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`Lulu,' eternally bewitching

Louise Brooks' acting career was brief but incandescent.

October 12, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

LOUISE BROOKS was not just a Jazz Age actress, she was a drug that went right to your head, a performer of phenomenal presence who jumped to icon without a lengthy stay at earthbound stardom. The written word cannot convey her qualities, but to see her is to immediately understand.

Because 2006 is the centenary year of Brooks' birth on Nov. 14 in Cherryvale, Kan., celebrations are in order. A lushly illustrated biography, "Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever" by Peter Cowie, is being published by Rizzoli, and starting tonight the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is offering a rare chance to experience her work on the big screen over the next two weekends.

On view will be the Howard Hawks-directed "A Girl in Every Port," one of Brooks' most highly regarded Hollywood films; G.W. Pabst's "Diary of a Lost Girl"; and the little-seen French-made "Prix de Beaute."

But the highlight of the festival, playing at 7:30 tonight, Friday and Saturday in a new 35-millimeter print, is the film that defined and encapsulated the essence of Brooks' image. That would be G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent "Pandora's Box," a brooding, erotic and claustrophobic work starring Brooks as Lulu. Franz Wedekind, who wrote the play the film was based on, said Lulu was "the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware."

Brooks began in entertainment as a dancer, working for both the avant-garde Denishawn company and the Ziegfeld Follies in Manhattan, where she caught the eye of Hollywood and did a series of mostly light comedies with names like "Rolled Stockings." It was the Hawks film, however, that caught the eye of Pabst and led him to bring her to Berlin to star in "Pandora's Box," even though she was all of 21 and spoke not a word of German.

Lulu begins the film as a kept woman in a fancy apartment, the mistress of newspaper tycoon played by Fritz Kortner. He wants to leave her to make a socially advantageous marriage, but she won't hear of it: "You'll have to kill me," she says, "if you want to get away from me."

Not that Lulu herself is the soul of constancy. Far from it. During the course of the film she intoxicates not only the tycoon but also his son, a lesbian countess, a muscular trapeze artist, an ancient roue, a man who wants to sell her into prostitution and, finally, Jack the Ripper.

Yet to relate all this is to risk getting the wrong impression about Lulu. Yes, she bewitches and ruins countless individuals, including herself, but she does it not through calculation or guile but simply by existing, by being who she is.

More to the point, when Lulu says at one juncture, "This is who I am," Brooks manages to simultaneously radiate innocence and experience. In fact, the ability to actually bring innocence to experience might be the heart of the actress' appeal.

For while the other performers in "Pandora's Box," even top people like Kortner, look and act very much of the silent period, Brooks' extremely natural and unaffected work has dated not at all. An actress who defines timeless, she doesn't make you guess how people reacted to her in her prime, she is incandescent enough to allow you to feel it for yourself.

Brooks' gifts start with a matchless vivacity. She makes good use of the dancer's classic freedom of motion, glowing with showgirl enthusiasm during "Pandora's Box's" key backstage scenes. And she joins that to a quite modern freedom of emotion, an alive spirit that no man or woman can resist.

Though Brooks, who died in 1985, was most famous for her helmet-like, jet-black bobbed hair, it's the way quicksilver emotions play across one of the most alive faces in cinema history that makes her memorable.

For hers is a visage bright with promise and never daunted. It's a face that pops off the screen and draws you in, a face that makes you want to meld with the image on the screen. "Everyone wants my blood, my life," she says at one point in "Pandora's Box," and to see this singular screen actress is to inevitably add your name to that list.


`A Centenary Tribute to Louise Brooks'

"Pandora's Box," 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday

* "A Girl in Every Port" and "Diary of a Lost Girl," 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20

* "Prix de Beaute," 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21

Where: Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

Price: $8-$11

Info: (323) 857-6010,

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