Regarded as one of the greatest and most inscrutable movie stars ever produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Hollywood studio system, Garbo received a 1954 Honorary Oscar "for her unforgettable screen performances" and in 1999 was ranked as the fifth greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.
She then became a clerk at the department store PUB in Stockholm, where she would also model for newspaper advertisements. Her first motion picture aspirations came when she appeared in two short film advertisements (the first for the department store where she worked). They were eventually seen by comedy director Erik Arthur Petschler and he gave her a part in his upcoming film Peter the Tramp (1922).
From 1922 to 1924, Garbo studied at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. While there, she met director Mauritz Stiller. He trained her in cinema acting technique, gave her the stage name "Greta Garbo", and cast her in a major role in the silent film Gösta Berlings Saga (English: The Story of Gösta Berling) in 1924, a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. She starred in Gösta Berling opposite Swedish film actor Lars Hanson, then appeared in the German film Die Freudlose Gasse (The Street Of Sorrow, 1925), directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring Asta Nielsen.
She and Stiller were brought to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer when Gösta Berlings Saga caught his attention. On viewing the film during a visit to Berlin, Mayer was impressed with Stiller's direction, but was much more taken with Garbo's acting and screen presence. According to Mayer's daughter, Irene Mayer Selznick, with whom he screened the film, it was the gentle feeling and expression that emanated from her eyes which so impressed her father.
Unfortunately, her relationship with Stiller came to an end as her fame grew and he struggled in the studio system. He was fired by MGM and returned to Sweden in 1928, where he died soon after. Garbo was also close friends with Einar Hanson, a Swedish actor who worked with her and Pabst on The Street Of Sorrow, and then came to Hollywood to work at MGM and Paramount Pictures. Einar Hanson was killed in an auto accident in 1927, after leaving a dinner with Garbo and Stiller. Garbo's sister Alva died of cancer in 1926 at the age of 23 after appearing in one feature film in Sweden, adding to the melancholy Garbo felt at being in Hollywood. MGM refused to allow Garbo to return to Sweden for her sister's funeral, and Garbo was only able to return to Sweden for a visit in 1928.
The most important of Garbo's silent movies were The Temptress (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1926), and Love (1927). She starred in the latter two with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Her name was linked with his in a much publicized romance, and she was said to have left him standing at the altar in 1926, when she changed her mind about getting married.
Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, she was one of the few actors who made the transition to talkies, though she delayed the shift for as long as possible. Her film The Kiss (1929) was the last film MGM made without dialogue (it used a soundtrack with music and sound effects only).
Her voice was first heard on screen in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1930), which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks". The movie was a huge success. In 1931 Garbo made a German version of the movie.
She then had a contract dispute with MGM. She signed a new contract in July 1932, departing for Sweden later the same month. She exercised her new control by having her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), Laurence Olivier, replaced with Gilbert. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted her cast as the dying heiress in Dark Victory, but she insisted on doing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Bette Davis would eventually play the Judith Trahenre role in Dark Victory and score her third Oscar nomination.
Her role as the doomed courtesan in Camille (1936), directed by George Cukor, would be regarded by Garbo as her finest acting performance. She then starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Garbo received praise from many fellow actors:
During Garbo's Hollywood career, she was caricatured in the Warner Bros. cartoons Porky's Road Race, Speaking of the Weather (both directed by Frank Tashlin) and Hollywood Steps Out (directed by Tex Avery).
It is often reported that Garbo chose to retire from cinema after this film's failure, but already by 1935 she was becoming more choosy about her roles, and eventually years passed without her agreeing to do another film. By her own admission, Garbo felt that after World War II the world changed, perhaps forever.
In 1941, MGM costume-designer Adrian also left the studio, later saying:
In 1949, Garbo filmed several screen tests as she considered reentering the movie business to shoot La Duchesse de Langeais directed by Walter Wanger; otherwise she never stepped in front of a movie camera again. The plans for this film collapsed when financing failed to materialize, and these tests were lost for 40 years, before resurfacing in someone's garage. They were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo, and show her still radiant at age 43. There were suggestions that she might appear as the "Duchess de Guermantes" in a film adaptation of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time but this never came to fruition. She was offered many roles over the years, but always turned them down.
Her last interview was probably with the celebrated entertainment writer Paul Callan of the London Daily Mail during the Cannes Film Festival. Meeting at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, Callan began "I wonder . . ", before Garbo cut in with "Why wonder?", and stalked off, making it one of the shortest interviews ever published.
She gradually withdrew from the entertainment world and moved to a secluded life in New York City, refusing to make any public appearances. Up until her death, Garbo sightings were considered sport for paparazzi photographers. In 1974, pornographic filmmaker Peter De Rome tracked Garbo across New York and shot unauthorized footage of her for inclusion in his X-rated feature Adam & Yves.
Despite these attempts to flee from fame, she was nevertheless voted Best Silent Actress of the Century (her compatriot Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Sound Actress) in 1950, and was also designated as the most beautiful woman who ever lived by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Her famous byline was always said to be, "I want to be alone," spoken with a heavy accent which made the word "want" sound like "vont." This quote as noted comes from her role in Grand Hotel. However, Garbo later commented, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is all the difference." This byline was referenced in the movie Death Becomes Her, where it was used in a comedic way, implying that Garbo had taken the eternally young potion used in the movie plot.
