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From the archive: the story of how Greta Garbo became a star | Life and style

For the Observer Magazine of 12 April 1970, Norman Zeirold told the story of the film director Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo’s incredible partnership, or as the cover summed it up: ‘How she was changed from a tubby, overweight shopgirl into the world’s greatest star.’ Whenever I hear Garbo’s name it’s impossible not to recall

For the Observer Magazine of 12 April 1970, Norman Zeirold told the story of the film director Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo’s incredible partnership, or as the cover summed it up: ‘How she was changed from a tubby, overweight shopgirl into the world’s greatest star.’

Whenever I hear Garbo’s name it’s impossible not to recall Peter Cook’s impression in an open-top car melodramatically shouting, ‘I want to be alone!’ through a megaphone (a line from the 1932 film Grand Hotel), mocking some of the paradox in such a famous actor wanting total privacy. In fact, only very recently have we found out just how alone she felt when some of her private letters were auctioned, revealing in one: ‘I go nowhere, see no one.’

‘Garbo was something new for Hollywood,’ wrote Zeirold. ‘She was tall and broad-shouldered at a time when female stars were usually petite; pensive and reserved where the order of the day was flamboyance.’ She ‘reflected the malaise, the nervous discontent underlying the surface’.

Garbo’s mystique was abetted by directors and her co-stars and the press – so that ‘the real Garbo became one with the myth’. In reality, of course, the two were rather different, but somewhat fatally for a biographer, Zeirold admits that ‘Garbo herself remained basically unknown’.

If anyone could have been said to have ‘invented’ Garbo, it was Stiller. ‘She is like wax in my hand,’ he said. ‘She is green, and has no technique, and cannot show her feelings now. But she will be right. I’ll see to that. And her face! You only get a face like that in front of a camera once in a century.’

After their time working together in America, they said their goodbyes and Stiller sailed for home in Sweden. They never met again – Stiller died aged just 45. Were they in love, wonders Zeirold. Ever the enigma, Garbo once said: ‘If I were ever to love anyone, it would be Mauritz Stiller.’

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