November 14, 1906– Louise Brooks:
“The great art of films does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body, but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.”
One of my favorite figures in film history, Louise Brooks was a Midwestern girl who became a noted lead dancer with the famed Denishawn Modern Dance Company in Los Angeles, whose members included a young Martha Graham. She went on to be a model, a showgirl, a Ziegfield Follies star, a film actor, and one of the most famous people on the planet. She is, of course, especially noted for popularizing the bobbed hairstyle.
In the 1920s, Brooks moved to Europe where she became an enormous star of feature films including G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929), and Prix De Beaute (1930). She starred in 17 silent films, five talkies, and achieved a cult status that has continued into the 21st century, holding film fans in awe.
Brooks was known to be resolutely independent and unafraid to use strong, salty language. She was disliked by Hollywood’s elite and studio brass for not being the submissive woman expected of a female of her era.
Living in NYC, Brooks was beckoned back to Hollywood to record sound retakes for her work in The Canary Murder Case (1929). She flatly refused. Hollywood blacklisted her for that defiance. In a final act of independence, she decidedly ended her own acting career in 1938 after shooting a John Wayne Western in which she wore uncharacteristically long hair.
By 1946, Brooks was working as a shop girl at Saks Fifth Avenue earning $40 a week. She was also working as an escort to make ends meet. But, just when you would expect this story to become very sad or tragic, French film fans rediscovered Brooks in the 1950s and revived her fame.
George Eastman House film curator, James Card, was in on the revival of interest in her career. He located Brooks, who was living alone and broke in a tiny Manhattan top floor walk-up apartment, and invited her to come live in Rochester, NY. It was there that she flourished. Brooks went on to become an accomplished painter, writer, and important film archivist.
She published several novels, plus a very good, highly quotable memoir Lulu In Hollywood (1972). The memoir is written with great skill; it is intelligent, fresh and funny. Brooks is often the target of her own biting wit. She was not only unimpressed with most of polite society; she was equally unimpressed with her status as Film Icon.
Before Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, Brooks had been a true Hollywood rebel. She was more than willing to kill her career rather than do anything she didn’t want to do. At one point, she was probably the biggest international film star, but she showed no remorse when recalling her memories of her fall from that status.
Late in life, Brooks began a whole new career as a serious film historian and noted critic. Her thoughtful essays appeared in magazines like Sight & Sound, Film Culture, and Focus On Film.
Brooks also enjoyed playing with the speculation about her sexuality, cultivating friendships with famous lesbians. She admitted to having assignations with women, including a brief affair with Greta Garbo. She later described Garbo as: “a masculine but charming and tender lover”. Yet, she considered herself neither a lesbian nor bisexual.
“All my life it has been fun for me. When I am dead, I believe that film writers will fasten on the story that I am a lesbian. I have done lots to make it believable. All my women friends have been lesbians. But that is one point upon which I agree positively with: There is no such thing as bisexuality. Ordinary people, although they may accommodate themselves for reason of whoring or marriage, are one-sexed. Out of curiosity, I had affairs with girls…they did nothing for me.”
Brooks’ final credits rolled in the summer of 1985, but her influence is still felt in popular culture today. In a wonderful twist of fate, she lived long enough to see her life celebrated with entire film festivals dedicated to her work. Most of her films survive due to her own efforts. My favorite example of her reach is Jonathan Demme’s wicked comedic film Something Wild (1986), with Melanie Griffith playing a wild, reckless femme fatale who calls herself Lulu and adopts a certain bobbed hairdo. Liza Minnelli has stated that she studied Brooks’ films in preparation to play Sally Bowles in the film version of Cabaret (1972). I named a certain little rescued Jack Russell Terrier for her iconic character. She lives up to her namesake.
On Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album from 2014, the song Lulu is a biographical portrait of Brooks. Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark’s Pandora’s Box (1991) is a tribute to Brooks, as is Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (2010). Wainwright:
“My spirit animal is Louise Brooks from Pandora’s Box. That character she plays in the film, Lulu. That’s why I wrote Songs For Lulu, she needed to be appeased.”
Brooks was an intuitive, intelligent, impulsive artist born decades before her time. She was hedonistic and unapologetic. Asked about her style of acting, Brooks wrote: “I had a complete indifference to the camera…”, but the camera was infatuated with Brooks.
“The tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified by the very people who make film history.”