What we popularly know about Louise Brooks is that she was eroticism incarnate and she was a bitch who destroyed her own career. Reading Barry Paris’ biography, however, there’s a lot more to her. We learn about her autodidactism, her love of books and culture, her own writing career. We learn about her sense of style and importance of fashion. She was an astute critic who was not taken in by the glamour of Hollywood, and though she comes of as often quite selfish, rude, and impulsive, it’s also wonderful to read of her strong relationships (such as her friendship with Barbara Bennett), which seem to contest the idea that she was just a raging bitch destroying everything in her path til there was nothing left. We don’t usually hear about the fact that a lot of her “attitude problems” (like being dismissed from the Denishawn company for her behaviour rather than her lack of skill, or walking out on the George White Scandals) occurred in her teen years (history has deemed a 15 year old girl one of Hollywood’s rudest bitches), or that there was a huge element of unfairness towards her (she left Paramount when they would not give her the customary raise in her contract, when she was working for much less than other stars at the time and had potential to become a huge star given her acting ability and popularity).
We know she was a great actor and a great presence from the few films we have of hers, but so many of Brooks’ films are lost, as was her potential to have a lasing film career. But it seems that everything went wrong for her, because of her attitude, but also because of abusive relationships and controlling boyfriends, because of her alcoholism, because of the power and cruelty of those with power in the film industry — it seems important to not that she, who spent most of her film career too young to even legally vote in the States, was not the only one lashing out angrily: the studio executives lashed right back. But one can imagine what her career might have been like.
Perhaps she would have stayed in Europe longer and made another film with René Clair (though his early sound films, Prix de Beauté excepted, are not interested in women enough to encompass someone as strong as Brooks). Had she stayed in France, she would have done well with Jean Epstein, or could have been great in one of Abel Gance’s moralistic melodramas. She could have rivaled Arletty in early poetic realist films. She could have come back to Hollywood to great acclaim and with that “exotic” European persona that characterized Garbo or Dietrich, rather than coming back effectively blacklisted and forced into choruses or B-westerns. Perhaps she would have taken roles in films like Cat People or The Seventh Victim. She would have done well in glamorous Lubitsch comedies, given her success in earlier frothy silent films. She would have made a good Anna Karenina in the 1930s, when she had gotten a bit older and given her passion for literature: she could have become an intellectual star as she aged. Perhaps by the late 1930s or early 1940s she might have reunited with René Clair in Hollywood. Had she not turned down a role in The Public Enemy, she might have been the Jean Harlow instead of Jean Harlow: our image of 1930s glamour, sophisticated and brutal. She might have even been a sort of vampy Ginger Rogers, given her dancing ability.
But by the 1940s she would have been in her 30s, getting old for cinema which values youth and beauty above all else in women. Would she have taken roles as mothers or aunts? She might have been great as Gilda, but she would have been 38 in 1946, and Hollywood would have never accepted that. She would have been comparable to Ava Garnder, perhaps, but Ava Gardner was 14 years younger than her. She could have been given good roles for her age, that is to say roles for women who are too old. They exist, like All About Eve or Mildred Pierce, but they are rare. There would be no guarantee that there’d be enough of these films to accommodate another actress. Or that Brooks would have wanted the role of “older woman threatened by a younger, hotter woman.”
By the 1950s and 1960s, the best she could hope for would be psycho-biddy dramas. But she would have to be taking the Bette Davis style roles. The ones that are insane and cracklingly hysterical, whether that means Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or The Anniversary (she would have been great with an eyepatch). Or she might have had non-roles as a Hollywood Star in nerdy French new wave films, but this seems unlikely given those directors’ seeming fear of adult women. They prefer the image of youth to aging reality.
In the end, the problem is that cinema is a hostile environment for women. And it will be even worse when you have everything working against you, as Louise Brooks did (which is not to say that she didn’t have a huge role in her own downfall). Had things gone better, had a manipulative boyfriend not given her bad career advice, had her drinking not gotten in the way, had she been more open to roles, had she not been so impulsive and planned ahead a bit more, she might have had a career that lasted longer. But it probably wouldn’t have gone much past the late 1930s in terms of substantial roles and exceptional films. This would have still been better than leaving us with only Overland Stage Raiders, however, and we can lament the loss of what would have likely been only a marginally extended career. Her downfall is tragic in many ways. She didn’t just go from great roles to a character actress who specializes in playing matrons, she went from great films to poverty, alcoholism, and ill-health. But cinema hates women, and the sad thing is that even if everything had gone right for Brooks, I don’t know that her career would have extended much anyway. It just would have been nice if things ended better, but there’s nothing to suggest it wouldn’t have ended.