Something I Dreamed Last Night

Marlene Dietrich was not like other stars of Hollywood. Between her diva-like professional demands, her freewheeling personal life, and her sexy gender-bending style, she was what we now call an ‘instant icon’. For example, she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood despite never having made a Hollywood movie. She gave detailed instructions to directors of Welles’ and Hitchcock’s stature on how she wanted to be filmed. And she barely bothered pretending to lead a normal life offscreen. It hardly mattered, beyond all that, that her talents were relatively negligible. The only role she really knew how to play was herself, and it was enough. It certainly wasn’t uncommon; many Hollywood stars based their entire careers on their ability to loosely embody an archetype rather than any passion or talent for acting. Dietrich’s singing career outlived her acting by decades, and her recordings might indeed prove to be more enduring than most of her films. Dietrich was, by any technical standards, a poor singer. She had a deep, husky voice and no high range at all. At a time when popular music was extremely bland and singers were expected to sound as pretty as they looked, Dietrich predated the modern idea that a strongly individual delivery and a compelling persona could be more important than technical proficiency. She performed with her personality, conveying a sense of ironic detachment, languid glamour, a sly sense of humor, and whole lot of sexual oomph. Her songs were very frequently risque, and even the conventionally romantic ones feel disruptive. Dietrich makes no pretense of being the kind of a gal who would actually pine for a guy who stood her up; romantic pining is a joke to her. She was well known for always juggling a handful of lovers of both genders, assured that if one left there would be a line of eager replacements standing behind. The sense of knowing irony that she brought to the torch songs she sang was her real musical talent, and it was ahead of her time – as she was in so many aspects of her life.