Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Greta Garbo, Zen Master

Greta Garbo showed up as a fictional character in a book, and we got interested in her. We didn't remember seeing her movies, but we had seen that face. Of course. So we asked the kids at the local video store and they recommended Queen Christina. Wonderful film about a woman who abdicates from the throne to live an ordinary life. We have followed up with Anna Christie, better in the German than in the English, and a couple of her silent films. They say that she was so expressive that she needed fewer written words to describe her action and dialogue than any other actor.

On film she is mesmerizing and magnificent. She glows in front of the camera. When I started to read Garbo by Barry Paris, an exhaustive bio for those interested, I didn't know what to expect. In life she was kind of...dull. She seemed to lack direction, and needed people around her to decide which films she would make and how she would invest her money. In Hollywood she lived with a couple of guys, but didn't have any interest in marriage or settling into one spot. She moved around a lot. She didn't read much, and was not known to have "big thoughts". And most of all she is famous for having said about the starstruck fans chasing her "I want to be left alone."

Then why do I say she was a Zen Master? Because she did all this with an astonishing lack of ego. The makeup people made her look good for the camera, but she did not preen at herself. She seemed to have no obsession with how she looked on screen, letting costar John Gilbert always show his best side to the camera regardless of how she looked. She hated to rehearse, though she was letter perfect in memorizing dialogue. She just became the characters she played and with minimal fuss showed in her face and the lift of an eyebrow a lifetime of emotion.

And then she let it go. She had been a huge star, but never liked star trappings. She didn't like Hollywood parties where she would be on display as "Garbo". (Though she had little physical modesty and swam nude in her friends' pools.) She disliked fans coming up to her on the street for autographs, trying to get a piece of her personality for themselves. She usually said no. It's not that she was angry, it was that she just didn't care and didn't see why she should do anything that didn't interest her.

She just drifted out of film making. She lived in New York and traveled and walked a lot, and then stayed at home and watched Matlock on TV. She could have seemed depressed, but that didn't seem to be it. She was disinterested. She had few passions - not men or ideas or drugs or shopping. She was not motivated by the approval of others and did not feel the need to please them. She had many long term friendships but she was always less invested in the relationships than others were.

She was, to use a Zen word, detached. If you imagine being gifted in your youth with such talent and beauty that the world wanted access to you, how would you respond? Could you keep your ego out of it and not think how great you were based on others' opinions? Could you let fame and fortune go when you felt it was right and give up the applause? Could you look at your own beauty in the mirror and not take it personally? Garbo was able to do that.

So in the end, I'm not sure I would have been her friend, but I am moved by the way she lived her life. She did not let the world's opinion of what she ought to do keep her from following the path she felt pulled to. Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are sleepy, act when someone puts you in a movie, as the old Zen teaching goes (sort of). And when the part calls for sadness you are sad, and when it calls for joy, you radiate your light through the lens, through the projector, to whoever is watching the film. And then you let it go.

P.S. She was also the perfect height, 5'7 1/2" and was mad about lingonberries. But I don't take these coincidences personally.

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