Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  This face was memorably described by the philosopher Roland Barthes, who identified it as a transition between two semiological epochs, two ways of seeing women. Garbo marked the passage from awe to charm, from concept to substance: “The face of Garbo is an idea, that of [Audrey] Hepburn an event.” There was something essential, Platonic and unindividuated in Greta’s face. She was Woman, as opposed to Audrey, who was a woman, whom we loved precisely because her beauty was so quirky, so particular. Garbo has no quirks at all. A close-up of her face appears to reveal fewer features than the rest of us have—such an expanse of white—punctuated by the minimum of detail, just enough to let you know that this is flesh, not spirit. Her vulnerable, changeable face is what comes prior to the emphatic mask of a beautiful woman—she is the ideal of beauty that those masks attempt to capture. Post-Garbo, we have taken what resonated in Garbo’s fluid sexuality and mystery and hardened it, made it a commodity. Take Garbo’s heavy, deep-set eyelids: these have become the mark of the diva, passing down through Marlene, to Marilyn and, more recently, to Madonna, in whom they have become ironic. Hers is the ultimate modern Garbo face, attached to a worked-out body, and also to the idea of female ambition, will and talent. The idea of Garbo is somehow more elevated than that—it doesn’t even condescend itself to the pursuit and fulfillment of talent. It merely is. Garbo was not an actress in the way Bette Davis was an actress. Garbo was a presence. In fact, is it okay to say, a hundred years on, that Garbo was not a very good actress? That some of her best work was still and silent? It could be said that her best director was, in fact, a still photographer, MGM’s famous Clarence Bull. He did not try to know her or “uncover” her, as her movie directors sometimes did, giving her those awkward, wordy speeches that revealed less than one raised eyebrow could manage. Bull understood the attraction of her self-containment. Years later he recalled that where other photographers had tried to penetrate the mystery, “I accepted it for what it was—nature’s work of art. . . . She was the face and I was the camera. We each tried to get the best out of our equipment.”

  Garbo’s equipment was not always so sublime. She grew up Greta Gustafs son, a lanky, overweight, big-footed girl from Sweden. Despite Hollywood’s later intimations of an aristocratic lineage, she was poor, sharing a four-room, cold-water flat with her family in a Stockholm tenement. When her gardener father died of kidney failure, fourteen-year-old Greta dropped out of school and began work in the millinery department at the Paul Bergstrom department store. She wanted to be an actress, always. Discovered by her manager modeling hats in the mirror, she was asked to appear in a commercial film to promote millinery, How Not to Dress. This led to other commercial shorts. In her capacity as shopgirl, she would look out for famous Swedish actresses in the store and make sure she waited on them.

  It was through a connection she made here that she secured an audition for the state-sponsored Dramatic Theatre Academy, where she was accepted at age seventeen. There she met director Mauritz Stiller, the first of many Garbo mentors. He changed her name and told her to lose twenty pounds. He cast her in The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), which was a success in Sweden and Germany and brought Stiller to the attention of Louis B. Mayer at MGM. They met in Germany. Mayer’s original interest was Stiller, who had directed more than forty-five films, but he saw something in Garbo. He invited them both to America, although not before a word in Stiller’s ear: “In America, we don’t like fat women.” Garbo went on a diet of spinach for three weeks, was terribly sick, lost the weight and replaced it with no muscle. She stayed that way—slender, shapeless, suggestive of a dangerous lack of physical vitality—throughout her movie career. With her newly revealed cheekbones and wispy frame, she embarked upon her first photo shoots in New York. Any other hopeful starlet would have posed for cheesecake shots, swimsuits, “come hither” glances—the whole Hollywood routine. Garbo’s shots, lit with the “Rembrandt lighting” that would make her famous, are sculptural portraits, more Rodin than raunch. The Garbo image is yet unformed, but the beginnings of an iconic persona are here. She had a relationship with light like no other actress; wherever you directed it on her face, it created luminosity. She needed no soft or diffuse lighting to disguise defects. There were no defects. And then there is that sense of European ennui, of weltschmerz, that no MGM player had projected before. They had vamps, they had sex bombs, but they’d never had existential depression. “In America you are all so happy,” she told a reporter. “Why are you all so happy all the time? I am not always happy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When I am angry, I am very bad. I shut my door and do not speak.”

