Monday, May 09, 2011

Review of Louise Brooks: A Biography

The dancer, actress, and writer Louise Brooks has largely been relegated to obscurity for reasons almost entirely her own. In her brief time in the spotlight, no film star, nor chorus girl, nor professional dancer, nor awe-inspiring beauty shone brighter. A mercurial, petulant personality didn't so much result in doors being slammed in her face as whole bridges set ablaze before her. Incredibly talented in many fields, her best talent of all might have been for willful self-destruction. She herself put it best. "I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife."

Brooks was born in 1906, growing up in small-town Kansas for much of her childhood and early adolescence. Her father was a successful lawyer, so successful that he was too preoccupied with his practice to be much of a parent. Her mother was a success as an artist, skilled classical pianist, and source of culture but was not especially maternal, nor sympathetic. Mrs. Brooks had, as a child, been forced to take on the role of parent, raising four needy siblings, following the premature death of her mother. Before marrying him, Louise's mother stated firmly to her soon-to-be husband that it was now time to focus on herself for once. "Any squalling brats [we] produce [can] take care of themselves."

Her legacy to Louise was a self-absorbed streak a mile wide and a desperate craving for attention. Mother and daughter never were especially close, for reasons beyond the flagrantly obvious. Though Louise learned about music and art from her mother, it was a detached kind of schooling that was forever cold and unemotional. At age nine, Louise was sexually abused by an itinerant painter, oddly named Mr. Flowers. Later, she would say that the experience defined the whole of her adulthood decidedly for worse. Unable to experience real love, and forever seeking men who were domineering, brutal, and demanding, Louise never managed to reject this unhealthy archetype completely. After being told of the abuse, years later, her mother's response was an infuriatingly familiar one. "You must have led him on", she said. Such a statement was typical for a woman whose first priority was herself and who would later attempt to cash in on her daughter's star, with minimal success, for the sake of furthering her own name.

A precocious child, Louise showed an interest for the stage and to perform in front of people very early in life. By eight, a natural talent for dance was much evident to everyone. For all intents and purposes, her formal career as a dancer began at the tender age of ten. Slowly gaining more and more attention, at fifteen she was invited to join the The Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, which combined ballet with experimental technique then considered very much avant guard. Traveling by herself to New York City for the first time was a thrilling experience and, with the exception of one brief period in her life, years and years later, Louise Brooks would never return to Kansas. Fueled by her mother's own towering ambitions and sometimes elitist pretensions, Louise took to the big city like a duck takes to water.

In a pattern that would soon grow predictable, Brooksie, as she was affectionately known, rose to the top, winning accolades from the public and praise from her teachers. She worked hard to perfect her skills, which combined with a creative, intuitive understanding of dance and rhythm made her stand out from the rest. However, her tantrums and fits of temper were also on display, but were tolerated for a time out of deference to her natural gifts. Had it only been bouts of rage that were problematic, then she may have been humored for much longer. A sexually liberated woman in a time where Victorian ideas of chastity and modesty were still prevalent, she slept with whomever she liked, drank like a fish, smoked cigarettes with reckless abandon, and dared anyone to do anything about it. With time, she simply wore out her welcome and was publicly dismissed from the school in front of the entire cast.

However, Louise had by then made some powerful, wealthy friends. One of them was the troubled, black sheep sibling of a high-achieving, theatrical family. This connection provided Louise a job as a chorus girl. One of the few dancers with any formal training, Louise also rose to the top of the heap, almost effortlessly. But as was part of her Achilles Heel, once another challenge was mastered, she found herself bored and unmotivated. When this feeling set in, so did her desire to dance the night away, drink to excess, and accumulate lovers. To be fair, all chorus girls cultivated wealthy benefactors whose lavish gifts of furs, clothes, and precious stones always came with an understood caveat attached. Some dancers were more discreet about who they bedded, but not Louise. Her behavior revealed the practice for what it was, a glorified courtesan service for men of ample means. The cult of celebrity now much in force today could also be seen in these same terms, particularly in its glorification of youthful female beauty and the suggestion of sexual availability.

