Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interim Post: Marlene Dietrich, Hard Woman

Over at Quiet Riot Girl's blog, a bunch of girls (by which I do not mean to indicate that we're secretly all gay men) have been discussing the persona of the female intellectual. Is the Butch Dyke/Macho Hag the only persona such women can assume?

One of the most fascinating documents I came across early in my YouTube use was this screen test for The Blue Angel. Aesthetic feminist that I am (or feminist aesthete, with the aestheticism leading the feminism), I immediately sent it off in triumph (in a link in an e-mail) to my friend George Toles, the film professor/critic. It was a big fat "take that" moment in which I offered it as proof that Sternberg did not "create" Dietrich, as the S/D Svengali myth goes. On the contrary, it shows what Dietrich had to offer to interest Sternberg. (George was not persuaded, but that's his loss. I suppose he's used to "feminist triumphalist" moments in Mulvey-dominated film theory and has to find a way to fight back.)

In any case, what I adore about this clip is the way that Dietrich employs instant schizoid shifts between satirical saccharine sweetness (crooning the dumb ditty "You're the cream in my coffee" in English while fluttering her eyelashes crazily), castrating harridan (when the piano player can't perform to her satisfaction), and the gentle, embarrassed woman briefly glimpsed at the end, who seems to be apologizing to the pianist for going as far as she did in the performance (including a bit of physical abuse). Which is the "real" Dietrich?  Bisexual, real-life cross-dressing Dietrich (with Hepburn, she blazed the way for American women to wear trousers, or so the myth goes anyway), pal of Hemingway, was a swaggering Macho Dyke who never lost her sexual glamour. Certainly, however, it was the "power" she displays in this performance that must have set her apart from other actresses for (famous cinematic masochist) Sternberg (besides the cheekbones): her willingness to access such fierceness that no one but a masochist could find it a turn-on.

Speaking of schizoid, once as a teenager I had to give a spectacular performance for my drama class because I'd skipped almost all the classes and ignored the assignments and needed to get all of my marks at once. So I came up with a long performance where I played three women, one piece seguing into the next. (Had to memorize it in, I think, two days.)

One was Bette Davis launching ferociously into Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage (her speech when she finds out he doesn't desire her anymore). I did what I hoped was a pitch-perfect imitation of her hysterical screech at the end, which had made such an impression on me: "Because you're such a mugamugaMUG!"

One was (Vivien Leigh's) Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, describing falling in love at sixteen, and the disastrous consequences. (She finds out the Antinous she rather homoerotically loved is gay, and her disgusted reaction drives him to suicide.)

One was Zuleika Dobson. As a twist, I chose the speech where Zuleika subjugates herself to her fantasized image of the only Oxford undergraduate who is not madly in love with her. Narcissus kneeling!

My idea, you see, was to capture all of the inflections of female power and female abjection. With abjection being the more interesting risk.


  1. lovely clip of Dietrich.

    I don't know. I think performance is very different from 'intellectualism' though some performances are very well thought-out.

    I am not a performer. So I don't have some of those aspects of 'feminine power' available to me.

  2. Thank you, isn't it brilliant?

    You're on the internet. That makes you a performer. Although, a gendered one? I don't know.

  3. Internet doesn't count. Nobody can see you shaking on the internet. Unless you are on cam. And, I have 'performed' utterly out of character on webcam a few times for one or two very lucky boys. But that was to do with a total life crisis!

  4. Hahaha ain't it usually?

    I meant, of course, your persona, or self-presentation, on the internet. Unless, like Moz, you insist that "seals perform," your just give yourself. (Interestingly, I'm just at that point in FD where she talks about her singular, consistent self as opposed to the man of multiple identities. Need to stop talking/writing and get back to that!)

  5. No I don't give myself readily to anyone.

    But I think people who are comfortable with physical performance don't realise how different it is from mere 'discourse'.

  6. I am deeply *uncomfortable* with physical performance. One reason I never made it a career. But I always learn something when I do it. I was surprised, in fact, to find a deep continuity between my writing and improv-based performance when I was required to do some performing in theatre school. Shocked that I would be "the same person." And yet also *very* different.

  7. so then you may understand the difference between the physicality of acting and the 'intellectualising' of online discourse.

    I can't even begin to think about arguing about it as the difference is too palpably painfully obvious to me.

    Hope you enjoy the rest of FD!

  8. You haven't gone wrong for me yet! But now I should turn off everything OL and I might actually finish it today.