Resonance of a silent siren
Lynden Barber Lulu Forever By Peter Cowie Rizzoli New York, 256pp, $ 99.95
EIGHT decades after her signature roles in German director G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl , Louise Brooks continues to dazzle wherever her films and photographs are seen.
Dragging a reluctant friend, decidedly not a fan of silent cinema, to a screening of Pandora’s Box a few years ago, I promised the experience would be worth his while. Sceptical friend was blown away, virtually speechless, after experiencing the Brooks aura. Not that extreme reactions are uncommon.
Henri Langlois, founder and former head of Paris’s famous Cinematheque film archive, once raved to a critic who had accused him of venerating a nobody, ‘‘ there is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks!’’ Which sounds like Gallic overstatement only to those who have not seen her films or gazed upon her images, the latter in plentiful supply in this lavishly produced coffee- table book.
For anyone interested in Brooks, it’s hard to go past Barry Paris’s compulsively readable 1990 biography, but Lulu Forever makes a perfect companion, both for its black- and- white photos and the text supplied by Peter Cowie, a film writer and historian who met and corresponded with Brooks in her later years and helped to publish her work in her third- act career as a writer.
Today Brooks’s striking looks and undisguised sexuality, allied to her bodily grace and lack of self- consciousness on screen, have earned her a permanent place in the pantheon of the greatest stars, though in her day she was not a big commercial drawcard. Not that Brooks was wanting for contemporary admirers, with friends and acquaintances ( and in some cases, bed partners) including Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
With her swan- like neck and hypnotically large dark eyes, her alabaster skin set off against her instantly recognisable black bob hairstyle, Brooks remains one of the most beautiful women seen on celluloid.
However beauty in film is never enough, and although Brooks, aware of her lack of training, liked to say she couldn’t act, she was mistaken. Her form of acting, so different from what we think of as the silent movie style, is the highest there is; that is, where the performance is invisible. Shining through in the Pabst films is her remarkable expressiveness, her spontaneity and dancerly control of her body, even when seated.
Today Brooks is often called modern. This feels exactly right, but requires examination: her hairstyle and slender, flat- chested figure signify the archetypal 1920s flapper. Not much in common here with today’s ideal, typified by Angelina Jolie’s pouting sex goddess or Christina Aguilera’s strippergram theatrics.
No, Brooks’s modernity lay in her acting style and the carefree attitude and independence that lay behind it. Four decades before medicine provided sexual freedom, she projected joyous, guilt- free sexuality.
Decades before it became a tawdry slogan, she projected girl power. Visiting the Paris Cinematheque in 1958, impressed by the reaction of young fans, she observed: ‘‘ It seems to come down to this: that I give them faith in themselves, what they want to do and how they want to live,
courage to live without sexual and religious and economic fear.’’
Most of her films were made in Hollywood, many of them comedies, but the Brooks cult is founded on the two films made for Pabst in Germany. In the first, 1929’ s Pandora’s Box , based on two Frank Wedekind plays, her character, Lulu, was a woman whose beauty and sexual charisma drove men to destruction but who remained, at core, naive and pure of heart.
Raised in Kansas, where she trained as a dancer, Brooks moved into the limelight with New York’s Ziegfeld Follies before heading for Hollywood, for which she held an admirable though ultimately self- destructive contempt.
Her career sputtered and died after the introduction of sound. Proudly independent, Brooks was too devil- may- care to make the necessary overtures and career compromises. In the ’ 40s she survived on sexual favours and, for two years, became a sales assistant at Saks Fifth Avenue department store. Her name had been long forgotten.
Film historian James Card rescued Brooks from a dead- end third act when he began reviving her films in the early ’ 50s. He persuaded her to move to Rochester in New York State, where he headed the George Eastman House film archive, and encouraged her to begin writing essays on film. A Proust fan, she proved a sharp, witty and elegant writer, later to publish her memoirs under the title of Lulu in Hollywood .
An adoring Kenneth Tynan essay in The New Yorker magazine in 1979 finally canonised Brooks. She died from a heart attack in 1985. This comment from Paolo Cherchi Usai, head of Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive, would make a perfect epitaph: ‘‘ She was way too wild, in a business that was way too tame.’’ Lynden Barber was artistic director of the Sydney Film Festival in 2005 and 2006.
It’s for you: Silent film star Louise Brooks in a Paris cafe in 1929, surrounded by admirers