Marlene Dietrich on Orson Welles’s TOUCH OF EVIL and the Oscars
As Marlene Dietrich reports in her autobiography, MARLENE, the Academy Awards have had a long history of embarrassing mistakes.
A prime example of this occurred in 1933, when a movie called CALVACADE won best picture. Does any movie goer alive actually remember this forgotten film? That same year a little picture called KING KONG received NO nominations whatsoever! Has any movie goer alive NOT forgotten KING KONG?
Of course, it's quite understandable why most of the greatest icons of the cinema, like Alfred Hitchcock, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles never actually won competitive Oscars when they were in their prime: Envy. The Academy Awards were (and still are) examples of politics and popularity within the rather insular world of Hollywood. They are a collective vote, so to suggest they have any individual measure of real lasting artistic worth or merit is absurd. Which is why I'm always astonished when someone is surprised by who hasn't been included in the nominations. Let's face it, based on their respective Academy Award nominations, Orson Welles career would have been over in 1942, and Marlene Dietrich's in 1931!
So here is Ms. Dietrich's own take on the Academy Awards, followed by her memories of working with her great friend Orson Welles in 1957, on TOUCH OF EVIL:
What must one do to receive an Oscar?
MARLENE DIETRICH: Play biblical characters, priests, and victims of sad and tragic disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, muteness or different varieties thereof, or alcoholism, insanity, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders, which have already been seen in successful films. The more tragic the disability, the greater the chance of grabbing an Oscar.
The juries of the Academy are of the opinion that to portray a disabled person is a brilliant feat. That's not so. Since these figures are more dramatic, they have a greater impact on the audience. Yet in view of the fact that only (supposed) experts award these Oscars, it is incomprehensible that they can confuse an actor with his or her role. The audience, of course, constantly muddles the two, which is understandable. But there are also some critics who simply can't keep apart roles and acting ability and that's inexcusable. If the Oscars were to be awarded in a serious way, as is done, for example, with the New York Critics Awards, perhaps now and then an actor or actress who has played a brilliant role in a not too successful film might be rewarded with an Oscar.
A further reason for this masquerade—the people who award the Oscars are swayed by friendship and envy. For some time now a new prize has been added to the Oscars: "The Deathbed Award." It isn't a distinction at all. Either the lucky winner has performed for the first time or has not been chosen for a prize by the Academy until the last moment. At any rate, he or she has never succeeded in winning the real Oscar. The aim of the "Deathbed Award" is to salve the conscience of the jury and to save face before the public. The Academy tastelessly awards this prize to a star who is completely overwhelmed by his or her emotion, so that everybody may understand why this distinction is being so hastily bestowed. Lucky the actor or actress who is too ill to watch this ceremony on TV!
With my own eyes I saw James Stewart, on one such an occasion, sob into the microphone: "Hold out, Coop, I'm coming." At that moment I knew that Gary Cooper was dying. What a circus! In the film world conscience is always stirred too late, which does not exclude—to the extent that those in power are aware of what is going on—a sincere reparation for past mistakes. I have also seen an actress (who would have been better off, if on that day she had been hoarse) rush up to the stage and thank everybody from the washroom lady to the director for their help "without which 1 could never have done it, etc. " I for once would like to hear an actor or actress say: "I did it all by myself. I don't feel I owe thanks to anyone. I earned my Oscar a thousand times over." And then, without embracing anyone and with an expressionless face, walk off the stage leaving the trophy behind for the audience to behold. That really would make me happy.
MARLENE DIETRICH on ORSON WELLES and TOUCH OF EVIL
(From a 1973 interview by Peter Bogdanovich in Esquire )
I think I never said a line as well as the last line in Touch of Evil: "What does it matter what you say about people?" Wasn't I good there? I don't know why I said it so well. And I looked so good in that dark wig. It was Elizabeth Taylor's. My part wasn't in the script, but Orson called and said he wanted me to play a kind of gypsy madam in a border town, so I went over to Paramount and found that wig. It was very funny, because I had been crazy about Orson in the forties, when he was married to Rita, when we toured together doing his magic act. I was just crazy about him and we were great friends, but nothing (happened) because Orson doesn't like Blonde women. He only likes dark women. And suddenly when he saw me in this dark wig, he looked at me with new eyes. Was this Marlene?
