Garbo in a publicity still for Anna Karenina (1935)
|Born||Greta Lovisa Gustafsson
18 September 1905
|Died||15 April 1990
New York, New York, U.S.
Karl Alfred Gustafsson
Greta Garbo (18 September 1905 – 15 April 1990), born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson [gre:ta lʊvi:sa], was a Swedish film actress and an international star and icon during Hollywood's silent and classic periods. Garbo was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress and received an honorary one in 1954 for her "luminous and unforgettable screen performances". She also won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress for both Anna Karenina (1935) and Camille (1936). In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Garbo fifth on their list of greatest female stars of all time, after Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman.
Garbo launched her career with a secondary role in the 1924 Swedish film The Saga of Gosta Berling. Her performance caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, chief executive of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), who brought her to Hollywood in 1925. She immediately stirred interest with her first silent film, Torrent, released in 1926; a year later, her performance in Flesh and the Devil, her third movie, made her an international star.
Garbo's first talking film was Anna Christie (1930). MGM marketers enticed the public with the catch-phrase "Garbo talks!" That same year she starred in Romance. For her performances in these films she received the first of three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. Academy rules at the time allowed for a performer to receive a single nomination for their work in more than one film. In 1932, her popularity allowed her to dictate the terms of her contract and she became increasingly selective about her roles. Many critics and film historians consider her performance as the doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier in Camille to be her finest. The role gained her a second Academy Award nomination. After working exclusively in dramatic films, Garbo turned to comedy with Ninotchka (1939), which earned her a third Academy Award nomination, and Two-Faced Woman (1941), her last film.
In 1941, she retired at the age of 35 after appearing in twenty-eight films. Although she was offered many opportunities to return to the screen, she declined all of them. Instead, she lived a private life, shunning publicity. Garbo never married, had no children and lived alone as an adult. She was something of an art collector and her art collection was worth millions at the time of her death.
- 1 Childhood and youth
- 2 Career
- 3 In retirement
- 4 Relationships
- 5 Death
- 6 Legacy
- 7 Awards and honors
- 8 Filmography
- 9 Gallery
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography and further reading
- 12 External links
Childhood and youth
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born in Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. She was the third and youngest child of Anna Lovisa (née Karlsson, 1872–1944)—a homemaker who later worked at a jam factory—and Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871–1920), a laborer. Garbo had an older brother, Sven Alfred (1898–1967), and an older sister, Alva Maria (1903–1926).
Her parents met in Stockholm where her father visited from Frinnaryd. He moved to Stockholm to become independent and worked in various odd jobs—street cleaner, grocer, factory worker and butcher's assistant. He married Anna, who had recently relocated from Högsby. The Gustafssons were impoverished and lived in a three-bedroom cold-water flat at Blekingegatan No. 32. They raised their three children in a working-class district regarded as the city's slum. Garbo would later recall:
It was eternally gray—those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us.
Garbo was a shy daydreamer as a child. She hated school and preferred to play alone. Yet she was an imaginative child and a natural leader who became interested in theatre at an early age. She directed her friends in make-believe games and performances and dreamed of becoming an actress. Later, she would participate in amateur theatre with her friends and frequent the Mosebacke Theater. At the age of 13, Garbo graduated from school, and, typical of a Swedish working-class girl at that time, she did not attend high school. She would later confess she had an inferiority complex about this.
In the winter of 1919, the Spanish flu spread throughout Stockholm, and Garbo's father, to whom she was very close, became ill. He began missing work and eventually lost his job. Garbo stayed at home looking after him and taking him to the hospital for weekly treatments. He died in 1920 when she was 14 years old.
Garbo first worked as a soap-lather girl in a barbershop but eventually, on the advice of her friends, applied for, and accepted, a position in the PUB department store running errands and working in the millinery department. Before long, she began modeling hats for the store's catalogs which led to a more lucrative job as a fashion model. In late 1920, a director of film commercials for the store began casting Garbo in roles advertising women's clothing. Her first commercial premiered on 12 December 1920 and was followed by others the following year. Thus began Garbo's cinematic career. In 1922, Garbo caught the attention of director Erik Arthur Petschler who gave her a part in his short comedy, Peter the Tramp.
