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Greta Garbo

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Greta Garbo (born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson; some sources cite her original surname as Gustafson [1]), September 18, 1905, died April 15, 1990) was a Swedish actress.

Regarded as one of the greatest and most inscrutable movie stars ever produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Hollywood studio system, Garbo received a 1955 Honorary Oscar "for her unforgettable screen performances"[1] [2] and was ranked as the fifth greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.[2] In addition, it is claimed that the The Guinness Book of World Records named her as "the most beautiful woman who ever lived". [3]


Early lifeEdit

She was born in Stockholm, Sweden, the youngest of three children born to Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871–1920) and Anna Lovisa Johansson (1872–1944). Her older sister and brother were Alva and Sven.

Becoming an actressEdit

When Garbo was 14, her father, with whom she was extremely close, died, and her relationship with her mother was strained. Consequently, she was forced to leave school and go to work. Her first job was as a lather girl in a barbershop. Greta states in the book Garbo On Garbo page 33 that her relationship with her mother was not strained.

She then became a clerk in the department store PUB in Stockholm, where she would also model for newspaper advertisements. Her first motion picture aspirations came when she appeared in a group of advertising short films for the department store where she worked, eventually seen by comedy director Eric Petscher.

He cast her in a bit part for his upcoming film Peter The Tramp in 1922 (although her major motion picture debut was a year earlier in a low-budget film).

From 1922 to 1924, she studied at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. While she was there, she met director Mauritz Stiller. He trained her in cinema acting technique, gave her the stage name "Greta Garbo", and cast her in a major role in the silent film Gösta Berlings Saga (English: The Story of Gösta Berling) in 1924, a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf. She starred opposite Swedish film actor Lars Hanson.

She starred in two movies in Sweden and one in Germany (Die Freudlose Gasse - The Joyless Street).

She and her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, were brought to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer on the strength of Gösta Berlings Saga. On viewing the film, Mayer was impressed with Stiller's direction, but was much more taken with Garbo's acting and screen presence. According to his daughter, Irene Mayer, with whom he screened the film, it was look and emotions that emanated from her eyes that would make her a star. Unfortunately, her relationship with Stiller came to an end as her fame grew and he struggled in the studio system. He was fired by MGM and returned to Sweden in 1928, where he died soon after.

Throughout this period, Garbo was slowly emerging as a "Galatea" molded by a series of corporate Pygmalions. In photographs and films one can see her change from a pudgy shopgirl, through various metamorphoses as she enters the studio|studio machinery, until she turns into the perfect Sphinx, the "face" captured in famous pictures by Edward Steichen and Clarence Bull, and other photographers of the period.

Life in HollywoodEdit

The most important of Garbo's silent movies were The Torrent, The Temptress (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1926) and ''Love'' (1927). She starred in the latter two with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Her name was linked with his in a much publicized romance, and she was said to have left him standing at the altar when she changed her mind about getting married.

Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, she was one of the few actors who made the transition to talkies, though she delayed the shift for as long as possible. Her film The Kiss (1929) was the last film MGM made without dialog (it used a soundtrack with music and sound effects only).

Her low, husky voice and Swedish accent was first heard on screen in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1930), which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks". The movie was a huge success, but Garbo hated her performance. However, in 1931 Garbo shot a German version of the movie, which she considered one of her best works on screen.

Garbo made only one film with Clark Gable, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. This may have been because the two greatly disliked each other - Garbo thought Gable was a wooden actor while Gable in turn thought Garbo was a snob.

When she was filmed, if something happened that she was not pleased with she would say, "I think I'll go back to Sweden!" This would frighten the movie studio heads, who gave in to her every wish. She was known for always having a closed set to all visitors, and was famous for having various MGM executives and actors ejected from sets. No one could watch as her scenes were shot.

Garbo appeared very seductive as the World War I spy in the title role of Mata Hari (1931). The censors complained about her revealing outfit shown on the movie poster. She was next part of an all-star cast in Grand Hotel (1932), which won the Best Picture Oscar and featured Garbo as a Russian ballerina.