In the early days of film, beginning well before the introduction of the talkies, many chorus girls and dancers were enlisted into the service of the "flickers" as they were known then. Unlike today, movies were said to have dubious artistic merit and to be designed specifically for the plebeian masses. It wasn't really until the end of the Twenties that the pioneering work of a handful of talented directors began to change public perception. In the meantime, work on a movie set seemed like the next logical step for a pretty face. By now, Louise had moved to the pinnacle of fame as a chorus girl, taking a starring role as part of the Ziegfield Follies, whose roster reads like a list of whose who's for the period. Along with its requisite beauties were wildly popular male stars like comedians Will Rogers and W.C. Fields.

So, bored yet again, Louise Brooks accepted a film role, not because it was anything she was especially interested to pursue, but because it was different. Cast first in a series of lightweight potboilers, Louise was sometimes inclined to select parts not because they furthered her career as much as she found individual directors and actors attractive. A romance with one such up-and-coming handsome director led to her first marriage, though it should be noted that even marriage never stopped her from pursuing sexual relationships with others. In some ways, that was indicative of the era, one that the author of the book, Barry Paris, correctly describes as cynical and fundamentally promiscuous. Louise even spent a fond summer as the lover of Charlie Chaplin. The both of them spoke fondly of each other for the rest of their lives.

Louise's sexual orientation has often been up for debate. Some have proclaimed her bisexual because of her close relationships with women who were themselves bisexual or lesbian. She enjoyed fostering speculation and gossip, and admitted openly to intimate relationships with other women. However, and true to fashion, she seemed to imply otherwise in later life. Typically, her opinions on this subject are a touch inflammatory.
[Brooks] admitted to some lesbian dalliances, including a one-night affair with Greta Garbo. She later described Garbo as masculine but a "charming and tender lover".

Despite all this, she considered herself neither lesbian nor bisexual:

I had a lot of fun writing 'Marion Davies' Niece' [an article about Pepi Lederer], leaving the lesbian theme in question marks. 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 [Christopher] Isherwood: 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 two affairs with girls – they did nothing for me.

Early Hollywood was a strange combination of middle-aged businessmen and extremely young talent of both sexes. In part, this was because of the limits of technology. The spotlights which bathed a set in light, preventing exposed film from turning out too dark, revealed every facial blemish and imperfection. Once an actress turned 25, she was nearly antique, especially if the impact of natural aging was especially pronounced. Combine this effect with a romanticism of youthful virility and it's not hard to understand how Hollywood ended up being a tinderbox of ruffled egos and morality clauses altogether disregarded. Tinseltown was a transitory place for those not behind the lens or signing paychecks. In some ways, it still is today, for reasons long grounded in the prevailing culture.

Louise herself followed a familiar trajectory that should seem routine by now. Though she photographed well and though she was beginning to rise to the top rung of film stardom, she shot herself in the foot over and over again. By the end of her film career, she managed to isolate herself from the good graces of every major American studio, eventually being blacklisted. The blacklist was put in place when Louise, impulsively as always, refused to dub her voice onto a film that had originally been shot as a silent. The studio had to spend thousands of dollars having her part redubbed by another actress, an indignity which would not go unpunished. She had decided instead to accept a part in a German film. Flying to Berlin on a whim, she noted that she knew absolutely nothing about European film or G.W. Pabst, the director.

But from this auspicious beginning came high art. When committed to celluloid, the finished product, Pandora's Box, was considered one of the highlights of not just German Expressionism, but also of silent film in general. Louise's performance had been flawless, and it was only through the auteur's practiced hand that her true talent had been allowed to shine. Louise would film a sequel to Pandora's Box entitled Diary of a Lost Girl, itself possibly the first film to show a character who was openly lesbian. She then took the title role in a French film, Prix de Beaute, that was later awkwardly converted from silent to sound, and began a slow, but inevitable decline towards mediocrity and obscurity.

By the middle of her life, she had descended into alcoholism and lived as a recluse. But a rediscovery of her films twenty-five years after Louise Brooks' highest level of fame led to a critical reawakening and encouraged her to resurface. Not only was she a talented actress, she was also an intensely cerebral one. To kill time during the exhaustive process of film-making, she often read heady books by Schopenhauer and Proust. Her taste in literature was as refined as her capability as a writer, and the film essays she eventually published, along with a series of essays written about her life reveal this well. Louise Brooks is a contradiction. A life front-loaded. How curious it is to have to analyze and live in the shadow of one's youth forever. Does this describe Modern Womanhood even today, decades after the Roaring Twenties?

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