Garbo kept her private affairs out of the public domain. According to private letters released in Sweden in 2005 to mark the centenary of her birth, she was reclusive in part because she was "self-obsessed, depressive, and ashamed of her latrine-cleaner father.
Her most famous sexual relationship — but not her only such relationship — was with actor John Gilbert. They starred together for the first time in the classic Flesh and the Devil in 1926. Their on-screen "erotic intensity soon translated into an off-camera romance, and by the end of production Garbo had moved in with Gilbert. Gilbert is said to have proposed to Garbo at least three times. She reportedly wanted to quit films if they married, but Gilbert wanted her to continue her career. When a marriage was finally arranged in 1926, she failed to show up at the ceremony. After their affair ended, Garbo showed great loyalty to Gilbert after his career collapsed with the coming of sound films, and insisted that he appear with her in 1933's Queen Christina despite the objection of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer.
The 1995 biography Garbo by Barry Paris relates Garbo's relationships - which were often just close friendships - with actor George Brent, conductor Leopold Stokowski, nutritionist (and gay man) Gayelord Hauser, and her manager George Schlee, husband of designer Valentina.
In 1931, Garbo met and quickly befriended Mercedes de Acosta. The two were introduced to one another by de Acosta's close friend, author Salka Viertel, who was also very close to Garbo and wrote the screenplay for several of Garbo's films. Her relationship with Garbo has often been described as "the love of her lifetime". From all information from the time, it is unlikely that Garbo shared those feelings. Garbo was in control of the friendship, which was close for about a year from 1931 to 1932.
But thereafter, theirs was a vacillating relationship, with Garbo even ignoring de Acosta -everything was at the will of Garbo. Estranged by 1937, in 1944, Garbo insisted de Acosta stop sending her poems and letters professing her love. The last known poem of hers for Garbo was written that same year. Their relationship finally ended when De Acosta wrote about her lesbian affairs in the autobiography Here Lies the Heart (1960).
Garbo felt her movies had their proper place in history and would gain in value. On 9 February 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1954 she was awarded a special Academy Award.
She would at times jet-set with some of the world's best known personalities such as Aristotle Onassis and Cecil Beaton, but chose to live a private life. She was known for taking long walks through the New York streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi, and media attention. Garbo did, however, receive one last flurry of publicity when nude photos, taken with a long-range lens, were published in People in 1976. Trim and relaxed, she was enjoying a swim.
Garbo lived the last years of her life in absolute seclusion. She had invested very wisely, particularly in commercial property along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, was known for extreme frugality, and was very wealthy.
She died in New York Hospital on 15 April 1990, aged 84, as a result of pneumonia and renal failure, which had shut down her stomach and kidneys. She had previously been operated on and treated for breast cancer, which required a partial mastectomy, from which she recovered.
She was cremated and her ashes were finally interred after a long legal battle at the Skogskyrkogården Cemetery in her native Stockholm. She left her entire estate, estimated at $20,000,000 USD to her niece, Gray Reisfield of New Jersey.
For her contributions to cinema, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard. In addition, in September 2005, the United States Postal Service and Swedish Posten jointly issued two commemorative stamps bearing her likeness.
|Mr and Mrs Stockholm Go Shopping||Elder sister||former title: How Not To Dress|
|The Gay Cavalier||Extra||uncredited|
|1921||Our Daily Bread||Companion|
|The Scarlet Angel||Extra||uncredited|
|1922||Peter the Tramp||Greta|
|1924||The Story of Gösta Berling||Elizabeth Dohna||directed by Mauritz Stiller|
|1925||Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street)||Greta Rumfort||directed by G. W. Pabst|
|1926||The Torrent||Leonora Moreno aka La Brunna|
|Flesh and the Devil||Felicitas||directed by Clarence Brown|
|1927||Love||Anna Karenina||directed by Edmund Goulding|
|1928||The Divine Woman||Marianne||Only a 9 minute reel exists. Source: The Mysterious Lady DVD|
|The Mysterious Lady||Tania Fedorova|
|A Woman of Affairs||Diana Merrick Furness|
|1929||Wild Orchids||Lillie Sterling|
|The Single Standard||Arden Stuart Hewlett|
|The Kiss||Irene Guarry|
|1930||Anna Christie||Anna Christie||Academy Award nomination - Best Actress|
|Romance||Madame Rita Cavallini||Academy Award nomination - Best Actress|
|1931||Anna Christie||Anna Christie||MGM's German version of Anna Christie, released early 1931|
|Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)||Susan Lenox|
|Mata Hari||Mata Hari|
|As You Desire Me||Zara aka Marie|
|1933||Queen Christina||Queen Christina|
|1934||The Painted Veil||Katrin Koerber Fane|
|1935||Anna Karenina||Anna Karenina||New York Film Critics Circle Award - Best Actress|
|1936||Camille||Marguerite Gautier||Academy Award nomination - Best Actress|
|1937||Conquest||Countess Marie Walewska|
|1939||Ninotchka||Nina Ivanovna 'Ninotchka' Yakushova||Academy Award nomination - Best Actress|
|1941||Two-Faced Woman||Karin Borg Blake|