundest truth. That was a gift, of course, that came to her with sound (you never quite blamed her for those titles between the visuals in her silents). But it was turning out to be a gift of doubtful value—both for her and for us.

Mata Hari was a huge success, of course—her biggest hit to date—but her next one was an even bigger hit, and one of her rare good films—and by her first good director since Feyder: Edmund Goulding (his second film with her—he’d also done Love, among her better silents). It was Grand Hotel (1932).

Poor as her talking pictures may have been up to then, in fact and by reputation, they were still building the legend. And in this Goulding film, she both plays the legend and confirms it by her performance as Grusinskaya the prima ballerina, like her a great and famous single-name artist—who wants to be alone. Or so she says—having bolted off the stage (we are told) in the middle of a performance and returned to her hotel, where her room is filled with people so alarmed about her disappearance that they at first don’t see her standing right there, leaning against the open doorway, still in her Swan Queen costume. “I just want to be alone,” she says.

The movie itself was a new thing in 1932: a multistar picture with seven names above the title. Garbo’s at the top, of course—above Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, and John and Lionel Barrymore. In a plot (from a Vicki Baum novel) of intersecting stories, all set in the great Berlin hotel. It was a characteristic MGM invention, the studio that specialized in “grand” moviemaking, in a certain kind of big movie experience, with the biggest stars—of whom Garbo was then the most resplendent. And Metro was the studio that had not only “created” her but sustained her unique prestige. Where another studio might have given her better pictures and directors (Lubitsch at Paramount, George Stevens at RKO), only MGM could give her a Grand Hotel.

A film she dominates, as reviewers said, without even being in most of it—in hardly thirty minutes of its two-hour running time. You wait twenty minutes before she even appears. And when she finally does, it’s a moment so close to self-parody that it’s a shock. Roused from her sleepless preperformance nap by her maid, she rises into a close-up, intoning the words: “I think, Suzette, I have never been so tired in my life.” It’s a glamour shot, as her close-ups usually are—artfully shadowed and molded and intense—but forbidding. It’s the familiar Garbo mask of tragedy—the arched brows, lined forehead, drooping eyelids, sagging mouth—but at such a Kabuki-like extreme of dejection and gloom that it’s startling, almost like a challenge, the exaggeration all but daring you to scoff or to pull away. As it turns out, it’s a marker laid down for the rest of the performance—as it goes on …

Almost embarrassingly at first. Now she rises and stands, doing an unconvincing little stretch at a chair (her ballerina impersonation), and then falls into gloom again: “So threadbare!” she growls, whipping around into another tight frontal shot—which holds on her as she recites a list of generic memories, with intensest feeling, and a pause between each portentous item: “Saint Petersburg … Imperial Court … Grand Duke Sergei…” And then with a break in her voice: “Sergei!” And finally, and direst of all, with a terrible grimace: “Grusinskaya…’S all gone…”

It doesn’t work, of course. But those pauses, clumsy as they are, between the accumulating clichés—more like silent film titles than movie dialogue—are something like a foretaste of what Goulding will give her throughout the movie: space, both emotional and temporal, returning her to some of the freedoms of her best silent film work, restoring her powerful intimacy with the camera. Garbo’s movie-star bigness in this film, her stylized intensity, whether in despair or in ecstasy (she will do both), takes some getting used to at first. But as in that scene with the flowers, she overcomes your resistance. Her acting is not “realism” but it’s certainly not falsity.

When John Barrymore, as a disgraced aristocrat with criminal connections and gambling debts both, slips into her room to steal her pearls and finds instead that she is there herself (it’s the night she fled the theater) and on the verge of a suicide attempt (the pills in the palm of her hand), he steps out from the shadows to save her. But what is he doing in her room? He invents a story: he comes when she is at the theater just to be near her somehow, to breathe her air. But now that he’s found her in such a desperate state— Before he can finish, she begins to cry. “I was so alone,” she says, “and suddenly you are here.” But who is he? “I’m a man who could love you,” he replies—she is so beautiful.

