Friday, January 2, 2009

Marilyn vs. Marlene

Who is your feminine ideal? Is it a smoking hot, utterly clueless blonde who needs a big strong man to take care of her? Or is it a smoking hot, fully empowered blonde who leaves a trail of dead big strong men in her wake?

Marlene Dietrich has international appeal. She belongs to the world, and conquered it like Bonaparte and Hitler never could. In Paris cabaret legend, she tamed Ernest Hemingway. Poets and presidents were reduced to crumpled, whimpering fools, but she claimed her heart belonged only to Orson Welles--a love never consummated. Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939 but is buried in her native Berlin.

But Marilyn Monroe is the one who enjoys the status of ultimate starlet. Maybe this is Andy Warhol's fault. Marilyn is always depicted as completely vacant, lost in the world, and totally unprepared to think for herself. Is this what endears her to moviedom, this quality of being easy to manipulate?

Quentin Crisp, the noted midcentury moviegoer and homosexual, puts a fine point on the difference between the two in his memoir The Naked Civil Servant:

I was still a devotee of the divine woman...In my lifetime she changed her name three times, calling herself first Brigitte Helm, later Greta Garbo, and finally Marlene Dietrich. I thought about her a great deal, wore her clothes, said her Sphinxlike lines, and ruled her kingdom. I came to the conclusion that beauty was not a girl but an Aryan face seen through Semitic eyes. This was what gave her that tragic and remote quality. If what the Wandering Jew (who might by now have changed his name to Fritz Lang) most longed for was unbearable pleasure indefinitely prolonged, then he had to invent for himself a woman who was both beautiful and unattainable.

We have come a long degrading way from Miss Helm to Mlle. Bardot. The fault lies not in our movie stars but in ourselves. Those beauties of the last generation symbolized hopeless love. Now it is too late for tears. What modern young man has the time to play a guitar under his true love's window or the energy to climb up the ivy into her room? In bed, he is embracing the bomb. Someone had to invent espresso sex, and to serve each cup of this tasteless beverage there had to be a mechanical doll whose only recommendation was her infinite availability. The woman who came to embody this ideal to the full was Marilyn Monroe. Her directors persuaded her to flaunt her astonishing sexual equipment before us with the touching defenselessness of a retarded child. She was what the modern young man most desires in life--a mistress who could be won without being wooed. She was the football pool of love.