From 1922 to 1924, she studied at The Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School in Stockholm. She was recruited in 1924 by the prominent Swedish director Mauritz Stiller to play a principal part in his classic film The Saga of Gösta Berling, a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. She played opposite Lars Hanson, a well-known Swedish actor. Stiller became her mentor, training her as a film actress and managing all aspects of her nascent career. She followed her role in Gösta Berling with a starring role in the 1925 German film Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow), directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring Asta Nielsen.
Accounts differ on the circumstances of her first contract with Louis B. Mayer, at that time vice president and general manager of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Victor Seastrom, a respected Swedish director at MGM, was a good friend of Stiller and encouraged Mayer to meet him on a trip to Berlin. There are two recent versions of what happened next. In one, Mayer, always looking for new talent, had done his research and was interested in Stiller. He made an offer but Stiller demanded that Garbo be part of any contract, convinced that she would be an asset to his career. Mayer balked, but eventually agreed to a private viewing of Gösta Berling. He was immediately struck by Garbo's magnetism and became more interested in her than in Stiller. "It was her eyes", his daughter recalled him saying; "I can make a star out of her". In the second version, Mayer had already seen Gösta Berling before his Berlin trip and Garbo, not Stiller, was his primary interest. On the way to the screening, Mayer said to his daughter, "This director is wonderful but what we really ought to look at is the girl.... The girl, look at the girl!" After the screening, his daughter reported, he was unwavering: "I'll take her without him. I'll take her with him. Number one is the girl". In any case, a contract was drafted that included both of them and after several months, the two set sail for America on the last day of June 1925.
Silent film stardom (1925–1929)
Stiller and Garbo, who was then age twenty and unable to speak English, arrived in New York where they remained for three months without any word from MGM. She and Stiller then went to Los Angeles on their own but another three weeks passed with little contact from MGM. During this period, the studio arranged for a dentist to straighten her teeth and made sure she lost weight. Although she expected to work with Stiller on her first film, she was cast in Torrent (1926), an adaptation of a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, with director Monta Bell. She displaced Aileen Pringle, ten years her senior, and played a vamp opposite Ricardo Cortez. Torrent was a hit and despite its cool reception by the trade press, Garbo's performance was critically acclaimed.
The success led Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, to cast her in a similar role in The Temptress (1926), based on another Ibáñez novel. After only one film, she was given top billing, playing opposite Antonio Moreno. Her mentor Stiller, who had persuaded her to take the part, was assigned to direct. For both Garbo (who did not want to play another vamp and did not like the script any more than she did the first one) and Stiller, The Temptress was a harrowing experience. Stiller, who spoke little English, had difficulty adapting to the studio system, and did not get on with Moreno, was fired by Thalberg and replaced by Fred Niblo. Reshooting The Temptress was expensive and even though it became one of the top-grossing films of the 1926–27 season, it was the only Garbo film of the period to lose money. However, Garbo received rave reviews and MGM had a new star.
After her lightning ascent, Garbo went on to make eight more silent films and all were hits. She starred in three of them with popular leading man John Gilbert. About their first movie, Flesh and the Devil (1926), silent film expert Kevin Brownlow states that "she gave a more erotic performance than Hollywood had ever seen". Their on-screen chemistry soon translated into an off-camera romance and by the end of the production, they began living together. The film also marked a turning point in Garbo's career. Film historian Mark Vieira writes, "Audiences were mesmerized by her beauty and titillated by her love scenes with Gilbert. She was a sensation". Profits from her third movie with Gilbert, A Woman of Affairs (1928), catapulted her to top Metro star of the 1928-29 box office season. In 1929, reviewer Pierre de Rohan wrote in the New York Telegraph, "She has a glamour and fascination for both sexes which have never been equaled on the screen".
The impact of Garbo's acting and screen presence quickly established her reputation as one of Hollywood's greatest actresses. Film historian and critic David Denby argues that Garbo introduced a subtlety of expression to the art of silent acting and that its effect on audiences cannot be exaggerated. She "lowers her head to look calculating, or flutters her lips", he says. "Her face darkens with a slight tightening around the eyes and mouth; she registers a passing idea with a contraction of her brows or a drooping of her lids. Worlds turned on her movements".
During this period, Garbo began to require unusual conditions during the shooting of her scenes. She prohibited visitors—including the studio brass—from her sets and demanded that black flats or screens surround her to prevent extras and technicians from watching her. When asked about these eccentric requirements, she said, "If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise".
