I do feel sorry for the young. They’re so busy Wii-ing, texting and making ‘friends’ on Facebook that there aren’t hours in the day to watch black and white movie double bills as I did when I was a child. Taught me all my lessons in life. Take Stage Fright, the 1950 Hitchcock film starring Marlene Dietrich. The mis-en-scene is London. Marlene plays a grande dame of the West End stage stet up in the first five minutes of the picture as a murderess.
Bear in mind Marlene had been branded ‘Box Office Poison’ along with Hepburn, Davies and Crawford in the early 1940s. Her comeback was sheer force of will and an instinctive understanding of good lighting and killer costume. Dietrich’s entire wardrobe is designed by Christian Dior. Her jewels (personally owned I might add) are Van Cleef & Arpels and play an integral role in the film: an early example of seamless product placement that could teach the Bond franchise a thing or two.
What did Dietrich teach me? To quote Witness for the Prosecution (her other Hitchcock film), ‘I never faint because I might fall inelegantly and I never cry because my mascara might run’. Dietrich was the daughter of the Prussian military. She managed her career like the Battle of the Somme. Her motto was ‘no surrender’. I happen to think she was a brilliant actress – not in the Meryl Streep school of throwing voices and assuming disguises I grant you – but was a so-so singer who through sheer willpower persuaded the world that she was unique.
It frustrates me that the only references the young have today is Rhiannon bumping like a tramp in a Reno saloon bar or Lady Gaga covering her inadequacies with costumes that would make a New York drag queen think twice on Halloween night. Give Dietrich a marabou Dior negligee, a genius lighting guy like Jack Cardiff and a director like Hitchcock and she can make magic out of growling her way through The Laziest Gal in Town with the conviction of Callas at The Met.
There is a famine of glamour in the 21st century…particularly in London. Sometimes one feels like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: another glorious black and white movie that should be compulsory viewing for the yoof of today. Norma’s is ostensibly the story of a faded silent movie star who lives in the shadows of self-delusion that someday her comeback is just around the corner. She’s ostensibly a tragic character but I find her defiance admirable. Norma is duped by a screenwriter on the take who makes love to her to further his floundering career. She shoots the bastard in the last reel.
The point one is trying to make is that sometimes the past exposes the inadequacies of the present. History isn’t necessarily a trajectory of progress. I do think we’ve regressed. All those X-Factor fans and – worse – contestants need to see Gloria Swanson’s manic, haunting performance of a fallen silent movie star living in a world that has passed her by without her even noticing. The tragedy is that her world was finer. It should be mourned rather than the survivor pitied.
Sunset is a momento mori about the nature of fame. I find it quite peculiar that ‘stars’ today can rise from obscurity to billionaire status with a similar number of Twitter followers without paying dues, learning craft or feeling anything other than self-entitlement that acclaim is deserved. I find it disturbing that celebrities today begin in a state of self delusion. At least Norma knew in her heart of hearts she had talent. In her immortal line ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small’.
Do you ever feel you were born in the wrong age? I do. When I pose for pictures such as the one enclosed of black tie in Bloomsbury Square for L’Uomo Vogue China I think how glorious it would be to be dressed up for a first night at the opera or an evening a the Café de Paris not just for a press picture promoting Savile Row. I can’t tell you the number of people in my life who have said I should have been born in the 18th century, the Belle Epoque or the 1920s. It’s only now that I am inclined to agree with them.
I think perhaps our generation feel swindled. We were born into an age of certainties. When we were old enough to be political Britain was enjoying a new Elizabethan Age with Mrs Thatcher in power and stock markets worldwide booming. Well, it’s all been downhill from there. We’ve had 13-years of Blair and Brown that have made Britain unravel at the seams. We’ve now got another decade where Europe could melt down and Britain will be in the grip of austerity and uncertainty.
The tragedy is that whereas the World War II generation were born into a class system where everybody made do whatever their lot, we were born into an age of relative luxury and aspiration and grew-up thinking it was all uphill from there. Well, it wasn’t was it? I think I dreamed that life would follow the script of all those black and white movies I watched as a child. Like Norma Desmond, I didn’t realise that world had already long gone and would never come back.
If that isn’t an argument for reincarnation then I don’t know what is.