Haunting divinities I
By Michael Moriarty
This series of impressions, sketches of divinely gifted men and women of history, both recent and ancient, is my way of lifting my own spirits from the shamelessly evil powers that now hover above and within the once Free World.
I trust these offerings will inspire you while reading them as they have most certainly thrilled me while writing them.
What do Beethoven's 7th Symphony and Greta Garbo have in common? I'm listening to one while contemplating the other.
The first movement of course has me recalling the screen goddess' performance of Queen Christina. What an entrance! To a symphony and a screen goddess!!
What pored out of her eyes and every pore of her being was an eternal music that will haunt us forever. The pride, the energy, the nobility, the rank, the militancy, the authority!
Then, of course, in the second movement … the mystery and sexuality! A deadly combination leading to Garbo's unforgettable characterization of Felicitas on the silent screen in Flesh and the Devil.
It is this experience of Garbo that you had best start with as an introduction to her power as a film actress.
Her favorite leading man, John Gilbert – or at least the actor to whom she showed most intense loyalty – was, at that time a major star of silent films. He was, at that early period of her career, certainly her equal and, I suspect, much more widely known.
The most contemporary and eternal theme of Flesh and the Devil is the ongoing battle between Gilbert's love for his best male friend, Ulrich, and the obsessive love and lust that Gilbert feels for Garbo.
Unfortunately Garbo's husband in the film is obliged to challenge Gilbert to a duel, which, of course, the husband loses.
Why? It is still early in the film and Gilbert has much trouble to get himself into because of Garbo.
After the death by duel of Garbo's first cinematic husband, Gilbert is sent off to war. Gilbert's best friend, Ulrich? He falls in love with Garbo and marries her! What else would you expect?
The world fell in love with Beethoven in the same way I and the rest of mankind have just had to fall unconditionally in love with Greta Garbo!
Before we glance at her quiet dignity in Queen Christina and then her utterly unforced, comic brilliance in Ninotchka, I must confess to now listening to Gustav Mahler's 6th Symphony.
It sounds like a sound track for Garbo's Flesh and the Devil. Even the military rhythms fit with Gilbert's character having to go off to war.
What distinguishes Garbo's genius from the romantic indulgences of Mahler are the same disciplines found in Beethoven.
However, and I do mean a big however, Mahler, more than any other composer, is teaching me orchestration.
I believe Mahler had so personalized the sound of each instrument in a large modern orchestra – the edge which a conductor would most likely have over most composers – that when his symphonies are viewed as the testimony of thirty some, very different instrumental personalities in a modern orchestra.
Somehow the distinctions between the woodwinds, for example, as heard in the third movement of the Mahler 6th, make great actors out of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons … then the French horn and brass make their intermittent entrances on stage … and … well … the Mahler film script, of course, seems a bit heavy-handed … but he subtitled his 6th the "Tragic" Symphony.
Would you expect any less?
It all fits flawlessly with Garbo's performance in Flesh and the Devil.
Was Garbo a walking symphony all by herself? Yes.
Are you heartbroken by her character's tragic but inevitable death in Flesh and the Devil? I was.
But I, like John Gilbert and much of the world as well, am now madly in love with her.
Leonard Bernstein himself, despite the stubborn reluctance of the Vienna Orchestra to open up to Mahler, is madly in love with the music of the legendary Viennese conductor, Gustav Mahler.
Lessons in love. We can all use them.
Bernstein's descriptions of Beethoven might very well apply to Garbo as a simple but unavoidable power upon the screen.
It is that power which tore through the sentimentality within many of the films she appeared in and left a similarly profound impression upon us and within us.
A memory which haunts us.
A touch of the divine.
Queen Christina? By now Garbo is the highest paid, most revered star of the screen, having leaped the cavernous canyon between silent film and talkies, emblazoned her name into cinematic eternity and then hid behind an eighteenth month "retirement", out of which she blazed to represent all of Sweden as Queen Christina.
Her voice, as mysterious and transparently inscrutable as her face, carries all of that worldwide and massive adoration with the calm certainty of an Empress.
"Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, triumphals (the triumphs) of crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life. I want peace and peace I will have!"
Such were the dreams of Beethoven as well, over one hundred years later.
The heart of such utopian wishes were eventually seen as corrupted by Napoleon and then turned into an ideology by Karl Marx, Ilytch Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.
Here is where Garbo unveiled the genius of a great comedienne. Ninotchka.
She never once "asks for a laugh". She just gets them by being Ninotchka to the core. The mystery of great performers is the un-teachable mystery of all genius.
A power that guides us in our awed admiration because of the endless journey within it.
Where did this force and magnetism come from? That fact alone should bring most people to an acceptance of a divine presence on earth.
Then again, when contemplating contemporary events, we must also acknowledge the presence of diabolical genius. We can, however, miraculously rise above it because of the irrepressible mysteries of a divine reality, offered to us by the likes of Garbo, Beethoven and Bernstein.
And Mahler? While still listening to the third movement of his 6th Symphony? I am an incurable romantic and Mahler, without question, was one of History's greatest romantics.
But then again so was Bernstein.
Giving Beethoven and Garbo the classical edge, the colder and purer vision of reality, I still would not have wanted to live on the earth without the likes of Bernstein and Mahler.
Even though all four of them most certainly brushed more than shoulders with the Devil, their service to each of their arts holds them aloft and above the world.
Places them, for eternity, in the arms of the angels. They are four of this earth's most haunting divinities.
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.