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A CONVERSATION WITH LOUISE BROOKS Louise Brooks Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf The following photos except where marked are from Lulu in Hollywood published by Alfred A. Knopf. A paperback edition is now being released, also by Knopf. LULU IN ROCHESTER: SELF-PORTRAIT OF AN ANTI-STAR / Donald McNamara In 1928—at the age of22—Louise Brooks gave one ofthe best performances in the silent cinema as Lulu, an amoral woman of pleasure whose character had fascinated German artists since the 1890s. Director G.W. Pabst had searched for his star all over Europe, and he was ready to sign Marlene Dietrich when he heard that Louise BrooL·, a refugee from Cherryvale, Kansas, a former Ziegfield girl and rising Paramount star, was willing to take the role. As Brooks recalls, contemporary critics complained that her performance was an utter blank: "Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing." But, this was precisely the point. Frank Wedekind, the dramatist who created the character in the 1890s, had said: "Lulu is not a real character but the personification of primitive sexuality, who inspires evil unawares. She plays a purely passive role." Other actresses had played Lulu, and other artists had told her story (most notably Allan Berg, who wrote his great opera during the same year that Pabst directed Brooks in Pandora's Box). No one, however, had followed Wedekind's conception so closely as Pabst, who also conceived ofher as a woman completely unaffected by a sense of sin. Brooks herself has always retained a close identification with her character. "Lulu's story," she told a journalist, "is as near as you'll get to mine." She Md attempted to write the obligatory autobiography of the star in the 40s but scrapped it, convinced that she could not reveal what it was that made her so much like the image she projected as Lulu. As a midwesterner she could not, she once wrote, "unbuckle the Bible Belt." In fact, she left Hollywood for good in 1938 (her capricious and uncooperative behavior had made her unemployable), and then she spent some fifteen years in New York, drifting away from the cosmopolitan social circles she had known and sliding far down the social ladder. The fact that her life did resemble Lulu's was one of the main points in the celebrated profile of Brooks that Kenneth Tynan wrotefor The New Yorker (June 11, 1979). That profile brought Louise Brooks back to public life. Tynan had actually begun his profile wondering if she were still alive. He did not yet know that Brooks had quietly retired to Rochester, N.Y., in the mid-fifties, invited there by James M. Card, curator of the George Eastman house, who encouraged her to look back over her career and study the work that she had done in film but had never valued. Historians and critics had already passed the same kind ofjudgment as British critic David Thompson, who called her "one of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema . . . one ofthefirst performers to penetrate to the heart ofscreen acting." If Brooks had been like Lulu in her indifference to the Hollywood establishment, she had never learned to value the way such indifference made her The Missouri Review · 65 one of the least self-conscious of screen actresses. In her recently published memoirs, Lulu in Hollywood (1982), she says that it was not until the early 70s that her education was complete, that she learned to stop judging her career in terms ofHollywood's criteria for success orfailure. Her memoirs are about her years in Hollywood and her contemptfor the lies, deception, and manipulation of the entertainment business. The memoirs began as a series of essays that she wrote, without profit, for film journals after her retirement to Rochester. As she makes clear in thefollowing profile (especially in her story about Buster Keaton), there is a big difference between holding certain attitudes and learning to articulate why those attitudes are important. Whether she is writing about the careers of Bogart, W.C. Fields, or Garbo, she is patently writing about herself. For...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 63-82
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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