Her career was a triumph of image.
By the time she died in 1992, at the age of 89, she'd been a
recluse for 13 years, confined to a Paris apartment where she
rarely left bed. Her glory years were almost six decades gone.
And yet she endured in our collective consciousness, if only as
an image, an image of mystery, of glamour, of sexual allure. The
creation and preservation of that image had been her life's
work, and it was her masterpiece.
"Isn't it incidental that some actual woman had to be Marlene
Dietrich, for surely the idea of her and its mystery were only
waiting to be freed?" David Thompson wrote in The Biographical
Dictionary of Film.
"She was a magnificent actress in real life, much better than
she ever was on screen," Maria Riva comments in the documentary
Marlene Dietrich: Shadow and Light , which will be presented as
part of a 24hour celebration of Dietrich that begins at 6 a.m.
today on the cable channel American Movie Classics.
Riva is one of two Dietrich biographers who contribute to
Marlene Dietrich: Shadow and Light, a fascinating piece of work
that sheds light on both the public Dietrich -- immaculately
crafted and meticulously presented -- and the private Dietrich
-- a mess.
One biographer, Stephen Bach, is clearly an affectionate
admirer, enchanted by her image and her legend. But then he
never had to deal with the private Dietrich.
Riva, while she respects Dietrich the professional, cannot
conceal her dislike for the woman and her contempt for the way
Dietrich lived. She had as intimate a view of that life as
anyone, having been Dietrich's only child. (Adding an
interesting twist to the whole project is the fact that it is
narrated by David Riva, Maria Riva's son and Marlene Dietrich's
It can be argued that the Dietrich we remember was actually a
collaborative creation. She was "discovered" in 1930 by director
Josef Von Sternberg, who was looking for an actress to play a
seductive cabaret performer in The Blue Angel.
Dietrich was a cabaret performer, she could speak both
languages and beneath her plump exterior von Sternberg
apparently glimpsed the movie goddess within.
Dietrich was not new to movies, having worked in the German
silent movie industry since the early '20s. And, as Bach
explains, she was already an eager student of how to make
herself look good on film.
"When she first saw herself in a movie, she said, `I look like
a potato with hair,' " Bach says. "It took years of watching
herself on film to learn how to present herself to the camera .
. . some of her silent film directors used to complain that she
was acting to the lights, not to their direction. …