Dangers

On a pleasant May day in 1794, the citizens of Paris gathered in a park for the Festival of the Supreme Being. The focus of their attention was Maximilien de Robespierre, head of the Committee of Public Safety, and the man who had thought up the festival in the first place. The idea was simple: to combat atheism, "to recognize the existence of a Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul as the guiding forces of the universe."

It was Robespierre's day of triumph. Standing before the masses in his sky-blue suit and white stockings, he initiated the festivities. The crowd adored him; after all, he had safeguarded the purposes of the French Revolution through the intense politicking that had followed it. The year before, he had initiated the Reign of Terror, which cleansed the revolution of its enemies by sending them to the guillotine. He had also helped guide the country through a war against the Austrians and the Prussians. What made crowds, and particularly women, love him was his incorruptible virtue (he lived very modestly), his refusal to compromise, the passion for the revolution that was evident in everything he did, and the romantic language of his speeches, which could not fail to inspire. He was a god. The day was beautiful and augured a great future for the revolution.

Two months later, on July 26, Robespierre delivered a speech that he thought would ensure his place in history, for he intended to hint at the end of the Terror and a new era for France. Rumor also had it that he was to call for a last handful of people to be sent to the guillotine, a final group that threatened the safety of the revolution. Mounting the rostrum to address the country's governing convention, Robespierre wore the same clothes he had worn on the day of the festival. The speech was long, almost three hours, and included an impassioned description of the values and virtues he had helped protect. There was also talk of conspiracies, treachery, unnamed enemies.

The response was enthusiastic, but a little less so than usual. The speech had tired many representatives. Then a lone voice was heard, that of a man named Bourdon, who spoke against printing Robespierre's speech, a veiled sign of disapproval. Suddenly others stood up on all sides, and accused him of vagueness: he had talked of conspiracies and threats without naming the guilty. Asked to be specific, he refused, preferring to name names later on. The next day Robespierre stood to defend his speech, and the representatives shouted him down. A few hours later, he was the one sent to the guillotine. On July 28, amid a gathering of citizens who seemed to be in an even more festive mood than at the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre's head fell into the basket, to resounding cheers. The Reign of Terror was over.

Many of those who seemed to admire Robespierre actually harbored a gnawing resentment of him—he was so virtuous, so superior, it was oppressive. Some of these men had plotted against him, and were waiting for the slightest sign of weakness—which appeared on that fateful day when he gave his last speech. In refusing to name his enemies, he had shown either a desire to end the bloodshed or a fear that they would strike at him before he could have them killed. Fed by the conspirators, this one spark turned into fire. Within two days, first a governing body and then a nation turned against a Charismatic who two months before had been revered.

Charisma is as volatile as the emotions it stirs. Most often it stirs sentiments of love. But such feelings are hard to maintain. Psychologists talk of "erotic fatigue"—the moments after love in which you feel tired of it, resentful. Reality creeps in, love turns to hate. Erotic fatigue is a threat to all Charismatics. The Charismatic often wins love by acting the savior, rescuing people from some difficult circumstance, but once they feel secure, charisma is less seductive to them. Charismatics need danger and risk. They are not plodding bureaucrats; some of them deliberately keep danger going, as de Gaulle and Kennedy were wont to do, or as Robespierre did through the Reign of Terror. But people tire of this, and at your first sign of weakness they turn on you. The love they showed before will be matched by their hatred now.

The only defense is to master your charisma. Your passion, your anger, your confidence make you charismatic, but too much charisma for too long creates fatigue, and a desire for calmness and order. The better kind of charisma is created consciously and is kept under control. When you need to you can glow with confidence and fervor, inspiring the masses. But when the adventure is over, you can settle into a routine, turning the heat, not out, but down. (Robespierre may have been planning that move, but it came a day too late.) People will admire your self-control and adaptability. Their love affair with you will move closer to the habitual affection of a man and wife. You will even have the leeway to look a little boring, a little simple—a role that can also seem charismatic, if played correctly. Remember: charisma depends on success, and the best way to maintain success, after the initial charismatic rush, is to be practical and even cautious. Mao Zedong was a distant, enigmatic man who for many had an awe-inspiring charisma. He suffered many setbacks that would have spelled the end of a less clever man, but after each reversal he retreated, becoming practical, tolerant, flexible; at least for a while. This protected him from the dangers of a counterreaction.