Despite her popularity as a silent star, the studio feared that her Swedish accent might impair her work in sound and delayed the shift for as long as possible. MGM itself made a slow changeover to sound and her last silent movie, The Kiss (1929), was also the studio's. Garbo would go on to become one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1930s and an icon of the Silent and Classic movies.
"Golden Age" icon (1930–1939)
Publicized with the slogan "Garbo talks!", Anna Christie (1930), a film adaptation of the 1922 play by Eugene O'Neill, provided her first speaking role. In her first line, she famously utters, "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." The movie was the highest-grossing film of the year and she received her first Academy Award nomination. Her Academy Award nomination that year was also for her performance in Romance (1930). A German version of Anna Christie was also made in 1930. Garbo had successfully made the transition to talkies and after three less profitable films, Romance (1930), Inspiration (1931), and Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931), she performed two of her most famous roles. In 1931, she played the World War I spy in Mata Hari, opposite Ramón Novarro, and a year later she was part of an all-star cast in Grand Hotel in which she played a Russian ballerina.
Both films were huge hits with the latter winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. By this time she had a fanatical world-wide following and the phenomenon of "Garbomania" reached its peak. Mata Hari "caused a panic", for example, when it opened in New York "with police reserves being required to keep the waiting mob in order". She was earning $250,000 to $300,000 a film—about four to five million dollars in 2013 values—and had become "the greatest money-making machine ever put on screen."
Following a contract dispute with MGM, Garbo signed a new contract with the studio in 1932 which gave her more control over her films and co-stars though she rarely asserted that power. But she demonstrated loyalty to John Gilbert, whose career was faltering, and insisted, despite Mayer's objection, that he co-star in Queen Christina in which she played one of her most celebrated roles. (Laurence Olivier had originally been chosen to play the part.) Although her domestic popularity was undiminished through the early 1930s, high profits from her films after Queen Christina in 1933 depended on the foreign market.
In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted to cast her as the dying heiress in Dark Victory, but Garbo chose Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1935) in which she played another of her renowned roles and for which she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. The film was internationally successful and did better than MGM expected domestically selling more tickets for a Garbo vehicle than for any since Mata Hari. Still, its profit was significantly diminished because of her exorbitant salary. Her subsequent performance as the doomed courtesan opposite Robert Taylor in Camille, directed by George Cukor (1936), earned her a second Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Many critics regard it as her best screen performance.
In 1937, Garbo played opposite Charles Boyer as Napoleon's mistress, Marie Walewska, in the disappointing costume picture Conquest (1937). While the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor (Boyer) and for Best Art Direction, it was a commercial failure representing one of the largest losses for an MGM picture. In May 1938, Garbo was one of several major stars—including Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West and others—dubbed "Box Office Poison" in an open letter published by the National Theater Distributors of America. She then made a comeback in her first comedy playing opposite Melvyn Douglas in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939). Ninotchka succeeded in lightening her somber and melancholy image and she earned a third Academy Award nomination. Playing off the tag-line for Anna Christie, the publicity declared, "Garbo laughs!"
Last work and early retirement (1941–1948)
With George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941), MGM attempted to capitalize on Garbo's success in Ninotchka by casting her in a romantic comedy which sought to portray her as an ordinary girl. She played a double role that featured her dancing the rumba, swimming, and skiing. The film was a critical failure, but, contrary to popular belief, performed reasonably well at the box office. Garbo referred to the film as "my grave". Two-Faced Woman was her last film; she was thirty-six and had made twenty-eight feature films in sixteen years.
Although Garbo was humiliated by the negative reviews of Two-Faced Woman, she did not at first intend to retire. But her films depended on the European market and when it fell through with the war, finding a vehicle was problematic for MGM. She signed a one picture deal in 1942 to make The Girl from Leningrad but the project quickly dissolved. She still thought she would continue when the war was over though she was ambivalent and indecisive about returning to the screen. Salka Viertel, Garbo's close friend and collaborator, said in 1945, "Greta is impatient to work. But on the other side, she's afraid of it". Garbo also worried about her age. "Time leaves traces on our small faces and bodies. It's not the same anymore, being able to pull it off". George Cukor, director of Two-Faced Woman, and often blamed for its failure, said, "People often glibly say that the failure of Two-Faced Woman finished Garbo's career. That's a grotesque oversimplification. It certainly threw her, but I think that what really happened was that she just gave up. She didn’t want to go on".
