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Denver Post (06/Sep/1992) - Dietrich legend survives shoddy telling



Dietrich legend survives shoddy telling

Biographies of Marlene Dietrich are plentiful, and Donald Spoto's current one won't be the last. At least one more, by former United Artists executive Steven Bach, is on the way.

Actor Maximilian Schell made a revealing documentary some years ago, and you can bet more of them will show up in the next year also.

Dietrich, like Garbo, created a presence that lasted far longer than her career. When she died in Paris in May, on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival — the festival poster was a photo of Dietrich — she was still remembered as beautiful beyond the usual, and enduringly beautiful.

Long after most actresses have been discarded (unjustly) for losing their looks, Dietrich continued to act in films and do her one-woman show. She was a sex kitten in her 60s.

The shot of her singing about love in the cabaret in Joseph von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel," leaning back on her chair like a woman deliciously out of self-control, is the way she exists in many people's minds. That's what a film career can do for a few people. They stay forever young and forever sexual.

Spoto, known best for his (perhaps infamous) biography of Alfred Hitchcock, seems mostly interested in Dietrich's sexuality. She was bi-sexual, perhaps omni-sexual, very active and as Spoto points out endlessly, Dietrich may have been much like her Lola Lola in "The Blue Angel" — a woman given over to pleasure.

The book at times reads like a list of Dietrich's lovers (an incredible list) told in whispers over the backyard fence. Spoto doesn't ignore her work, but it's tiresome to read on and on about the same subject and to see everything she did interpreted by the same rather limiting criteria.

The possibility that Dietrich was more than Spoto tells us nags. Was she only vain and self-serving? Did she have any genuine talent or only an incredible feel for self-promotion?

The book also has a second-hand quality. Spoto includes no references within the text and no footnotes, so one must read through notes at the back of the book to see that most of his information comes from readily available sources, frequently the kind of celebrity biographies that serious biographers might consult but also suspect.

Spoto lists virtually no primary research of his own, and the superficiality of that approach permeates the book. It's readable, chatty and racy enough for a read beside the swimming pool, but it does not contribute to a significant understanding of Dietrich's life and work.

BLUE ANGEL The Life of Marlene Dietrich By Donald Spoto Doubleday, $24