And as he pleads with her, in an extended and intimate two-shot, she turns her face away, her eyes filling with tears, listening to his words at her ear as if they were coming from far away at first, but then gradually coming nearer. His voice is kind—telling her how beautiful she is, with her life ahead of her, how she must forget and how she mustn’t cry. Gradually her eyes brighten behind the tears, and you can even see an it-might-be-fun thought passing through her mind amid the fearfulness and confusion she’s struggling with. Then she turns to look at him, with a melting smile. Above all, he is saying, you mustn’t be alone tonight. “Let me stay,” he says, “just for a little while. Please let me stay.” “Well,” she says, slowly giving way, “just for a minute, then.” And he kisses her hand in joy and relief—though on her face, looking down at the back of his head, now, we see the fearfulness return. Fadeout.

(In Goulding’s next MGM movie, Blondie of the Follies, just two months later, the director would do a very funny parody of this same scene, with Marion Davies—an accomplished mimic—and Jimmy Durante as the couple: “Please let me stay,” implores Durante-as-Barrymore encircling Davies-Garbo in a clinch. “Well,” she replies, after a hesitation, “just for a week, then.” Prompting Durante to turn to the camera: “What a mama!” he says, rolling his eyes at us.)

She doesn’t even know his name, she says the next morning—the postcoital scene—with a full and half-delighted registering of Just How That Must Sound. It’s Baron Felix von Gaigern, he says, but his mother (an inevitable interest to Garbo about all her movie lovers) called him Flix. “No,” she says crooningly. “Flix,” she repeats, touching the side of his face, curling her voice around the word, proprietarily. He rests his head in her hand and she strokes his hair as he goes on to describe his black-sheep boyhood, all to her unflagging delight. “Garbo alone can be intoxicated by innocence,” as Kenneth Tynan wrote—and she can even persuade us for a moment to see it in John Barrymore.

Until he gets to his black-sheep maturity—and returns the pearls he had meant to steal. Heartsick and angry, she throws them on the floor, and he must plead with her again. Again she is facing front as he does so, and we see the slow provisional relenting on her face, first firmly turned away from him, then turning, still troubled, to look at him again. With a slight bodily start (there he is again!) all her resistance to him leaves her. “Flix!” she says again, with infinite sweetness, and puts her hand on the back of his head, drawing him to her mouth for a kiss.

Before he leaves they make excited plans to leave together, to meet the next morning on the train to Vienna. Yet almost as soon as he’s gone from the room she wants to speak to him again. And she goes to the elegantly attenuated black telephone we’ve seen her use before—and when she talks into it you feel, not for the first time in this film, that she has never sounded more beautiful—the voice itself like a caress. “Would you give me Baron von Gaigern please?” Pause—and she repeats the beloved name, lingeringly, accenting the long o in Baron: “Yes … Baron von Gaigern…” Then waiting … then there he is again, again there’s the simple surprise of him: “Cheri, it’s you … No, nothing … Good morning, good morning!” Then with a loving, poignant little break in her voice, her shoulders curling forward over this magical phone she has: “No-oo … Just to tell you … I’m happy…”

But except for a hurried goodbye before she goes to the theater that night, she will never see him again. There will be another phone call to his room, which he won’t answer (he’s been killed by Wallace Beery) before she departs the hotel (which provides a discreet hearse at the alley door for removal of the remains), all unawares, and going to “their” train. So that we never see her registering her final loss. Though in a sense we already have. Garbo’s rhapsodic mode, even, or even especially, at its most intense, belongs to someone who remembers—and who will never not remember—desolation. It’s what makes even her happiness a little harrowing.

But it’s the happiness you remember best from Grand Hotel. Was anyone on the screen ever more radiant with it than Garbo is here—more exalted by tenderness? As in those close-ups? As the critic Charles Affron says, “No lover ever sees Garbo’s beauty as the camera does.” Her Grusinskaya is Garbo in her ecstatic-romantic mode—the Garbo with the flowers. But it was the last time she would commit herself so fully to that mode. She would later call her Grand Hotel work overacting. But then of course she had no very high opinion of any of her movie work (“I am not proud to be an actress”). Except for Camille.

