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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

HIGH CONTRAST: Little Girls Lost (and Found)

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie. When Marilyn Monroe began taking
acting classes with Lee Strasberg, she performed this scene
(with Maureen Stapleton in Marie Dressler's role.) The 
result was said to have been breathtaking.

In studying the life and career of Greta Garbo, the last person I expected to draw comparisons with was Marilyn Monroe. Certainly, the differences between these two women are easier to identify. Yet, somehow, the more I got to know Garbo, the more I was able to find commonalities between Marilyn and herself-- both in the strange oddities of their behavior and in their mutual effect upon the public.

The greatest commonality between these two cinematic figureheads is their personal drive. Marilyn's determination to become the biggest star in the universe is more obviously recorded, but Garbo too had a hidden, unquenchable desire to become, not necessarily a star, but a success in her craft. Both were arguably found and formed, or aided, in their ascent by important men-- Garbo by director Mauritz Stiller, and Marilyn perhaps most importantly by agent Johnny Hyde (left). Where the two women are divergent is in the impetus behind their agendas. Garbo seemed to seek out acting as a way of transformation, a way of hiding in fantasy. She wanted to control the eye while being hidden from it-- you think you see me, but you don't. The cloak of her characters was a protection, and the emotions she experienced as the vessel of their passions and torments provided a cathartic personal release that she would never have revealed so openly in reality. Marilyn, on the other hand, sought the human eye full stop. She wanted to be swallowed by it. Acting for her was too a method of metamorphosis, but while Garbo alternated personalities in various roles while always maintaining her separate self, Marilyn mutated from Norma Jeane Mortenson into Marilyn Monroe and lost Norma Jeane in the process. Her quest for love and respect made her seek the spotlight, and only after she conquered the gaze of the camera was she able to begin her education in the art of acting in earnest. Garbo's ambition made her refuse all forms of compromise in order to get to her goal; Marilyn made the compromise and paid the forfeit. Thus, one woman enchanted the world by saying, "You can't have me," and the other by saying, "You can have it all." Objectively, one seems to be the User, the other the Used.

Their appeal to the public is thus equal in power and different in effect. It is hard to say who the bigger star truly was within their own timelines, nor who has maintained the greater allure, although the mythic, pop-cultural stature that Marilyn Monroe has reached at this point makes her sacrifice for eternal stardom seem the more obvious winner. Both, in their equal reigns over Hollywood, were considered the pinnacles of female beauty. Garbo, as a skinny, angular, and almost clumsy culmination of an art deco female, totally redefined beauty in her era. Her beauty was in her face, her eyes-- which were at once inviting and closed off. Her sexual enticement was a dare, which was only enhanced by her androgyny (right). Conversely, Marilyn was all woman all the time. She adhered to the general staples of feminine sensuality by possessing the voluptuous, curvaceous, come-hither figure that not only invited but begged for objectification. Her beauty was in her entire demeanor, including her coy movements and soft voice. She became, thus, an answered and expanded upon prayer to the male sex-- the mother, daughter, lover figure.

Both women, whether emotionally open or closed, were equal in their photogenic presences. The camera has loved perhaps no two women in history more, and both were geniuses in the art of being still and invigorating at once. Yet, again, the camera seemed to need to seek Garbo out, as if she was caught almost off guard and haphazardly-- in her perpetual state of gorgeousness-- whenever the shutter clicked. Marilyn on the other hand, used her charisma to charge at the camera, willfully pulling it to her and continuing a lifelong game of follow the leader. She more finitely determined the image she projected, including her approval or disapproval of her proofs. What the camera saw was what she wanted it to see, always and forever. Garbo, therefore, remains hypnotic for her always exhausted lack of effort and hint of disdain, and Marilyn remains hypnotic for her overzealous devotion to fulfilling the American sexual fantasy. The mind wonders when looking at both women, "What is pulling Garbo away from us?" and "What is pushing Marilyn so violently off the page" (left)?

In both cases, there is an inviting allure, although in Garbo's case it is far more dangerous in its temptation. Yet, both figures, in both still photographs and in motion, possess the same emotional quality that renders them somehow non-threatening and, in turn, likable: vulnerability. This word is used frequently in the descriptions of both women in terms of their work. Both are eternally projecting personas, but what they are projecting over is their frail humanity-- their personal weaknesses, their fear. Garbo, so stoic yet so full of emotion, is always the woman putting on a tough impenetrable act to protect her actually breaking heart. Her desire is her greatest weakness, and her passion is so strong that she seems forced to stifle it lest the world explode (right). For women in 1920s-1930s America, who were seeking liberation, the hidden she-wolf within coupled with honest feminine yearning was a quality easily identified and appreciated in Garbo. Her control of her sexuality spoke to them. She may have been a vamp, but she too had a little girl quality that just wanted to be loved. A woman, at last, could be powerful and emotional at once. Our annoying "hysterics" were for once not a malady but a centrifugal force of our character. 

