Born to Play Death

I became interested in the film “Orpheus” when I was doing research about Greta Garbo last year and came across critic Roger Ebert’s review of it. Here are the lines that got my attention:

The weakness in the cast is Maria Casares, as the Princess, death’s embodiment.

She lacks the presence for the role. Despite all the tricks of costuming and makeup, she is slight and inconsequential. Cocteau wanted either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich,

And to imagine either one as the Princess is to see the film with its final piece in place.

(There is a moment that would have become famous if performed by either one[…])

Ebert’s review made me curious to see what this Princess character was like. I wondered if I’d agree that she’s an ideal role for Garbo or Dietrich. When I watched the movie, I not only agreed…
I felt cheated by the absence of both actresses! I just kept thinking:
It is TRAGIC that this character wasn’t played by Garbo or Dietrich!

“Orpheus” is inspired by a story in Greek mythology. It’s about how characters from the ‘underworld’ (the place where people supposedly go after dying) interfere in a man’s life. Maria Casares plays ‘The Princess’, who is actually death itself. She reminds me of the Death character in “The Seventh Seal”. Both are ominous, intimidating figures whose interactions with humans have a fascinating solemnity. Watching “Orpheus”, I found it quite obvious that Casares was cast partially because she looked a bit like Garbo. Her make-up even seems designed to emphasize their resemblance.

Based on her performance in “Orpheus”, I think Casares is a good actress, yet I share Ebert’s belief that she “lacks presence” and “seems inconsequential”. In having this reaction, I’ve realized something about acting that never occurred to me before: someone can play a role perfectly, yet not be the best possible person for it!

Casares is an intriguing guide through the movie’s bizarrely twisted world as it veers between melancholic and darkly humourous. I see a lot of talent and effort in the performance she gives. Her problem isn’t being a bad actress. It’s simply not being Garbo or Dietrich!
The original way that they moved, spoke, or conveyed thoughts and feelings with their faces had a bewitching and magnetic elegance.

No actress could command attention on screen and deliver dialogue with the magic they had. Critic Gene Siskel once made an insightful observation about Greta Garbo’s acting that explains a key reason why I think she’s just right for the role of a supernatural being.

Siskel said that Garbo had an “ethereal” quality. She seemed angelic in performances, often wistfully looking to the sky during scenes. It was as if she received signals from some unseen heavenly force, emoting like a woman possessed. This sort of movement befits a majestic female character who is beyond human and capable of confidently going back and forth between worlds of life and death.

The Princess/Death is a cold, harsh, authoritative force of nature who secretly harbours a romantic longing. Those qualities connect her with Marlene Dietrich, another woman I see as otherworldly. She specialized in playing women like The Princess who were icy on the surface, concealing a tender heart beneath her cool exterior.

Deep voices, extraordinary accents, alluring faces, and lavish make-up give Garbo and Dietrich auras that cannot be duplicated. Some people call them goddesses, and I approve of that description.

Several times in their careers, these two actresses gave fans the gift of seeing them in a role they were clearly born to play. Greta Garbo blessed us with “Queen Christina” and “Ninotchka”. Marlene Dietrich did the same in “The Scarlet Empress” and “Desire”. Such events exemplify perfect marriages between actress and character.

Jean Cocteau offered Garbo and Dietrich another of those marriages through ‘Death’ in “Orpheus“. I wish they hadn’t rejected it. What a missed opportunity. Of all the potential roles they didn’t play, I consider this the most unfortunate case of ‘One that Got Away’.


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