Revealing Lives of Two Actors
THERE are actors and actors, and nothing makes the point better than two revealing books, the recent biography of Greta Garbo and the new autobiography of Michael York. In truth, except for talent and the physical attractions that turn movie stars into glamour symbols, the two really have very little in common, quite apart from the fact that their careers unfolded in very different periods in Hollywood.
Yet, precisely because their lives and their characters are so utterly different, each story holds its own fascination, mystery, and surprise.
"Walking With Garbo," by Raymond Daum, edited and annotated by Vance Muse, ranks among the best of the many books about the elusive and reclusive Swedish star whose acting career ended when, after making "Two Faced Woman," she abruptly quit Hollywood.
The book has the enormous advantage that Daum not only knew Garbo, but also - over a period of some 20 years - frequently accompanied the actress on her walks through Manhattan. After each of these outings he recorded their conversations - rambling and often personal discourses that sometimes reflected her private philosophy. "I've always wanted two lives - one for the movies, one for myself," she once said.
But most often these conversations exposed her basic shyness, loneliness, and inability to conform. The picture that emerges is of an eccentric, a woman who simply couldn't take the Hollywood scene and to whom movie fame meant little.
On the key point of why she quit so abruptly, she remained silent. "Don't ever ask me about the movies, especially why I left them," she told Daum. "I'm sorry for a lot of things, for quitting things. But I've always lived my own peculiar way."
There are quite a few strange quotes from Garbo. For instance, she refers to herself frequently as "boy" or "man." Asked about this by Daum, she replied "I think of myself as mankind - because 'girl' sounds so silly."
What Daum didn't get from Garbo herself, Muse fills in brilliantly. Muse not only describes her great movies ("Grand Hotel," 'Queen Christina," "Anna Karenina," "Ninotchka," and "Camille"), but he also provides substance for her relationships with colleagues and directors (including her affair with costar John Gilbert, who managed to drag her temporarily into Hollywood society) and her longer relationships with Leopold Stokowski and others.
He also provides sidebars containing colorful quotes from friends and contemporary magazines that somehow fill out the picture of a complicated personality. Those precious few who knew Garbo well found her delightful, warm, affectionate, and fun. But the majority resented her refusal to play the Hollywood star game.
"I happen to be a human being born with an extremely thin skin, and that's not very good in this world," Garbo told Daum in one of those moments when she was trying to explain herself.
"Accidentally On Purpose" is still about the movies, but about a Hollywood totally different from the one Garbo knew. One doubts whether she would have appreciated the modern version any more.
Michael York is one of those people who, as he says himself, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and it apparently never left him. An Oxford University graduate, handsome, intelligent, outgoing, he always had acting in his blood, and he seems to have made the jump from Britain's National Theatre to the movies without much evident effort. In fact, his description of his youth, his family, his time at Oxford, and his early experiences in the theater stand out as the best parts of the book.
What "Accidentally on Purpose" proves is that York, who appeared in a long string of international pictures - many of them hardly memorable - is an extremely talented writer, a thoughtful observer, and someone who, along with his photographer wife, Pat, seems to have rubbed superficial shoulders with just about everybody who is anybody in the movie/jet set.
York first came to attention with "Accident," and went on to appear in "Cabaret," "The Three Musketeers," "The Guru," "Justine," "Logan's Run," etc. Much in demand, he somehow never made it to the top, which in no way detracts from the vivid quality, scope, and entertaining variety of his book.
York writes with style and a nice sense of self-deprecating humor. He describes movie locations, a long parade of famous people and situations colorfully and with a useful eye for detail, though at times he overwrites ("Our Mercedes greedily devouring the concreted kilometers...").
There are times when the book sounds like a travelogue - the footloose Yorks have been just about everywhere - and one wonders how he can stand yet another visit with the maharaja in Jaipur or house guesting with the count in Acapulco. But each time he provides some nice bits of information and pertinent (if mostly uncritical) observation, which give the book its flavor and personal quality.
When all is said and done, and one marvels about his drive and stamina, what emerges is a sensitive, thoroughly decent account of a dedicated man. Despite the apparently endless social aspect of his life, he never lost enthusiasm for his profession and resisted the temptation to look at the world from the often narrow perspective of the "movie star."