Sixty years later, Felix is bringing her back to life in a one-woman show, Marlene Dietrich: Perfect Illusion, that she has written and in which she takes on the role of Dietrich.
But this is no tribute show – Felix doesn’t simply trot out numbers such as See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have or Lili Marleen – this is a delving into the creation of a unique showbusiness image and the reality behind it. In Felix’s iteration, as Dietrich prepares alone in her dressing room for what will turn out to be her final stage appearance – in reality in Sydney in 1975, where she fell backstage and never performed again – she talks to herself and the audience about her life, loves and career.
When I ask what it was about Dietrich that first captivated her, Felix says without hesitation that it was the talent. But she qualifies her answer.
‘‘The talent was in many ways limited,” she says. “She didn’t have a classically fantastic voice. She wasn’t a very good actor, except in some bits and pieces. And she knew all that.
“She says of herself that she was never really confident. But the sheer presence and personality she had: you can get away with murder if you have presence.’’
It seems there was an incredible discrepancy between how she appeared and how she felt. ‘‘That made me write the show in the end because so few people know that.’’
Dietrich had a career in Germany as an actor in film and theatre before Josef von Sternberg made her an international star in his 1930 film The Blue Angel. After that, she left for the US as a sort of German answer to Greta Garbo, appearing in such films as Destry Rides Again, Morocco – famous for the moment she kisses another woman on the mouth – Touch of Evil, Witness for the Prosecution.
Her final appearance was in Just a Gigolo in a scene with David Bowie, filmed while she was in Paris and he in Berlin. And she was last seen – or at least heard – in a documentary made by the German actor Maximilian Schell in 1984.
It was the Schell film that prompted Felix to investigate the possibility of a show about Dietrich. By the time it was made, she was closeted in her Paris flat, where she spent the last 12 years of her life virtually bed-ridden, with a drink and telephone close at hand and surrounded by books. She is never seen on screen – Schell uses clips from her films – but she is interviewed and is magnificently cantankerous.
‘‘She was an old obstreperous woman,’’ Felix says, ‘‘and I thought, ‘hang on a minute – this is not the woman I admired and thought was wonderful’. But I could then see that all of that was there earlier. That’s what I wanted to explore.’’
Wilder, with whom Dietrich had helped fund Jewish refugees escaping Europe during the war, said that he and Dietrich would often talk about illusion and truth and, according to Felix, it is that dichotomy at the heart of her persona.
‘One book she dismisses entirely is Dietrich’s own, which of course was ghost-written.’
‘‘It was fluid,’’ says Felix, ‘‘and for Dietrich it’s a very strange dilemma because at the core she was a moral, truthful person who was incredibly generous. She wouldn’t have harmed a fly, but she didn’t mind living in this illusion.’’
Dietrich’s love life was also pretty fluid and one of the five scenes in Felix’s show is devoted to it. She remained married to her husband, Rudi Sieber, until his death, but managed affairs with von Sternberg, Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra – he was ‘‘tender and sweet’’, apparently – and plenty of others, including Edith Piaf.
‘‘Her attitude to love and sex was quite different from what people expect. You would think she is this sensual, sexual creature, but she isn’t. I wouldn’t say she was asexual, but she says it was all an act: ‘I was always able to do what people wanted from me.’ That is a great weapon; it keeps you in control.’’
Felix has read all the biographies, including one near 900-pager by Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, that she has deep reservations about – ‘‘the more I read of Riva, the less I liked her and the more I liked Dietrich’’.
But she agrees with what Riva said about her mother knowing nothing but work and duty to the legend of Marlene Dietrich. ‘‘She did have a real sense of duty and an enormous amount of discipline. That generation of Germans, they were just like that. She came from a Prussian background.’’
What she doesn’t agree with is Riva’s claim that the tragedy of Dietrich’s life was that she did not know what love was. According to Felix, Dietrich didn’t fall in love with all the people she was linked to. ‘‘She loved her husband (they never divorced), she loved Maria, which is so frustrating – she absolutely adored that child. She may have been in love with Gabin; he was very important to her.’’
Like Dietrich, Felix began her career in Germany, in political cabaret. When she came to Australia, she started in theatre but grew disheartened by the audition process. Instead, she shifted into academia. ‘‘I had a very good career for 20 years. I ran an international research centre into language acquisition and new media at Monash. I was a professor at one point.’’
But after her husband died, she decided at the age of 56 to return to the theatre. ‘‘I work in independent theatre, I do really interesting things and that’s good enough for me.’’
She approached the research into Dietrich as if she were doing a PhD, but found it much more enjoyable. One book she dismisses entirely is Dietrich’s own, which of course was ghost-written. ‘‘It’s rubbish – complete fabrication. I read it after all the others and thought ‘why is she saying this, it’s not true’. She doesn’t mind. She says at one point, ‘I like the legend, I like the illusion’.’’
When I saw Dietrich on stage at Wimbledon Theatre in 1973, she was in her early 70s and apparently frail. From where I sat – even when I got her autograph later – she looked wonderful, she sounded magnificent and the audience loved her. But then we all like illusions, don’t we?
Marlene Dietrich: Perfect Illusion is at the Butterfly Club February 17-22. thebutterflyclub.com
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald