August 28, 2014

Greta Garbo, Ninotchka

as NINOTCHKA
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After years and years of suffering miserably yet fabulously in talkies, Greta Garbo decided to end the decade with a little bit of laughter. I’ve had an interesting viewing relationship with Garbo throughout the course of the 1930’s—more often than not I haven’t cared much for her performances, which I tend to find as being too distant and too focused on alluring our gaze through her beauty as opposed to her acting ability. And still, I’ve sat through her many performances regardless of my feelings about her, either because she was nominated (Anna Christie, Romance, Camille), because of a different category’s nomination (Conquest, Grand Hotel) or because of my personal inquiry (Queen Christina, Anna Karenina), each delivering the same model: “I am beautiful, I am also deeply in love with (insert name of actor here) but (insert circumstances here) is keeping us from being happy together. I am depressed because of said circumstances. Depending on the film, I may be depressed enough that I might just die.” So it’s rather interesting (and great) that she got her final nomination for a performance completely unlike any of her others. 

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Ninotchka is wonderful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a comedy and not another banal melodrama. Secondly, it requires Garbo to tap into a brand new area of her acting talent…her comedic ability. You can’t really bullshit through comedy (i.e. dramatically pose your way through the narrative) so it ensures that Garbo has to be “on” much of the time. Thirdly, as the dour, no-nonsense Nina Yakushova, it feels as though Garbo is poking fun at the very sort of character and films that made her famous. In other words, she looks like she’s letting loose and actually enjoying herself for once, and that in and of itself should make for a pleasant viewing experience. The slogan “Garbo Laughs!” is no less a gimmick than “Garbo Talks!”, and one might expect nothing else there to offer, but I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed her fully committed and fully in-character earlier scenes as the stern Ninotchka, channeling her classic somberness and amplifying it for amusing results. It’s as much of a transformation as one could ever expect of Garbo, and she is completely magnetic to watch. I came into the film expecting a chuckle here and there, but she startled me with her on-point comedic timing and delivery. It’s hard not to smile watching her in her first few scenes with Melvyn Douglas. After Ninotchka laughs and becomes softened by Douglas and liberal Paris, she does venture back into that torn/lovestruck territory that we’re all used to seeing by now, but I didn’t really care as much. I found her to be sweet and tender, the latter quality of which, aside from Camille, is a word that I typically don’t use to describe her work. It's a light and lovely little performance, and in my opinion, a perfect one to bid farewell to the Academy with.

5 comments:

  1. Glad you liked her. I've just seen her oscar-nominated performances and I liked her style. I'm pretty curious about her performance in Queen Christina.

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    1. I made it through half of Queen Christina and had no desire to keep on going. I need to force myself to finish it. So take that as you will :\

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  2. From the little I've seen of her performances, it's arguably her best.

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  3. As a better mind than mine once put it, "if Camille is Garbo's greatest film, Ninotchka is certainly her warmest, the one role in the Garbo roster that might still have resulted in a good film, even with another actress."

    My favorite moment: Ninotchka's first visit to Leon's apartment, where he's getting carried away with his own romantic metaphors before she tells him, with leveled eyes and flat tone, "You're very talkative..." About as politely as possible any woman told any man, "Put up or shut up, buster."

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    1. Most definitely the warmest I've seen from her, I agree!

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