Interview: Film Critic Peter Cowie Remembers Louise Brooks

Film critic Peter Cowie discusses researching and meeting silent film star Louise Brooks and his new book, ‘Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever’.

Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever
Peter Cowie
November 2006
Pandora’s Box
28 November 2006

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then little wonder an entire library has evolved around Louise Brooks. Brooks has become one of the greatest and most enduring icons in cinema history; remarkable for someone whose contribution to the medium itself was, relatively speaking, slight. Never a huge star in her youth, Brooks fought off success at every turn, and yet, almost in spite of herself, her fame – perhaps ‘notoriety’ might be a better word – has outlasted that of all but a few of her contemporaries. None has aged better.

Mary Louise Brooks would have been 100 years old on 14 November 2006. She died in 1985 at the age of 78 but doubtless would have shunned most of the events and celebrations that have been planned in her honor anyway. She was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906, and moved to New York at 15 to study dance with the pioneering Denishawn Dance Company. Martha Graham was a fellow student, but Brooks was fired from the company at 17 due to her ‘superior attitude.’ From there she bounced successfully to Broadway, and danced in the chorus line of George White’s Scandals and the Ziegfield Follies. At 19 she quit — despite being offered the opportunity of a featured role in the Follies — to take up movies.

Her film career was shockingly brief. Brooks made an immediate impact in the handful of American films she featured in and appeared destined for stardom. Yet film interested her hardly at all, and Hollywood interested her even less. In fact, she loathed it, chafing against its anti-intellectual establishment. She refused to accommodate acting into a lifestyle built around – somewhat incongruously – sex, books, and gin. For Brooks, Hollywood’s only real value was the high salary it provided, one which afforded an unending stream of fashionable clothes and glamour-filled nights. But then, weren’t plenty of rich suitors around to provide those things anyway?

The three films upon which Brooks’ cinematic legacy rest were all filmed in Europe between 1928-29. By the age of 23, her greatest film works – Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Prix de Beaute – were already behind her. Utterly uncompromising in her dealings with Hollywood studio chiefs, she was blacklisted upon her return from Europe and eventually run out of Hollywood. She made her last film (Overland Stage Raiders, starring an up-and-coming John Wayne) in 1937.

What followed were several lost decades, years lost to poverty, despondency, and alcoholism. Yet, as has been well chronicled, the most unlikely of revivals awaited her. She was rediscovered by a new generation of film historians, notably Henri Langlois of the influential Cinematheque Francaise who, after running her three European movies for the first time in 30 years, famously declared, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”

Brooks herself resurfaced in Rochester, New York, where she was moved to write articles on film history. Her pieces would come to be recognized for their pristine style and fierce intelligence, if not always for their complete reliability with the facts. Brooks’ personality remained unchanged – she was prickly, obsessed with sex, and drank too much gin. She was also known to be utterly magnetic and frequently brilliant. If she felt imprisoned now, she was, for the most part, at least content to be her own jailer.

Brooks’ last round with fame came with the appearance of theatre-critic Kenneth Tynan’s magnificent portrait of her, published in The New Yorker magazine in 1979. An unending stream of visitors began appearing at her door, but late fame, old age, and ill health eventually took their course. Weary of unwanted visitors, unable to type anymore due to arthritic hands, and finally unable to breathe properly due to emphysema, Louise Brooks, at last, grew sick of fighting and died of heart failure on 8 August 1985.

For those interested in this complex, enigmatic woman, regarded by many as cinema’s greatest femme fatale, two essential arrivals have recently been released to commemorate the centenary of her birth: a DVD featuring a newly restored digital print of Pandora’s Box, and a book by internationally respected film critic Peter Cowie, Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever.

The Pandora’s Box DVD comes courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Criterion is widely recognized as the finest publisher of classic and contemporary film on DVD today, and this release displays the high level of care and attention to detail the group is known for. The feature, in which Brooks plays Lulu, a woman who inadvertently seduces men and destroys them, includes four separate film scores and an audio commentary by film scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Anne Doanne. For those already familiar with the film, rare treasures are to be found on the accompanying extras disc. Not only is the one-hour 1998 documentary Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu included (along with a fine selection of stills, and an interview with the son of film director G.W. Pabst), but also the hard-to-find one hour interview with Brooks filmed by Ricky Leacock in 1971.

