LIZ SMITH: Dietrich, Tomlin, Lee, and Love

LIZ SMITH: Dietrich, Tomlin, Lee, and Love

Marlene Dietrich in “Stage Fright.”

“WHAT VERMIN some vermin are!”

That’s Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright.” This 1950 film was considered to be “minor” Hitchcock when it was released, but time has been kind.

The nifty thriller looks better than ever now, thanks mostly to Dietrich, playing a self-absorbed stage star — Charlotte Inwood — who may or may not be a murderess. Jane Wyman and Michael Wilding (Dietrich’s paramour in real life at the time) are fine, but Marlene commits highway robbery with every scene, every caustic utterance. (“Don’t confide in me, just pour the tea!” … “Must you speak to me with your mouth full?” … “This sounds to me remarkably like blackmail.”)

I caught this little gem on Turner Classic Movies, which was devoting the day to Dietrich. Some of her early Josef von Sternberg classics were included, such as “Shanghai Express.” (“It took more than one man to change my name to … Shanghai Lily,” she remarks to a disapproving past lover in the movie.) And how much she improved as an actress as time went on! She was very much von Sternberg’s puppet, and you can almost hear him saying, “Look left, look right, raise your arm, open your eyes wider!” It’s terribly artificial, and only Dietrich’s beauty saves her early films.
But one thing she learned from von Sternberg and her cinematographers was the value of lighting and illusion — veils, smoke, baubles, bangles and beads. In almost every Dietrich movie there is at least one scene that pays homage to the elaborate care the director lavished on her.

In “Stage Fright,” she is eons away from the wooden creature of the 1930s. Although, she would never be what you’d call “natural.” She maintained herself as “Marlene Dietrich” until age and infirmity got in the way. Then she withdrew from films, the concert stage and public life. Sad? Perhaps. But unlike Elizabeth Taylor (whom Marlene despised) Dietrich did not want to be seen as an old woman. Marlene was brave enough to entertain the troops in World War II, in Europe, knowing if she was captured, she’d be tried and executed as a traitor to Germany. But the Nazis held less terror for her than the inexorable march of time and media coverage of it.

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Marlene Dietrich in "Stage Fright."LILY TOMLIN’S “Grandma” had the highest per-theater average gross this week. It is turning out to be one of the summer’s highest-grossing limited releases.

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… Back on Broadway! My old friend, Michele Lee, who is currently appearing in the long-running behemoth, “Wicked” as Madame Morrible. Michele is one of those women you just can’t help loving. She’s totally candid and, well — just a lot of fun. She was perpetually astounded by the success of the 14-season nighttime soap, “Knots Landing,” and amused by her own character Karen Fairgate. When I once described Karen as “long-suffering” she said: “Me? What about poor Val [Joan van Ark] and her kidnapped twins!” Then she burst out laughing. Now she is playing a role totally different from the one that put her on the map. The TV map, anyway. Michele has lots of Broadway credits — “Seesaw,” “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

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… Criterion DVD has just put out a great new “director approved” version of Brian De Palma’s lusciously scary “Dressed to Kill,” starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen. De Palma borrowed from Hitchcock here, by doing away with a vulnerable, sympathetic character less than halfway through the movie. (As he did with Janet Leigh in “Psycho.”) And I always thought Angie Dickinson deserved an Oscar nomination for her wonderful performance. When I told a friend I’d be writing about “Dressed to Kill,” this person said, “Oh, don’t! It has an unsympathetic transgender character in it!” Really? Is this where political correctness has gotten us? (Aside from the fact that in 1980 the term transgender was rarely used; the current wave of transgender awareness is hardly applicable to the bloody doings of “Dressed to Kill.”)

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… Speaking of “Psycho,” that great movie will return to the big screen next month, September 20 and 23rd in select cinemas across the country. This re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece (okay — one of his masterpieces) is sponsored by — who else? — Turner Classic Movies.

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… My home state of Texas often gets a bad rap. And often I agree. But I am totally on board for the Texas Book Festival. This year — the organization’s 20th — presents “Texas Teen Book Festival” on September 26th. Find out more about this event at texasbookfestival.org

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… The great Darlene Love found fame as a Phil Spector star, and quickly found that fame evaporated as times changed and the music industry — even colder than Hollywood y — morphed into something else. (Something equally cold!) Love survived and prevailed, coming back big-time in the 1980s. (Among other things, she was a yearly fixture on David Letterman’s show, belting out her classic, “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home.”)

Now she is set for another return — an album titled, with great irony, “Introducing Darlene Love.” Produced by Steve van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen fame, this CD includes original songs by Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb, Linda Perry and Cynthia Weil. Darlene performs one cover, a fresh arrangement of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”

I met Darlene two years ago here in New York at a Peggy Siegal screening of “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary about back-up singers. (That’s how Darlene got her start with Spector, singing backup and making some of his “real” stars sound much, much better.) She was terrific, and clearly the star of the event. When she got up to perform, live, in the middle of the afternoon, she rocked the room — stunned it. “Introducing Darlene Love” hits the stores on September 8th.

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ENDFACT: OH, and before you write in, asking why Marlene Dietrich hated Elizabeth Taylor (see opening item) — it’s because Taylor married two men of whom Dietrich was very fond — actor Michael Wilding and producer Mike Todd. Dietrich was married, and would never divorce, but that didn’t stop her from having affairs with every man and woman she found attractive.

When word came to Marlene of Wilding’s marriage to Liz, the “Blue Angel” star fumed: “She is an idiot. What could he see in her? It must be those gigantic boobs!”

By the time of Mike Todd, Dietrich had given up complaining. The Liz boobs won, hands down.

Marlene Dietrich in "Stage Fright."

Liz showing off what Dietrich’s exes wanted. Taylor wasn’t chic, like Marlene. She didn’t have to be!

Read Liz Smith daily at the New York Social Diary.

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