She then had a contract dispute with MGM and did not appear on the screen for almost two years. They finally settled and she signed a new contract, which granted her almost total control over her movies. She exercised that control by getting her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), Laurence Olivier, replaced with Gilbert. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted her cast as the dying heiress in Dark Victory—filmed with Bette Davis in 1939 at Warner Brothers—but she insisted on being cast instead in another screen version of Tolstoy's classic, Anna Karenina. (She had made a silent version of Anna Karenina entitled Love with John Gilbert in 1927.)

Her performance as the doomed courtesan in Camille (1936), directed by George Cukor, was called the finest ever recorded on film. She subsequently starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in the comedy Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which she herself enjoy making, and which was one of her favourites.

Garbo was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for Anna Christie (1930), Romance (1930), Camille (1937) and Ninotchka (1939).

Over her career, Garbo received praise from many fellow actors as well as reviewers:

"Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyse this woman's acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera." —Bette Davis

Later careerEdit

Ninotchka was a successful attempt at lightening Garbo's image and making her less exotic, complete with the insertion of a scene in a restaurant which her character breaks into joyful laughter which subsequently provided the film with its famous tagline, "Garbo laughs!"

A follow-up film, Two-Faced Woman (1941), attempted to capitalize by casting Garbo in a romantic comedy, where she would play a double role that also featured her dancing, and tried to make her into "an ordinary girl." The film, directed by George Cukor, was a critical (though not commercial) failure. It was Garbo's last screen appearance.

It is often reported that Garbo chose to retire from cinema after this film's failure, but already by 1935 she was becoming more choosy about her roles, and eventually years passed without her agreeing to do another film. By her own admission, Garbo felt that after World War II the world changed, perhaps forever.

In 1941, MGM costume-designer Adrian also left the studio, later saying:

"It was because of Garbo that I left MGM. In her last picture they wanted to make her a sweater girl, a real American type. I said, 'When the glamour ends for Garbo, it also ends for me. She has created a type. If you destroy that illusion, you destroy her.' When Garbo walked out of the studio, glamour went with her, and so did I."

In 1949, Garbo filmed several screen tests as she considered reentering the movie business to shoot La Duchess de Langeais directed by Walter Wanger; otherwise never stepped in front of a movie camera again. The plans for this film collapsed when financing failed to materialize, and these tests were lost for 40 years, then resurfaced in someone's garage [4]. They were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo [5] [6], and show her still radiant at age 43 [7]. There were suggestions that she might appear as the "Duchess de Guermantes" in a film adaptation of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time but this never came to fruition. She was offered many roles over the years, but always turned them down.

Her last interview appears to have been with the celebrated entertainment writer Paul Callan of the London Daily Mail during the Cannes Film Festival. Meeting at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, Callan began "I wonder . . ", before Garbo cut in with "Why wonder?", and stalked off, making it one of the shortest interviews ever published. The newspaper gave it a double page spread.

She gradually withdrew from the entertainment world completely and moved to a secluded life in New York City, refusing to make any public appearances. Up until her death, Garbo sightings were considered sport for paparazzo photographers.

Despite these attempts to flee from fame, she was nevertheless voted Best Silent Actress of the Century (her compatriot Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Sound Actress) in 1950, and was also designated as the most beautiful woman who ever lived by the Guiness Book of World Records.

Personal lifeEdit

Garbo was considered one of the most glamorous movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s. She was also famous for shunning publicity, which became part of her mystique. Except at the very beginning of her career, she granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres, and answered no fan mail.

Her famous byline was always said to be, "I want to be alone," spoken with a heavy accent which made the word 'want' sound like vont. This quote as noted comes from her role in Grand Hotel. However, Garbo later commented, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference."

Garbo kept her private affairs out of the limelight. According to private letters released in Sweden in 2005 to mark the centenary of her birth, she was reclusive in part because she was "self-obsessed, depressive, and ashamed of her latrine-cleaner father." [8]

Some also suggest that Garbo remained single in the United States because of an unrequited love for her drama school sweetheart, the Swedish actress Mimi Pollak [9]. Garbo's personal letters recently released to the public indicate that she remained in love with Pollak for the rest of her life. When Pollak announced she was pregnant, Garbo wrote: "We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together."

Garbo's biographer Barry Paris notes that she was "technically bisexual, predominantly lesbian, and increasingly asexual as the years went by." It has been indicated that Garbo struggled greatly with her sexuality, only becoming involved with other women in affairs that she could control [10].

Her most famous heterosexual relationship was with actor John Gilbert. They starred together for the first time in the classic Flesh and the Devil in 1926. Their on-screen "erotic intensity" [11] soon translated into an off-camera romance, and by the end of production Garbo had moved in with Gilbert [12]. Gilbert is said to have proposed to Garbo at least three times [13], though when a marriage was finally arranged in 1927, she failed to show up at the ceremony [14].

Secluded retirementEdit

File:Greta Garbo gravestone.jpg

Garbo felt her movies had their proper place in history and would gain in value. On February 9, 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1954 she was awarded a special Academy Award for her unforgettable performances.

In 1953, she bought a seven-room apartment in New York City at 450 East 52nd Street, where she lived for the rest of her life. She reportedly never got over the unfinished affair she had with actress Mimi Pollak in her youth, and in later life became bitter over it.

She would at times jet-set with some of the world's best known personalities such as Aristotle Onassis and Cecil Beaton, but chose to live a private life. She was known for taking long walks through the New York streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi, and media attention.

Garbo lived the last years of her life in absolute seclusion. She had invested very wisely, was known for extreme frugality, and was a very wealthy woman. It is rumored that she wrote an autobiography just before her death, but this book has yet to be published if it even exists.

She died in New York on April 15th, 1990, at the age of 84, as a result of end stage renal disease (ESRD) and pneumonia, and was cremated. She had previously been operated on and treated for breast cancer, which she apparently overcame.

She left her entire estate to her niece, Gray Reisfeld, and nothing to the elderly female companion with whom she lived for many years, Claire.

Her ashes are buried at the Skogskyrkogården Cemetery in Stockholm, Sweden.

For her contributions to cinema, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard. In addition, in 2005 the U.S. Postal Service and Sweden Post jointly issued two commemorative postage stamps bearing her likeness.[15].


I have always needed someone to give me a push
I get my long eyelashes from my mother
Churchill urged me to make a comeback

Source: Garbo On Garbo

References in popular cultureEdit

  • In the 1992-1998 Japanese anime OVA series, Giant Robo, the Experts of Justice's airship fortress is called the Greta Garbo.
  • In the movie Death Becomes Her Isabella Rossellini's character alludes to Garbo as one of the clients who has taken her immortality potion by claiming her client said, in a marked accent, "I want to be alone." At the end of the film a Garbo look-alike appears as one of the guests at a party.


Year Title Role Other notes
1920 Mr and Mrs. Stockholm unknown
1921 A Happy Knight Maid
How Not to Dress Model uncredited
1922 Peter the Tramp Greta
A Scarlett Angel Extra uncredited
1924 The Story of Gösta Berling Elizabeth Dohna
1925 The Joyless Street Greta Rumfort uncredited
1926 Flesh and the Devil Felicitas
The Temptress Elena
The Torrent Leonora Moreno aka La Brunna
1927 Love Anna Karenina
1928 A Woman of Affairs Diana Merrick Furness
The Mysterious Lady Tania Fedorova
The Divine Woman Marianne Only a 9 minute reel steel exhists. Source The Mysterious Lady DVD.
1929 The Kiss Irene Guarry
The Single Standard Arden Stuart Hewlett
Wild Orchids Lillie Sterling
1930 Romance Madame Rita Cavallini Academy Award nomination - Best Actress
Anna Christie Anna Christie Academy Award nomination - Best Actress
1931 Mata Hari Mata Hari
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) Susan Lenox
Anna Christie Anna Christie
Inspiration Yvonne Valbret
1932 As You Desire Me Zara aka Marie
Grand Hotel Grusinskaya
1933 Queen Christina Queen Christina
1934 The Painted Veil Katrin Koerber Fane
1935 Anna Karenina Anna Karenina
1936 Camille Marguerite Gautier Academy Award nomination - Best Actress
1937 Conquest Countess Marie Walewska
1939 Ninotchka Nina Ivanovna 'Ninotchka' Yakushova Academy Award nomination - Best Actress
1941 Two-Faced Woman Karin Borg Blake

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Further readingEdit

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