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arts

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

     
Garbo, Greta (1905-1990)  

Once billed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the "Swedish sphinx," Greta Garbo is perhaps best known for her mystery. Raised in a culture that did not pursue or value celebrity, Garbo was frightened and horrified by the almost predatory interest that the American public took in movie stars.

Although she was a skilled and complex actress who created many memorable screen personae, she retired when she was only thirty-six, not only from films, but from any kind of public life.

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Afterwards, she lived in New York City in virtual seclusion for almost fifty years, refusing interviews or photographs, and emerging from her apartment only when protected from public view by big hats and sunglasses.

Still, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the way she withheld herself, the public was mesmerized by her in a unique way. One need say only the name "Garbo!" to evoke a gentle, passionate dignity as deep and complex as the Swedish sphinx herself.

Garbo began life in poverty as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, the daughter of a janitor in Stockholm, Sweden. When her father died in 1919 of tuberculosis, Greta had to quit school at the age of fourteen and go to work.

Her good looks helped her get jobs in a couple of advertising films before she was discovered in 1922 by unabashedly homosexual Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller. He cast her as the female lead in Gosta Berling's Saga (1924) and got her a role in a German film, The Joyless Street (1925).

Stiller took control of the actress's career, changing her last name to Garbo. When he went to the United States to work for Louis Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Stiller took his protégée along.

Mauritz Stiller did not succeed in Hollywood, but Greta Garbo was destined to become a star. She made fourteen silent films, among them The Torment (1926) and Flesh and the Devil (1927), where she tended to play the beautiful femme fatale, luring men into passion.

Garbo made the rocky transition from silent films to talkies flawlessly. Her husky, accented voice fitted intriguingly with her ethereal beauty, enabling her to create more complex characters than she ever had in silents.

In Anna Christie (1930), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and others, she played a tragic heroine, passionate, but doomed. In the delightful 1939 comedy Ninotchka, she mocks this gloomy sensuality with charming self-deprecation, causing MGM to tout the film with the single headline, "Garbo Laughs!"

In 1941, prompted perhaps by the failure of Two-Faced Woman, her comedy follow-up to Ninotchka, Garbo took a break from filmmaking. Although she reportedly considered several projects for a comeback, the title roles in Hamlet and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, among them, her break turned into permanent retirement.

Garbo's smoldering aloofness, combined with her penchant for cross-dressing, ignited the passions of men and women alike. Although she never married or settled down, she had famous relationships with actor John Gilbert (whom she stood up at the altar in 1926), photographer Cecil Beaton, and businessman George Schlee among many others.

Garbo almost certainly had lesbian affairs as well, including well-known liasons with actress Louise Brooks and writer Mercedes de Acosta, and perhaps also an affair with Marlene Dietrich.

For seven decades lesbian audiences have drooled over the dashing figure of Garbo in drag as she appeared in Queen Christina (1933), dressed in pirate's garb, loose pants and shirt, with soft suede boots to the knee. In this film, through her "butch" mannerisms and cross-dressing, Garbo conveys a lesbian subtext that undermines the heterosexual plot.

Tina Gianoulis

     

 
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Greta Garbo in 1925.
  
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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

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Lesbian actresses have played a significant role in Hollywood, but their contributions have rarely been recognized or spoken of openly; the "lavender marriage" is by no means a relic of the past.

social sciences >> Overview:  Los Angeles

The glbtq history of Los Angeles, the U.S.'s second largest metropolis, is replete with cultural, social, and political firsts.

arts >> Overview:  Transvestism in Film

Too often cinematic drag is reduced to a mere joke, a harmless tease that tacitly reassures us that people can change their clothes but not their sexual identities.

arts >> Acosta, Mercedes de

Poet, playwright, screenwriter, costume designer, and memoirist, Mercedes de Acosta is remembered today for her love affairs with some of the most glamorous women of her time.

arts >> Bankhead, Tallulah

Although Tallulah Bankhead is today remembered mostly as an irreverent wit and volcanic life force, she was also one of the most significant actresses of her time.

arts >> Beaton, Sir Cecil

The celebrated British photographer Cecil Beaton described himself as a "terrible, terrible homosexualist," but may be best known for his relationship with Greta Garbo.

social sciences >> Christina of Sweden

Enigmatic monarch and enthusiastic patron of the arts, Christina of Sweden shocked Europeans by her aversion to marriage, her "mannish" ways, and her love for women, as well as by the abdication of her throne at the age of twenty-seven.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Goulding, Edmund

Bisexual film director and screenwriter Edmund Goulding was one of the most talented and eccentric characters of Hollywood's Golden Age.

arts >> Murnau, Friedrich Wilhelm

Acclaimed as the greatest director of the German Expressionist period (1919-1933), F.W. Murnau created the first masterpiece of the horror film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1921).

arts >> Parsons, Betty

American artist and gallery owner Betty Parsons retreated into the closet after World War II, but her support of gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists during a time of repression and her later candor are important contributions to glbtq history.

arts >> Stiller, Mauritz

Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller is best known for his discovery of Greta Garbo, but the flamboyant gay Svengali also deserves recognition as a key figure in forging a national cinema that was eventually to become notable for its progressive treatment of sexuality and desire.


    Bibliography
   

Daum, Raymond. Walking with Garbo. New York: HarperTrade, 1992,

Horton, Robert. "The Mysterious Lady." Film Comment 26.4 (July-August 1990): 30-33.

Karren, Howard. "The Star Who Fell to Earth." Premiere 4 (Winter 1991): 54-59.

Swenson, Karen. Greta Garbo: A Life Apart. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1997.

Vickers, Hugo. Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, & Mercedes de Acosta. New York: Random House, 1994.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: Garbo, Greta  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 9, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/garbo_g.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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