Still, Garbo signed a contract in 1948 with producer Walter Wanger, who had produced Queen Christina, to shoot a picture based on Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais. Max Ophüls was slated to adapt and direct. She made several screen tests, learned the script, and arrived in Rome in the summer of 1949 to shoot the picture. However, the financing failed to materialize and the project was abandoned. The screen tests—the last time Garbo stepped in front of a movie camera—were thought to have been lost for forty-one years until they were rediscovered in 1990 by film historians Leonard Maltin and Jeanine Basinger. Parts of the footage were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo.
In 1949, she was offered the role of fictional silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. However, after a meeting with film producer Charles Brackett, she insisted that she had no interest in the part whatsoever.
She was offered many roles in the 1940s and throughout her retirement years but she rejected all but a few of them. In the few instances when she accepted, the slightest problem led her to drop out. Although she refused to talk to friends throughout her life about her reasons for retiring, she told Swedish biographer Sven Broman four years before her death, "I was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio... I really wanted to live another life."
From the early days of her career, Garbo avoided industry social functions, preferring to spend her time alone or with friends. She never signed autographs, answered no fan mail, gave few interviews, and refused to give permission to arrange publicity contracts with the studio. She never appeared at the Oscar ceremonies even when she was nominated for the Best Actress award. Her aversion to publicity and the press was undeniably genuine, and exasperating to the studio at first. But MGM eventually capitalized on it for it bolstered the image of the silent and reclusive woman of mystery.
She is closely associated with a line from Grand Hotel, one which the American Film Institute in 2005 voted the 30th most memorable movie quote of all time, "I want to be alone, I just want to be alone". The theme became a running gag beginning in her silent pictures. For example, in Love (1927) a title card reads, "I like to be alone"; in The Single Standard (1929) her character says, "I am walking alone because I want to be alone"; in the same film, she sails to the South Seas with her lover on a boat called the All Alone; in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) she says to a suitor, "This time I rise... and fall... alone"; in Inspiration (1931) she tells a fickle lover, "I just want to be alone for a little while"; in Mata Hari (1931) she says to her new amour, "I never look ahead. By next spring I shall probably be... quite alone". By the early 1930s, the motif had become indelibly linked to Garbo's public and private personae. It is lampooned in Ninotchka (1939) when emissaries from Russia ask her, "Do you want to be alone, comrade"? "No", she says bluntly. But about her private life, she later remarked, "I never said, 'I want to be alone'; I only said, 'I want to be let alone'. There is a world of difference".
In retirement, Garbo generally led a private life of simplicity and leisure. She made no public appearances and assiduously tried to avoid the publicity she loathed. As she had been during her Hollywood years, Garbo, with her innate need for solitude, was often reclusive. But contrary to myth, she had, from the beginning, many friends and acquaintances with whom she socialized, and later, traveled. Occasionally, she jet-setted with well-known and wealthy personalities, striving to guard her privacy as she had during her career.
Still, she often floundered about what to do and how to spend her time ("drifting" was the word she frequently used), always struggling with her many eccentricities, and her lifelong melancholy, or depression, and moodiness. As she approached her sixtieth birthday, she told a frequent walking companion, "In a few days, it will be the anniversary of the sorrow that never leaves me, that will never leave me for the rest of my life." To another friend she said in 1971, "I suppose I suffer from very deep depression". It is also arguable, says one biographer, that she was bipolar. "I am very happy one moment, the next there is nothing left for me", she said in 1933.
Beginning in the 1940s, she became something of an art collector. Many of the paintings she purchased were of negligible value, but she did buy paintings by Renoir, Rouault, Kandinsky, Bonnard, and Jawlensky. Her art collection was worth millions when she died in 1990.
On 9 February 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States and in 1953, bought a seven-room apartment at 450 East 52nd Street in Manhattan, New York City, where she lived for the rest of her life.
On 13 November 1963, Garbo was a dinner guest at the White House. President John Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline found Garbo to be very funny and charming. She spent the night at the Washington, D.C., home of philanthropist Florence Mahoney. Garbo's niece Gray Reisfield told museum specialist James Wagner at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, quoted in a 2000 press release: "[Garbo] always spoke of it as a magical evening."
Italian motion picture director Luchino Visconti allegedly attempted to bring Garbo back to the screen in 1969 with a small part, Maria Sophia, Queen of Naples, in his adaptation of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. He exclaimed: "I am very pleased at the idea that this woman, with her severe and authoritarian presence, should figure in the decadent and rarefied climate of the world described by Proust". Claims that Garbo was interested in the part cannot be substantiated.
