The Golden Age of Hollywood — Garbo, Brooks & a Dash of the Subversive
As a celebrity interviewer, I have recently quizzed people who have been nominated for Oscars this year including Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and Andrew Garfield (Tick, Tick … Boom!). Moreover, the movie CODA is nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay by Siân Heder, and Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur who plays opposite Marlee Matlin. This new coming-of-age family drama already has won the AFI Award/Movie of the Year.
Matlin, whom I have interviewed previously, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for playing Sarah Norman in the romantic drama film Children of a Lesser God (1986) — becoming the first and only deaf performer to have won an Academy Award as well as the youngest winner in the Best Actress category. Matlin now appears in CODA (“child of deaf adult”), one of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Research on Marlee’s many acting and activist accomplishments in between these two movies are a Google search away.
But stepping back, and whenever I need a light shone on some aspect of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I don’t bother Googling it — instead I Skype my go-to Hollywood aficionado, Stephen Zoller. He’s like a combo of IMDb and Google together, with knowledge about what smolders beneath facts and surface veneers.
One day I recently wanted his take on Greta Garbo and where she ranked in the pantheon of silver screen sirens. Zoller pointed out that while Garbo was “blessed with an immaculate, sculpted face that became luminescent on the big screen,” the majority of her roles were melancholic and tragic with little sexual smoldering.
But for his money there was none more alluring than Louise Brooks, whom I’d never heard of, most probably because he told me her time under the limelight was relatively short.
Louise Brooks, the darkest sylph of silent sensuality. It isn’t merely her beauty that makes modern film buffs still pine, nor is it the bob — “that radical, chirpy cut, which carried with it the dizzying innuendo of casual intimacy.” It’s the way her entire personality permutes through her body: the screw of her features when she is perplexed, the delighted smile, the strange tantrums, the soft curling of impishness upon the purse of her mouth. It’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to understand her beauty merely from pictures: Louise Brooks is a siren only in motion.— Wired magazine
Zoller himself suggests: “Louise Brooks was a fashion icon of the Jazz Age, and her startling beauty was complimented by a minimalist acting style which became a sacrosanct rule of modern movie acting — less is more. Off screen, her carousing and numerous affairs (one apparently with Garbo no less) was fodder for the scandal sheets to which she would respond with a wicked sense of humor — once remarking to reporters that ‘If I ever bore you, it’ll be with a knife.’
“Brooks libertine lifestyle which included drug and alcohol abuse, didn’t endear her to the studio moguls and she soon became a pariah in Hollywood. She was only 32 and like Garbo faded into self-imposed obscurity.”
“Let imagination be a form of memory allowing, by denying time, two beauties to caress, celluloid lovers in a room — it actually took place one night — a whispering detente with two Hollywood exquisites, a world above even A-list types, never mind lesser actresses…(so) who was the matchhead, who the match? when potassium chloride whipscratched red phosphorus, was it Greta caressing Weezie’s legs like beathing a beech bowl or Louise spoonroasting lovely Greta’s pale cheeks with her wimbling tongue?” — Novelist Alexander Theroux in the Yale Review
Zoller himself continued telling his tale to me:
“The first time I witnessed Louise Brooks in all her glory was in the early 1970s at a screening of 1929’s ‘Pandora’s Box’ at the University of Toronto. Helmed by German director W.B. Pabst and shot in Germany a few years before Hitler rose to power, the film was artful, sexually risqué and subversive even for those pre-code times. I was so captivated by her that I sought out every article and book I could find about her life, which wasn’t much as this was way before the internet. I assumed that the excesses of her past finally caught up to her and she had passed away.
“When I learned that she in fact was very much alive and living in Rochester New York, which was just a day trip by car from Toronto, I became obsessed with the idea of writing an official biography about her. Back then I reviewed movies for Cinema Canada so I pulled out all stops to get her phone number, which I finally obtained from a literary agent in exchange for an expensive bottle of wine.
“It took a few shots of Scotch to strum up the nerve to dial the phone. What transpired during that call is a blur other than her voice was that of a pleasant elderly lady. She was flattered by my proposal but, unfortunately, she was well into writing her autobiography with an editor from Knopf.”