Apr 27, 2014

Greta Garbo, Camille

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress

The main reason why I haven't been all that fond of the Greta Garbo performances I've seen thus far is because of that Greta Garbo Illusion. There's always that sense of unapproachability--it defines Garbo's entire legacy. In everything I've seen her in, she seems so detached from the audience and she's kind of wafting in her own world. This in turn reinforced the novelty of the Garbo image, and no one was more aware of this than Garbo herself--she didn't like it when people lingered on set and stared at her during filming, and when director George Cukor asked why, she replied: "When people are watching, I'm just a woman making faces for the camera. It destroys the illusion." So therein lies my problem: the elusiveness that makes up much of Garbo's appeal has to be maintained, but it makes connecting with her and feeling for her a problem especially if the characters she plays--troubled and depressed women--require a viewer's compassion. I had my reservations about Camille, thinking it'd be another two hour picture where Garbo stands around "making faces" under the pretense of suffering. Upon watching Camille, I could tell immediately that there was something different about Garbo here.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-04-24at31743PM.pngThat difference, as it would turn out, was Cukor, who'd go on to have a storied career directing iconic performances out of actresses like Judy Garland, Judy Holliday, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. After the first few days of production on Camille, Irving Thalberg made a remark to Cukor that Garbo had "never been so good," and that "she's relaxed and she's open". Indeed, Garbo does seem much more down-to-earth and much more accessible here than in Anna Karenina, Grand Hotel, and Anna Christie. Even still, I wasn't very impressed by her for the first half of the film. Because the woman was so mystifying, the films she was in were tailored to place her on some sort of pedestal for all of us to look at. And that's exactly what happens in the beginning of Camille. Garbo sits in a carriage and smiles so that we can look at her, Garbo sits in a theater box up high for men down below (as well as us) to look at her, Garbo walks through a crowd for people (and us) to be in awe of her, Garbo smiles and chats with Robert Taylor while wearing a funky hat so that eyes will immediately go to her. It's the typical movie-star treatment, nothing substantial outside of establishing the beauty of the leading lady. But once the story really starts to kick into gear is when Garbo begins to fascinate. The heartbreak involving Taylor's Armand is supremely done, and for once the emotions given by Garbo feel real and human. It's as if she's letting down her walls for the first time, and watching her be wounded and cry as though she were a young girl--it's the most frank I've seen her. Watching Garbo in her final scene, wherein this superstar has been reduced to a whisper, seeing the devastation slathered across her face when she finds out that Armand is in town but hasn't come to visit her, and then to see her whimper to her nurse to be made up when she finds out Armand has indeed come to visit her--it's a vivid display of delicate fragility that I never thought I'd see from a woman who usually comes off stiff and hardened. Every so often a major movie star comes across a role that not only complements her strengths but also allows for a showcase of impressive acting. It is said that Cukor's style of direction as well as the role itself reenergized Garbo. Here she is allowed to be a glamorous, something she can easily convey in her sleep, but the role itself, with the assistance of Cukor, offers enough challenges to breathe some vital spirit into this otherwise perennially melancholic woman, and for the first time I actually felt as though I was watching the work of an actress instead of a movie star.



  1. Again, I don't remember most of the film. :) But yeah, she was good. And yet again: maybe I could've went for more than 3 stars... Oh well.

    So unless Irene surprises, this is Garbo's to win for you.
    You postponing Luise & Good Earth, and your reaction on twitter ---> not a good sign. :D

    Irene = <3
    not that I'd want to influence you. I appreciate when ppl disagree. :)

    1. Y'know, I actually don't remember much of Camille either and I just watched it! Again, what's stopping you from upping your stars? I've gone back and done it once or twice on certain performances here...:)

      LOL, and let's just say I've been letting The Good Earth and Luise soak a bit in my head. I started writing up on her immediately after watching but I figured I should wait it out and think it through so that the writeup doesn't stink with bias.

      Aaaaaaand...I watched Irene over the weekend. Currently in the process of figuring her out as well :P

  2. Because I don't want to make a habit of going back and changing stuff. That is about capturing a moment in time. I will be left with the regret. :P

    I only did that for 3 performances, at the aniversary of the 100th profile. :)
    "the past is in the paaaaaaaaaaaaast"


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  4. (Attempt #2 haha)

    I third not remembering almost anything about Camille. I'm totally blank on it, too. I vaguely remember some sort of obnoxious older woman, because those always stand out for me lol. This review definitely took me back in places though :)

    I have absolutely no context, with this being my only Garbo perf, but I thought she was lovely in this. Nothing too astonishing, but very in control and delicate. Your description of her deathbed scenes ("wherein this superstar has been reduced to a whisper, seeing the devastation slathered across her face...") actually took me back to that moment and the emotion of it all. That scene is KILLER.

    Nice job! I love seeing your relationship with some of Oscar's favorites change film to film.

    1. She definitely slays in the last act! I'm pretty surprised myself that I enjoyed her as much as I did. While covering 1935 or so I was pretty certain I'd never like anything by Garbo or Shearer but it's great to be proven wrong.