In 1971, Garbo vacationed with her close friend Baroness Cécile de Rothschild at her summer home in Southern France. De Rothschild introduced her to Samuel Adams Green, a well-known art collector and curator in New York, and the two formed an immediate bond. Green, who became an important friend and walking companion, was in the habit of tape-recording all of his telephone calls and, with Garbo's permission, recorded many of his conversations with her. In 1985, Garbo ended the friendship when she was falsely informed that Green had played the tapes to friends. In his last will and testament, Green bequeathed in 2011 all of the tapes, which reveal Garbo's personality in later life, sense of humor, and various eccentricities, to the film archives at Wesleyan University.
Although she became increasingly withdrawn in her final years, she had become close over time to her cook and house-keeper, Claire Koger, who worked for her for thirty-one years. "We were very close—like sisters", the reticent Koger said.
Throughout her life, Garbo was known for taking long, daily walks with companions or by herself. In retirement, she walked the streets of New York City dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses. "Garbo-watching" became a sport for photographers, the media, admirers, and curious New Yorkers, but she maintained her elusive mystique to the end.
Garbo never married, had no children, and lived alone as an adult. Her most famous romance was with her frequent co-star, John Gilbert, with whom she lived intermittently in 1926 and 1927. MGM capitalized on her relationship with Gilbert after their huge hit, Flesh and the Devil by costarring them again in two more hits, Love (1927) and A Woman of Affairs (1928). Gilbert allegedly proposed to her numerous times. Legend has it that when a double marriage was arranged in 1926 (with Eleanor Boardman and King Vidor), Garbo failed to appear at the ceremony. Her recent biographers, however, question the veracity of this story. In 1937, she met conductor Leopold Stokowski with whom she had a highly publicized friendship or romance while traveling throughout Europe the following year. In his diary, Erich Maria Remarque discusses a liaison with Garbo in 1941 and in his memoir, Cecil Beaton described an affair with her in 1947 and 1948. In 1940, she met the Russian-born millionaire, George Schlee, who was married to fashion designer Valentina. Schlee, who split his time between the two, became Garbo's close companion and advisor until his death in 1964.
Recent biographers and others believe that Garbo was bisexual and that she had intimate relationships with women as well as with men. In 1927, Garbo was introduced to stage and screen actress Lilyan Tashman and evidence indicates that the two began an affair; silent film star Louise Brooks stated that she and Garbo had a brief liaison the following year. In 1931, Garbo befriended the writer and avowed lesbian Mercedes de Acosta, introduced to her by her close friend Salka Viertel, and, according to Garbo's and de Acosta's biographers, began a sporadic and volatile romance. The two remained friends—with ups and downs—for almost thirty years during which time Garbo wrote de Acosta 181 letters, cards, and telegrams which are kept at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. Garbo's family, which controls her estate, has made only 87 of them available to the public. In 2005 Swedish actress Mimi Pollak, a close friend in drama school, released sixty letters Garbo had written her in their long correspondence. Several letters indicate that she had romantic feelings for Pollak for many years. After learning of Pollak's pregnancy in 1930, for example, Garbo wrote, "We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together". In 1975, she wrote a poem about not being able to touch the hand of her friend with whom she might have been walking through life.
Garbo had been successfully treated for breast cancer in 1984. Towards the end of her life, only Garbo's closest friends knew she was receiving dialysis treatments for six hours three times a week—Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—at The Rogosin Institute in New York Hospital. A photograph appeared in the media in early 1990, showing Koger assisting Garbo, who was walking with a cane, into the hospital.
Greta Garbo died on 15 April 1990, aged 84, in the hospital, as a result of pneumonia and renal failure. Daum later claimed that towards the end, she also suffered from gastrointestinal and periodontal ailments.
Garbo was an international superstar during the late silent era and the "Golden Age" of Hollywood and is widely regarded as a cinematic legend. Almost immediately, with the sudden popularity of her first pictures, she became a screen icon. For most of her career, she was the highest paid actor or actress at MGM, making her for many years its "premier prestige star". It has been said that at the peak of her popularity she had become a virtual cult figure.
