© THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 22, 1990 by VINCENT CANBY:
Garbo: Illusion Was All
It began as a temporary retirement from the screen in 1941 after the critical and box-office failure of ''Two Faced Woman.'' As the years went on, and as Greta Garbo continued to turn down roles, the temporary retirement gradually eased into something permanent, though it could never be called permanent with certainty. She might change her mind at any minute. As it turned out, Garbo was enough of a strategist finally to realize that the accumulated anticipation could never be satisfied by anything she might do as a comeback.
Garbo, who died last week in New York at the age of 84, had it both ways. By turning away from the screen when she was 36, having made only a handful of films of true cinematic significance, she became the chief architect of her own legend, the ever-practical keeper of her own flame. It was as if she were dead, but could go on forever orchestrating her immortality and enjoying it as much as all of the anonymous ''Miss Joneses'' and ''Miss Browns,'' who were her fans, and which were names she sometimes used to announce and protect her anonymity.
Those of us who were lucky enough never to have met her, never to have seen her in the flesh, do not have to worry about what she was really like. The images remain. Illusion was what she was all about.
Garbo is the unbreakable icon of idealized beauty. The great planes of those high-boned cheeks, the mouth that smiles more often in sorrow than in joy, the deep-set, heavy-lidded siren's eyes - those perfect features are forever fixed without the surgeon's tools. The beauty is so formidable that it always comes as a discovery to recognize that Garbo was an actress in complete command of what introspective theater people call their ''instrument.''
Her performance in ''Anna Christie'' is a grand characterization. Her Anna is tough, changeable, funny, classy without being Hollywood high-class. Men in army boots have marched over her for years. The spirit is exhausted, but the body will not die.
The idealized beauty is a function of her performance as the doomed ballerina in ''Grand Hotel.'' Ballerina? The idea of Garbo on point is not easy to imagine initially, and the movie never makes the mistake of showing her at work. There is no lightness in her personality as an actress, but she successfully projects the ephemeral nature of the dancer's career. She acts the bitter end of it.
It's this solid, sensible core within Garbo that contributes to the high spirits of her performance in ''Ninotchka'' as Stalin's most implacable defender of all things drab. Her conversion to capitalism, with the help of a lot of Champagne, is so funny simply because the change seems almost as incredible to the audience as it does to her.
Garbo may always be best known for roles in which she plays women suffering terminal cases of love or disease. These were her bread-and-butter pictures, the ones designed for the same shopgirls who suffered along with Joan Crawford. Yet Garbo's ''women's pictures'' are different. In ''Queen Christina,'' there is more than a hint of lesbianism that only Garbo's force of personality could make acceptable to the movie-going public in 1933. Though she is supposedly dying of tuberculosis in ''Camille,'' her beauty and sensitivity are strong enough to carry not only Robert Taylor's inert Armand, but also the movie. She looks no closer to death in ''Camille'' than Joan Sutherland's Violetta in ''Traviata,'' but her death is as exalting as any that Sutherland died on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Two of my favorite Garbo films are two of her worst, ''Mata Hari,'' in which love and honor have never been so opposed for such romantic and lunatic results, and the lamented ''Two Faced Woman.'' She looks clearly unhappy in ''Two Faced Woman,'' playing a wife trying to lure her husband back to bed by masquerading as her own madcap twin sister. Melvyn Douglas works comic overtime wonders as the husband. Garbo just works. She is the star, but Constance Bennett gets most of the laughs. Yet it's only with ''Two Faced Woman,'' in which Garbo appears, none too becomingly, in a motherly bathing suit, that one can appreciate the enduring illusion that is the heart of this most clandestine of all actresses.
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