Sunday, March 11, 2012

Louise Brooks: Lulu on the Run With a Gun

New York's Film Forum recently screened a rarely seen 1928 film starring Louise Brooks dressed as a boy and on the run after murdering the stepfather who molested her.

Called Beggars of Life, the film when it first came out was described as "sordid, grim and unpleasant" by Picture Play magazine. But Louise Brooks looks ravishing as always, sporting a cap set at a rakish angle rather than her trademark helmet of black hair. The face peeking out from beneath the cap could never in real life be mistaken for a boy's. It's Lulu, a year before Pabst released his German silent Pandora's Box, only here she's hopping trains instead of ruining men and being ruined in return.

Here's the thing: Louise Brooks had good reason to understand the motivation of a girl who would kill the man who molested her. When she was just nine years old, Louise was sexually abused by a local pervert in her hometown of Cherryvale, Kansas. From then on, she was cold to sexual love and felt nothing for the many men who fell in love with her in Hollywood, Europe and beyond.

"For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough," she said. "There had to be an element of domination."

She lived for herself only, polishing her reputation as a great silent film star, but burning bridges behind her wherever she went, first with the Denishawn modern dance company in 1922, then Paramount Pictures, then a failed career as a courtesan to wealthy men.

After watching her, eternally silent, in Pandora's Box, it can come as a surprise that Louise Brooks later spoke plenty in interviews, documentaries and the collection of essays she wrote, Lulu in Hollywood, before dying broke and alone in her Rochester, N.Y., apartment at the age of 79 in 1985.
"She was the most seductive, sexual image of woman ever committed to celluloid," says filmmaker Richard Leacock in Lulu in Berlin, a documentary that includes a lengthy interview with Louise Brooks. "She was the really unrepentant hedonist, the only pure pleasure-seeker I think I've ever known."

And what did Lulu think? "I never was an actress," Brooks told Leacock just a year before her death in this documentary where she appears as a graying, elegantly spoken lady in a housecoat, her face still strikingly pure and expressive. "I never was in love with myself....You can't be a great actress unless you think you're beautiful....When I acted I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was doing. I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do."

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