“Her fame was inseparable from her riddle,” writes film critic, essayist, author, and playwright James Harvey, referring to Greta Garbo in the opening chapter of his new book. “I first saw her on the screen in 1955, 12 years after she had retired from it altogether, in Camille, which MGM had rereleased that year with all the fanfare of a first-run movie and to wide acclaim. I remember the crowded theatre in Chicago’s Loop, a mostly young audience, as new to her probably as I was at the time, and a feeling in the place like revelation: So this is what a movie star is… or was, at any rate.”
Harvey, who grew up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s, caught what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called “cinephilia” at an early age. Yet Harvey always thought he’d be a playwright, which is what prompted him, after a short stint in the army, to move to New York City in the late 1950s.
“I didn’t know anyone else my age at the time who got drafted, but I did,” Harvey said in a phone interview. “The draft board was on my tail. I got tired of deferring. I had already gone to the University Of Michigan and graduated. Beyond that, I got tired of staying in school to avoid the draft. I finally just gave up and said, ‘What the hell. I’ll go into the army.’” Upon his discharge, he settled in Carroll Gardens. “I got a teaching job,” he says. “As an aspiring playwright, I wanted to be in New York.”
His foray into film writing, he says, was serendipitous, and to some degree, a way to fill a sorely needed void in the marketplace. “There were very few movie books available at the time,” he says. “André Bazin, one of the founders of Cahiers du cinema, was an early influence” as were the next generation of critics-turned-filmmakers—Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette—who founded what came to be known as the French New Wave.
Around this same time—in New York City, especially—“the auteur theory,” formulated on the idea that a film reflects the director's personal creative vision, was being championed by film writer and critic Andrew Sarris in the pages of The Village Voice, after Truffaut advocated for it in the pages of Cahiers Du Cinéma in 1954. Harvey was entranced by French New Wave, but also by how Cahiers Du Cinema re-evaluated old studio films by the masters in the field during the golden age of cinema: Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, and so on.
Harvey’s previous books include the behemoth study Romantic Comedy In Hollywood: From Lubitsch To Sturges, which originally came out in 1987, and 2001’s Movie Love In The Fifties, which astutely charts the transition (and some would argue, downward progression) from film noir into Hollywood melodrama in the Eisenhower era.
Harvey says his new book, Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar (Farrar, Staus And Giroux) “is really about the quasi-religious aspect of watching movies seriously. (I’m not talking about Transformers.) This book gets more serious as it goes on, but there was a time when serious critics, like André Bazin—who was very important then—talked about the act of filming. I wrote it down: ‘When we photograph something, even in a snapshot, the result is something we can admire in reproduction when our eyes alone could not have taught us to love.’ That is a very profound remark. There’s a way in which you photograph something and look at it; even if the photograph is absolutely dead-on accurate, you see it in a different way, and Bazin argues from that perspective filming is an act of love in itself. It’s an act of love for reality.”
The Dissolve: Watching Them Be concerns the idea of star presence on the screen. Why did you decide to write a book about this subject, and how long had this idea been percolating in your brain?
James Harvey: It had been percolating a very long time for me. I looked back at some of my notes at the beginning of the book, and I was surprised how long I’d been on track with the idea. I always wanted to write about mysterious actors, the mysterious figures on the screen. It began with wanting to write about Garbo in any context. I hadn’t really done that. I wrote a little bit about her in my book Romantic Comedy, because of Ninotchka and Lubitsch, and then I wanted to write about [Au Hasard] Balthazar, the Bresson film, and that was really the beginning and the end. It is what I meant the book to be about: the progression of filmmaking itself, and the development of this quasi-religious quality of a certain kind of film watching.
