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Silver Screen Sphinxes

How Greta Garbo and Buster Keaton invented celebrity privacy

Garbo by Robert Gottlieb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages.

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens. Atria Books, 432 pages.

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis. Knopf, 832 pages.

Like so many young women of the immediate postwar years, my grandmother moved to Manhattan to seek a future. Born in rural West Virginia, the daughter of immigrant farmers, she snagged a job at a New York department store which as of today has been shuttered for half a century: Best & Company. It was there on Fifth Avenue, on a lunch break, that she saw Greta Garbo. She never forgot it. She described it like this: “She was very tall, in a big hat pulled down over her eye. She saw people staring, but she never stopped, and she never smiled.”

Garbo, once the preeminent goddess of the silver screen to which all other stars referred, is more likely to register to younger audiences today as a signifier of the vague, dusty glamour of a bygone age. But even when my grandmother glimpsed her in the late 1940s, Garbo had already withdrawn from the public eye. Having told the world with breathy certainty that she wanted to be alone, she disappeared from film after the Second World War. There was always something special about this icon of remote ennui on the screen; a movie star who had an eloquence of mien beyond most any other. Garbo radiated mystery because she was genuinely mysterious: self-possessed and private in a way that bordered on the compulsive. It only added to her mystique.

They each had a uniquely inscrutable quality in close-up, the geography of their features aloof, their gazes distant.

In a new biography of the star, simply titled Garbo, veteran writer and former Simon & Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb writes her life story in a manner both tantalizing and frustrating, packing it with asides and ellipses that seem only to further obfuscate the “real” Garbo, whomever that is. This year so far has also seen the appearance of two biographies—by Dana Stevens and James Curtis, respectively—featuring the life and work of another early twentieth century screen star: silent film’s slapstick genius, Buster Keaton. Both Garbo and Keaton’s careers reached vertiginous heights in the heady silent era, when they were contracted to MGM under studio head Louis B. Mayer and his hotshot young producer Irving Thalberg; Keaton’s beloved dog, Elmer the St. Bernard, used to accompany Garbo up and down the studio lot. But beyond this, the two stars don’t seem especially comparable—at least on the face of it.

Keaton was a vaudevillian and comedian whose acting “school” involved being dropped on his head by his dad as part of a touring comedy troupe. Garbo, for the most part, was seen as a serious actor and studied at the Royal Dramatic Theater Academy in Sweden. Keaton was born in Kansas and spoke with a midwestern twang, while Garbo was born in a tenement on the outskirts of Stockholm, an émigré who steadfastly resisted integration, calling America “ugly.” She retired early, vanishing from the screen and moving to New York; Keaton worked, on a diminished scale, right up until his death. Yet through Gottlieb’s, Stevens’s, and Curtis’s works, I began to see a remarkable connective tissue between these two giants of the screen.

The pair shared more than a studio. They each had a uniquely inscrutable quality in close-up, the geography of their features aloof, their gazes distant. Film critic James Agee nicknamed Keaton “The Great Stone Face” for his stoicism in the midst of being swept up in slapstick hurricanes, stampedes, and all sorts of whirlwinds of dangerous hilarity. In spite of his physical dexterity and teflon-like ability to take punishment, his face always remained immobile. (That legendary poker face came about, according to Stevens, when Keaton’s vaudevillian father told him a straight face got more laughs than a smile.)

When Garbo appeared in Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling satirical comedy Ninotchka (1939), the tagline declared: “Garbo Laughs!,” as if to suggest she probably never had before. Béla Balázs, an early film theorist, noted that Garbo’s beauty came not from levity but from her perceived pain, remarking that it was “a beauty of suffering . . . Her brooding glance comes from afar even then and looks into the endless distance.” She and Keaton both projected a certain demurring quality that would come to help audiences define them—and their offscreen lives—in a very particular way. The most unknowable and mysterious of the old stars remade the very concepts of fame and persona, helping to carve out our perception of privacy as it relates to celebrities today.

The divine queen of early American cinema arrived in the United States in 1925. She was nineteen, in possession of barely a word of English, traveling on a promise from Louis B. Mayer to contract her as a major upcoming star. Her luminous quality made her a diva par excellence almost immediately. The press obsessed over her every move, particularly after a string of box office hits with her lover/costar John Gilbert, artistically culminating in The Flesh and The Devil (1926).

At that time, Keaton was twenty-nine, a decade the Swede’s senior and decisively in the thick of his greatest creative period. Both behind and in front of the camera, his death-defying and increasingly ingenious gags and scenarios were drawing top dollar—around $3,000 per week in 1926—allowing him and his first wife Natalie to live in palatial splendor in a house they nicknamed “the Italian Villa.” It was this same year that The General, often regarded as his greatest film, would be released.

Garbo may have been younger and newer to Hollywood than Keaton, but she never did waste much time: by 1930, newcomers like Bette Davis already regarded her as movie royalty. A few years would further change their fortunes, as the incoming cudgel of sound technology fell hard on Keaton. Garbo’s stock rose and Keaton’s precipitously declined, aided by the usual Hollywood demons, not yet old enough to be cliché, of drink and divorce. By the time of Grand Hotel, the glossy all-star ensemble that would take the 1932 Academy Award for Best Picture, Keaton’s career was stalling. It was the film that gave Garbo her most famous line; it was also the one which robbed Keaton of a fine opportunity. As Dana Stevens describes it in Cameraman, he rarely expressed regret, but remained wistful over losing out on the role of the tragic Kringelein to Lionel Barrymore. In his estimation, it would have been a chance to get off the booze and play a dramatic—and modern—part with real conviction.

