GARBO by Barry Paris


A Biography
Email this review


 A thorough but often graceless narrative of a life that might better have remained shrouded in mystery. Paris (Louise Brooks, 1989) has classic material to work with. Teenage Greta Gustafson is discovered in Stockholm by director Mauritz Stiller, who tyrannizes her, changes her name, makes her a star, and accompanies her to Hollywood. Stiller's career stalls, and he dies a failure. Meanwhile Garbo becomes the familiar icon that her roles frequently mirrored: the perpetually exhausted, gloomy, misunderstood woman with the mesmerizing face. During the period of her stardom and for the 49 years that followed her inadvertent retirement in 1941, Garbo cultivated her pathological, and paradoxical, loathing of publicity and wariness of strangers. This seems to have served not only as a means of self-protection; it was also wise publicity strategy, for she comes off in the reminiscences of her friends and colleagues as paranoid, incurious, and self-absorbed. Paris tellingly repeats Cecil Beaton's observation that ``if she hadn't been `Garbo,' nobody would've wanted to be around her for ten minutes.'' Paris had access to 100 hours of recorded phone conversations between Garbo and art dealer and confidant Sam Green from the 1970s and '80s that portray Garbo as swamped in her own banality, refusing to speak of her films but always ready to complain about her wrinkles, her diet, and her disgust at being recognized in the street. Paris is particularly skillful when detailing Garbo's abortive attempts at a comeback, but the chronology of his anecdotes is sometimes scrambled, and he offers dubious psychosexual insights in his effort to defend an improbably chaste portrait of her: ``Garbo's own innocence was as real as it appeared onscreen, and it was a quality that had to do with love, not sex.'' The prose is often marred by similarly tortuous analyses. Although it leaves her motivations enigmatic, this will likely be the definitive Garbo biography; unfortunately, the story of her life is far less captivating than her screen legacy. (180 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-394-58020-6
Page count: 634pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1994


NonfictionAUDREY HEPBURN by Barry Paris
by Barry Paris