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Walking With Garbo: Conversations and Recollections

Walking with Garbo: Conversations and Recollections - Raymond Daum "Garbo belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Ideal of the human creature."

photo camilleportrait.jpg

Black and white film is another sort of Platonic Ideal. There’s something iconic about images reduced to the essentials of shadow and light, and some movies just wouldn’t work any other way, not as I see them. Night of the Hunter, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Third Man, Double Indemnity, Casablanca, The Last Picture Show, and I could go on and on, and am writing this review mostly for those who share my enthusiasm. Not that color isn’t wonderful, but for different reasons that rarely strike me as iconic. Black and white movies are an experience and an art unto themselves, and Garbo, more than any other actress with the exceptions of Lillian Gish and Marlene Dietrich, was made for that medium.

It's a medium made for the big screen, and having a big screen T.V. is worth it just to see those classic Hollywood films as close to original size as possible, considering how rarely most of us have a chance to see them in the theater. I recently watched Garbo's Camille on TCM's Essentials series and was delighted to hear her performance and the film properly praised. (Drew Barrymore and I agree that both were robbed of Oscars, and for more on that: http://www.tcm.com/essentials/article.html?cid=467325&mainArticleId=463859)

Garbo's look at the height of her stardom had become so iconic as to make change a sacrilege.

"The week Garbo died, a eulogy that appeared on the editorial page of the New York Times proved, perhaps, that she had been wise to hide from a world obsessed with age and beauty. 'She was wise to quit when she did,' stated the Times, 'before time had started wearing on her face. The real Garbo could afford to grow old; the screen Garbo could not.'”

I appreciate the icon as much as any Garbo fan, and consider physical beauty as laudable as any other kind. But had audiences allowed her to change, we (the viewing public) might have learned long ago to appreciate and even revere mature variations on female beauty. Instead of expecting aging women to look younger and younger, we might have recognized that age is not necessarily unattractive.

"At forty-one (when she allowed Cecil Beaton to photograph her) she had not faced a camera in five years. An article in Mirabella pointed out that she looked a decade older than her age, and Garbo was furious with Beaton when a few of the photographs appeared in Vogue. But what a dignified, intelligent presence! The Beaton portraits only prove that Garbo fled the screen much too soon." (For evidence, see my Garbo avatar.)

But about this book. I collect books about Garbo and this is a favorite and not my first reading. It’s an entertaining mix of conversation, observation and biography, and a good place to start getting to know Garbo’s selves, the public and the private. She's a curious combination of introvert and exhibitionist (as a movie star), and frugal working-class girl turned wealthy sophisticate, and though she left the stage when young and never flaunted her wealth, she remained conflicted by all of the above throughout her life.

Daum was a friend, and he provides a more complex account of her life than the dime-a-dozen takes rendering icon as caricature. Miss G, he called her. Mr. Daum, she called him. He’s also a founder of Columbia University’s American Biography Project, an oral history archive containing his interviews with many people in the arts, and Garbo trusted him enough to allow him to commit their conversations to that archive.

They met at a New Year’s Day party in 1963. She asked if he could give her a tour of the United Nations where he was working as a film producer, and of course he said yes. Thereafter he was one of a handful of walking buddies with whom she roamed the streets of New York City almost daily. His father built sets for silents, and as a boy he’d admired her from afar while growing up on Hollywood backlots. It’s an experience that enhances his perspective of the movie industry and Garbo’s connections within it. I learned that Lillian Gish was her mentor and friend, and their relationship provides glimpses of women’s roles in the industry at the time, something I’d have enjoyed hearing more about. (Daum also interviewed Gish for the Columbia archive.)

I like the New York context, viewing Garbo’s life from the mature vantage point of Garbo the New Yorker, and from all indications Daum knew her well. He begins in that city and meanders chronologically through chapters titled Stockholm and Stiller (her hometown and first film director); The Star; The Voice; The Look; Her Self; The Woman; Comeback; and, On Her Own.

Like any friend who wanted to remain a friend, Daum never talked about her while she was alive, but she was star enough to accept and even appreciate that folks would talk when she was gone. Daum manages to write as both friend and archivist, and without being unctuous the telling is very moving, especially about Garbo the old woman and living legend, living alone, no family left but a niece name Gray, whom she adored but rarely saw.

"I realized it was Christmas. I thought if I could get over to Second or First Avenue, there will be people, but there weren’t. I was scared and got going. I could have got a cab but I was determined to walk. I don’t know why, but I did, and that was my big event for Christmas. But there is something in the air this time of year which is nice, it makes people feel a little gay. I wish I could be that way too. In Sweden they’d be decorating trees with candles and walking in pure snow. Now I’m a sour little man. Ah, poor Miss G! Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas! If something happened to me over the weekend, no one would know. My girl doesn’t come over the weekend. Nobody would know. Nobody would know."

Garbo died during Easter weekend in April 1990.