  Once she reached Hollywood, the fan magazines responded enthusiastically, not as much to the fiery sexuality she was asked to play in those early silents, but to the sadness that seemed to lie behind it. A typical headline: “What is wrong with Greta Garbo?” Whatever it was, she was unable to articulate it. She refused all interviews, and her few private letters are banal—she often complained about the vulgarity of American film but had few ideas of her own to bring to the table. To the director of Queen Christina (the story of the abdication of the Swedish queen, a pet project that Garbo was very anxious about), she could only offer the suggestion that there should be a scene with trousers. She put herself in others’ hands. First Stiller, then the actor John Gilbert, the lesbian clique of Mercedes de Acosta, and the producer Irving Thalberg. Louis B. Mayer was driven mad by all these advisers and intercessors; he thought she was too easily influenced. And yet what comes across on film is a resolute, inviolable selfhood, ultimately impenetrable by other people. The public felt it, and expressed it in their popular nicknames: “The Swedish Sphinx” and “The Divine.”

  Flesh and the Devil (1926) was her smash hit, creating a Garbo model that the studio exploited for the next fifteen years. It is silent and possibly her best film. She was only twenty-one, but her world-weariness on-screen suggests an older woman, longed for and chased after by the puppyish John Gilbert, who was to become her real-life lover. This romance, as it was rendered on-screen, scandalized America: a young man lying underneath a more experienced woman who seemed to literally feed from his mouth as she kissed him. It was a ravishment—female moviegoers loved it. This was a new kind of woman. For this reason she was punished in the movies (in Flesh and the Devil she drowns in ice water; in Camille it’s tuberculosis; in Anna Karenina it’s that pesky train), but she was free in life. It was Gilbert who suffered when she refused to marry him; it was Mayer who went crazy when she went on strike rather than make a corny movie (Women Love Diamonds) that she didn’t like the look of.

  What was the matter with Garbo? Mayer couldn’t understand it. Why wasn’t she thankful? But after Flesh and the Devil, the power had changed hands: Garbo was an MGM gold mine. Garbo’s imperial aloofness appealed to Depression-era women on a scale that even Mayer could not have predicted. They were dependent; she was beyond dependence. Whatever made her happy or sad, it came from within. Film critics often mention her unusual responses: where another actress would laugh, she cries, when they would be serious, she plays it light. She seems to respond to something deep inside herself, not to the actor she plays opposite. It was a world of her own she was in, and it was wonderful to watch.

  There are two halves of Garbo’s career: before and after sound. She made the transition as late as she possibly could, in 1930. “GARBO TALKS!” announced the publicity, and luckily for MGM, the voice matched the face. Her first line (“Gimme me a visky, ginger ale on the side—and don’t be stingy, baby!”) was delivered in that deep, miserable, sexy baritone that delighted her fans because they had, subconsciously, expected it. But a talking Garbo also revealed less fortunate traits. Her line readings are offbeat, bizarre; she had an unsteady grasp of the English language. She is a terrible reactor to spoken dialogue. If someone else is speaking, she simply looks bored. For the next ten years, her success in talkies depended on how much she was allowed to use her real strengths: her face, her eyes. This is why the sile
nt final scene of Queen Christina (1933) is justly famous. Her lover, for whom she has renounced the throne, has just been killed by a jealous rival; she walks to the prow of the ship she is on and becomes a part of its helm—you may remember the image from Titanic. Where DiCaprio announces himself to the world, Garbo does nothing. Says nothing. Moves nothing on her face. It is a Swedish mix of cold water and private thoughts. The camera gets closer and closer. What you see there is humanized stoicism; she is going through what she is going through, deeply, personally and without public expression. She is resolutely herself.