Garbo developed an acting style that is thought to have been ahead of its time, one that set her apart from other actors and actresses of the period. About her work in silents, film critic Ty Burr said, "This was a new kind of actor—not the stage actor who had to play to the far seats but someone who could just look and with her eyes literally go from rage to sorrow in just a close-up". Film historian Jeffrey Vance said that Garbo communicated her characters' innermost feelings through her movement, gestures, and most importantly, her eyes. With the slightest movement of them, he argues, she subtly conveyed complex attitudes and feelings toward other characters and the truth of the situation. This approach demonstrated a deep bond with the character, with actions seemingly made on the basis of internal motivation—now referred to as working "from the inside-out"—and accounts for the restrained realism of her performances. "She doesn’t act", said Camille co-star Rex O’Malley, "she lives her roles". Director Clarence Brown, who made seven of Garbo's pictures, told an interviewer, "Garbo has something behind the eyes that you couldn't see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn't have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. And nobody else has been able to do that on screen." Director George Sidney adds, "You could call it underplaying but in underplaying she overplayed everyone else".
Many critics have said that few of Garbo's twenty-four Hollywood films are artistically exceptional, and that many are simply bad. It has been said, however, that her commanding and magnetic performances usually overcome the weaknesses of plot and dialogue. As one biographer put it, "All moviegoers demanded of a Garbo production was Greta Garbo".
Because Garbo was suspicious and mistrustful of the media, and often at odds with MGM executives, she spurned Hollywood's publicity rules. Except at the start of her career, Garbo conducted few interviews (she gave only fourteen in her life), signed no autographs, attended few industry social functions, and turned down all but a few requests for public appearances. She was routinely referred to by the press as the "Swedish Sphinx". Her reticence and fear of strangers perpetuated the mystery and mystique that she projected both on screen and in real life. In spite of her strenuous efforts to avoid publicity, Garbo paradoxically became one of the twentieth century's most publicized women in the world.
She was portrayed by Betty Comden in the 1984 film Garbo Talks. The film concerns a dying Garbo fan (Anne Bancroft) whose last wish is to meet her idol. Her son (played by Ron Silver) sets about trying to get Garbo to visit his mother at the hospital.
Garbo is the subject of several documentaries, including four made in the United States between 1990 and 2005:
- The Divine Garbo (1990), TNT, produced by Ellen M. Krass and Susan F. Walker, narrated by Glenn Close
- Greta Garbo: The Mysterious Lady (1998), Biography Channel, narrated by Peter Graves
- Greta Garbo: A Lone Star (2001), AMC
- Garbo (2005), TCM, directed by Kevin Brownlow, narrated by Julie Christie
She has been praised in the media and by personalities in cinema and culture, including:
Ephraim Katz (The Film Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to Film and the Film Industry): Of all the stars who have ever fired the imaginations of audiences, none has quite projected a magnetism and a mystique equal to Garbo's. "The Divine", the "dream princess of eternity", the "Sarah Bernhardt of films", are only a few of the superlatives writers used in describing her over the years.... She played heroines that were at once sensual and pure, superficial and profound, suffering and hopeful, world-weary and life-inspiring.
George Cukor She had a talent that few actresses or actors possess. In close-ups she gave the impression, the illusion of great movement. She would move her head just a little bit and the whole screen would come alive, like a strong breeze that made itself felt.
Awards and honors
Garbo was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1930, a performer could receive a single nomination for their work in more than one film. Garbo received her nomination for her work in both Anna Christie and Romance. She lost out to Irving Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer, who won for The Divorcee. In 1937, Garbo was nominated for Camille, but Luise Rainer won for The Good Earth. Finally, in 1939, Garbo was nominated for Ninotchka, but again came away empty-handed. Gone With the Wind swept the major awards, including Best Actress, which went to Vivien Leigh. She was awarded an Academy Honorary Award "for her luminous and unforgettable screen performances" in 1954. She did not show up at the ceremony, and the statuette was mailed to her home address.
She twice received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress for Anna Karenina, 1935, and Camille, 1936. She won the National Board of Review Best Acting Award for Camille, 1936, Ninotchka, 1939, and Two-Faced Woman, 1941. The Swedish royal medal, Litteris et Artibus, awarded to people who have made important contributions to culture, especially music, dramatic art or literature, was presented to Garbo in January 1937. In a 1950 Daily Variety opinion poll, Garbo was voted Best Actress of the Half Century, In 1957, she was awarded The George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
In November 1983, she was made a Commander of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star by order of King Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. For her contributions to cinema, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard.
