LONDON – In life, Greta Garbo (search) did her best to avoid the media limelight. But the reclusive actress will be in focus over the next few months as Sweden celebrates its greatest movie star, who would have turned 100 on Sunday.
The Swedish Film Institute (search) kicks off the Garbo centenary celebration Friday with a screening of the 1936 classic "Camille" (search), which had its original premiere at Stockholm's Roda Kvarn movie theater.
"It was Garbo's own favorite and is part of a two-month retrospective of the films of one of the world's greatest film stars ever," said institute spokesman and Garbo expert Jan Goransson.
While Garbo's legend lives on in part because of her beauty and mysterious persona, Goransson attributed her status as "the divine woman" to her unpredictable and original screen presence.
"She played a lot of look-but-don't-touch parts," Goransson said. "It was rare for her to play simple girls, from ordinary backgrounds."
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson to a working-class family in 1905, Garbo grew up with her parents and two siblings in a small studio apartment in Stockholm. She made her acting debut in an advertising film for the Stockholm department store Pub, where she worked selling hats as a teenager. After being accepted to the Royal Dramatic Theatre's drama school in 1922, director Mauritz Stiller gave her a starring role in the classic silent film "The Story of Gosta Berling" (search).
That film will be screened on Sunday at the Swedish Film Institute's own cinema, featuring the first performance of Swedish composer Matti Bye's newly written score. Bye himself will accompany the film on the piano, backed by a string quartet.
The screening kicks off a major Garbo retrospective in which 13 of her films will be featured in three cities, among them Garbo's first Hollywood film, the seldom screened "Torrent" (search) from 1926.
The exhibition "Images of Greta" — based around nine quotations by or about Garbo — will also be shown at the Sture cinema in Stockholm through the fall. A number of previously unpublished photographs and other Garbo-related objects will also be on display, including a dress she wore in "The Story of Gosta Berling," a number of her private letters, her notebook from the Royal Dramatic Theatre drama school and Swedish original film posters.
Garbo's memory is also highlighted in a Swedish National Portrait Gallery exhibition, "The Divine, Greta Garbo 100," at the Gripsholm Castle west of Stockholm.
As one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Garbo was as famous for her movies as she was for her mysterious persona. She refused to give interviews and shunned movie premieres, putting up a wall of privacy around her life.
She received five Oscar nominations for her acting performances, but never won. When she finally was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1954, she did not show up to accept it.
Unlike some of Hollywood's other biggest legends — like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean — Garbo did not die young, but simply walked away from her career at the age of 37, after the failure of "Two-faced Woman" in 1941. That abrupt break probably enhanced her legend as well, Goransson said.
"As an artist, she really died in 1941," Goransson said. "After that, the only thing we've seen of her are paparazzi photos and secret interviews."
She lived the rest of her life in New York, where she died in 1990. She is buried in Stockholm.
But the screen legend still manages to stir hearts around the world, 15 years after her death.
Norio Hidaka traveled from Japan to Stockholm this week to be part of the Garbo celebration.
"I know a lot about her, because I love her," Hidaka told Swedish Radio Thursday. "So I came to this country to collect her photos, a biography and so on. I personally would carry her photo and go around town to show that Garbo is still alive in Stockholm."