The time­less ap­peal of Mar­lene Di­et­rich

The pho­tos and ar­ti­facts in the ex­hi­bi­tion ‘Mar­lene Di­et­rich: Dressed for the Im­age’ ex­am­ine the ac­tress’s power as an iconic screen pres­ence and so­cial-change agent

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANN HORNADAY ann.hornaday@wash­post.com

Cin­ema is a medium of mov­ing images, of care­fully framed com­po­si­tions and dy­namic, bravura ges­tures. But, more than all that, it’s a medium of faces.

For proof, look no fur­ther than “Mar­lene Di­et­rich: Dressed for the Im­age,” on view at the National Por­trait Gallery through next spring. A col­lec­tion of dozens of rare and fa­mil­iar pho­tos of the iconic movie star, as well as snip­pets of films and writ­ten cor­re­spon­dence, the ex­hi­bi­tion plums Di­et­rich’s power, both as a screen ob­ject and a so­cial-change agent: Here was a leggy, supremely fem­i­nine muse who made menswear stylish decades be­fore “Annie Hall,” who em­braced an­drog­yny long be­fore Bowie and Jag­ger, and who freely ex­pressed bi­sex­u­al­ity nearly a cen­tury be­fore Madonna, Miley Cyrus and Kristen Ste­wart made it chic.

Di­et­rich’s for­ward-look­ing aes­thetic is on full dis­play in “Dressed for the Im­age,” which takes its ti­tle from an in­ter­view in which the ac­tress was quoted as say­ing: “I dress for the im­age. Not for my­self, not for the public, not for fash­ion, not for men.” In­deed, this show of­fers some­thing of a primer in how star­dom is crafted and con­fected, as mere mor­tals are trans­formed by makeup, cos­tum­ing and clever tricks of the light into gods who seem lit from within. An early photograph of Di­et­rich as a teenager in Ger­many of­fers a base­line for un­der­stand­ing how far such self­in­ven­tion can go. In this for­mal por­trait, taken in 1918, Di­et­rich — born Marie Mag­da­lene Di­et­rich — is noth­ing if not proper, her hair taken up in a huge bow, her frock trimmed with lace at the col­lar and sleeves.

Di­et­rich would plunge her­self into the free­wheel­ing ether of Weimar-era cabaret cul­ture in the 1920s, when she be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with the cross-dress­ing, sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous aes­thetic that would be­come her hall­mark. It took Di­et­rich’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with di­rec­tor Josef von Stern­berg — be­gin­ning in 1930 with “The Blue An­gel” and con­tin­u­ing over six more films — to elab­o­rate on that nascent per­sona, with von Stern­berg and the star-mak­ing ar­ti­sans of Paramount Pic­tures shap­ing her into the ethe­real, enig­matic and teas­ingly erotic screen pres­ence we think of when we hear the name Mar­lene Di­et­rich to­day.

That im­age is en­cap­su­lated in a pub­lic­ity still for the film “Morocco,” in which Di­et­rich wore a men’s tuxedo to play a French night­club singer named Amy Jolly. In Eu­gene Robert Richee’s photograph, Di­et­rich be­holds the cam­era while light­ing a cig­a­rette, half of her face in shadow (Stern­berg lit her from the top, to cre­ate a halo ef­fect, and from the side, to hide an im­per­fect nose), the light

danc­ing off a jaunty top hat whose fin­ish is as vel­vety as Di­et­rich’s own skin and hair. In another pic­ture, of Di­et­rich re­lax­ing at small party thrown by Paramount founder Jesse Lasky, even the most nom­i­nally ca­sual mo­ment feels styled to within an inch of its life.

Whether chore­ographed or can­did, these images of Di­et­rich ex­em­plify the power she ex­erted as a crea­ture of the cin­ema, some­one for whom the unique alchemy of light, lenses and pho­to­chem­i­cal film awak­ened oth­er­wise la­tent ex­pres­sive prop­er­ties. Al­lur­ing but also with­hold­ing; sul­try but play­ful; enig­matic but un­nerv­ingly di­rect — these are the con­tra­dic­tions that made Di­et­rich the big­gest star of her era dur­ing the Paramount years, her frankly lat­i­tu­di­nal sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions not­with­stand­ing.

If it’s easy to credit Stern­berg and the ac­tress’s own per­for­ma­tive bent with cre­at­ing the “Di­et­rich per­sona,” it may not be en­tirely ac­cu­rate. Even while ap­pre­ci­at­ing the care­ful fram­ing, metic­u­lous groom­ing and self­con­sciously sub­ver­sive wardrobe, it’s pos­si­ble to see glim­mers of the girl in that 1918 por­trait, star­ing at the cam­era with un­forced, dis­arm­ing can­dor. Be­cause un­der­neath the ar­ti­fice was al­ways an abid­ing hon­esty, whether Di­et­rich was dress­ing the way she wanted to, tak­ing the lovers she wanted or tak­ing a po­lit­i­cal stand at great per­sonal, and po­ten­tially pro­fes­sional, cost.

Per­haps the most af­fect­ing photo in “Dressed for the Im­age” isn’t an el­e­gant sil­ver gelatin by way of Ge­orge Hur­rell or Irv­ing Penn. Rather, it’s a pass­port-size, stan­dard-is­sue snap­shot of Di­et­rich at­tached to the 1937 doc­u­ment she filled out when ap­ply­ing to im­mi­grate to the United States (she later re­nounced her Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship). Di­et­rich, who re­fused to star in a Nazi pro­pa­ganda film and con­sid­ered Hitler “an id­iot,” is shown here at her bravest and most fiercely un­com­pro­mis­ing. And there’s nary a top hat or key light in sight.

Mar­lene Di­et­rich: Dressed for the Im­age On view through April 15 at the National Por­trait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-8300. npg.si.edu. Free.

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