The progress of the films I talk about are a progress toward reality, toward rejection of fiction, in a way. So you come to Bresson at the end, a director who wouldn’t even let his performers act in front of the camera. He just wanted them to be. He wouldn’t use actors. None of the people involved are actors. They weren’t even non-actors who were allowed to act for a change. It’s really a sort of movement from Hollywood, which is the ultimate artifice, through a return to anti-artifice in some version of real life, as in Nashville, where people are imitating real life, and doing it very skillfully, to a final rejection of all kinds of artifice. What could personify that better than an animal? Of course, the animal in question here is the donkey, which serves as a metaphor and central character in Bresson’s Balthazar. In the film, the animal is treated as a kind of sacred object.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting that you were able to use Garbo and Bresson as literal bookend chapters. Was there a master list of films you wanted to revisit, and then whittled it down to what became these three sections in the book: Icons, The Realists, and The Transcenders?
Harvey: It was partly contingent on what I had written about before. I wanted to write about subjects I hadn’t treated before. Needless to say, once I had the bookends, as you say, I knew what the book was going to be about. One of the inspirations for me for this book was the James Baldwin quote, which he said very succinctly in his book The Devil Finds Work: “We don’t go to the movies to watch Bette Davis or Clark Gable or whoever act. We go to watch them be.” That’s the source of the title. It defined the subject for me. It was really what I wanted to write about. Not so much about acting as about the star presences. I had written a great deal about other stars in my other books, but I had never written about Bette Davis or John Wayne.
The Dissolve: The first 50 or so pages of the book are devoted to Garbo. It seems your point about Garbo is that, like The Beatles, who stopped making music together and are therefore frozen in time, Garbo stopped making films before we could see her age on the screen, or before she had to take less-glamorous roles that could have diminished her star power.
Harvey: Yes. Someone like Bette Davis, for instance, couldn’t be stopped from going on, and people were eager for John Wayne to go on. I think Garbo, compared to those two, made very few films, and they were always sort of special events. She was aware of getting older. She was very nervous about that, I guess, though I don’t go into that in the book. She was always very nervous about her career. She didn’t like acting, we’re told. She stopped at her peak. Camille was really just incredible.
You asked me about how she’s remembered. To some extent, she’s not. There’s that black hole that things disappear into, of course, but what I was interested in talking about, apart from her films, was the impact she had on her time as an outlier. Of course she’s still remembered, but rarely seen or talked about nowadays. She was really the incarnation of the subject of the book for me. She was famous as an actress, but also infamous for being private and mysterious, like Salinger in a way. In both cases, I think the privacy was something they really needed, and it was not a publicity stunt—it was the real thing. I came across something Irene Dunne said to me long ago when I was doing the Romantic Comedy book. She said she had met Garbo. They had gone on a picnic together with some other mutual friends. She said Garbo had a corny sense of humor. She laughed a lot, and made silly jokes, but she could also see that she was genuinely terrified of people. So much so that she was just as famous for her need for privacy as she was for her films, which weren’t always that successful at the box office.
The Dissolve: Do you think an actor would be able to pull off that sort of privacy today?
Harvey: No. I don’t see how. Is there anyone? I can’t think of anyone who refuses to do interviews or publicity to promote their films.
The Dissolve: Terrence Malick, but he’s a director.
Harvey: He’s a good case, but like you said, he’s a director. I can’t think of one actor would could get away with what Garbo was able to do in her day.
The Dissolve: With regard to Marlene Dietrich, did you just want to focus on her work with Josef von Sternberg to get your point across about “star presence?”
Harvey: Her subsequent career was more diffuse and harder to define. She established her persona with Sternberg, and that’s why I emphasized him. Plus, I didn’t want to do a career survey of Dietrich, or the others, really. I wanted to talk about their great periods. Garbo is the one I do a sort of whole career treatment of.
The Dissolve: Ingrid Bergman makes two appearances in the book: First in the Icons section with David O. Selznick, and then again with her second husband, Roberto Rossellini, in part three, The Transcenders. Why did you include her twice?
