Briefly a Movie Actress- Still a Potent Sex Symbol

Among silent stars, Louise Brooks had the shortest career and the longest afterlife. Actually, it was a tiny career. From evocative, charming supporting parts in 1926, she became a strange sort of star in 1928, and was practically out of the movie business by 1930, rendered unemployable by either her stubborn integrity (according to Brooks) or, more plausibly, her compulsively unprofessional behavior and nasty habit of breaking contracts.

She’s remembered by cinephiles as a startling ingénue in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928), W.C. Fields’ It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928). But most people know her as a supremely unsettling sexual presence in two films by G.W. Pabst, especially Pandora’s Box (1929), which has come to be accepted as a portrait of the actress as a young flapper.

Brooks plays Lulu, a woman who violates every one of society’s sexual mores—which is to say, she lives her life as if she had the freedom to choose pleasures traditionally reserved for men. “She was a whore when she was twelve,” Brooks said about her Lulu, “and she dies a whore when she’s about eighteen.”

Her utterly uncoy, frankly sexual gaze could cause unaccustomed stirrings in the former Cardinal Ratzinger. It earned her a considerable measure of fame for someone who only made a couple of memorable movies. As a token of that fame, we now have Peter Cowie’s Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever—a heavyweight coffee-table book chock-full of gorgeous pictures, putting Brooks on the same exalted level as Dietrich and Garbo.

How did she get there?

Let me put this in the kindest way possible: Taken as a group, movie critics, archivists and the people who engage in debate about the comparative merits of Norma Talmadge versus Mary Pickford probably didn’t go to the high-school prom. Their experience of movies is vast, their experience of life comparatively small. Most of them (O.K., most of us) are shy bunnies, and sexual aggression in overdrive is likely to freeze us in our tracks. If Louise Brooks had anything, it was sexual aggression in overdrive, and after that faded with age, she made do with supercharged verbal aggression. More than two decades after her death, she’s still got us cowed: Whatever philosophical or sexually based nonsense she spouted went unchallenged—and still does. Witness the previously unpublished letters included in this new tome.

Brooks had a lethal, through-a-glass-darkly eye for everybody’s shortcomings, including her own. “I am uncontrollably cruel,” she wrote, “never content until I have spaded up my victim’s secrets from himself. Since I have already disclosed my own crimes to all who care to listen, there is very little left for revenge but violence.”

The reflexive spewing of bile is the invariable sign of someone whose self-loathing is slopping over the sides—the flip side of the everything-is-wonderful sunshine of Belle Poitrine, the heroine of Little Me (1961), Patrick Dennis’ deadly parody of celebrity autobiographies.

As is usually the case with this vicious mindset, Brooks regarded everybody as at least potentially a whore—the exact price of their virtue open to negotiation. “Every effort is made to attain the two common pleasures: sex and destruction,” she wrote in a previously unpublished letter. “Wealth, fame, social prestige, cars, clothes, yachts, houses, balls, picnics and parties. All these are the lead-in to sex. It is the life and the full-time occupation of the leisure class.” I don’t think she knew what she was talking about. All those things are replacements for sex as much as they are advertisements for it.

The suspicion persists that even if Brooks had had better timing and a more amenable personality, her career would have been abortive, for the simple reason that she was more of a startling sexual presence than an actress. She admitted as much: “Since I never learned to act, I never had any trouble playing myself.” Moreover, she didn’t want to belong to any club that desired her—as a member or as anything else.

After she submarined her movie career, she played at being a mistress to George Preston Marshall, an odious racist who owned the Washington Redskins and refused to integrate his football team until 1962. (Marshall must have had a thing for silent-movie actresses; one of his wives was Corinne Griffith.)

Another lover was William Paley, who helped support Brooks in her old age. Interspersed with these men there was profligate spending, a bankruptcy, various menial jobs and the usual addictions: alcohol and drugs, followed by Catholicism. In time, the Catholicism would be tossed aside, the better to focus on booze. Her longest-lasting addiction was to the chilly, snappish rage that made her book, Lulu in Hollywood (1982), a compulsively readable but frankly unreliable history.

Peter Cowie has attained an honorable status as a film historian, but his prose style is no more than adequate (and I think it’s rather ungracious of him to call Barry Paris’ perfectly good 1989 biography of Brooks “quasi-definitive”).

Lulu Forever exists for its art, and on that score it delivers magnificently: I’d never seen fully half of the images in the book. There are scene stills, candids, snapshots, everything documenting the deadly lure of Lulu. Oddly, there are no pictures of Brooks as a ravaged old woman in a small apartment in Rochester—that would violate the masturbatory fantasia the book seeks to evoke.

Brooks almost always looks like nobody but herself (except for one shot where she resembles Anita Loos), and she’s just as riveting in stills as she was in motion. You don’t have to see her movies to understand the appeal; you just have to observe her bold beauty and the careless look that says, Let’s see what you’ve got in there, Sport.

A provocative question. A provocative life—and thoroughly depressing.

Scott Eyman, a film historian and biographer, reviews books regularly for The Observer.