Peter Cowie is a long-time contributor to Criterion releases. His Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever is a handsomely produced, coffee-table-sized book featuring many previously unpublished images. Cowie’s text includes observations from his friendship with Brooks, as well as a detailed analysis of her most important films. Cowie, 66, founded the International Film Guide in 1963 and was its editor for the next 40 years. Educated at Cambridge University, he has published more than 20 film books. He currently resides in Switzerland, from where he recently spoke with PopMatters.

How, or when did you discover Louise Brooks?

I was a publisher soon after I left university in the 1960s, and I decided to publish books on film. One of the first books we did was called A Dictionary of the Cinema, and we chose a picture of Louise for the cover, a close-up of her from Pandora’s Box. It was a wonderful picture, and a credit to the author, Peter Graham, rather than to me, the publisher, since he chose it as I recall. Anyway, we put her on the cover, and I sent a copy to her care of George Eastman House, and she replied and said that she was absolutely thrilled to be a cover girl again and that she had received four or five copies of this book from all over the States.

Well, I didn’t think anything more about this for another six years until 1970, when I was made a consultant to an ill-founded and rather doomed film festival in Rochester, New York. The festival happened that year and then never again, but I went over in 1970 and while I was there I thought I would pay a visit to Louise. I found her address and I was told by my local contact there, a man at the university, that I should take half a pint of gin with me.

So I took this half-pint of gin and she opened the door and was completely different to what I’d expected because my image was of this woman with a black helmet of glistening hair and a very sexy mouth and face, and in fact of course she was 64 then, and her hair had gone pepper and salt and was down to her waist and she looked completely different. But she had a perky manner and she invited me in and proceeded to get some milk from the refrigerator and drank this half of gin steadily with the milk on the side, and became more and more inebriated and told more and more wonderful stories and we got on like a house on fire.

When I went back to England I wrote to thank her, and to my surprise, she sent me back a long letter, typed, and we began to correspond. That lasted for seven or eight years and she would write every two or three weeks without fail, long gossipy letters, and this book is partly based on those letters. I got to know her as a personality divorced from her image as that ’20s movie star, she was a completely different woman altogether. She was a very well-read woman, a remarkable historian of a certain kind of cinema and I think very perceptive in her comments on stars and directors. We hit it off very much, and I only lost touch with her three or four years before her death because she couldn’t type anymore, letters became more and more laborious, and I didn’t travel to Rochester.

As you say, aside from the film essays she wrote she was an inveterate writer of letters – she was, by repute, a wonderful correspondent. In contrast, her history with people face to face is strewn with disasters and situations she failed to handle well. Do you think she was one of those people who find the truest expression through the written word, rather than through interpersonal relationships?

I think that’s a very good comment. I would go along with it, except to say that her fault in person, and in her career obviously, was that she was rather choleric and she rose to an insult quickly – lost her temper and flounced out of meetings, or refused offers to spite her face – and I think that is reflected in the letters. Sometimes I would make a faux pas and she would really let me know in her reply and then there would be a coldness for a month before she’d forgive me and then go on. But what you say in general is true, that she was better at expressing herself on the page than in dialogue… and I think that’s true of many of us.

There’s that famous line that she wrote, “I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person’s sexual loves and hates and conflicts.” Almost everyone who interviewed her or corresponded with her remarks on her pre-occupation with sex. Did you find this to be the case also?

Yes, but in a very earthy way. She was almost masculine in that sense – like when men go out to a club together and start telling dirty jokes… that’s what she was like. She loved to make digs about Greta Garbo, for example, about what a dyke she was and how Metro had tried to hide it, and hinting that Garbo had made a pass at her once. But one learned to take with a pinch of salt some of her assertions about people from the silent period. Sometimes it wasn’t just her memory failing, it was a liberal attempt to build history in her own image.

But she was very fond of boasting about sex, though luckily she never tried to seduce me! She did undoubtedly do that with people, and was obviously very keen on sex. You mustn’t forget she was living on her own and I think it was in her youth that she was even more promiscuous, in the ’20s, and clearly she was sleeping around with virtually anyone who would give her a fur coat. That was, to an extent, par for the course in those days, and I don’t think she was alone in that.

