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Greta Garbo’s onscreen talent, complex relationships — and why she still fascinates

Greta Garbo, pictured in 1931, was a paradox, writes Robert Gottlieb: She needed companionship but also wanted, famously, to be left alone. ( and AP FILE/AP)
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Greta Garbo died in 1990. Her last film was produced 80 years ago. Her retirement, much of it characterized by her refusals to be interviewed and her penchant for taking long walks around Manhattan, lasted longer than her career in films.

Yet we are in the midst of a (textual) Garbo revival: “The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood,” by film and photography historian Robert Dance, was published in November, and Donna Rifkind’s “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood,” a study of actress-screenwriter Viertel’s salon of European emigres (including Garbo) in 1930s-’40s Hollywood, came out last winter. It arrived on the heels of the republication of Viertel’s memoir, “The Kindness of Strangers,” in which Garbo has a co-starring role. And this season brings us “Garbo,” Robert Gottlieb’s engaging and intelligent retelling of the star’s life and meditation on her power to fascinate.

Gottlieb does not offer new evidence about the star. He relies substantially on — and generously cites — evidence and opinions uncovered or suggested by previous biographers and historians, such as Barry Paris, Karen Swenson and Mark Vieira. Nor does “Garbo” justify its existence with the kind of revelations that propel so many star biographies. Socially unacceptable realities often hidden or downplayed by Hollywood’s publicity machines — such as child abuse, multiple marriages, drug or alcohol abuse, economic exploitation, mental illness, perverse sexual behaviors and even career comebacks — won’t be found here. These were not a part of Garbo’s life (although a comeback was, for a time, considered). In fact, one suspects that if these realities had been a part of Garbo’s narrative, Gottlieb would not have been interested in writing a book about her.

Gottlieb, well-known for his career editing books by celebrities (Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan) and prizewinning writers (Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie) as editor in chief at top publishing houses Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, and as editor of the New Yorker, is also a longtime writer on music, dance and performing artists. His “Garbo,” like his previous biographies of actress Sarah Bernhardt and choreographer George Balanchine, is invested in the complicated mixture of temperament, talent, nonconformity and outsize public expectations that is responsible for making the famed famous. But Gottlieb does not privilege potential or realized infamy over an artist’s contributions to culture.

“Garbo” is also invested in the star’s relationships. Some were marred by what can only be described as her helplessness (and stinginess) about money and reliance on others to attend to a variety of practical matters on her behalf. Other friendships and love affairs were undone by the star’s fear (often, but not always, justified) that her privacy would be violated by friends and lovers seeking economic or status rewards. However, Gottlieb emphasizes that her relationships were mainly characterized by Garbo’s eccentric behavior, yet genuinely playful and affectionate need to be with others.

Other biographers have given attention to her relationships, but perhaps it is owing to Gottlieb’s editorial talent that we are spared the minutiae of their course. He perceptively depicts the paradox of Garbo’s sociality and reserve: her need to be controlled (by her director-mentor Mauritz Stiller and later by her possible lover George Schlee) and to be let alone (by the studio publicity machine, by the public, by lovers or friends who bored or displeased her).

Gottlieb’s approach to the sexual nature of Garbo’s relationships and her gender identity mostly avoids the “prurient wishful subjunctive,” the term devised by scholar Marjorie Garber to describe speculative scenarios in celebrity biographies about who might have slept with whom. Gottlieb acknowledges the great likelihood that Garbo’s lovers included men and women, and that she usually referred to herself as a “boy” or “old man,” but doesn’t apply labels for what he knows is only speculation.

The last quarter of Gottlieb’s book is composed of a photographic portrait gallery and a “Garbo reader” — essays and anecdotes written or recounted by other writers who knew, crossed paths with or were as enchanted by Garbo as Gottlieb is. These sections might offer answers to the question “Why Garbo?,” which he gives to both the first and the last chapters of the book.

Perhaps Garbo speaks to us through the years as modernity’s “new woman” — in her confounding gender and sexual identities, in her refusal to be exploited, and in her disinterest in domesticity as a woman’s destiny. Gottlieb dismisses many of Garbo’s films as silly or as “trash,” but maybe taste is beside the point if we find in her work the audacity of that “new woman.”

If so, we might turn our attention toward the photographic portraits of Garbo that have circulated for decades, preserving her iconic stature even when her films were hard to find. We might want to give more serious consideration than Gottlieb does to Garbo’s costumes (by designer Adrian), which in films set in her contemporary times aligned her with the notion of an androgynous and mobile modern woman and in period films supported her tragic romanticism.

Gottlieb rightly focuses on the contribution of her acting — a mix of craftsmanship and intuition — to her persona. His observations on the way Garbo’s performances brought the codified gestural language of silent film acting into sound film suggests the rarity of it being accomplished by her contemporaries. Her acting style served as a bridge for what was best in both silent and sound film performances; her projection of reserve and seeming indifference to love made her eventual submission to intense feeling all the more moving. Thus, for Gottlieb, film was a vehicle for Garbo to reveal her humanity, a reminder of the pain and worth of living.

Mary Desjardins, the author of “Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video” and a co-editor of “Dietrich Icon,” is a professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College.

Garbo

By Robert Gottlieb.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 448 pp. $40

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