Chapter Two: The Peculiar Predicament of Pola’s Public Perception
In his book, An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928, author Richard Kozarski states that “Negri’s place in American film history has never been adequately evaluated.” I concur with that assessment. With only a few of her films available for viewing, there is little in the way of celluloid evidence to confirm the acting ability that won the acclaim of the critics in her time. Or was she less a great actress and more the “exotic,” the “colorful” personality that her publicity made out to be? Kozarksi asks,“(h)ow much of the Negri phenomenon was real and how much was purely manufactured?”
Good question. Although Pola Negri established a reputation as a great dramatic artist in moving pictures, her public persona was entirely invented by the press. It was publicity, not the actress, that made her a star in the Hollywood firmament. Gossip, studio press-agentry, and planted newspaper stories—exaggerations and half-truths designed to get headlines—became, later, “facts” accepted as incontrovertible gospel in tell-tale books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and have been reported as the “truth” to this day. This false “record” perpetuates the perception of Miss Negri as an over-the-top headline-seeking opportunist, a self-aggrandizing scene-stealer whose “primary, and perhaps even sole talent, lay in promoting herself.”
So instead of fair and objective appraisals of Miss Negri’s films and her acting, we are offered the opinion that she was “more famous than being famous then she is for her films.” We read, as a stated fact, that she “flaunted” her marriages to a Count and a Prince “at every opportunity” and deliberately alienated herself from the rest of Hollywood. She was a “foreigner” and “stuck up” and Americans audiences “found her silly.” We hear over and over of her “annoying publicity”—her tabloid feud with Gloria Swanson—and her “hysterical scene stealing” at Rudolf Valentino’s funeral. We are told that by the late 1920’s she had become “somewhat of a joke—and the wacky PR put out by her American studio, Paramount, had turned her into a parody of the heavy-breathing silent screen vamp.” Even her Los Angeles Times obituary from 1987 relates how she endlessly expressed a Garbo-like wish to be left alone—which was certainly not true—and then offers the opinion that she still seized any opportunity that came her way to obtain publicity for herself.
It’s funny People compare Pola Negri to Garbo when they really should be comparing Garbo to Pola Negri.