Day 26: Lipstick in Film
by Self-Styled Siren
Lipstick is important, and the Siren is always puzzled and a bit irked by those who do not realize this is so. Whether a slash of red, a hint of coral or a soft pink glow, it expresses love, sex and longing like no other form of makeup ever has or ever will. Should you ever doubt lipstick's power, just pick up Maria Riva's brutally detailed biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich, one of the most sharp-witted, canny stars of all time, understood the importance of lipstick. Dietrich understood the power of all parts of an image, to a degree that in the end became poignant. Once read, you will never forget the description of Dietrich's final days: "With it all, despite and through the decay, something remains...a faint glimmer, perhaps only a memory of what once was...Beauty...so enveloping...so enthralling...so perfect, that for more than fifty years, all women were judged by its standard, all men desired it." And yet, the Siren finds something admirable even in Dietrich's harrowing final days. The world got the face she wanted to show. Included in Riva's book is a photo of Dietrich, age 74, on a stretcher at Los Angeles airport after breaking her leg on her final tour. She is clearly wearing lipstick.
Long before the beauty fades to a glimmer, Riva takes you into the world of Dietrich's preparations. Here is Dietrich in the dressing room:
My mother, as usual, entered ahead of us, switching on the lights as she marched to her makeup table in the back room. We followed, with our individual responsibilities: Nellie, with the two crowns of braids perfectly matched to my mother's hair; Dot, with her large special suitcase filled with makeup, all organized in individual trays that pulled out like a concertina; I, with my mother's makeup coats and mine, on hangers, draped over my arms...No word had been spoken. Not unusual. We were all highly trained and knew our duties...I handed my mother her makeup coat; she tied the attached cloth belt tightly around her waist, pushed the sleeves up on her arms. Dot knelt, unlaced the men's oxfords and replaced them with the beige, open-back slippers. I placed the green tin of Lucky Strikes with the gold Dunhill lighter by the large glass ashtray, next to the dish with the marabou powder puffs. Dot poured coffee into the Meissen cup, added the cream. Nellie had begun to set the hair...
The last cigarette was smoked before the mouth was put on. In those days, lip color was so thick, cigarettes glued fast in the guck.
Sound off-putting, that last bit? Dietrich would have scoffed at you. So would Josef von Sternberg, for that matter. For here is Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman:
The effect needed to be as airy as the swaying balloons, so thin millinery veiling was chosen, on which were sewn hundreds of small black pom-poms, repeating the rounded shape of the balloons in miniature. Her shoulders, upper arms, and neck were left unadorned--naked, their pearl sheen a wonderful contrast. The flame-red mouth, the only color, highly glossed, open in a smile to end all smiles...It is my mother's favorite face of all the awe-inspiring ones in this film.
Enveloping, enthralling, perfect. And impossible without lipstick.