The Exploding Kinetoscope presents a Valentine's Day special! For the next ten days, I'll be counting down ten actresses I love in ten performance moments I love in ten films I love. For the most part, they don't have a terrible lot to do with romance itself or romantic movies, but be assured, there's a lotta love going on. They aren't going to all be the greatest or most iconic scenes, they aren't even all my #1 movie star crush objects. But you better believe I'm head over heels for these ladies. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate all around.
10. In Marlene Dietrich's Mouth
Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress
Von Sternberg's bitter and baroque films make a hideous burlesque not just of humanity, but in The Scarlet Empress, of all human emotion, except, perhaps, Dietrich-worship. It's a hard obsession to argue with. Ostensibly, we're watching Dietrich document the evolution of naive Princess Sophia into cold, hard, magisterial Catherine the Great. It is certainly a wonder to watch Dietrich as the transformed Catherine, parading around like a liberated badass in a world of trolls and worms: when Catherine is revealed, she's the spectacle you bought the ticket to see. Captivating as she is as a reborn Bad Motherfucker, fitting hilariously into von Sternberg's gallery of grotesques is Dietrich's performance as Sophia-in-transition. She plays every scene literally wide-eyed, and in a breathless proto-Monroe idiot whisper. Dietrich doesn't drop her smoky eyelids until the woman is jaded and self-possessed. Most fascinating to me is this would-be seduction scene in the palace stables.
John Lodge as the concerned-but-horny Count Alexei is attempting to get into Catherine's pants for the 2000th time, but now she's willingly come to him, understanding his intentions; a sort-of-innocent, still undecided about taking the plunge into personal agency by way of debauchery. Lodge's frustrated and funny performance dominated their previous scenes, but this one's all in Dietrich's hands, and it's her best physical performance moment in the film. The playing is so weird and ridiculous we don't buy for a second that she's not the sensuous, frankly oversexed Deitrich of our dreams. Bugging out those mesmerist's eyes, she grabs an overhanging rope, awkwardly twisting her figure into unnatural poses, absentmindedly at first, until she falls backward into a haystack entirely on purpose. Avoiding eye contact with Alexei, she sticks a piece of straw between her impossible, swollen lips, for no discernable reason but an oral-fixation joke. When he plucks it from her mouth, she does it again. And again. And again! She just keeps putting staw in her mouth and looking in the opposite direction until Alexei and the audience are in a confused frenzy. It's one of the strangest, grossest, sexiest and most absurd seductions scenes in all of film. Yanking out the final golden blade, she gasps "if you come closer, I'll scream." It doesn't sound one bit like she means it. Subtext promptly becomes text, as Alexei growls "It'd be easier for you to scream without a straw in your mouth."
They kiss, sure, but was that ever the point? The unspeakably tasteless dirty-joke punchline is a beat later: a horse whinnies, Catherine panics and flees in a cloud of dust. Now that's a make-out scene.