My lovely editor Celso said to me: “On your next text, talk as much as you want about Marlene”. Let’s say that this was one of my Christma’s gifts. After all, Marlene is one of my cinematographic idols. She was not the best actress, she didn’t win the best prizes, she wasn’t the best singer nor the prettiest woman of cinema. In Marlene’s biography (a quite partial one, by the way) written by her daughter, we find out that she wasn’t a very kind person either. So, what causes Marlene to be this unachievable diva of cinema?
Marie Magdelene, daughter of the widow for two times Wilhelmina, had her debut at age twenty as a chorister in one of the poorest German’s cabarets, dancing, singing and leading, like many of the girls of her time, an unglamorous and out of money life. At age twenty-five she started acting, anonymously, in several silent films. Different from the majority of early discovered stars of her time, Marlene won her first leading role at age twenty nine as the chorister Lola- Lola who breaks the heart of a naïve in love professor (It breaks my heart every time I watch it) in “The blue angel” (Der blaue Engel). It was thanks to this role that she became known as a female fatale for the rest of her life.
After the success of “The blue Angel” (from head to feet, I was made for love), she went to the United States, leaving her daughter and husband, to sign a contract with Paramount, hoping to compete with the success of Greta Garbo in MGM. Rumor has it that she saved Paramount from going bankrupt. Marie now had a new name, blond hair and new eyebrows, she lost some of her teeth to highlight the beauty of her face and some weight after doing esthetic treatments. Marlene Dietrich was, then, born, polemic, modern, rebel and conqueror of the most famous hearts of her time.
Among those who were in love with her were: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Orson Welles, James Stewart, Yul Brynner, Alexandre Fleming, George Bernard Shaw e three Kennedys: Joseph P. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy Jr. and JFK. I bet you envy her now, don’t you? And there is more! Two names should call our attention: Adolf Hitler had a platonic passion for here and even invited her to be a movie star of the pro-nazi cinema. Marlene refused his invitation and because of that she became a persona non grata in Germany. Apart from refusing the Füher’s invitation, she became an american citizen and a political activist during and after the second world war. There are many stories about her actions against nazism and in the decade of 1940, her career was left aside while she fought for the cause, risking her life, visiting the battle fields to sing for the soldiers.
Another one who fell for Marlene, was my favourite writer, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the famous lines about her: “if there was nothing last but her voice, she could still break anybody’s heart” and “she can drive a man crazy by only lifting her eyebrows and destroy an enemy by just looking at him”. Now, just imagine, no one but the wonderful Hemingway saying this things about you. Oh my gosh!
But she didn’t just caught the male attention. Marlene was bisexual and one of the few actresses of her time to openly expose her sexual orientation. Bissexuality and homosexuality in the 30’s Hollywood was more commom than we could imagine, but most stars used to hide behind arranged marriages to protect their careers and the success of the movie industry. It was only in the 50 and 60 decade that people started to be more open minded about it and so Hollywood began to be seen as a modern and sexual land. Marlene was the first actress to wear male clothes in public and to kiss another woman on screen, in the 1930 movie “Morocco”. Among her female lovers were one of the sexual symbols of her time, Mercedes de Acosta, Claudette Coulbert and Tallula Bankhead. “Sex is much better with women, but nobody can live with one” – that is one of the polemic statements said by Marlene.
Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, Lizabeth Scott, Clara Bow e Alla Nazimova are some of the other bisexual stars of the time. If you are surprise to see people like Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox assuming , in the XXI century, their bisexuality just picture the scandal when Marlene got married in 1930, dating women, dressing up like a man, becoming an american citizen, fighting against Hitler and involving more than a lady should, in politics. But , she was such a strong figure that she still was a fashion icon for young and old ladies from different social classes and she kept catching the most famous male eyes.
I remember when I was a kid, to watch old movies with my grandfather. Marlene was one of those who he didn’t talk about. Hayworth, Hepburn, Monroe, Gardner, Garbo… they were all mentioned, but Marlene was sort of taboo that shouldn’t be explained to a child. We can’t come up with a contemporary example of what she represented for men at that time. Perhaps, because she was their first personification of sin to be admired by everyone. She had this freedom that society didn’t accept, although everybody wanted it.
In 1950, Marlene abandoned the screens to come back to her origins as a showgirl around the world and having a fixed contract in Las Vegas. Whoever was in Rio de Janeiro in 1959, had the opportunity to see her famous legs shaking the city. Besides wearing her traditional smoking and top hat (something very unusual in tropical lands), the dive recorded an album entitled “Dietrich in Rio” in which she sings, among other songs, a version of “Luar do Sertão”. Marlene was the cabaret. The diva of cinema had the soul of a chorister, and she even admitted that the seventh art, although responsible for her fame and fortune, wasn’t her biggest passion. Marlene used to say that she belonged to the theater, she was an improvisation kind of artist. The truth is that her Queen soul and her fancy attitude had to us, mere mortals, nothing of improvisation.
In 1975 she broke her leg during a presentation em Sidney so she decides that is time for her to retire. Marlene was never clear about her own story, and she always made up stories about here, which helped to increase the curiosity of her fans and to fill her life with speculations such as a suicide hypotheses and a possible addiction to medicines and alcohol. But I don’t care about that. I rather give more attention to everything that she has made on screen, to her history and personality from where we might learn something. The figure of Marlene Dietrich is still inspirational and even today 111 after her death, she is still a woman ahead of her time.