Res­o­nance of a silent siren

Lyn­den Bar­ber Lulu For­ever By Peter Cowie Riz­zoli New York, 256pp, $ 99.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Pic­ture: Lulu For­ever

It’s for you: Silent film star Louise Brooks in a Paris cafe in 1929, sur­rounded by ad­mir­ers

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