Somewhere between her celebrated work in silent movies, her acclaimed transition to talkies and her well-known reclusiveness, Greta Garbo has made the step from actress to legend, from star to myth. Her name has become a synonym for timeless elegance, class, intelligence, culture and eternal grace. She was able to portray a seldom-known feeling of joie de vivre in front of the camera even though she was mostly cast in dramatic, suffering roles that asked her to anticipate an almost unknown level of happiness before everything would crush right in front of her eyes. Stars like Bette Davis praised her instincts for the camera and her face that seemed to haven been made for movies – like a mystic character out of an old saga she possessed the most distinctive features, a face so memorable like set in stone but soft and delicate, almost surreal in its reality. In her movies, she was a mature woman and a little girl at once, a character who seemed sublime and arrogant at the first look but turned out to be warm and gentle, spending too much time thinking of the needs of other people or the consequences of her doings. Her voice seems so deep but always turns out to be just a whisper, even though still strong, like her whole appearance that is so delicate but imperturbable at the same time. Yes, there is something magical and mystical about Greta Garbo and most critics and viewers in 1937 seemed to agree that she found the perfect vehicle to immortalize all her qualities forever in Camille.
With a New York Film Critics Award and critical praise under her belt, plus her legendary reputation as one of the greatest stars and actresses of her time, the Oscar win must have seemed like a sure thing but the audience at the Academy Awards gasped when Luise Rainer’s name was called for the second time in a row. Maybe it was Greta Garbo’s apparent indifference to the Oscars (but this didn’t stop Katharine Hepburn from winning an Oscar a few years earlier) or the fact that The Good Earth seemed to have had more supporters among Academy members than Camille – or maybe Oscar voters simply preferred Luise Rainer’s performance which shouldn’t be a surprise since it is one of the finest ever captured on the screen. In the end, it’s all pure speculation. Today, the question is if Greta Garbo’s celebrated performance can really live up to its legendary reputation. The answer: yes and no.
In her movies, there always seem to be two Greta Garbos: the star and the actress. For Greta Garbo, the star, this is the perfect vehicle. The character is tailor-made to highlight everything that is so admirable and captivating about her. Marguerite Gauthier is a well-known ‘Dame’ in the high society of Paris, a careless woman who enjoys life and spends far too much money. But once she falls in love with a young man, her life makes an unexpected, tragic turn and on top of that, a fatal illness is slowly taking her strength and her life…It’s a showy and dominating part in a movie that only exists to worship its leading lady and offers Greta Garbo the possibilities to demonstrate her ability to laugh and smile, enjoy life with her whole body and emotions, and to suffer and be in agony. These things always came surprisingly natural to her even though she very often still expressed them in a highly stylized way but this always worked very well in the context of the stylized movies she starred in – and Camille is no exception. Greta Garbo seems like a little sparrow, observing and delicate, but with the elegance of a swan and the glamour of a peacock (okay, not the most sophisticated comparison but somehow it fits).
Then there is Greta Garbo, the actress. There is no denying that Greta Garbo possessed natural instincts for the camera, how to move her head, her eyes, how to create an aura of sophistication and poise and how to use her talents to maximum effect. But at the same time, there is something…too obvious about Greta Garbo, especially in her dramatic work that never truly reaches her relaxed, hilarious and artistically much more exciting work in Ninotchka. The same things that are so fascinating about her as a personality sometimes seem to stand in her way as an actress. There is something very distinctive about all her performances. The way she moves her upper body, mostly to the back, the way she lets her head move to the side or throws it into her neck when she is laughing is very enthralling but unfortunately becomes repetitious too soon. There is never something truly deep about her work. Instead, Greta Garbo seems to be so concerned with creating an image of Greta Garbo that she seems to forget about Marguerite. Everything that happens in Camille seems to stay on the surface of her face. Greta Garbo doesn’t possess an inner fire or an inner strength, there seems to be rather something reflecting about her. Her face doesn’t seem to create this famous magical glow but rather projects the feelings and emotions directed at her. Greta Garbo knows how to pose but somehow she doesn’t get beyond the posing and actually craft a real character.
