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Unravelling an icon’s mystique

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 self-invention 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 self-consciously 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.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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