I was never a Garbo fan until this past Thursday. What a day. 24 hours of Garbo (on TCM) and I'm still walking around on a cloud. I'd only ever seen her in Grand Hotel and clips of the end of Camille. From those two performances I had a very skewed vision of her as a grandiose, operatic actress, a throwback to the days of silents when actors didn't trust the camera to pick up their actions so they made them a bit bigger than life.
One movie, changed my mind about all this: Queen Christina. Wow. She gets it. She just lets her face do all the work, and it's subtle, but perfect in the way that Gary Cooper could be perfect in a scene, breaking your heart with just an expression. Very few actors have the ability to be still, almost immobile and portray complex emotion.
Garbo dressed as a man sharing a bed for three days with John Gilbert. Much is implied at the end of the movie when Garbo goes around the room touching up tapestries and bed posts, hungrily. She looks to the camera and says that she is memorizing this room because in her future life she will live many hours their in her imagination. This scene caused a scandal because its frankly sexual nature. So much so that the baddie of the Hays Code office, Joseph Breen took it as a personal crusade to destroy the film. He started a very specific campaign against it in the Catholic church that ended in the enforcement of the production code. He never managed to suppress the film, though. It's there still in all its brazen glory. I usually laugh at movies where insanely beautiful women put on men's clothing and fool everyone. Queen Christina has a hint that maybe everyone knows she's a girl. In one scene a maid at the hotel comes on to her and John Gilbert says with a leering smirk, "she prefers you to me."
Another revelation was Camille. The thing that most surprised me about it was how funny and light-hearted about half of the movie is. I'd only ever seen the ending and just thought of it as a weepie. There is so much life there, in the caricatures of the Parisian courtesans and their hangers-on. I want to go to that party where the ladies wear outrageous dresses, smoke cigars and practice the can-can till they literally fall on the floor. What a hoot. And all the while Garbo is collapsing with consumption, but she wouldn't have it any other way. That's just how she rolls.
If you watch Garbo in Camille you see her acting with her whole body. She manages to portray vitality, contentment, health, depression, exhaustion and illness very well with just her body language. She look 10 or t20 pounds lighter in the final scenes compared to the beginning just by the way she angles her body toward the camera. I never expected that kind of acting from Garbo. When Margeurite breathes her last, she leaves with a little eye roll. I might be reading way more into it than really exists, but something about it seems to undercut the nobility of her sacrifice. It says, I shouldn't have to die. It's too soon to go away. And that was the secret of Garbo's mystique and a big part of her enduring popularity. It is the essence of showmanship, really. Leave the audience crying for more.
Bonus: Camille Wallpaper. Thanks to Simply Classics and Doctor Macro for images.
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