There is another alternative: to play the armed prophet. According to Machiavelli, although a prophet may acquire power through his charismatic personality, he cannot long survive without the strength to back it up. He needs an army. The masses will tire of him; they will need to be forced. Being an armed prophet may not literally involve arms, but it demands a forceful side to your character, which you can back up with action. Unfortunately this means being merciless with your enemies for as long as you retain power. And no one creates more bitter enemies than the Charismatic.

Finally, there is nothing more dangerous than succeeding a Charismatic. These characters are unconventional, and their rule is personal in style, being stamped with the wildness of their personalities. They often leave chaos in their wake. The one who follows after a Charismatic is left with a mess, which the people, however, do not see. They miss their inspirer and blame the successor. Avoid this situation at all costs. If it is unavoidable, do not try to continue what the Charismatic started; go in a new direction. By being practical, trustworthy, and plain-speaking, you can often generate a strange kind of charisma through contrast. That was how Harry Truman not only survived the legacy of Roosevelt but established his own type of charisma.

Daily life is harsh, and most of us constantly seek escape from it in fantasies and dreams. Stars feed on this weakness; standing outfrom others through a distinctive and appealing style, they make us want to watch them. At the same time, they are vague and ethereal, keeping their distance, and letting us imagine more than is there. Their dreamlike quality works on our unconscious; we are not even aware how much we imitate them. Learn to become an object offascination by projecting the glittering but elusive presence of the Star.

The Fetishistic Star

One day in 1922, in Berlin, Germany, a casting call went out for the part of a voluptuous young woman in a film called Tragedy of Love. Of the hundreds of struggling young actresses who showed up, most would do anything to get the casting director's attention, including exposing themselves. There was one young woman in the line, however, who was simply dressed, and performed none of the other girls' desperate antics. Yet she stood out anyway.

The girl carried a puppy on a leash, and had draped an elegant necklace around the puppy's neck. The casting director noticed her immediately. He watched her as she stood in line, calmly holding the dog in her arms and keeping to herself. When she smoked a cigarette, her gestures were slow and suggestive. He was fascinated by her legs and face, the sinuous way she moved, the hint of coldness in her eyes. By the time she had come to the front, he had already cast her. Her name was Marlene Dietrich.

By 1929, when the Austrian-American director Josef von Sternberg arrived in Berlin to begin work on the film The Blue Angel, the twenty-seven-year-old Dietrich was well known in the Berlin film and theater world. The Blue Angel was to be about a woman called Lola-Lola who preys sadistically on men, and all of Berlin's best actresses wanted the part—except, apparently, Dietrich, who made it known that she thought the role demeaning; von Sternberg should choose from the other actresses he had in mind. Shortly after arriving in Berlin, however, von Sternberg attended a performance of a musical to watch a male actor he was considering for The Blue Angel The star of the musical was Dietrich, and as soon as she came onstage, von Sternberg found that he could not take his eyes off her. She stared at him directly, insolently, like a man; and then there were those legs, and the way she leaned provocatively against the wall. Von Sternberg forgot about the actor he had come to see. He had found his Lola-Lola.

Von Sternberg managed to convince Dietrich to take the part, and immediately he went to work, molding her into the Lola of his imagination. He changed her hair, drew a silver line down her nose to make it seem thinner, taught her to look at the camera with the insolence he had seen onstage. When filming began, he created a lighting system just for her—a light that tracked her wherever she went, and was strategically heightened by gauze and smoke. Obsessed with his "creation," he followed her everywhere. No one else could go near her.

The cool, bright face which didn 't ask for anything, which simply existed, waiting—it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream into it anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities—it could become a palace or a brothel. It depended on the one who filled it. How limited by comparison was all that was already completed and labeled.

— erich maria remarque, on marlene dietrich, arch of triumph

Marlene Dietrich is not an actress, like Sarah Bernhardt; she is a myth, like Phryne.

