One time Orson Welles was waxing eloquent to me on the subject of the divine Greta Garbo, whose mystery and magical artistry he adored. Of course I agreed but, I said (still being a bit pedantic), wasn’t it too bad that, of all her more than two dozen silent and sound films, she had acted in only two really great pictures. Welles looked at me for a long moment, then said quietly, “You only need one...”
The two Garbos I was thinking of were Ernst Lubitsch’s witty, charming 1939 romantic comedy, Ninotchka, and George Cukor’s evocative 1936 version of Alexander Dumas’ (the Younger) famous tragic-romance drama, CAMILLE (available on DVD). For her luminous, heart-wrenching performance as Marguerite Gautier, the legendary 19th century Parisian courtesan known as “The Lady of the Camellias” (the play’s original title), Garbo won her second New York Film Critics Award as Best Actress (the other was for the now pretty dated 1935 Anna Karenina), and received her third of four Academy Award nominations as Best Actress; she never did win one. Though the Academy tried to make up for this glaring oversight in 1954 with a Special Oscar “for her unforgettable screen performances,” Garbo by then had already been retired from movies for thirteen years.
Having quit (she thought temporarily) right after a disastrously conceived 1941 comedy (assigned to Cukor), Two-Faced Woman, she almost returned at least twice: Once for Lubitsch, who wanted her to do Catherine of Russia in his 1945 comedy production, A Royal Scandal (but Fox studio-chief Darryl Zanuck preferred Tallulah Bankhead who had just had a hit with Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat); and another time for Hitchcock and David Selznick in 1947’s The Paradine Case opposite Gregory Peck—-for which Hitch had jokingly suggested the ad-slogan to be “Garbo’s back—-and Gregory’s scratching it!”
Nevertheless, her disappearance from the screen at age 36 and her subsequent reclusiveness only increased her mystique, especially since it was fully in keeping with her star persona, memorialized in one line from 1932’s now somewhat campy Grand Hotel: “I want to be alone.” When she died in 1990 at the age of 84—just about half a century after her last film—-Garbo’s fame was as strong as ever.
And her luminous, resonant and nuance-filled incarnation of Camille—-dying beautifully of tuberculosis as she gives up her greatest love for his greater good—-vividly shows the reasons why. How the camera loved her! There was always so much more going on in her performances than whatever the lines or situations were, so many shimmering thoughts and feelings seemed to pass across her gorgeous face. Next to Garbo, most other actors appeared hopelessly one-dimensional, and Armand—-the object of her affection in Camille, played by a very youthful Robert Taylor—-is as good an example as any.
Yet, of course, that was a rich part of the irony in most of Garbo’s lost-love movies (which is what nearly all of them were): She is always so far superior to the men who love her or whom she loves, and some part of her conveys a bemused sense of this. In Camille, Armand’s very proper father, excellently done by Lionel Barrymore, begs her to turn his son away, not to ruin his reputation by their liaison, and so she does, returning instead to the sinister though complex ex-lover played with quiet flair by Henry Daniell, a Cukor regular.
Garbo’s last big scene with Taylor, most of it done in a single long-running close-up, makes you at the same time cry and hold your breath, being so clearly in the disbelief-annihilating presence of cosmic star-acting power. Welles was right, of course, Garbo as Camille would alone be enough to make her immortal.