(From Marlene Dietrich’s autobiography, MARLENE, 1987):
I worked together one more time with Orson Welles on Touch of Evil. The budget Universal had granted him was pitiful. A-handout to a beggar. So Welles had to drum up his friends, among others Mercedes McCambridge and me.
Today Touch of Evil is an international classic. But in 1958 Universal was very indifferent to this film and they treated Welles in a shabby, shocking way.
Many years later, when Orson Welles received an Oscar, the hypocrisy of the Universal bosses was unendurable. I would have liked to have put a bomb under them—or better still to have dispatched them to hell.
Back to the shooting of Touch of Evil. Following von Stemberg's methods, Welles asked me to prepare my own costumes and to appear on the set on the scheduled date. We were to meet at eight o'clock in the evening in Venice where he had discovered and restored a rundown bungalow. He had even installed a pianola. "In the film you're running a Mexican whorehouse," he explained to me, "so dress accordingly and be punctual." On the fixed date I appeared for the shooting in my costume. I had ransacked the dressing rooms of all the costume designers I knew and decked myself out in dresses, jackets, earrings, wigs, etc., so that Welles would have some choice. As usual I had arrived in Venice earlier than expected and—hoping for a sign of approval—I went up to him. He just wandered off, but then he suddenly turned around and gave a shout since he had not recognized me at first sight. His reaction surpassed my boldest expectations. He took me in his arms and shouted for joy.
I worked with him for only one long evening. I don't think I've ever performed so well as on that day. To hell with modesty!
In Touch of Evil I play only a supporting role, but he was charmed by my outfit and that was enough for me. Nevertheless, I never worked with him again. Since both of us were always on the road in different countries, we didn't often see each other. Yet thanks to the telephone, we remained in touch, and each one knew where the other was hiding.
Along with many other things Orson Welles also taught me something about love. He sat on the windowsill in the room of my Paris hotel (the George V, or "the Fifth" as Americans call it) and admonished me: "Mark my words, you can't make the man you love happy if you yourself are not happy."
Incredible, no? I had never understood that. I had always believed that one must just be nice and friendly and dutifully darn the socks of the chosen one in order to be happy. Naive? I was and still am naive in many respects. When you spend a well-sheltered childhood, youth, and life as a woman, you never learn what other women, who must manage without protective walls, learn. But my naiveté is a blessing. Perhaps it makes me boring, but those who were afraid of being bored have never remained with me for long.
Orson Welles shot Ten Days Wonder in Alsace-Lorraine with Claude Chabrol. I flew there and spent several days with him "to recharge." His presence and his gaze resting on your face sufficed "to recharge the batteries."
During this visit in Ottrott-le-Haut, we would sit for hours next to each other whenever he had a free day or even a free afternoon—and the most beautiful phrases would effortlessly flow from his mouth.
When we saw each other, we never talked about our private lives or our problems. I never forced myself on him. I took pains to be a pleasant friend. At any rate, I have always been a loyal friend to him, and he would have certainly agreed if he had ever been asked.
Great writers and critics, primarily European, have described Orson Welles's tremendous talent. So I'll add nothing to that. In France, Welles is viewed as a savior who came down to earth to make films, but France is a civilized country. I think it would have been marvelous if Orson Welles had taught. I don't know whether that was of any interest to him, but I do know he was extremely gifted even in this area.
Europeans look down on the so-called American accent. This opinion is based on the films they see. Yet American can be a magnificent idiom—just as beautiful as British. To be sure, it must be correctly spoken, as, for example, Orson Welles did. He spoke what Germans perhaps would call "High American." Orson explained this to me one day when in my incorrigible naiveté I told him I found American dreadful, that all Americans seemed to have a hot potato in their mouth and worse. I had done my best to imitate this accent, however, I never succeeded, thank God.