—andré: malraux, quoted in edgar morin, the stars, translated by richard howard

When Pygmalion saw these women, living such wicked lives, he was revolted by the many faults The Blue Angel was a huge success in Germany. Audiences were fasci-which nature has nated with Dietrich: that cold, brutal stare as she spread her legs over a implanted in the female

1 , , stool, baring her underwear; her effortless way of commanding attention sex, and long lived a ^ j <j>

bacheior existence, without on screen. Others besides von Sternberg became obsessed with her. A man any wife to share his home. dying of cancer, Count Sascha Kolowrat, had one last wish: to see Mar-But ^n^-Mh with lene's legs in person. Dietrich obliged, visiting him in the hospital and lift-

marvelous artistry, he „

sknifuiiy carved a snowy ing up her skirt; he sighed and said Thank you. Now I can die happy. ivory statue. He made it Soon Paramount Studios brought Dietrich to Hollywood, where everyone lovelier than any woman was quickly talking about her. At a party, all eyes would turn toward her born, and fell in love with . . . 01 111 111 11

when she came into the room. She would be escorted by the most hand-

his own creation. The J

statue had all the some men in Hollywood, and would be wearing an outfit both beautiful aPPearance ofa realgirl, so and unusual—gold-lame pajamas, a sailor suit with a yachting cap. The that it seemed to be alive, next day the look would be copied by women all over town; next it would to want to move, did not modesty forbid. So cleverly spread to magazines, and a whole new trend would start. did his art conceal its art. The real object of fascination, however, was unquestionably Dietrich's Pygmalion gazed in face. What had enthralled von Sternberg was her blankness—with a simple wonder, and in his heart

there rose a passionate love lighting trick he could make that face do whatever he wanted. Dietrich

for this image of a human eventually stopped working with von Sternberg, but never forgot what he

form. Often he ran his had taught her. One night in 1951, the director Fritz Lang, who was about hands over the work, feeiing u to see whether it to direct her in the film Rancho Notorious, was driving past his office when was flesh or ivory, and he saw a light flash in the window. Fearing a burglary, he got out of his car, would not yet admit that crept up the stairs, and peeked through the crack in the door: it was Diet-

ivory was all it was. He rich taking pictures of herself in the mirror, studying her face from every kissed the statue, and or j o j imagined that it kissed him angle. back, spoke to it and

embraced it and th°ught Marlene Dietrich had a distance from her own self: she could study her he felt his fingers sink into the limbs he touched, so face, her legs, her body, as if she were someone else. This gave her the that he was afraid lest a ability to mold her look, transforming her appearance for effect. She could

bruise appear where he had pose in just the way that would most excite a man, her blankness letting pressed the flesh.

Sometimes he addressed it him see her according to his fantasy, whether of sadism, voluptuousness, or in flattering speeches, danger. And every man who met her, or who watched her on screen, fan-

sometimes brought the kind tasized endlessly about her. The effect worked on women as well; in the

ofpresents that g'r'f words of one writer, she projected "sex without gender." But this self-

enjoy. . . . He dressed the ' r J o limbs of his statue in distance gave her a certain coldness, whether on film or in person. She was woman's robes, andput like a beautiful object, something to fetishize and admire the way we ad-

rings on its fingers, long mire a work of art.

necklaces round its neck. . . . All this finery The fetish is an object that commands an emotional response and that became the image well, but makes us breathe life into it. Because it is an object we can imagine what-it was no less imeiy ever we want to about it. Most people are too moody, complex, and reac-

unadorned. Pygmalion

then placed the statue on a tive to let us see them as objects that we can fetishize. The power of the

couch that was covered with Fetishistic Star comes from an ability to become an object, and not just any

cloths of Tynan purple, object but an object we fetishize, one that stimulates a variety of fantasies.

laid its head to rest on soft

down pillows, as if it could Fetishistic Stars are perfect, like the statue of a Greek god or goddess. The appreciate them, and called effect is startling, and seductive. Its principal requirement is self-distance. If

it his bedfellow. • The you see yourself as an object, then others will too. An ethereal, dreamlike festival of Venus, which is t11 , . , , rr

air will heighten the effect.

celebrated with the greatest

You are a blank screen. Float through life noncommittally and people will want to seize you and consume you. Of all the parts of your body that draw this fetishistic attention, the strongest is the face; so learn to tune your face like an instrument, making it radiate a fascinating vagueness for effect. And since you will have to stand out from other Stars in the sky, you will need to develop an attention-getting style. Dietrich was the great practitioner of this art; her style was chic enough to dazzle, weird enough to enthrall. Remember, your own image and presence are materials you can control. The sense that you are engaged in this kind of play will make people see you as superior and worthy of imitation.

She had such natural poise . . . such an economy of gesture, that she became as absorbing as a Modigliani. . . . She had the one essential star quality: she could be magnificent doing nothing.

—berlin actress lili darvas on marlene dietrich

Continue reading here: The Mythic Star

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