Marilyn too had a bold face covering her inner complexity, though her projection is one of the utmost girlishness and passivity (left). She is the ignorant blonde, harmless in her sexuality, because she doesn't even know who she is. She's projecting what she thinks the world wants. And we do want it, particularly the male sex, who saw in Marilyn the perfect representation of the beautiful, appeasing, non-confrontational female. Yet, because we see the little girl peeking out from inside, we too sense her suffering. This is why she was and is equally embraced by the female population. Women identify with the great effort she put into her appearance, knowing first-hand the exhaustion it causes and the painful stakes one must endure to be an "attractive woman." They recognize the charade, because they all participate in it in the hopes of landing "the guy" who will love them for who they really are inside-- the mess beneath the facade. It is the internal "mess" of both women that still makes them more complicated and thus more fascinating. Garbo's vulnerability lay in the fact that she suffered under the weight of her rebellion, and Marilyn's lay in the fact that she suffered under the weight of her acclimation. Men were drawn to both figures because they represented the combination of both the virgin and the whore-- they were excited by the perfect extremities (whore) and attracted by the endearing internals (virgin).

It is actually the way Garbo and Marilyn's mutual but exclusive allure manifested itself in their private lives that indicates the greatest parallel between the two women. Their vulnerability, their eroticism, their fame... The culmination caused the same reaction. People wanted to be close to them, at first to worship and later to possess. Friends of both Marilyn and Garbo would talk about how "drawn" they were to the stars; how even off-putting behavior-- Marilyn's addictions and Garbo's eccentricities-- could not deter one from their company, at least not for long. Beneath their gorgeous exteriors existed a sadness that one wanted to quell. Everyone wanted to save Garbo from herself; everyone wanted to save Marilyn from herself. Lovers wanted to be saviors and protectors, in the likes of John Gilbert and Arthur Miller. Yet, total submission was never in the cards for either woman, whose independence was in constant conflict with their loneliness or desperation. No man could obtain them nor change them. One could only hope to forge a relationship by becoming somehow indispensable. Garbo came to lean on people like  professional confidante Salka Viertel and harmless friend Sam Green; Marilyn on acting coach Lee Strasberg and psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson. Their uncertainties and little insecurities were played upon and used, most extravagantly in Marilyn's case, in order for the outside party to maintain proximity to their otherworldliness. Like moths to a flame, people were driven toward them, but strangely, it was most often Garbo and Monroe that were burned. In most cases, people flocked to these women not simply to experience excellence by association, but, in some perverted sense, to dominate and conquer the world's greatest star, thus becoming the greater and more supreme being. Their friendships became addictive, like "chasing the dragon" or pursuing the ultimate high.

Naturally, with all this attention cast upon them, both women could be wary of strangers and a bit frightened of fans. Marilyn had a much more open and inviting relationship with her "public," but she too was nervous around large groups of people. Though fans professed to adore her, they too often seemed to be almost out for blood. Marilyn took personal judgments and attacks in the press very personally and when fans became over-eager or predatory, she certainly learned the lesson behind "Be careful what you wish for." Garbo's reaction to this same phenomenon was to remove herself completely. She used her trusted friends as shields from fanatic trespassers, avoided large publicity fueled situations, and de-glamorized herself as much as possible in her private life to detract attention. Marilyn too had an on and off switch that she could flick at will, but she often struggled with whether or not she wanted it on or off. She needed the constant reaffirmation of her worth (Greta avoids the wolves, right).

Both women in turn were suspicious of the new people that entered their worlds, who were certain to have some sort of agenda up their sleeves. Most often, the starlets would find themselves pulled to people who professed ignorance or indifference to their celebrity. Both would also seek out surrogate parental figures to fill the places left vacant by their own absent or deceased parents. Internally, they were both sensitive women, an issue only exacerbated by their feelings that they were intellectually inferior. The more Marilyn tried to improve her mind, the more society seemed to laugh at her (left). Garbo solved the problem by remaining almost universally silent. Mistakenly, people assumed that these ladies were great powers and forces of nature, which in one respect they were, but in truth, they were both evasive and non-trusting, due to vast inferiority complexes. Occasionally, the walls would come down, and the great sadness and personal disappointments that they had would be revealed-- inside, they were outsiders, no matter that they seemed to rule the world.

Maurice Chevalier once recalled chatting it up with a surprisingly candid Garbo. She let her guard down with the debonair Frenchman and seemed at ease. She playfully suggested that they go jump in the ocean, to which the conservative Chevalier expressed confusion and politely declined. The course of their entire conversation changed. After his refusal, Garbo looked as if she had been slapped like a naughty child. She withdrew, became silent, and the girlish light of mere moments before vanished. She quickly left. An honest slight or mistaken insult to an already shaky sense of self would always seem to turn the ever-invasive Garbo back inward (right). Carroll Baker recalled a similar interaction with Marilyn. Marilyn had originally hoped to play the lead in Baby Doll, the role that made Carroll a star. At the premiere, Marilyn, with husband Arthur Miller, graciously congratulated Carroll on the film's success. Carroll, who had endured a great deal of controversy and a negative publicity storm due to the subject matter of the film, responded thoughtlessly, "Thanks, but I don't know if congratulations are in order." In a quick moment, the warm, friendly Marilyn was gone. It was as if she had stepped back deep inside herself. In shock that her kindness had been rebuffed, she too turned inward. Indirectly hurt by Carroll's comments, which the latter was kicking herself for, she simply shut down and compartmentalized, as if to keep her pain under wraps. Both Garbo and Marilyn used this survival technique. Thin-skinned and ever-uncomfortable, they seemed to find no solace but in their own isolation-- sacred cocoons.

So similar and so different, both women suffered and triumphed in their different experiences through life and celebrity. Marilyn suffered a much more tragic end simply because the little girl in her cared too much. She had never received the life lessons of what mattered most versus what was superficial. She learned these lessons, of course, on the way, but too late to be protected from the repercussions of her own early misdirection. Garbo was more blessed in this respect, having grown up in a more conventional household and family that instilled in her the values and confidences that would carry her through her most turbulent moments. Garbo had no problem saying "to Hell with it." "It" was all Marilyn believed she had to hold onto, and the weight of this need led to her ruin. Had Garbo not had a strong family unit in her tender years, her endings could perhaps have been just as tragic, since both women seemed to merely hold themselves together through the same tenuous force of will. (Marilyn objectifies herself yet again for our benefit, left).

Both ladies took a final swim in their last films: Greta in
Two-Faced Woman...

There is something fascinating about the parallels and perpendiculars in these artists' relationship to each other. Both are beauties: one hard and one soft. Both are strong personas: one cold, one warm. Both are sexual representatives: one evasive, one inviting. In their comparisons and their separations, there is much to discover about our own desire and what it craves and seeks in others. Would there have been room for Marilyn in Garbo's time, or room for Garbo in Marilyn's? Were their appeals specific to their personal eras, or was their universality equally timeless? Historically, these women are equal artists who were themselves the product of their own art and, in turn, became the artistic statements of their public. There is no best, no ultimate, no winner in the subjective game in which they found themselves the pawns-- the game of our watching. Both are one of a kind creators and creations. We remain enthralled because they were so distinct, quizzical, loved, and hated in their own lifetimes. We responded to their secret depths and continue to swim in them, for in both there is so much more than meets the eye, and so much more we will always want to know.

... and Marilyn in Something's Got to Give.


  1. I really enjoyed the comparisons . How does that song go? Garbo and Monroe. Dietrich and DiMaggio. Thanks Meredith

    1. Hahaha, good catch! At least that Madonna did something right!

  2. This is one of the best things I've ever read. It's so beautiful and insightful. I don't care how late I am to this parade, I just had to comment on this flawless piece. You can expect a few of these comments since I'm backtracking through your site lol.
    Gosh, I'm kind of teared up over your words. They're so poignant and that much more sad. Funny that somebody (whose name I forget) stated that upon watching Marilyn Monroe's early screen tests he believed she was a gem and that nobody had enticed the camera such since Garbo. Amazing post.

    1. Thank you, Teddy, for your lovely comments. It definitely makes my efforts worth it. I never know how my perceptions are going to be received, so I am glad that you found this particular case to be legitimate. I hope that, should you continue reading, I can live up to this initial praise, which warmed my heart. Thanks again. :)