She was once designated the most beautiful woman who ever lived by the Guinness Book of World Records. Garbo appears on a number of postage stamps, and in September 2005, the United States Postal Service and Swedish Posten jointly issued two commemorative stamps bearing her image. On 6 April 2011, Sveriges Riksbank announced that Garbo's portrait will be featured on the 100 krona banknote, beginning in 2014–15.
|1920||Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping||Elder sister||Swedish: Herrskapet Stockholm ute på inköp;
An advertisement. Garbo's segment is often known as How Not to Dress. The commercial premiered 12 December 1920.
|1921||The Gay Cavalier||Garbo played an extra.||Swedish: En lyckoriddare;
Uncredited. The film is lost.
|1921||Our Daily Bread||Companion||Swedish: Konsum Stockholm Promo; An advertisement|
|1922||Peter the Tramp||Greta||Swedish: Luffar-Petter; A two-reel comedy; Garbo's first part in a commercial film|
|1924||Saga of Gosta Berling, TheThe Saga of Gosta Berling||Elizabeth Dohna||Stiller, MauritzMauritz Stiller||Hanson, LarsLars Hanson||Swedish: Gösta Berling's Saga; Garbo’s first leading part in a feature-length film, directed by her mentor, the celebrated Mauritz Stiller.|
|1925||Joyless Street, TheThe Joyless Street||Greta Rumfort||Pabst, G. W.G. W. Pabst||Nielsen, AstaAsta Nielsen||German: Die freudlose Gasse; Garbo plays the principal role in this German film made by renowned director G.W. Pabst|
aka La Brunna
|Bell, MontaMonta Bell||Cortez, RicardoRicardo Cortez||First American movie. All of Garbo's subsequent movies were made in Hollywood and produced by MGM.|
|1926||Temptress, TheThe Temptress||Elena||Niblo, FredFred Niblo||Moreno, AntonioAntonio Moreno||Stiller was originally assigned to direct; his directing methods and personality led to conflicts with MGM producer Irving Thalberg who fired him.|
|1926||Flesh and the Devil||Felicitas||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||Gilbert, JohnJohn Gilbert||First of seven Garbo movies directed by Clarence Brown and first of four with co-star John Gilbert|
|1927||Love||Anna Karenina||Goulding, EdmundEdmund Goulding||Gilbert, JohnJohn Gilbert||Adapted from the novel Anna Karenina by Tolstoy|
|1928||Divine Woman, TheThe Divine Woman||Marianne||Seastrom, VictorVictor Seastrom||Hanson, LarsLars Hanson||The film is lost; only a 9 minute reel exists.|
|1928||Mysterious Lady, TheThe Mysterious Lady||Tania Fedorova||Niblo, FredFred Niblo||Nagel, ConradConrad Nagel|
|1928||Woman of Affairs, AA Woman of Affairs||Diana Merrick Furness||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||Gilbert, JohnJohn Gilbert||The first of seven Garbo films with actor Lewis Stone who, with the exception of Wild Orchids, played secondary roles.|
|1929||Wild Orchids||Lillie Sterling||Franklin, SidneySidney Franklin||Asther, NilsNils Asther|
|1929||A Man's Man||Herself||Cruze, JamesJames Cruze||Haines, WilliamWilliam Haines||Garbo and John Gilbert make cameo appearances; this film is lost.|
|1929||Single Standard, TheThe Single Standard||Arden Stuart Hewlett||Robertson, John S.John S. Robertson||Asther, NilsNils Asther,
Brown, John MackJohn Mack Brown
|1929||Kiss, TheThe Kiss||Irene Guarry||Feyder, JacquesJacques Feyder||Nagel, ConradConrad Nagel||Garbo's, and MGM's, last silent picture|
|1930||Anna Christie||Anna Christie||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||Bickford, CharlesCharles Bickford,
Dressler, MarieMarie Dressler
|Garbo's first talkie and first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress|
|1930||Romance||Madame Rita Cavallini||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||Gordon, GavinGavin Gordon||Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1930||Anna Christie||Anna Christie||Feyder, JacquesJacques Feyder||Junkermann, HansHans Junkermann,
Viertel, SalkaSalka Viertel
|MGM's German version of Anna Christie was also released in 1930; Salka Viertel, Garbo's close friend, later co-wrote several of her screenplays.|
|1931||Inspiration||Yvonne Valbret||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||Montgomery, RobertRobert Montgomery|
|1931||Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)||Susan Lenox||Leonard, Robert Z.Robert Z. Leonard||Gable, ClarkClark Gable|