In this aspect, Camille easily succeeds. There is something dreamlike about Greta Garbo and like few other actresses, she is able to grab the audience’s attention in a quick and complete way. She portrays a very believable devil-may-care attitude and especially her beginning scenes in the theatre reflect a wonderful sense of enjoyment, of a fun-loving little girl who appears like an alter ego of Greta Garbo in these moments – both women know how to use their smile, their eyes, their mouth, their carefully constructed personality. There is nothing truly original about her performance. Camille couldn’t have been announced with a slogan like ‘Garbo talks’ or ‘Garbo laughs’ because she isn’t doing anything new here. Her whole performance is essential ‘Greta Garbo’ – the way she acts surprise, embarrassment, laughter, the way she moves her head or makes a pout. She’s been there and done that but there is still something that makes it seem much more special in Camille. It’s a performance that could be describes as ‘standard’ but Greta Garbo is still so otherworldly that ‘standard’ is more than enough. And it’s still commendable that Greta Garbo obviously knows exactly what she is doing and, more important, what she can do. She never leaves her comfort zone but since the character is perfectly tailored to her abilities as an actress and her personality as a star, she doesn’t need to. Sure, there could have been other ways of playing Marguerite, there could have been other actresses who might easily have created a deeper and more complex woman but Greta Garbo and Camille exist in a world of glamour, of drama and of pure movie style storytelling that doesn’t need or want too much complexity. Greta Garbo doesn’t aim for the top but settles for less – but she does that admirably.
Greta Garbo’s strong presence that is so natural and artificial at the same time also helps to cover the fact that, basically, Marguerite Gauthier isn’t really a challenging part. She laughs, she cries, she suffers but she does it all very straightforward, without any rough edges and ultimately acts very ‘scene by scene’ without every creating something ‘whole’. But still, all these single moments are of incredible beauty and poise. There are some wonderful moments when Greta Garbo, who seems so transcendent all the time, becomes suddenly very earthy. A visits to the countryside with Armand gives Marguerite the opportunity to question the maid about milk and the cows – it’s a wonderfully human and even amusing moment that connects Marguerite for a few moments with the past that was never shown.
Unfortunately, Greta Garbo too often lets this ‘acting by scenes’ change her character and she continuously jumps between a mature and deciding character who takes charge in the relationship to Armand and the helplessness of a little girl who retreats frightfully whenever she might have upset him. Generally, Greta Garbo’s face seems like an open book but unfortunately, she very often retreats into this mask-like hiding place whenever a moment becomes too dramatic or demanding. There is something very tense about the scene when she asks her older partner for money even though the relationship is basically over but her face appears too empty to make it truly captivating. On the other hand, Greta Garbo deserves a large amount of praise for her noble suffering. She doesn’t play the sympathy card but everything she does, she does with dignity. When she wants to meet Armand late at night but is interrupted by her partner, she doesn’t show the pain of unfulfilled love but a rather cold and unforgiving face that seems to suggest a grand schemer. But overall, Greta Garbo’s performance mostly concentrates on the emotional side of her character and she doesn’t portray Marguerite as a thinker but as a spontaneous, emotional woman. That way, she plays a very real character but does it in an almost surreal way due to her light and flighty acting style. She is a magician who creates illusions, she is a ballerina who expresses real emotions in a very stylized way.
But even though her performance may sometimes be unsatisfying from an acting point of view, Greta Garbo saves the best for last in her famous and celebrated final scene which certainly lives up to its reputation. She portrays a wonderful amount of emotions from disappointment, fear and weakness to a girlish excitement and happiness. Her weak smile, her whisper of the word ‘Yes’ when Armand makes plans of their future, her final moments before she leaves him forever are as subtle as they are attention-seeking. Only Greta Garbo could have been so alive and so ghost-like at once.
Yes, Camille is a true showcase for Greta Garbo – but only in limits. Greta Garbo, the star, has never been better used. Greta Garbo, the actress, also delivers on a very high level but the feeling remains that there was still room for more. Greta Garbo didn’t need to stretch herself as an actress in this part and she solely concentrated on the dramatic effects of her appearence but at the same time, these dramatic effects are so wonderful to watch and so easy to admire. She created something flawless here even if it’s not. This isn’t her greatest performance but everything that made her such a legend is on full display. It’s Greta Garbo’s in her fullest bloom and for this she gets