Saturday, 4 October 2008

Cassavetes and The Blue Angel

Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel (1930), with Marlene Dietrich, is an extraordinary depiction of loneliness and humiliation, hubris and tragedy. (See the English-language version of the film in its entirety above).

Writing in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Ray Carney reveals the influence of The Blue Angel on John Cassavetes.

Carney says of Gena Rowlands (John Cassavetes’ wife and star in many of his films):

‘It’s indicative… of many of her enduring attitudes that, after she saw The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich became her idol as an actress. Rowlands was fascinated with Dietrich’s blend of feminine sexual allure and almost masculine toughness and swagger. She watched the film over and over again… and even adopted a few of Dietrich’s gestures and mannerisms (sitting backward on a chair and such).’

Carney also tells us how The Blue Angel inspired Cassavetes in relation to his The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1975):

‘Cassavetes and Rowlands were both fans of Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Rowlands loved the toughness and unsentimentalilty of Dietrich’s performance. Cassavetes liked the film for a different reason – because it was about an artist-surrogate who creates an artificial, artful world in which to live. (The filmmaker once asked me to give him a rare photograph I had from it, as well as a photograph showing the set of Yen’s palace in [Frank Capra’s] The Bitter Tea of General Yen, another film with the same subject). It’s not accidental that there is a photograph of Dietrich visible on the mirror of the strippers’ dressing room in the first version of [The Killing of a Chinese Bookie]. Although none of Cassavetes’ interviewers picked up on the allusion, in several post-release statements, Cassavetes wryly implied that he had modelled the character of Mr Sophistication [picture above] on Professor Rath.

‘Another reason Cassavetes was fascinated by The Blue Angel was that the film focused on the situation of a scorned, humiliated stage performer, an emotional event that spoke to Cassavetes for personal reasons. Notwithstanding the macho-man image he so diligently cultivated (or perhaps because of it), he often thought of his own life as a series of public humiliations – from his grade-school, high-school, college and drama-school days; to his years of unemployment and unsuccessful audition experiences – like the time he was jeered off stage as an MC at a burlesque house (an event dramatized in Shadows in Hugh’s nightclub debacle); to the various and sundry fiascos associated with his appearances at screenings and on television shows; to his run-ins with directors when he was acting (some of which are dramatized with the character of Myrtle in Opening Night).’

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