Most Americans betray their origins by their accent. And many, for that matter, are very proud of it as, for example, the drawling Texas accent. But it is frequently the butt of jokes. When someone has an important position, it's infinitely better to speak a pure American, even if it requires some effort. There's nothing that one shouldn't learn.
All movie experts know that Orson Welles revolutionized photography by his use of the frog perspective, a perspective Eisenstein had used in his outdoor shots. Orson Welles employed it in indoor shots, and the set had to be cleared from one day to another because the camera was to be directed upwards. In the Hollywood of my time sets had no covering. Everywhere planks propped up the heavy spotlights, and the electricians almost suffocated in the hot air under the studio roof Every time we took a break I'd bring these poor devils some refreshments. Their work at that height was dangerous. A fall was not out of the question.
Orson Welles had coverings attached over the set, and we didn't have to worry about the electricians anymore. He also rearranged the spotlights and photographed the area from below, handling the camera as nobody ever dared to do before him. You only need see The Magnificent Ambersons to be convinced of his brilliance.
Orson Welles was a master of the film art which he renewed from the bottom up. Unlike von Sternberg he didn't irritate his co-workers. He was always friendly and understanding. He didn't incur the hatred von Sternberg so easily aroused.
He was the first to use the hand camera—with a "swivel device" as the only aid—instead of the huge, bulky and unmovable cameras that had been the rule. Handheld cameras are much easier to use. Today they are customary but that was not the case in the studios where I worked. The marvelous thing about Orson Welles was his amazing camera angles. Teams of young cameramen crawled across the floor with their equipment, pursuing something new, something that had not yet been seen in a great film.
Orson Welles was satisfied at the end of every day in Venice. An artist worthy of the name can never be more than satisfied. A true artist is never "fully satisfied." Unlike the lesser ones, he always has doubts about the end result. One day as I stood backstage with Sviatoslav Richter, the great pianist, he took me by the hand and said: "It wasn't perfect, it wasn't even good," while a storm of applause filled the concert hall, and he released my hand and went on stage to bow again before the enthusiastic audience. I saw Richter again later in Edinburgh and later in Paris. And each time we had a leisurely chat. He repeatedly voiced self-criticism and dissatisfaction, and 1 didn't know how to contradict him. He had seen me perform, he was enchanted by my roles, but he didn't listen when I expressed some special reservations about my own work.
One evening the audience sat around him on the stage. While he was playing a piece, a woman directly behind him collapsed and died on the spot. She was carried out of the hall. I was deeply impressed by this incident and thought to myself: "What an enviable fate, to die while Richter is playing! What a strong feeling for the music this woman must have had when she breathed out her life!" But Richter did not share this opinion, he was shaken.
Orson Welles had a thousand and one faults to find with his films! He would explain to the least detail how this or that should have been done, and as usual, he was right all along the line. Unsparingly and with a sharp look, he repeatedly called himself into question, fought like a lion for his ideas and, of course, for the right to cut the films as he pleased.
Once more I must come back to this phase of filmmaking: the cut. All directors who know their craft contractually stipulate that they themselves are to cut their film. On the other hand, those who know nothing about cutting leave this difficult task to others. The cutter then cuts the film according to the script. He keeps it lying in front of him and follows it word for word—here a close-up, there a long shot—a completely mechanical task.
The cutter has neither the knowledge, the talent, nor the requisite flair to edit a film as would a master or a creator. The result corresponds more or less to the mostly dry initial shooting plan. This is foreseeable, as the scriptwriters are not around when the scenes are shot and, moreover, the scenes are often changed during the filming.
Orson Welles rejected the risk linked to such a method. He kept the helm firmly in hand like the captain of a ship making its way through churning seas, and he supervised his work from beginning to end. He took responsibility for everything upon himself: manuscript, takes, acting performance.
Although he was still young, at that time he worked without a script as many great directors had done earlier.
He will always remain the wunderkind of film.
I feel his absence, the absence of his friendship, of the strength he gave me, as a painful loss. I try in vain to reach him in my helpless dreams.