I sing the praises of Louise Brooks. She portrayed Lulu in Pandora’s Box and was Lulu in life. I am under her spell, ever since I saw her face on a button, and wondered who she was. Many years later I got the chance to watch Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl and was captivated by her compelling yet mysterious presence. She has influenced sexy, independent women from Shirley MacLaine to Margaret Cho. Louise Brooks defied the conventions of her time, going to Germany for meaningful roles. She had become disgusted with the entertainment industry in America, with it’s shallow roles for women. The author of Pandora’s Box, upon meeting Louise, was struck by her resemblance to the character, Lulu, and had to cast her. Louise Brooks didn’t give a damn. She could have been a major star in her time. But she didn’t want to play the Hollywood game, and faded into obscurity. She led a life of her choosing, with exciting, artistic, sexy friends and lovers, on the fringes far from the public eye. She became a feisty, colorful old lady with many stories to tell, provided she were so inclined. Some people claim Louise Brooks had worked as a call girl in New York for many years, but this is unsubstantiated. It sounds like the sort of work Lulu would have pursued, and Louise had many similarities to her character.
But all of that is secondary to her face. It speaks volumes, over the decades to our computer, with an intimacy unmatched since. She gazes upon the sexual sadism surrounding her with scorn, but also with understanding. Her light is unbearably bright within the sordid darkness of pre-Nazi Germany. Even though she has many lovers, she remains pure and seemingly innocent. The viewer longs to know her, to hear her voice, and to soothe her pain with a close embrace, running our fingers through her dark helmet of hair. But we also sense that we can never really know this woman. She is forever elusive, mutely beckoning to us from the screen.
Louise Brooks was perfect for the silent age. Whatever voice she possessed could not possibly match what we could imagine. She appeared in a few very obscure talkies in the early thirties, but I would discourage anyone from watching them. This is not the Louise Brooks you should remember, giving an adequate, but uninspired performance in an adequate, but uninspired film. It was just work, nothing more. Her magic is in the work of the twenties, especially the German films. I am sitting here trying to capture what it was about Louise Brooks. What have I left unsaid? She was real, heartbreakingly so. You felt you could have her as a friend. She was just herself onscreen as Louise has said, by way of explaining why she seemed so natural. She also feels absolutely modern, her acting is decades ahead of her time. This naturalness, and accessibility is shared by both Shirley MacLaine and Margaret Cho. I realize I wrote above that she was an enigma, and the viewer feels they could never really know her. That is the essence of Louise Brooks, both are true, she is a walking contradiction, a paradox, who beguiles us still.