1 January 2006 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Beneath those bangs, her secret hangs...
'Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu' is one instalment in an ongoing series of documentaries by Hugh Munro Neely, each spotlighting an actress of the early film era. (Full disclosure: I've had some professional dealings with Hugh Neely, and I consider him a friend, but I hope that this hasn't coloured my perceptions of his films.) I enjoy Louise Brooks's movies, but I tend to be alienated by her fandom cult, much as I'm alienated by the fandom cult for Marilyn Monroe. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Marilyn's fans would have us believe that Monroe was some wounded little fawn, who -- underneath the glamour -- was actually Norma Jean the girl next door. (Which is nonsense: if Marilyn Monroe really WERE Norma Jean, her fans wouldn't be interested.) In Brooks's case, her fans tend to skim over her entire Hollywood career in order to fixate on the two films she made in Germany for GW Pabst: those two films *do* contain Brooks's two best performances, but I feel that the constant emphasis on her German films does a great injustice to her Hollywood films, in several of which Brooks does give excellent (and sexy) performances.
Regrettably, Brooks's fans continue to assert that she WAS Lulu, the character she played in one (or, unofficially, both) of her two German films. I dislike the fact that many overviews of Brooks (including this documentary) make a point of referring to Brooks herself as 'Lulu', as if she was that fictional character. Admittedly, it was Brooks who encouraged this habit with her fascinating memoirs.
'Looking for Lulu' is narrated by Shirley MacLaine, an interesting choice. In some ways, MacLaine's life and career are very different from Brooks's, yet in other ways they're very similar. Both actresses began as dancers, both had minor success on Broadway before achieving Hollywood stardom, and both were intensely devoted to a younger brother (in MacLaine's case, Warren Beatty).
As usual for Neely's excellent documentaries, he comes up with some amazingly obscure photos and artefacts here. The narration briefly mentions an incident in Brooks's childhood, when a male neighbour molested her, and afterwards her mother blamed her. I wish that the documentary had given this incident more emphasis, as I suspect that it was one of the major events in Brooks's life: much of her later behaviour was self-destructive, and very much fits the profile of someone who was sexually abused in childhood.
I wish that this documentary had featured more identifying captions. We see a photo of Louise in a barber's chair, but are not told that this is a publicity still for her film 'A Social Celebrity'. We see Louise in a brief romantic scene from 'The Show-Off', but we're told absolutely nothing about the ingratiating actor who plays her leading man in this scene; not even his name. In fact, he was Gregory Kelly, who died tragically young. Viewers of this documentary might have been interested in learning that Kelly was the husband of actress Ruth Gordon, as well as the brother of playwright George Kelly (author of 'The Show-Off') and uncle of Princess Grace Kelly.
The narration of this film features one statement that made me hit Rewind to make sure I'd heard it correctly. We're told that George Gershwin was 'the best and most beloved' Broadway composer. 'Best' is a matter of opinion, but 'most beloved'? Erm, no, not Gershwin.
In addition to a generous array of juicy clips from many of Brooks's films, we also get some interview footage of Brooks in her later years, when she was a semi-recluse in Rochester, NY. Brooks is honest enough to admit that the rapid decline of her career was entirely her own fault, due to her own poor decisions. When her silent film 'The Canary Murder Case' was reworked as a talkie, she refused to record talking sequences; we see a clip here, in which Brooks's character is obviously post-dubbed with the voice of a different actress (Margaret Livingston). We also see a clip from Brook's French film, 'Prix de Beaute', in which a French actress badly dubs Brooks's dialogue. Fascinating! Yet I regret that this documentary did not include even a brief clip from 'When You're in Love', nor even any mention of that film. In an attempt to get back into Hollywood's good graces, Brooks appeared in the movie musical 'When You're in Love' as a mere chorus girl; the studio milked this for publicity with a "Former star, she starts over at the bottom" angle, promising Brooks a starring vehicle afterward ... and then reneging on their promise.
Brooks's last film was 'Overland Stage Raiders', an above-average low-budget western starring John Wayne. A few years ago, when I attended a Brooks retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a curator made the mean-spirited and gratuitous comment that Brooks's career ended with 'the humiliation of appearing in a John Wayne movie'. I was pleased that no such editorialising was included in this documentary.
'Looking for Lulu' is a fascinating look at an actress whose allure, talent and raw sex appeal continue to shine from films made nearly a century ago. Showbiz documentaries in general have a regrettable tendency to psychoanalyse subjects who really don't need to be analysed. In Brooks's case, though, I wish that this documentary (and some other Brooks bios) had dug a little deeper into Brooks's psychological motivations for some of her self-destructive actions. And I wish this documentary had concluded by reminding Brooks's fans of something which many of them refuse to acknowledge: in real life, Louise was NOT Lulu. I'll rate this fascinating, well-paced documentary 9 out of 10.