GLR September-October 2022

How Garbo Complicated Queen Christina ART MEMO

I RENE J AVORS M Y FIRST GRETA GARBO expe rience was the 1933 film Queen Christina . From the moment she appeared on the screen, I found myself breathless, overcome by her cinematic pres ence. I barely paid attention to the story or the other characters; all I saw was Garbo. I went back to see this film several times. I had no idea what was going on for me. Never before had I been so riveted by a per former. During this period, I experienced a syn chronistic occurrence—a Greta Garbo sight ing. I had just left Hunter College and was walking on 68th Street toward Lexington Avenue, and I stopped at the corner to wait for the light to change. I was busy with my briefcase looking for subway money when I realized that I was standing next to Greta Garbo, who was wearing a large floppy hat and belted trench coat. I was frozen in place. I wanted to tell her that I loved her movies but remained silent and staring. By the time I recovered my senses, she had crossed the street and was halfway up the block. The feelings that I had experienced during this strange encounter were similar to those that I felt while watching her as Queen Chris tina—feelings of veiled passions. Many years later, during the Covid lock down, I watched Queen Christina in a DVD format. I wanted to see what my reactions would be some 54 years later. This time, I

meet at the inn where both will stay for the night. The Ambassador finds out that there are no more rooms. The innkeeper, thinking that the young nobleman (Christina in dis guise) would easily agree, asks if “he” would share the room with the Ambassador. At first finding the idea of sharing her room with a man “unseemly,” she nevertheless consents to the plan. They retire to the bed room, Christina reveals herself to be a woman, and before you know it, Christina and the Ambassador are in each other’s arms, in love. All of this is very queer. The conceit of the masquerade has been used historically in many plays and operas. Cross-dressing in Queen Christina is very similar to the “trav esti” or “trouser” role in opera, in which a female character dresses and acts as a man, as in such works as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier . Queen Christina is a film filled with disguises of identity, gender, and sexuality, as well as with visual double en tendres. While Christina’s abdication in the name of true love seems to follow a hetero normative trope, the underlying message is that she has freed herself from conforming to the restrictive roles and rules of society. In Garbo (2021), cultural critic Robert Gottlieb reported that Greta Garbo thought Queen Christina to be her best film. In this well-researched biography, he suggests that “from childhood on she often spoke of her self as a man or a fellow or a boy.” He goes on to ask whether it’s a case of “simple cross dressing, or gender confusion? ... [H]ow ironic if the ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ would really rather have been a man.” I would propose that perhaps Garbo wanted to be free of gender constraints alto gether. Her oft reported desire to “be alone” might be construed as a desire to escape the demands of the Hollywood dream factory, including its gender rules. Gottlieb also re ported that when Garbo was asked why she stopped making movies, she replied: “I got tired making faces.” Ah, but the faces she made! As I look back at my half-century love affair with the confection known as Garbo, I must confess that my need for a mythic goddess is undi minished. Those of us who are still enrap tured by the magic of the silver screen continue to hold onto Garbo for her queer beauty and the mysterious power that she has over us. We choose to live in the mysti cal impossibility of Garbo. Irene Javors is a frequent contributor to The G&LR and lives in New York City.

paid attention to the film through a queer theoretical gaze. The film was a 1933 pre Hays Code historical extravaganza depicting the life of the Swedish Queen Christina. Played by Garbo, Christina is expected to marry, yet she keeps putting off this obliga tion. She falls in love with the Spanish Am bassador, Antonio Pimentel de Prado (John Gilbert), who’s Roman Catholic and thus in eligible to be her husband. To be with him, she abdicates the throne, but then Antonio dies in a duel, forcing Christina to carry on alone. The movie fades out with Garbo at the prow of a ship, her hair windblown, her expression blank so that viewers can project their own thoughts and feelings onto the one-time queen. On the surface, this plot resembles a stan dard historical period piece. However, on closer inspection, when viewed through a queerer lens, there are many hidden mes sages in the film that upend conventional story lines. For starters, Garbo as Queen Christina spends most of the film dressed in the masculine attire of the age. She swag gers across the screen and drinks beer with the boys. She kisses Countess Ebba (Eliza beth Young), her lady in waiting, full on the lips, and expresses jealousy when she finds out that that Ebba is to be married. When she first meets the Spanish Ambas sador, Queen Christina is dressed in male garb and he mistakes her for a young noble man. They exchange homosocial banter that can be interpreted as flirting. Next, they

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