In life, Keaton was quiet, polite, and reserved; a cool professional demeanor from his endless days on the stage. Garbo could be playful, but she was also remote, and it wasn’t stardom that made her so. Even as a girl, she was exacting to the point of being peculiar; she hated small talk and loud commotions, would get up and leave social gatherings without a word. As Gottlieb has it, “The studio, the industry, and the public were getting used to her unyielding demand for privacy.” She was a conscientious objector to the publicity machine from the start, for reasons still oblique to us today: temperament, circumstance, sexuality, eccentricity. Apparently, those reasons remain oblique to her biographers, too. For six months in 1926, at the height of her stardom, Garbo stopped appearing at work and vanished from the public eye entirely, leaving us to wonder to this day what happened and why. 

Nearly two decades later, another famous film would bring Keaton and Garbo together again: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a barbed look at the fading stars of yesteryear, led by an unforgettable Gloria Swanson as the deranged Norma Desmond. When Desmond goes on her legendary rant about the inferiority of contemporary film—“We had faces then!”—her sole exception is Garbo, whom she mentions by name. Buster Keaton had a part, too, sitting around a game of cards with a couple of other half-forgotten silent film stars. The voiceover cruelly refers to them as “waxworks,” but Keaton never did lose his sense of humor about it. Per James Curtis’s account, “Keaton was heard to mutter, ‘waxworks is right,’ sending the others into howls of laughter.” There’s more than coincidence to the fact that Keaton and Garbo, while never together onscreen, both maintain a ghostlike presence in the movie.

In their own ways, Garbo and Keaton came to embody a loss of something in American culture. Garbo herself was the loss, turning away from her career to potter around her New York flat on East Fifty-Second Street for the rest of her years. She refused even to attend the 1955 Oscars ceremony where she would be honored with an award. Keaton, though he worked constantly—in television, the circus, choreography, and more—right up until his death at age seventy in 1966, seemed to be utterly consigned to the past by public perception. Even as he tirelessly tried to move the needle forward, he was often treated as a walking scrapbook, gone yellow at the sides. As his line goes in Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight (1952): “If anybody else says it’s like ‘old times’, I’ll jump out the window.” Part of the greatness of Stevens’s book is its retrieval of Keaton’s latter years from the “tragic” label; the only tragic thing was everyone else’s inability to see him for what he was. Though, tellingly, he also insisted on downplaying himself—playing the part of a clumsy waiter for a comic bit at the 1959 Academy Awards ceremony, only to be shocked with the news he was the recipient of one.

It seems unlikely either could know how much reclusiveness would become fetishized, packaged, and sold in later years.

If star power is so often located in the tension between person and persona, between the accessible and inaccessible, the paradox of the star-as-recluse remains one of the most potent forms of actorly power. The face, the body, and the personality of the star are accepted as territory for public debate, projection, and ownership—often unthinkingly—by the masses. When celebrities become withdrawn, or imply another, secret life—some fundamental unknowability—it is a source of both consternation and intrigue. As French thinker Edgar Morin wrote in his lyrical 1957 text Stars: An Account of the Star System in Motion Pictures, “Garbo, in our midst and yet not among us, bears witness today to the star’s former greatness. Too big for a cinema that had grown too small, she hardly deigned to make a few last films before shutting herself up in definitive silence.”

Perhaps Garbo contributed to her own myth unwittingly by receding to the background;  it might have been a very human way to recoil from the trappings of fame, with all its setbacks. But, then, reclusiveness sometimes functions as a tool, a way to drum up a “big comeback.” (These were often rumored for Garbo, but never came to fruition.) Highly publicized expressions of frustration with fame and the press—complaints about constant external interference, or the preponderance of country houses and log cabins and the other luxury trappings of high-class alienation—might just be good PR, a double bluff we all recognize. But it’s only a double bluff because legends like Garbo and Keaton discovered how to maintain power over the masses through their own resistance to the rules of the game.

Today, the pressures of contemporary surveillance culture and social media analysis make the unknown all the more alluring. And mostly, it plays well to exploit that “private life”; the concept itself has become a positioning method for a star’s perceived down-to-earth-ness. In the current age of cannibalized life-as-PR, modern celebrities seem to be able to demand privacy and appear relatable nonetheless, largely thanks to social media. But when it was still in its relative infancy, movie publicity relied on contracted stars for everything from heavily constructed lifestyle stories in movie mags to maintaining a public demeanor that complemented their onscreen one. Garbo and Keaton remained knowingly unknowable, tantalizingly un-down-to-earth for demanding their own space. They originated the foundational myth of the star-as-Sphinx: two towering enigmas of the screen who had the rare ability to radiate genuine mystery. It seems unlikely either could know how much reclusiveness would become fetishized, packaged, and sold in later years.

In Cameraman, Stevens paints a picture of Keaton hurtling toward modernity the same way he often literally hurtled through the air, a man with a hangdog acceptance of coming misfortune that gave him an air of permanent melancholy, even as it made everyone laugh. The image can’t help but stick; both he and Garbo were moving, at breakneck speed, into the future.