22 June 2011

Beyonce For L'Uomo Vogue

Folks didn't flock to bid on Marlene Dietrich's "Boys in the Backroom" ensemble at Debbie Reynolds' recent auction, but celebrities continue to emulate La Dietrich in fashion magazines. Sometimes their intentions are questionable, and other times they genuinely pay respect, as Beyonce did at L'uomo Vogue. Although the intertitle would have been a more appropriate nod to Pola Negri or some other actress who peaked in silent films, Beyonce faithfully recreated two of Dietrich's most iconic looks--the swansdown coat and the top hat and tails. Manning the camera, Francesco Carrozzini snapped shots of Beyonce's prominent cheekbones in black-and-white and in color, but Beyonce's poses suggested a Dietrichian intimacy with her key light. Just as Dietrich couldn't play Catherine the Great without playing Dietrich, Beyonce couldn't play Dietrich without playing Beyonce--her hair flips making me wish for a Sasha Fierce "Diva" redux.

If questions of race came to your mind when you saw these Beyonce images, let me state that the video and photos reminded me of various analyses I've read regarding race and Marlene Dietrich's "Hot Voodoo" performance in Blonde Venus. I recently stumbled upon this blog entry by Natalia Cecire that drew from Mary Anne Doane's discussion of "Hot Voodoo," emphasizing the following concepts: white femininity representing unstable sexual purity, black masculinity representing sexual impurity, and black femininity remaining invisible. Cecire and Doane slightly weakened this last point by acknowledging the black(face) female troupe onstage during Dietrich's "Hot Voodoo" performance, who stood conspicuously behind an afroed Dietrich, but Cecire and Doane noted the insignificant and ornamental role of the dancers, calling them "props" and "mise-en-scene" respectively. EDIT 2: Additionally, "Hot Voodoo"'s song lyrics countered the claim that black female sexuality was invisible because Dietrich sang, "I'm beginning to feel like an African queen." Thus, black femininity was not only visible but also prominently typified sexual impurity in the "Hot Voodoo" sequence.

If I were to continue Cecire and Doane's comparisons, I'd add that this reduction of black women to stage decor valued only for their skin color subsequently minimized their skin color to a mere color. Just as an interior decorator could have a table painted red, a director could have a woman painted in blackface. Let me interject one admission: I am not certain as Doane was that the chorus girls were primarily white; some could be white, black, Latina, mixed, etc., but all we see is their uniform skin tone, exemplifying a sensibility expressed by "Blonde Venus" director Josef von Sternberg in Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Relating a story about a bearded extra who demanded to know his motivation for walking across the set of another director's film, von Sternberg revealed that this extra was replaced by another wearing a fake beard. Then, von Sternberg asserted that an actor "is no more than a small part of the entire chiaroscuro."

I don't know why von Sternberg opted for blackface instead of black skin, and while Cecire and Doane's depictions of these dancers-as-decor correlated with von Sternberg's description of actors as elements of his film canvas, I can't fully endorse Cecire's observation that "blackness becomes yet another prop for fully commodified white female sexuality."*** According to how von Sternberg objectified actors, white female Dietrich would be as much a prop as the troupe in blackface. In fact, black people were one of many groups whose look von Sternberg appropriated in his films with Dietrich--for example, Chinese people in Shanghai Express, Spanish people in The Devil Is A Woman, and Russian people in The Scarlet Empress. As for the presence of commodified white female sexuality in the "Hot Voodoo" scene, we could say that Dietrich's character used her sexuality to sell her show, ultimately to help pay for her husband's radium treatment. Indeed, in other von Sternberg-Dietrich films, we can enumerate many examples, the most blatant perhaps being Dietrich's role as a prostitute-turned-spy who used her sexuality to earn money (as a prostitute) and learn military secrets (as a spy) in Dishonored. I'd only add that in von Sternberg's films, Dietrich's characters held or eventually snatched the purse strings of their white female sexuality. The Scarlet Empress illustrated this inevitable act, with Dietrich's character initially a hapless Prussian princess brought to Russia to bear a male heir to the throne, hardly different than a female panda shipped to a British zoo as part of a breeding program. Later, Dietrich's character took the reins of her sexuality to woo suitors stronger and more attractive than her spouse, bear the needed heir, and usurp the Russian throne.

***Some time, I would like to accept this premise to explore how Beyonce inverted it. In other words, I'd be interested in assessing how Beyonce used (Dietrich's masculine and feminine?) whiteness as a prop for her commodified black female sexuality. Evidence I might use to support Beyonce's commodification of her sexuality as a black woman would include her House of Dereon fashion line and a term she coined--"bootylicious." Such a discourse would draw too much attention away from this blog's star, Marlene Dietrich, so I'll leave it for another outlet. If you would like to discuss it, though, please do and please discuss anything else that comes to your mind in relation to this blog entry. EDIT: Can't help but touch this topic a little more because it struck me that Beyonce lit white female mannequins--props, if you will--on fire in the "Diva" video (linked in this blog entry). EDIT 2: Keeping the aforementioned concepts in mind, what intrigues me about Beyonce is that her entertainment career took off in the 1990s, when black female sexuality became increasingly visible in commercially successful songs by black male entertainers (from Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" in 1992 to D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" in 1995). Of course, there was no reason why men alone should profit from this emerging visibility, and Beyonce--like Dietrich's characters in von Sternberg's films--has successfully wrested black female sexuality to commodify it herself. Moreover, Beyonce has begun creating unique business ventures to sell multiracial female sexuality, which could be another way that I regard the House of Dereon, which bears the maiden name of Beyonce's Creole grandmother. With her recent single "Run the World (Girls)," Beyonce's marketing radical feminism, displaying impressive performance finesse and special effects.


  1. Great article, think I need to get Josef's book.

  2. Thanks, Hannah. I would recommend von Sternberg's book because he described in detail various technical aspects of filmmaking and articulated his views on his work much more extensively than in interviews. When I flip through his book, I often learn and relearn Western and non-Western philosophies and myths, which v. S. referenced frequently as analogous to his work.

  3. Thank you Joseph I will be going on amazon now to find it. It always strikes me how he could captivate marlene so beautifully where as other directors/cinematographers she often looks harsh. Your blog is wonderful.

  4. Thanks again for your kind words, Hannah! If you consider Dietrich's look harsh in her later films, she may be to blame in some films because she was known to make lighting suggestions to the gaffers on many of her movie sets. In a film such as Monte Carlo Story, however, she blamed others (there are letters from Dietrich to Maria Riva in Riva's book that effectively illustrate Dietrich's technical understanding of several aspects of film-making). I can see what you're saying about Dietrich looking more harsh in later films, and I think her weight loss contributed to this look. V.S.'s lighting made Dietrich look much thinner when she had a more "German" build, but after she slimmed down like other Hollywood actresses, she didn't need the same lighting to accentuate her features.