POSTED April 30 2012

Marlene Dietrich: How to Diva

Marlene Dietrich and the legs longer than the Danube.

The evolution from private citizen to movie star is an act of self-transformation. Surely Marlene Dietrich, she of the hooded eyes, veiled voice, chiseled cheekbones and legs longer than the Danube, made the most spectacular of metamorphoses. She refashioned herself from a terra-cotta Diana into an alabaster Venus. Molly Haskell better captured Dietrich’s spirit when she described the Berlin-born performer as a uniquely modern Narcissus who looked upon her reflection and improved it.

Although in the 1950s she would appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil by then her screen career was in twilight. Not so her career as a performer. For most of the ’50s and early ’60s, Dietrich played three continents in a musical act conceived for her by Burt Bacharach. In 1953, she made her Las Vegas debut wearing a $6,000 dress made of a sheer material described as ”rhinestones and nothing.” Almost surely Dietrich the sculptor ordered plastic surgery on Marlene the sculpture. But despite what many regarded as her self-obsession, Clara Bianchi, the ladies’ room attendant at the Colony Restaurant in New York, said in 1954: “In 20 years I’ve never seen her replenish her makeup – not even her lipstick.”

In 1983, Steven M.L. Aronson quoted Dietrich: “I look at my face on the television screen, and I remember how every tooth was capped, how every hair on that head was dyed and shaped, how every inch of skin on that neck and face has been pulled and shaped, and in spite of knowing all that, I sit back and say to myself, ‘That is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ”

Who could disagree?

My favorite Dietrich performance? Glad you asked.  Desire (1936) by director Frank Borzage. Yours?


  1. Horse Badorties says:

    Great Dietrich story: She was visiting Judy Garland at a hotel in London. She wanted Garland to listen to a recording Dietrich made of Dietrich’s European tour peformances. She puts it on the record player and all its has on it is applause from eight different cities she had played..Just the applause. Brilliant that

  2. Jennifer Kotter says:

    MD’s Concha in Devil is a Woman remains quintessential, 1935, Joseph von Sternberg directing Pierre Louys novel comes first, Scarlet Empress 1934 also by von Sternberg second…… Both jewels….

  3. Tony Dayoub says:

    It’d be a tough call between Shanghai Lily in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, which is the epitome of the Dietrich/Sternberg collaboration, or Amy Jolly in MOROCCO because we get to see her interact with a real-life love of hers, the normally stolid Gary Cooper who, here, is surprisingly lively.

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  5. Favorite Dietrich? Hard to think – I’m inclined to go with either Shanghai Express or Devil is a Woman, because there Marlene is given to us as perhaps she wanted people to think of her –glamorous, mysterious, a Sphinx shimmering in black-and-white. But then I think of her earthy persona in The Blue Angel, or how funny (and even slightly vulgar) she could be in Destry Rides Again – strutting, smoking, cocking one fabulous leg out to the side as she demands to know (with that lewd grin and wink) what the boys in the back room will have – a whole other side of her I wouldn’t lose for anything.

  6. AltonMann says:

    Here is my classic movie tweet on Morocco:

    AltonMann: #Morocco: hip smoldering Dietrich pursues cool aloof Cooper in Sternberg’s visually stunning romance. Silence, glances speak volumes #mtrvc

    However, I’d choose Scarlet Empress and those amazing few minutes of Touch of Evil with Orson Wells: “you’d better lay off the candy bars” “your future is all used up.” Also her fabulous swan song walk away at that film’s end..

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