|1931||Mata Hari||Mata Hari||Fitzmaurice, GeorgeGeorge Fitzmaurice||Novarro, RamonRamon Novarro||After the multi-star Grand Hotel, Garbo's highest grossing film|
|1932||Grand Hotel||Grusinskaya||Goulding, EdmundEdmund Goulding||Barrymore, JohnJohn Barrymore,
Barrymore, LionelLionel Barrymore,
Crawford, JoanJoan Crawford,
Beery, WallaceWallace Beery
|Academy Award for Best Picture|
|1932||As You Desire Me||Zara aka Marie||Fitzmaurice, GeorgeGeorge Fitzmaurice||Douglas, MelvynMelvyn Douglas,
Stroheim, Erich vonErich von Stroheim
|First of three movies with Douglas|
|1933||Queen Christina||Queen Christina||Mamoulian, RoubenRouben Mamoulian||Gilbert, JohnJohn Gilbert|
|1934||Painted Veil, TheThe Painted Veil||Katrin Koerber Fane||Boleslavski, RichardRichard Boleslavski||Brent, GeorgeGeorge Brent|
|1935||Anna Karenina||Anna Karenina||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||March, FredricFredric March||New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress|
|1936||Camille||Marguerite Gautier||Cukor, GeorgeGeorge Cukor||Taylor, RobertRobert Taylor||New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
National Board of Review Best Acting Award
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
|1937||Conquest||Countess Marie Walewska||Brown, ClarenceClarence Brown||Boyer, CharlesCharles Boyer||Because the final cost for this extravagant production vastly exceeded its budget, coupled with its poor box office receipts, the film lost $1,397,000.|
|1939||Ninotchka||Nina Ivanovna "Ninotchka" Yakushova||Lubitsch, ErnstErnst Lubitsch||Douglas, MelvynMelvyn Douglas||National Board of Review Best Acting Award
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
|1941||Two-Faced Woman||Karin Borg Blake||Cukor, GeorgeGeorge Cukor||Douglas, MelvynMelvyn Douglas||National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Best Acting Award|
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- "After Twelve Years Greta Garbo Wants to Go Home to Sweden". Life. 8 November 1937. p. 81. Retrieved 4 August 2011.
- Biery 1928a. I didn't play much. Except skating and skiing and throwing snowballs. I did most of my playing by thinking. I played a little with my brother and sister, pretending we were in shows. Like other children. But usually I did my own pretending. I was up and down. Very happy one moment, the next moment – there was nothing left for me.
- Swenson 1997, p. 25.
- Biery 1928a. Then I found a theater. I must have been six or seven. Two theaters, really. One was a cabaret; one a regular theater, – across from one another. And there was a back porch to both of them. A long plank on which the actors and actresses walked to get in the back door. I used to go there at seven o'clock in the evening, when they would be coming in, and wait until eight-thirty. Watch them come in; listen to them getting ready. The big back door was always open even in the coldest weather. Listen to their voices doing their parts in the productions. Smell the grease paint! There is no smell in the world like the smell of the backyard of a theater. No smell that will mean as much to me – ever. Night after night, I sat there dreaming. Dreaming when I would be inside – getting ready.
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- Biery 1928a. When I wasn't thinking, wasn't wondering what it was all about, this living; I was dreaming. Dreaming how I could become a player.
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- The Saga of Gosta Berling (DVD). New York: Kino International. 2006. UPC 738329046927.
Bibliography and further reading
- Bainbridge, John (1955). Garbo (1st ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 256 pages. OCLC 1215789. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
- Bainbridge, John (10 January 1955). "The Great Garbo". Life. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Greta Garbo.|
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Greta Garbo|
- Greta Garbo at AllMovie
- Greta Garbo at the Internet Movie Database
- Greta Garbo at the TCM Movie Database
- Greta Garbo Biography—Yahoo! Movies
- Garbo History
- Greta Garbo The Ultimate Star
- Greta Garbo at Virtual History
- Reklamfilmer PUB Greta Garbo, commercials done in 1920 and 1922, Filmarkivet.se, Swedish Film Institute