  This kind of interiority was soon to be under threat from a new breed of actress, women such as Joan Crawford, who projected everything they had outward to the public, leaving nothing in reserve. Crawford admired Garbo greatly but was already preparing to supplant her as the queen of MGM. She described an encounter on a staircase during the filming of Grand Hotel (1932): “She stopped and cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘What a pity. Our first picture together, and we won’t work with each other. I am so sorry. You have a marvelous face.’ If there was ever a time in my life I might have become a lesbian that was it.”

  Crawford did not succumb, but many others did, including Marlene Dietrich, the playwright Mercedes de Acosta and Louise Brooks, who described Garbo as a “completely masculine dyke.” Closer friends thought of her androg yny as more complicated, nearer to the character of Queen Christina, who, disguised as a man, shares a bed with John Gilbert. Gore Vidal, an acquaintance from the last twenty years of her life, claims: “She thought of herself as a boy with another boy, that was her sexual fantasy.” She habitually referred to herself in the masculine, as a “bachelor”; at parties she would ask: “Where’s the little boy’s room?”

  In the movies they were still determined to make a lady of her. In Ninotchka (1939), playing a Soviet apparatchik, she goes from macho, humorless Russian to glamorous Parisian party girl. Famously, she laughs. She can’t laugh. When she satirizes her own European dolor, she is hilarious. (“The show trials were a great success,” she deadpans. “We are going to have fewer but better Russians.”) But when she becomes gay and carefree, the movie dies. Ninotchka was a huge success (mostly thanks to an ingenious marketing campaign), but the studio picked up on the wrong trait, the newfound gaiety. Two-Faced Woman (1941), in which a newly happy Garbo does the rumba and goes swimming, was a disaster. You don’t put the sphinx in a swimsuit.

  It was to be her last movie. The uniformly bad reviews for Two-Faced Woman were terribly wounding to her, but more than this, she had spotted something in the mirror. Two faint lines on either side of her mouth, connecting her nose to her chin. The face was no longer eternal, ethereal. It was over. Garbo after 1941 is simply a tale of withdrawal. She stands high in the roll call of twentieth-century recluses. But it would be more accurate, her biographer Barry Paris suggests, to call her a “hermit-about-town.” She walked for miles through New York every day, window-shopping. In the 1960s, almost every Manhattanite had a Garbo-spotting story to tell. She described herself at this time as “a mollusc. I don’t move, I don’t do anything. I just am.” This is not quite true: she had friends, walking partners. She went to auctions and bought paintings and antiques for her lavish apartment (when she died she left a $32 million estate, which included two Renoirs). It is no story of tragedy. She wished to live, only not publicly. She dressed as she liked, did as she liked. In her own later years, Crawford told a journalist: “I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” Garbo didn’t even look as good as the girl next door. Her face (though she refused to believe it) was still beautiful, her wardrobe less so: sweaters, hats, scarves, slacks, raincoats. She kept a screwed-up piece of Kleenex in her left hand to cover her face should anyone try to photograph her. If she saw a fan approaching, she would say to her walking companion, “We’ve got a customer,” and change direction. She wanted to be alone. Garbo, the icon, was over. Age made of Greta a person, and the personhood of Garbo was never for sale. She would be myth or nothing at all.



  “Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.”



