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'Garbo' Paints a Full Portrait of Star

September 04, 2001|STEVEN LINAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Greta Garbo: A Lone Star," an absorbing AMC documentary, celebrates the legacy of the illustrious, enigmatic beauty from Stockholm.

"There was something about Garbo that just made people want to know more about her," says biographer Karen Swenson. "The more she withheld, the more they wanted to know."

Swenson is one of three biographers quoted during this well-rounded, informative program covering the life and career of the Swedish actress with the husky voice and heavy accent who valued her privacy above all.

Narrated by Lauren Bacall, the hour's most interesting quotes come from 1930s leading lady Karen Morley, who discusses Garbo's legendary reputation as a recluse. According to Morley, it was MGM, the studio that signed Garbo in 1925, that was partly responsible for keeping her out of the spotlight. Because she was so direct and straightforward in early interviews, asserts Morley, MGM "pretended that she didn't want to talk, but the truth was she talked too much."

Some of Garbo's biggest hits of the silent era were made with the dashing John Gilbert, who proposed marriage on three occasions but was turned down each time. Explaining their combustible on-screen chemistry, Gilbert's daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain says, "There was such unspoken sex going on" between them in films such as "Flesh and the Devil" and "Love."

In spite of her immense popularity, Garbo had no interest in being a celebrity and was seldom seen on the social circuit. On the set, meanwhile, "she had a desperate need for privacy," says Fountain. "She could not function if people were watching her."

Garbo's final film, "Two-Faced Woman," which was released in 1941, was slammed by critics and shunned by moviegoers. After starring in such films as "Mata Hari," "Grand Hotel," "Queen Christina" and "Ninotchka," she left Hollywood, moved to a New York apartment and lived there alone until her death in 1990 at the age of 84.

*

"Greta Garbo: A Lone Star" can be seen tonight at 7 and 10:30 on AMC. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).

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