Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Louise Brooks

I've been holding off from adding Ms Brooks to the ranks of my 'Fantasy Girlfriends'. Perhaps I was afraid the selection would seem too 'obvious', not 'individual' enough (although, heck, most of my other choices have, I think, been fairly universal favourites). More likely I was fretting that I wouldn't know what to say about her: she was such a remarkable character that it's difficult to begin to do her justice in a few short paragraphs. (The Wikipedia article on her is 1,000 words, and barely scratches the surface.)

She was, of course, one of the great movie stars of the later silent era, establishing herself in an all-too-brief career as one of the most iconic beauties of the 20th Century (the inspiration for, amongst many others, Liza Minelli's 'look' as Sally Bowles in Cabaret). The distinctive short bob hairstyle which she popularized (and perhaps created: she claimed to have been wearing her hair like this, at her own insistence, since childhood) will probably bear her name for eternity.
There's a wonderful slideshow of black-and-white portraits of her on YouTube here, and an interesting selection of painstakingly colourized ones here.

I think there was something more to such potent and lasting appeal than just the beauty of her face and figure, or her acting ability, or her alluring aura of innocent-but-naughty sexiness. There's a hint of fragility, vulnerability about her photographs too - that quality that arouses the male protective instincts. (She had a pretty unhappy life in many ways: blighted by an instance of sexual abuse when she was a young child, she struggled for many years with debt and alcoholism, and went through a string of unsatisfactory relationships.) But there's also a suggestion of great strength, and self-confidence about her.... and an unusual intelligence.

After her film career fizzled out (it would seem she wilfully destroyed it: she had a golden opportunity to re-establish herself in the mid-30s when she was offered the female lead opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy, the role that would make a star of Jean Harlow; but she impetuously turned it down to spend time with her lover instead), she struggled to make a living - but one of her brief, abortive jobs had been as a gossip columnist, and it's such a pity that those pieces are now lost. And I suspect that it is a great tragedy that also lost is Naked On My Goat (a line from Goethe's Faust!), an autobiographical novel she worked on intermittently for several years - before becoming dissatisfied with it and flinging the manuscript in an incinerator. Later in life, when she was 'rediscovered' and lionized by European film critics, she revealed a striking talent for writing, publishing many witty and insightful articles and essays on film and on her own life. Several of these pieces are now collected as Lulu In Hollywood - a book that has long been on my wish-list.

I love the attitude of the woman: protesting that she hated Hollywood, and walking out on her Paramount contract at the height of her fame to go and make a remarkable trio of films in Europe with the great German expressionist director G.W. Pabst - the films (Pandora's Box, Diary Of A Lost Girl, and Prix de Beauté [the latter written and produced by Pabst, but directed by his friend, the Italian Augusto Genina]) on which her reputation now rests. She later claimed: "I just didn't fit into the Hollywood scheme at all. I was neither a fluffy heroine, nor a wicked vamp, nor a woman of the world. I just didn't fit into any category."

She also delighted in titillating and scandalizing people - cultivating the reputation of being a lesbian out of sheer devilment (late in life, she said: "Out of curiosity, I had two affairs with girls - they did nothing for me.").

She was one of a kind. She refused to fit into any conventional template or to acquiesce in others' expectations of her. It was perhaps both a blessing and a curse, this rebellious individualism: it was what made her such a compelling figure, but it also condemned her to a life that was mostly marginalized and unfulfilled. She wrote of this 'flaw' in herself, her "failure as a social creature":

My mother did attempt to make me less critical of people's false faces. "Now, dear, try to be more popular," she told me. "Try not to make people so mad!" I would watch my mother, pretty and charming, as she laughed and made people feel clever and pleased with themselves, but I could not act that way. And so I have remained, in cruel pursuit of truth and excellence, an inhumane executioner of the bogus, an abomination to all but those few who have overcome their aversion to truth in order to free whatever is good in them.

Now do you see why I love her so?

Finally, here's a great little clip compilation (although the accompanying music - Mr Brightside by The Killers - might not be to everyone's taste)....


JES said...

Sigh. Yes.

Passionate embraces and kisses depicted in movies are so often unconvincing to me. But for some reason when I see these guys ecstatically grappling with LB, I buy into it completely.

Froog said...

She had ooomph to spare, didn't she?

I think she could actually act, as well - which was perhaps a rare distinction in those days.

Froog said...

You haven't read her book, have you, JES?

It occurred to me that you might find a few things in there for your whiskey river Fridays.

JES said...

No, haven't read her book. Until I read of it here, I don't think I even knew it existed!

You haven't reviewed it for The Book Book, have you?

Froog said...

No, not yet. Browsed it a library once, years ago. And I had another little noodle around it on Amazon the other day. Looks like good stuff.

JES said...

I found an Italian site which you might be interested in. It's a tribute site, of course -- "the" (?) Louise Brooks Society -- and most of it is in Italian. (Google Translate can help some with that problem.)

BUT there are lots of photos I've never seen before. (She rather resembles Isabella Rossellini in the central photo on the home page.)

And they've also scanned numerous contemporary magazine articles (some by her, some by others) and reproduced the page images there, blown up to more-than-readable size.

AND there's what brought me there: they've also got the text of the last chapter of Lulu in Hollywood, amusingly called "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs" (indifferently transcribed, alas, and rife with what are obviously typos).

Hope you've got some time to kill!

Froog said...

Not for the next three weeks, I fear. The football is killing all the time I have, and then some!

But thanks very much for that link, JES: it sounds fascinating.

I find I'm starting to quite like that Killers song (and I'm impressed by how well the clips have been edited to fit it). I haven't heard much of them before, and may have to check some out. Although, what I have heard all sounds strangely similar; I don't have the musical acumen to describe it, but it's to do with the choppy nature of their lyrics, always seeming to be spat out in short phrases with the same or very similar and very insistent stress pattern.

JES said...

Well, I'd thought it was (aside from my own schedule) the football-posts binge which silenced me here. Now I'm not so sure: this LB-as-Fantasy-Girlfriend conversation may have simply stopped me in my tracks!