Picks and Pans Review: Blue Angel: the Life of Marlene Dietrich

updated 09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 01:00AM

by Donald Spoto

Dietrich (1901-1992) was a friendly sort, bedding down over the years with—drumroll, please!—Maurice Chevalier, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Jean Gabin and George Raft, novelist Erich Maria Remarque, screenwriter Mercedes Acosta, composer Burt Bachrach, World War II generals George S. Patton and James M. Gavin and legions of other men—and women. "Lavish in bestowing amatory favors, Dietrich in fact equated sex more with the offering of comfort than with the pursuit of her own pleasure," writes Spoto in this dishy but surprisingly pallid biography.

The fact that Blue Angel is ultimately of interest only to Dietrich devotees is less Spoto's fault than the German-born actress'. Aside from her casual, unapologetic attitude toward her bisexuality and her early and unwavering anti-Nazi stand, Dietrich just isn't all that fascinating. Yes, she was beautiful (more so in black and white than in Technicolor, which tended to broaden and flatten her face). But the roughly three dozen American movies she starred in were flimsy vehicles (Destry Rides Again and Judgment at Nuremburg are the exceptions) that showcased her looks better than her limited talents. Dietrich's later concert career depended more on her seemingly ageless glamour (enhanced by multiple face-lifts and a gown that made her seem to be nearly naked) than her frayed singing voice. A relentless narcissist, her best topic of conversation was herself. Small wonder that late in life one of Dietrich's favorite pastimes was playing and replaying the applause sections of her concert recordings.

Spoto, who did better by Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams and Laurence Olivier in earlier biographies, has done thorough research (digging up some fascinating archival material on her early movie and stage career in Berlin) and proves an adequate writer, but he can't compensate for the star's own shortcomings. (Doubleday, $24)

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