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Picks and Pans Review: Louise Brooks

updated 01/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/08/1990 01:00AM

by Barry Paris

Brooks, the dizzyingly beautiful silent-movie star with the now iconographic black bob, was a self-centered bitch. When she died at age 78 in 1985, she hadn't changed much from the odious little girl who would spit in her fudge pan to avoid sharing candy with her siblings.

Her strangely enduring cult-figure status rests on three things: her performance in a German silent film, Pandora's Box; mesmerizing photographs of her from the '20s and '30s; and two dozen fiercely smart essays she wrote late in life. Slim pickings to base a cult upon. The real mystique about Brooks has always been what might have been—what if she had made better movies or written a real book; what if she hadn't wasted all those years?

Paris's thorough biography makes it clear that there could never have been happy answers to those questions. Brooks, though miles smarter than such other tragic Hollywood figures as Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe, was just as self-destructive. She never let her art, career or emotional ties get in the way of drinking or sex. "The operative rule with Louise was neither heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality," writes Paris. "It was just sexuality—often marinated in alcohol."

Brooks was headed for stardom when, in 1929, after a tiff with Paramount over money, she quit Hollywood for Berlin to make Pandora's Box. Directed by G.W. Pabst, the film flopped but is now considered one of the cinema's greatest masterpieces, aided immeasurably by Brooks's magnetic presence. After Pandora she slid downhill fast, professionally and personally. By the late '40s, she was doing little more than drinking and, apparently, sometimes working for an escort service.

Writing saved her. Encouraged by James Card, a Rochester, N.Y., film historian (Brooks, of course, had an affair with him), she wrote a series of vituperative yet knowing essays on film, which appeared in the late '50s. Slowly, Louise was rediscovered. Pandora's Box became an art house staple, the New Yorker ran an adoring profile of her in 1979, and her essays were collected in Lulu in Hollywood in 1982.

Paris, a journalist-film critic, provides as much insight as a reader could want. At times there's too much detail, especially about Brooks's frail final years. Still, her life makes for fascinating reading, even if, finally, to know all about Brooks is not to love her. Her downfall was all her own doing. And she was too smart to have let it happen. (Knopf, $24.95)

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