Harvey: Well, I arrived at it partly because she followed Garbo, in a way. Not because she was similar, but because at the time, people were looking for someone like that to replace Garbo, especially publicists and writers. She had a phenomenal career for a time in Hollywood. She was worshipped and beloved in a way. Garbo was a little too difficult for that sort of attention—difficult as a presence on the screen. Also, I knew I wanted to write about the Rossellini films. I knew that division near the beginning of the book seemed right. Bergman was perfect for pulling the book together, because I wanted to go from the Icons to The Transcenders.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting you included Charles Laughton, who seems like an oddball choice, but he also seems to be the glue that ties the book together in the middle.
Harvey: I’m glad you felt that, because I wasn’t going to include him. Actually, it was the only part of the book that had been previously published somewhere. It had been published in the New York Review Of Books in another form, but pretty close to what I published in the book. I was persuaded by my friend Phillip Lopate to include him. As you sensed, it connects the book in a way, especially at that juncture in the narrative. I write about the impersonality of certain kinds of stars—a complicated thing—and that goes back to Garbo. The final shot in Queen Christina, if you remember, there’s this sort of zen state that she seems to be in at that moment on the screen, and the funny relation between the two—and the close-ups. I had written about Bette Davis just before the Laughton chapter. A lot of Davis’ problems on the screen had to do with her own private problems, her own arrogance and neurosis and a sort of self-dislike, and it works for her in her great performances. In The Letter, in particular, when she talks about loathing herself, that’s very powerful, and it’s something she does magnificently at her peak. So the Laughton chapter is about something similar to that in an actor, but at its worst. It turns into self-pity, and that’s repellent.
The Dissolve: Besides Bergman, the only other actor who appears in the book twice is Robert De Niro, first in two of his lesser-known films—Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America—followed by his supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Are you attempting to make the point that his screen presence is stronger in these lesser-known films, and not in his widely seen performances in films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas?
Harvey: I don’t think it’s necessarily stronger, but those movies, as you say, aren’t widely known or widely loved, as far as I can tell, and were therefore more interesting for me to write about. Since the book has come out, people have said to me, “New York, New York? Ugh.” But I love it, and I went on loving it as I wrote about it. They are performances I had something to say about that hadn’t been said. I didn’t really want to write about Taxi Driver. I’m not really that fond of Taxi Driver anyway, but it’s certainly impressive. I didn’t want to write about Mean Streets, either. I am sorry, however, that I didn’t find a way to write about King Of Comedy.
The Dissolve: How does Robert Altman’s Nashville relate to this idea of “watching them be?” It seems you could have written a whole book about Nashville through the prism of your book’s premise.
Harvey: Well, it has so many people. It’s a transition, in fact, in life and in the book, between the studio-controlled presences that the icons represent. Altman had his favorites, and he was right about Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, and so on. Altman had so many brilliant presences in that movie—more than I wrote about—but I wanted to focus on two of the central ones, Ronee Blakely and Lily Tomlin. Nashville is very much a development of the subject of the book, because Blakely didn’t have a career afterward, partly because of her circumstances. I think her particular talent and force of power on the screen… It’s hard to imagine what the woman who personified her could do after that. Something like that is true of someone like Pam Grier, too, although she did many films after Jackie Brown. They’re these people who make such an individual impact on the screen that you almost can’t imagine it being spun out over more movies.
The Dissolve: You make this point toward the end of the book about how from the Greeks onward, the unhappy ending is the only one that is deeply convincing. You mention Hollywood as the ultimate artifice, and there’s the “Hollywood ending,” as it were. Can a serious film be good with a happy ending?
Harvey: Sure. It’s called comedy. There are no unhappy endings in Preston Sturges, really. That said, tragedy has been seen to be compelling almost from the beginning. It’s interesting. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it, and it’s not relevant to the book. That said, it’s an interesting fact that tragedy has been the most highly regarded of forms. It has something to do with the way our lives end, I think. The works that seem most serious to us, I wouldn’t try to explain it, but they are the ones that come to grips with what we all come to grips with, and that’s deeply satisfying in some way. I think of King Lear, the most miserable play one could imagine. Yet it’s one of the most compelling, too.