Brooks began her entertainment career as a dancer, appearing in her teens with the revolutionary Denishawn modern dance company whose members included Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. After being dismissed from Denishawn under a cloud, due to her stubborn temperament, she turned to her influential friends and quickly found work as a featured dancer in the 1925 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, where her beauty was noticed by the then New York-based movie studios. She was also noticed by visiting movie star Charlie Chaplin, in town for the premiere of his film The Gold Rush -- the two had an affair that summer.
Hollywood film career
Signing with Paramount Studios, where she stayed for most of the remainder of her American film career, her screen debut was in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men, in an uncredited role in 1925. Soon, however, she was playing the female lead in a number of silent light comedies and flapper films over the next few years, starring with Adolphe Menjou and W. C. Fields, among others. She was noticed in Europe for her pivotal vamp role in the Howard Hawks directed silent "buddy film", A Girl In Every Port in 1928.
It has been said that her best American role was in one of the last silent film dramas, Beggars Of Life (1928), as an abused country girl on the run with Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery playing hoboes she meets while riding the rails. Much of this film was shot on location, and the boom microphone was invented for this film by the director, William Wellman, who needed it for one of the first experimental talking scenes in the movies.
At this time in her life, she was rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, and was a regular guest of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, at San Simeon, being close friends with Marion Davies's niece, Pepi Lederer. Her distinctive bob haircut, which became eponymous and still recognised to this day, had started a sensational trend, as many women in the Western world cut their hair like hers. Soon after the film Beggars Of Life was made, Louise, who loathed the Hollywood "scene", refused to stay on at Paramount after being denied a promised raise, and left for Europe to make films for G. W. Pabst, the great German Expressionist director.
Paramount attempted to use the coming of sound films to strongarm the actress, but she called the studio's bluff. It was not until 30 years later that this rebellious move would come to be seen as arguably the most savvy of her career, securing her immortality as a silent film legend and independent spirit. Unfortunately, while her initial snubbing of Paramount alone would not have finished her in Hollywood altogether, her refusal after returning from Germany to come back to Paramount for sound retakes of The Canary Murder Case irrevocably placed her on an unofficial blacklist. As revealed in the documentary Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu, another actress was hired to dub Brooks' voice for the film and the studio claimed that Brooks' voice was unsuitable for sound.
Once in Germany she starred in the remarkable 1929 film Pandora's Box, directed by the respected director G.W. Pabst in his New Objectivity period. The film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora) and Brooks plays the central figure Lulu, who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper after a series of salacious escapades. This film is notorious for its frank treatment of modern sexual mores, including the first screen portrayal of a lesbian.
Louise then starred in the controversial social dramas Diary Of A Lost Girl (also directed by Pabst (1929), and Prix de Beaute (1930), the latter being filmed in France, and having a famous, but mesmerizing, shock ending. All these films were heavily censored, as they were very "adult" and considered shocking in their time for their portrayals of sexuality, in addition to being highly critical of society. Although overlooked at the time because "talkies" were taking over the movies, these three films were later recognized as masterpieces of the Silent Age, with her role of Lulu now regarded as one of the greatest performances in film history.
Life after film
When she returned to Hollywood, in 1931, she was cast in two mainstream films: God's Gift to Women (1931) and It Pays to Advertise (1931). Her performances in these films, however, were largely ignored. She found herself effectively black-listed, and never again enjoyed her previous success. Rumors purportedly sent out by the studios claimed she had the wrong voice for the new sound films, but she actually possessed a beautiful and cultured voice as proven by her sound films. After the humiliation of being cast in B pictures by studio executives as punishment for her outspokenness and disdain for ill-written scripts, she retired from show business in 1938 after completing one last film, the John Wayne western Overland Stage Raiders in which she played the romantic lead and, with a long hairstyle was all but unrecognizable from her Lulu days.
She then briefly returned to Wichita, where she was raised. "But that turned out to be another kind of hell," she wrote. "The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn't exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature." After an unsuccssful attempt at operating a dance studio, she returned East and worked as a salesgirl in a Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York City for a few years, then eked out a living as a sort of courtesan, with a few select wealthy men as clients. Louise unfortunately had a life-long love of alcohol, and was an alcoholic for a major portion of her life, although she exorcised that particular demon enough to begin writing about film, which became her second life.
She was a notorious spendthrift for most of her life, even filing for bankruptcy once, but was kind and generous to her friends, almost to a fault. She was married twice, but never had children—she referred to herself as "Barren Brooks". Her first husband was director A. Edward Sutherland; they divorced. Her second husband was Chicago millionaire Deering Davis; they married in 1933, she left him five months later, and they divorced in 1938.
