Friday, September 4, 2015

Guest Diary

LIZ SMITH: Lily and Jane and More on Marlene

by Liz Smith

Lily and Jane — The Triumph of "Grace and Frankie" ... More on Marlene.

"I ALWAYS wondered why somebody doesn't do something ... then I realized I was somebody!" said Lily Tomlin.
I'M STEALING an item from my friend Roger Friedman. Roger reports that Lily Tomlin's hot little hit, "Grandma" was made on a shoestring budget of just $600, 000, shot in 19 days, and Lily even used her own car, a 1955 Dodge. (The car is probably worth more than 60 grand to collectors!) "Grandma" has done very well for a limited release movie.
Lily with co-star Julia Garner and her 1955 Dodge.
Lily's friend and co-star in the Netflix series, "Grace and Frankie," Jane Fonda, tells Roger: "I'm the straight man in the show, that's for sure. I'm the pole around which Lily dances. She cracks me up and moves me deeply. I love watching her process. She needs to be grounded in reality and then she can let loose in total spontaneity and allow the full, marvelous range of her imagination to run wild."
WATCHING "Grace and Frankie" — I binged on the entire first season the other night — one is struck by how both Lily and Jane have fine-tuned their talents, changed, of course, but remained utterly true to the characters they have more or less invented — or the characters that come from their own essential personalities, built up, writ large.
Lily is perpetually impish and free-thinking, free-flowing, quick to be outraged by injustice, but open to change. A great clown, often poignant in her humor. Jane is wound tight, fierce and determined, but less relaxed and more open to hurt than her rebellious image might suggest. (The Roger Vadim years aside, there's always been a provincial prude beneath the sex-symbol — her displays seemed yet another way to get attention from her emotionally distant father, Henry.)
Despite the great care she lavishes on her body and her face, Jane's vulnerability shows. " Grace and Frankie" seems to be some kind of ultimate flowering of these radically different women, who meld beautifully together onscreen. (Jane's character, Grace, is very pulled together, very pulled, period, but Fonda allows that facade to drop, from time to time, displaying her years, with humor. In the first episode Jane sits in front of the mirror and removes her false eyelashes, extensions, and the pulls under her hair that firm her face.)

Oh, and in case you've forgotten, it was back in 1980 that Jane, Lily and Dolly Parton did the hit movie "Nine to Five."
THE Marlene Dietrich column printed here on August 28th elicited great response from readers. One of the best was from constant reader David Cuthbert, who actually interviewed the divine Marlene:

"One of my few claims to fame in New Orleans is that I was the only guy Dietrich allowed to interview her when she played the Roosevelt Hotel Blue Room.  I came to every one of her late, 11 p.m. shows. This caught her attention. I had written a review commenting on how funny she was and she said I was one of the few press people who noticed that she enjoyed making fun 'of that cweature I pwayed on the screen.'

"She claimed her favorite role was her cameo as the gypsy madam in Orson Welles 'A Touch of Evil,' where she tells the enormous Welles: 'What happened to you, baby? You've been eating  too many candy bars.' (She said of acting for him, "I do anything he asks me.")

"Dietrich lied to me about her age, of course, and claimed she had never made a silent film (she had made several.)  She said Liza Minnelli's concert act was the best she'd ever seen. I recall her wearing a beautifully tailored denim suit and a white voile blouse. I floated out of her suite on a cloud.
Marlene in "Touch of Evil" — "What does it matter, what you say about people?"
"Your luck is all used up!"
"Years later, a public TV station was doing its own Dietrich festival, including a TV special which Alex Cohen had produced. She was living in Paris and had retired and I invited her to chat with me on the phone. I got a call from the star's daughter Maria Riva who said her mother wanted to know how the station obtained rights to the concert film. I said I couldn't believe that Dietrich cared or should be concerned about a small public TV station airing the special. "You don't know my mother!" said Miss Riva.
The final film, the last musical performance.
A P.S. to the above. Dietrich was simply astounding in her determination to erase aspects of her life and career. For some reason she wanted people to believe she was a little mouseburger, a student at a music academy, when Josef von Sternberg "discovered" her for "The Blue Angel." The truth was that Marlene was already quite famous — and notorious — in Berlin as a cabaret star.
And, as Mr. Cuthbert noted — she had appeared to excellent effect in several silent films. She was hardly the unsophisticated, uninterested naïf of her own mythology. She was then thirty years old! (von Sternberg himself would come to believe he had found this unformed creature and turned her into a star. In truth, as with most ambitious, driven people, if it hadn't been von Sternberg, Marlene would have found somebody else to elevate her.)

More significantly, Dietrich, after World War II, would forever deny the existence of her sister, who had married a man in charge of some of the activities at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Despite absolute fact of her sister, Dietrich would simply say she was an only child, period. End of conversation.
Something for the Boys!
Dietrich's mother had survived the war, and with the help of the U.S Army, Marlene was able to track her down in the ruins of Berlin. A heartbreaking bit of audio survives of Marlene talking to her mother over the phone, just as the war ended in Europe, "I know how you have suffered," Marlene cries. That Marlene's mother had not been imprisoned was a miracle in itself. Hitler, who had offered Marlene a fortune to return to Germany, came to loathe Dietrich's outspoken hatred of the Nazis.
Dietrich was a great, great movie star, who continued to cast her spell on concert stages decades after her film career had peaked. But her most important role was that of a German woman, a famous German woman, who defied the mania of her homeland and risked her life — literally — on the frontlines, singing her songs, and offering her presence.

It's you, Lili Marlene.

Contact Liz Smith here.