Marlene and Her Mystique AMC Pays Tribute to Dietrich's Legend

Article excerpt

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

grandson.)

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. …