Her many lovers from years before had included a young William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. According to Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu, Paley provided a small monthly stipend to Brooks for the rest of her life, and according to the documentary this stipend kept her from committing suicide at one point.
French film historians rediscovered her films in the early 1950s, proclaiming her as an actress who surpassed even Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon (Henri Langlois: "There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!"), much to her amusement, but it would lead to the still ongoing Louise Brooks film revivals, and rehabilitated her reputation in her home country. James Card, the film curator for the George Eastman House, discovered Louise living as a recluse in New York City about this time, and persuaded her to move to Rochester, New York to be near the George Eastman House film collection.
With his help, she became a noted film writer in her own right. A collection of her witty and cogent writings, Lulu in Hollywood, was published in 1982. She was famously profiled by the noted film writer Kenneth Tynan in his essay, "The Girl With The Black Helmet", the title of which was an allusion to her fabulous bob, worn since childhood, a hairstyle claimed as one of the ten most influential in history by beauty magazines the world over.
She rarely gave interviews, but had a special relationship with John Kobal and Kevin Brownlow, the film historians, and they were able to capture on paper some of her amazing personality. In the 1970s she was interviewed extensively, on film, for the documentary Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture (1976), produced and directed by Gary Conklin. Running 50 minutes, Lulu in Berlin (1984) is another rare filmed interview, produced by Richard Leacock and Susan Woll in the year before her death. She had lived alone by choice for many years, and Louise died from a heart attack in 1985, after suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years.
A Continuing Inspiration
Brooks is considered one of the first naturalistic actors in film, her acting being subtle and nuanced compared to many other silent performers. The close-up was just coming into vogue with directors, and her almost hypnotically beautiful face was perfect for this new technique. Brooks had always been very self-directed, even difficult, and was notorious for her salty language, which she didn't hesitate to use whenever she felt like it. In addition, she had made a vow to herself never to smile on stage unless she felt compelled to, and although the majority of her publicity photos show her with a neutral expression, she had a dazzling smile. By her own admission, she was a sexually liberated woman, not afraid to experiment, even posing nude for "art" photography, and her liaisons with many film people were legendary, although much of it is speculation.
Louise Brooks as an unattainable film image served as an inspiration for Adolfo Bioy Casares when he wrote his classic science fiction novel The Invention of Morel (1940) about a man attracted to Faustine, a woman who is only a projected 3-D image. In a 1995 interview, Casares explained that Faustine is directly based on his love for Louise Brooks who "vanished too early from the movies." Elements of The Invention of Morel, minus the science fictional hardware, served as a basis for Alain Resnais' enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad (1961), one of the most influential films of the 1960s.
Louise also had an influence in the graphics world - she had the distinction of inspiring two separate comics: the long-running Dixie Dugan newspaper strip by John H. Striebel that started in the late 1920s and ran until 1966, which grew out of the serialized novel and later stage musical, "Show Girl", that writer J.P. McEvoy had loosely based on Louise's days as a Follies girl on Broadway; and the erotic comic books of Valentina, by the late Guido Crepax, which began publication in 1965 and continued for many years. Crepax became a friend and regular correspondent with Louise late in her life. Hugo Pratt, another comics artist, also used her as inspiration for characters, and even named them after her.
For her Oscar-winning film role in the 1972 movie musical Cabaret, Liza Minnelli was coached by her father, Vincente Minnelli, to fashion her character's appearance on Louise Brooks.
The 1986 film Something Wild, directed by Jonathan Demme, features a main character played by actress Melanie Griffith, who sports Louise Brooks' trademark hairstyle, and goes by the moniker Lulu.
In 1987, the first book devoted to Louise, "Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star", by Rolland Jaccard, was published in France. Soon after, in 1989, Barry Paris wrote the biography, "Louise Brooks".
In 1991, the synth-pop group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark released "Pandora's Box (It's a Long, Long Way)", and the collage-pop band Soul Coughing released "St. Louise Is Listening" in 1998, both inspired by Louise Brooks' life.
In 1992 and 1993, Madonna was inspired by Louise Brooks' look in the videoclips of I'll Remember and Rain, wearing a little black wig. She said later she has been really inspired by her, and another actress of the same era, Dita Parlo.
In 1995, the Louise Brooks Society was formed to promote a greater awareness of the life and films of this celebrated actress, dancer, and writer.
In 1998, a documentary, Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu, was broadcast on the Turner Classic Movies network, narrated by Shirley MacLaine.
In 1999, the rock band Marillion included on their 1999 album Marillion.com a song inspired by her called Interior Lulu.
In the late 1990s, BBC Books based their description of the third incarnation of Doctor Who character Romana on Louise Brooks.
Neil Gaiman's American Gods makes a reference to Louise Brooks.