The actor later idolized by Hitler and called simply “The Face” was born Greta Lovisa Gustafson into an extremely poor family whose father, a laborer, died when she was only fourteen. She left school to help support her family and held several menial jobs, including soap latherer at a barbershop, before she began working in a department store. Her employers at the department store capitalized on her beauty by having her appear in short advertising promotions, which eventually led to her appearance in a comedy short, Luffarpetter [Peter the Tramp] (1922).
She applied for a scholarship to the Royal Stockholm Theatre School, and while studying there she appeared as an ingenue in Mauritz Stiller's film Gosta Berlings Saga [The Atonement of Gosta Berling] (1924). The film impressed Louis B. Mayer, who offered Stiller a contract, but Stiller would not accept unless Garbo was also put under contract. Although Mayer thought Garbo “too fat,” he acquiesced and Garbo traveled to America with Stiller.
The woman who arrived in America was not the sophisticated enchantress that would become a film legend. She was given a studio makeover and given a part that no one else wanted—that of a peasant girl who becomes a vamp and avenges herself on the man who ravished her as a child. Although Garbo thought that the part was rather silly, the resulting film, The Torrent (1926), brought her rave reviews.
Variety exclaimed that she had “looks, acting ability and personality.” Her next two films were equally successful, and audiences were mesmerized by her passionate portrayals. After these three film successes, she demanded a raise to $5,000 per week. MGM held out against her demands for seven months but eventually capitulated. The studio promoted her first talking role with the banner headline “Garbo Speaks!” and the film was a hit. Her accent, which the studio originally feared would end her career, only added to her enigmatic personality and the audience loved her.
At the height of her popularity, she received more than 20,000 fan letters per month. Rumor had it that an Arab sheik offered her $50 million just to attend his dinner party—which she turned down. Her temperament and whims became as famous as the star herself. She shunned publicity, and her remark “I want to be left alone,” became the famous, if misquoted, line “I want to be alone.”
She grew tired of playing vampish parts, so when her contract expired in the early 1930s, in addition to demanding more money, she held out for the power to choose one of her films. Her choice was Queen Christina (1933), for which she received her highest praise; her portrayal was voted the year's best female performance in Britain.
Although her appeal in America was lessening, she was still a major draw in Europe, so MGM renewed her contract in 1935 at a salary of $250,000 per picture. The first picture under the new contract was Anna Karenina (1935), for which Garbo won the New York Critics Award for Best Actress. Her next film, Camille (1936), is often cited as her best performance—she again won the New York Critics' Award but lost her bid for an Oscar.
In 1939 Garbo was awarded the Litteris and Artibus medal, Sweden's highest honor, but in America her career was again in flux. For her next film the studio proclaimed, “Garbo Laughs!” and Garbo was a hit in Ninotchka (1939), for which she was again nominated for an Academy Award. But mishandling by MGM and the outbreak of World War II brought an end to her career.
In her sixteen-year career she made only twenty-seven films. Still, the mystique that surrounded her has never truly faded and some believe that her image is still the standard by which all female actors are compared. Her fame grew even as she granted no interviews, signed no autographs, and attended none of her own premieres.
Upon retiring, Garbo moved to New York and traveled for a time before going into complete seclusion in her seven-room apartment in New York's Upper East Side. Although during World War II she was accused of being pro-German, she became aU.S. citizen in 1951 and it was later revealed that she had helped the British by providing intelligence and acting as a courier during the war.
In 1954 she received a special Oscar for her “unforgettable screen performances,” but even this honor did not bring her out of her self-imposed seclusion. Years later The Guiness Book of World Records voted her “the most beautiful woman who ever lived.” A few years before her death, when asked by a fan “Are you Garbo,” she replied enigmatically, “I was Greta Garbo.”
|1922||Luffarpetter [Peter the Tramp]|
|1924||Gosta Berlings Saga [The Atonement of Gosta Berling]|
|1925||Die Freudlosegasse [Viennese love]|
|1926||The Torrent; The Temptress; Flesh and the Devil|
|1928||The Divine Woman; The Mysterious Lady; A Woman of Affairs|
|1929||Wild Orchids; A Man's Man; The Single Standard; The Kiss|
|1930||Anna Christie; Romance|
|1931||Love Business; Susan Lenox (Her Rise and Fall); Mata Hari; Inspiration; Anna Christie|
|1932||Grand Hotel; As You Desire Me|
|1934||The Painted Veil|
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