Grand Hotel marked the peak of her American popularity—as well as the end of her MGM contract. So she finally went back to Sweden, as she had so long been threatening to do. But by that time she had finally given in and signed with the studio again. Something that was kept secret so that Metro could exploit the suspense while she was away and then proclaim her triumphant return for her next big movie—over which she had contractually secured, as it would turn out, an unprecedented degree of control of almost every aspect, including her director. No house hack like George Fitzmaurice (As You Desire Me) or Robert Z. Leonard (Susan Lenox). She wanted Lubitsch—if not him, Goulding. They were both unavailable. She then agreed to Rouben Mamoulian—classy enough (some well-reviewed earlier talkies like Applause and City Streets), even sort of arty (a distinguished theatrical career).

In Queen Christina (1933), as the androgynous seventeenth-century Swedish monarch, she gets to do a lot of new things—wear trousers and be taken for a boy, quell rebellious mobs and make speeches to her court, kiss another woman on the lips (her lady-in-waiting), ascend a throne and wear a crown and then remove it herself and step down, talk yearningly of her plans for world peace and universal justice. She also makes love, of course—after it’s discovered that she’s not a boy, when her improbable success at passing for one lands her in a room for the night with a male stranger: John Gilbert as the Spanish ambassador, and soon the one true love of her life (and her reason for taking that crown off). The most famous sequence in the film—other than the final close-up—is the postcoital one at the inn, a set piece to movie music as she slowly and silently, with her lover watching, goes about touching the various objects in the room they’ve spent the night together in—an icon, a spinning wheel, a bedpost, most notably a pillow—to fix each one in her memory. From now on, she says (the loneliness of rule), “I shall live a great deal in this room.”

It’s a Garbo “number”—virtually equivalent to that song she never sang for us. Both daring and sort of overwhelming—a demonstration of her ability to make meaning before your eyes, to invest it in objects and her relation to them. And to be powerfully sexy—as when she rests her face on that pillow and looks up at him, in extreme voluptuous close-up. Kenneth Tynan famously observed, “What when drunk one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.”

In a way it’s her apotheosis movie—unlike Grand Hotel, it’s all Garbo all the time. As was intended. All the 1933 ads and promotions blazoned Garbo (Greta is dropped), her name above the movie title and three times its size. In Times Square her image above the movie house marquee was a block long, under the words “She Returns!” And she had had almost her own way this time. Not the “bad woman” formula she detested, but a role that reflected not only her own regnancy but her well-known problems with it: a reluctant monarch—even foretelling her eventual abdication. And it made more money than any Garbo film ever had—a fact that MGM kept secret, particularly from her, in their unending struggle to control her.

But on the whole, unhappily, it’s a dead thing—with its waxworks figures and performances, the funeral parlor chic of its sets and production, the leaden pacing (never a Mamoulian strength) and the dreadful writing (“Tonight I’m not a queen. Just a woman in a man’s arms”). Even the contemporary reviews, which mostly praised it (she’s wonderful again and even more so, etcetera), showed a certain queasiness: one of them even called it “clammy.” Nor was she herself finally that pleased with it, it seemed—but whenever was she? It was considered a triumph for her—justly, if only for that final on-ship close-up. But the film itself looked and felt like a kind of embalming. An effect that touches even that famous scene after lovemaking.

Laurence Olivier, in his autobiography Confessions of an Actor, tells of his encounter with her when he was a new young movie actor in Hollywood. He was up for the Spanish ambassador role opposite her then, and was frankly scared of her. Seeing her alone on the set one day, he resolved to sit down beside her and talk. But after running out of his prepared remarks—and with no help from her silence—he began to babble, subjects ranging from (as he remembered) Will Rogers to Noël Coward. All to no response. “Oh, well,” she said at last, “life’s a pain anyway…”

Copyright © 2014 by James Harvey

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Table of Contents



Part One: Icons

1. Garbo

2. Dietrich and Sternberg

3. Bergman and Selznick

4. Wayne and Ford

5. Davis and Wyler

6. Charles Laughton

Part Two: Realists

7. Robert De Niro

8. Altman’s Nashville

9. Jackie Brown and Others

10. Godard’s Closeups

Part Three: Transcenders

11. Bergman and Rossellini

12. Dreyer’s Heroines

13. Balthazar

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