  In the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, in the ombra di colosseo, expats gather to complain. Not about the piazza itself, generally agreed to be among the prettiest in Rome. The central café, shrouded in pink bougainvillea, looks out upon a two-tiered fountain, mercifully cherub free. The thin white column of a Ukrainian orthodox church is discreet, unexpected. Depending on the hour, we watch mighty-calved American kids drink cheap hock straight from the bottle; tanned Roman girls, chain-smoking, dressed in the sunset silks they bought in Mumbai; hipster gays en route to Testaccio; three boxer dogs; delighted German tourists who think themselves the first to discover the place; very old Italians of suspicious vitality; two boys who use the church door as a goal mouth; and a beautiful young man who has been sleeping rough here for six months after a disagreement with his girlfriend. The young man is much appreciated—he is the sort of local color for which we came to Rome in the first place. His stench is monitored: sweet in the first month, eye watering in the fourth, café clearing in the sixth. And we enjoy Sundays, when the Ukrainian church congregation spills outside, bringing with it a close-harmony praise song. Everything else is complaint. Italian bureaucracy is impossible, the TV unwatchable, the government unbelievable, and the newspapers impenetrable. Expats in Rome are somehow able to consistently maintain their sense of outraged wonder, despite all reading The Dark Heart of Italy two years earlier on the plane over. Italian Women is a subject to stretch from morning coffee to midday ravioli. “The land that feminism forgot!” And on cue it all rolls out like an index: the degrading sexualization of, the nightly televisual humiliation of, Berlusconi’s condescending opinion of, perilous abortion rights of, low wages of, minimal parliamentary presence of, invisibility within the church of, et cetera. Yet there exist confusing countersigns. The new mothers with tiny babes-in-arm, welcome at any gathering. The four women chatting at the next table, a frank, practical conversation about sexual pleasure. The handsome lady grocer with her giant biceps and third-trimester belly, unpacking boxes of beer from the delivery truck, separating street fights, bullying her menfolk, lecturing the local drunks, overcharging the tourists, strategizing with the priests, running this piazza and everyone in it. Respected, desired, feared.

  Such countersigns are not unified: they do not all point in one direction, and so as expats we find it difficult to process them—which may be the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant sensibility. The strongest countersign of all is Anna’s face. It follows you everywhere, staring out from restaurants, pub bathrooms, private houses, lined up on the display table of the edicolas, and writ large on the walls of the city itself, for this summer marks her centenary. Nannarella. Mamma Roma. La Magnani. Anna is a confusing countersign, in the land that feminism forgot.


  A chorus of women sing in a radio studio. Plain women, not actresses, of early middle age, and dressed in black, with simple strands of pearls around their necks. The credits identify them as the RAI choir.60 The lead soprano has a light but discernible mustache. The song is “Saria possibile?” (Could it be possible?) from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a silly opera about a peasant who, in his desperation to woo a beautiful, unattainable woman, buys a love potion from a mountebank. (The potion turns out to be red wine.) Visconti pans through this choir dispassionately, even a little cruelly, as it responds with minute precision to the baton of a dashing male conductor. A chorus of Italian women, eager to please. The song ends; we move to a smaller studio. A young man at a desk speaks into the microphone, to announce the premise of the film:

  We are looking for a girl between six and eight years. A pretty Italian girl. Take your girls to Stella Films in Cinecittà, Via Tuscolana, km 9.
It could be your and her lucky day!

  The next shot is unexpected. A great waste ground: what would seem to be the ruins of a city, with the blown-out frames of buildings and a mass of women and girl children, their best clothes on their backs (being transported? fleeing some disaster?). Another beat reveals its true, benign aspect: the outskirts of a movie studio. The frames are for set facades, as yet unfinished. The women are here to audition their girl children. But still men yell at them through megaphones. (“Keep quiet and stay calm!”) The camera stays very high. This is a pared-down, unfamiliar Visconti, a decade before the opulence of Il gattopardo. The borrowed severity of neorealismo is not quite natural to him. His instinctive tendency toward the fantastic has only been transferred from style to content, to the hopes of this great female chorus, who now push as one toward a narrow doorway.

  A woman. A woman both like and not like the rest, in a black skirt suit, nipped waspishly at the waist, spilling out at both extremes, with black shoes and wild black hair and black pouches under her eyes, wailing like a heroine of the Greeks. She has lost her child! But the camera remains aloof, a gesture we might mistake for Visconti’s familiar misogyny, if it were not for what Magnani makes of the angle. Think of it as a gift from director to actress. We are so far from Magnani she is practically inaudible, yet this is no obstacle to comprehending her. We see her anger, panic, and desperation—and even that these emotions are both sincere and a little overdone, un po’ esagerato, in a calculated manner, in case the sympathy thus roused might help her case later. All this is put across with her hands (the natural advantage of Italian actors) but also in the stamp of her little foot, the way her hair flies from its bun, the way her hips bend forward and back in pantomime outrage. What a silent star Magnani would have been! Now she leaves the chorus and runs alone, across this desolate city, as she did in Roma, città aperta. The chorus passes through opportunity’s door without her.

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