Marlene Dietrich's style lives on

May 13, 1992|By Woody Hochswender | Woody Hochswender,N.Y. Times News Service

Dietrich is dead. Long live her style. She was a radiant self-creation, the original movie-star cross-dresser and the ultimate narcissist. Like Madonna, in whose "Vogue" video she is reincarnated, Dietrich was more than a performer of songs and an actress in films. She was a stylist.

Plucked and painted eyebrows. The pants suit. Fabulous gartered legs. The blond hair, tips illuminated to create a halo effect. The planes of her face gleaming with light, shadow and liquid halftones.

"In my case the face was created," she stated in her autobiography, "Marlene," published by Grove Weidenfeld in 1987. "The secret face with the hollow cheeks was achieved as a result of placing the main spotlight close to my face and high above it."

She eventually became so fussy about her own lighting that she insisted on doing it herself.

Madonna, who has borrowed and reworked the iconography of Hollywood stars, acknowledged her debt to Dietrich in an interview recently.

"She had a strong image that really affected me," said Madonna, who spoke from a sound stage in Culver City, Calif., where she is filming "Body of Evidence."

While millions of women now identify with Madonna, whose style poses range from street urchin to Hollywood sex goddess, Madonna identified with Dietrich.

"I can't deny she's been an influence in my photographs and videos, from technical aspects of filming to the shape of her eyebrows and lips," she said, adding that her most conscious attempts to re-create the Dietrich look were in the "Vogue" video and in MTV's 10th anniversary video, in which she painted an indentation in the middle of her mouth.

"I consider it a real art form, what she did," Madonna said. "I don't see a difference between her and someone like Cindy Sherman creating effects with makeup and lighting," a reference to the photographer known for stylized self-portraits.

Dietrich made her own costume sketches for the film that began her career, "The Blue Angel," topping off the outfits with top hats and workers' caps, decorating them with personal trinkets to achieve the effect of a B-girl in a sleazy, waterfront saloon.

Jean Louis, a Hollywood costume designer who worked for Columbia Pictures in the 1950s, said that Dietrich was tremendously involved in her style, flying back and forth from New York to Los Angeles to supervise the placing of sequins on the famous semi-nude dress she wore in her final cabaret performances.

"She was marvelous, with a great figure," Mr. Louis said. "She would come on a Saturday morning and stay until Sunday night."

But the Dietrich style derived from much more than make-up or what she wore. It's what she was.

"She was an amazing being for lots of reasons, not necessarily for her eyebrows," Madonna said. "Mostly for her strength."

In a scene from the 1931 film "Dishonored," facing a firing squad, she calmly puts on lipstick, using a soldier's saber for a mirror.

In "Morocco," with Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, she is alone on a steamer bound for Morocco when Menjou offers his assistance. "I don't need any help," she says.

In films, she seemed to have reservoirs of strength equal to or greater than the men's.

In "Desire," again with Cooper, Dietrich played a world-weary jewel thief in France who falls in love with an American hayseed, and eventually protects him from her cutthroat accomplices.

In "Witness for the Prosecution," she pulls off one of the great cinematic impersonations, as a cockney harridan, to provide an alibi for her good-for-nothing husband.

"You couldn't push her around," Madonna said. "She was really solid."

On screen, Dietrich wore the pants in many of the relationships. And, of course, she holds a place in fashion history for helping to popularize men's-style suits for women.

But she generally did not wear them in movies, except for white tie and tails in cabaret numbers. The men's suit was a style she adopted in real life, as did Garbo and Katharine Hepburn.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.