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Black and White: Mercedes de Acosta's Glorious Enthusiasms
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Camera Obscura 15.3 (2000) 227-264

[Figures]

A June 1934 Vanity Fair item highlighted for its readers the latest roles of movie royalty Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as Queen Christina and Catherine the Great, respectively, with "a composite photograph by Edward Steichen," "ingeniously constructed by superimposing two separate pictures . . . [of] those rival Nordic deities of Hollywood." The image features all the sensual conventions of black-and-white studio-era glamour portrait photography. Garbo is in passionate profile at the bottom right, wearing black, her head thrown back, fingers spread, eyes half-closed. Dietrich's face is in the top left of the image, her white blouse open at the neck, but her eyes do not meet our gaze; heavy-lidded, she looks down and to the side. The stars look for all the world as if they are about to kiss, yet the negative space between these pastiched studio portraits was never to be traversed. Leaving aside the fact that women never kissed in Hollywood, Garbo and Dietrich were constructed as singular, mutually exclusive European divas; they remained rival stars of rival studios. In a queer optical exercise, however, reversing figure and ground, the negative space can be seen as the fullest in the composite portrait, for it is occupied with our desire. Only on this screen can be projected a story in which both stars are featured, in which their narcissism melts into homoerotic passion.

In her 1991 videotape Encuentro entre dos reinas [Meeting of two queens], Chilean video artist Cecelia Barriga manipulates clips from Queen Christina (dir. Rouben Mamoulian, US, 1933) and The Scarlett Empress (dir. Josef von Sternberg, US, 1934) as well as excerpts from the two stars' other films in a fashion strikingly similar to the 1934 mass culture artifact. She reedits their films in a series of vignettes without dialogue, alternating and juxtaposing scenes and motifs to make their coming together seem inevitable: Catherine and Christina, Dietrich and Garbo, encounter each other in a fantasy space; in other words, they costar in a movie. Besides intercutting to match glances and actions, in several sequences the video uses effects to include both stars in the same frame. Barriga's behind-the-scenes artistry casts her in the role of a latter-day Steichen, whose glamorous photographs had helped to project these stars' images onto the private screens in viewers' heads. Collecting and reanimating found images, she is also merely a more exalted and talented version of the ordinary viewer, the public whose wants Steichen and Vanity Fair "ingeniously" anticipated when superimposing the two portraits. Barriga's tape renders that ordinary viewer's lesbian fantasy visible. The 1934 magazine image was a precursor of such visibility.

Vanity Fair gave fans this image near the peak of the stars' popularity; Barriga made her eleven-minute valentine at the end of their long and divergent lives (Garbo died in 1990, Dietrich in 1992). Why is a Garbo/Dietrich meeting a still-potent fantasy for viewers of Barriga's videotape at the end of the twentieth century? For a few years at the beginning of the 1930s, the Hollywood publicity machine exploited the stars' rivalry and elaborated their similar iconic status: European, arty, mysterious, androgynous. In certain ways our end of the millennium moment syncs up nicely with that time. If the catch-phrase "lesbian chic" explains that syncronicity, it should not be understood dismissively. For that is the idiom in which Vanity Fair's collage speaks; by doubling up the sensuality of the glamour portrait, it unleashes the homoerotic gaze latent in the stars' images. Barriga's tape may be the product of a flourishing late-twentieth-century lesbian visual culture, but her self-representation renders homage to an earlier Hollywood vision.

A Genealogy of Lesbian Chic

A genealogy of lesbian chic leads back from the video artist Barriga to another woman who shared her investment in Hollywood. She too was an artist, though not a visual one, and she too was a fan. Although she did not cut and paste those images for Vanity Fair, she might have, for the collage dramatized her own desire. And she did clip out the "composite photograph," carefully saving not...



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