There is, though, that willful perversity about her too, that she was so promiscuous yet had her own value system, her own set of scruples. One day she would refuse to sleep with a studio head to land a role, and the next she would play around with the stuntman as a means of staving off boredom on-set.

Although she did have lovers in very high places. Walter Wanger comes to mind. He was a fledgling producer when he first met her, but through him she came to mix in High New York Society… you know, Lord Beaverbrook, William S. Paley, Charlie Chaplin.

There does seem to be this complex she has with sex though; she decries those who see in it anything more than human nature, while remaining obsessed with it herself. Where did this awkward push-and-pull come from?

Well, if you’re a Freudian you might say it came from the neighbor who deflowered her when she was very young (Note: Brooks was molested by an adult neighbor when she was nine.) Sometimes though it’s simply in the genes. Yet for Louise sex was turned to her advantage, and I think the reason we remember her today is because she projected a type of sexuality that has in no way dated. When you see her in the two, perhaps three great films she made, she looks so modern that she could have walked out of the door yesterday! And she looks everybody directly in the eye — there’s no shame in sex for her, no modesty. You suspect she would have fucked on the sofa in front of the cameras if that’s what she felt at the time.

Watching Prix de Beaute recently, I was struck by the fact that all of the women in the film were similarly attired in classic flapper style and fashion, yet Brooks alone looked both of her time and utterly contemporary. What is it about her that makes this so?

I think it’s the look as well. Her features are very even and beautiful, but there’s something about the look itself, that projects the inner person so honestly, candidly. It’s like a flame really, you can’t resist it. If you look at that extraordinary last scene from Prix de Beaute, the lighting is very expressionistic and her face is very well lit, but her features are so charismatic. She was the most charismatic of silent personalities; you can’t call her a ‘star’ of course, because she never really was one. She was a personality.

Although Prix de Beaute is the lesser-known of those three films, I think it offers greater clues as to her true personality.

Yes, I think she was very happy in Paris where she was making that film. But I think in a wider sense that’s true of Europe, and those three films brought out the best in her. She was far from Hollywood and the pressures of starlet life. She never really liked Hollywood, and I think that’s why her marriage with Eddie Sutherland broke up. I think the Berlin and Paris of that era, the Jazz Age, were very decadent…I think she just wolfed it up.

Her story though, for the most part, is not a happy one.

She was a failure, by almost any yardstick, at least in terms of stardom. She was a success as an icon. But if you compare her with someone who started out at exactly the same time, Joan Crawford was a star for 40 years. You may say you don’t like Joan Crawford or that she didn’t have Louise’s charisma, but she had this fighting spirit that enabled her to battle on through criticism and fights for roles. Louise didn’t have that. She’d storm off in a huff and go to a nightclub and get drunk. She didn’t have a Plan B when Plan A didn’t work out and was only rescued at different times in her life by a series of different men.

She made a wonderful observation about acting when she said that alone of the arts, great acting is transparent — unlike singing or dancing, say, when it’s done well you simply don’t notice it. Was she a great actor? Was she acting at all?

I would not say she was a great actress, but a great presence. In the hands of an artist like Pabst, she could be really good. I think she was blinded by his incandescence as a personality, as a creator, and I think she responded to his direction with infinite respect, much more so than she ever would have to a director in Hollywood.

What do you think was the fatal flaw in her personality that scuttled her career? After all, her rise to prominence was over by the age of 22, 23.

I think ‘immaturity’ is a reasonable word for it. She started so young that she didn’t have the sophistication that you need to survive in the film industry. She didn’t know how to handle some of the most basic things. She was more interested in having a good time than in forging a career, quite frankly. Deep down, her primal love was dance. She held herself like a dancer all her life, you could tell she’d been a dancer, and I think she would have preferred success as a dancer than as a film star.

Finally then, do you think she would have changed much with the benefit of hindsight?

I think she might well have stayed in Europe. She might not have gone through the humiliation she went through in Hollywood where she was given secondary and cursory roles and was completely humiliated. Pabst wanted her to stay and make another movie, and with hindsight, she might have stayed and become a great European star of the 1930s.

An exhibition, Hollywood Lost: The Art of Louise Brooks will run at George Eastman House 11 November 2006 to 18 February 2007, in Rochester, NY. A further exhibition, Louise Brooks and the New Woman in Weimar Cinema will appear at The International Center of Photography in New York City, 19 January to 27 April 2007.