Blue Angel

The strongest sections of this biography cover Dietrich’s work with directors Josef von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, and Alfred Hitchcock. Von Sternberg noticed Dietrich, who had begun an undistinguished career as a performer in Berlin, and cast her as the infamous cabaret singer Lola Lola in his milestone German film THE BLUE ANGEL (1930). Both director and actress rode the popularity of that success to Hollywood, where at Paramount they made six more films. The story of their collaboration, of von Sternberg’s artistic nurturing of Dietrich, and of his masterful use of lighting and camera placement makes for consistently compelling reading. Spoto’s analysis of the characters von Sternberg created for Dietrich and their various images of femininity and sexuality links the artistic and the personal quite revealingly: “Although she always insisted her roles had nothing to do with her character, the truth was just the opposite: they were in fact coded chapters in a kind of tribute-biography von Sternberg made of her.” Wilder and Hitchcock provided Dietrich with the roles that accounted for her quality work toward the middle of her career.

Spoto’s comments also establish, however, that such quality work was surprisingly limited for a performer whose career spanned six decades. An actress with a narrow range, Dietrich became less concerned with her art than with cultivating and protecting her glamorous image. The material on her fame concentrates on the heavy personal costs inherent in maintaining such a myth in public and in private.