Nothing sums up Hollywood ’s treatment of women like that stereotype about the lanky starlet with the curvy backside. Like many scenes in the movie industry, movie stars—much like real-life celebrities—earn the right to set our standards. It is the reason why gossip mags prefer to preserve their lustre by keeping the girl next door in house-front roles. No one wants to mess with that.
In case you were wondering what kind of actress beauty standards for the market are today, hang on. This might just be the hint you’ve been waiting for.
In The New York Times Magazine last summer, I tried to imagine a modern-day breakout starlet who would have rediscovered her sex appeal during the great Depression and become one of the hottest new film stars.
The only thing I could think of is Groucho Marx. Or Rita Hayworth. Or Marilyn Monroe.
Then I thought about Marlene Dietrich.
Female celebrities back then were defined by their elegance and beauty. Or their sexuality. You saw lots of legs during the silent era. You weren’t looking at perfectly symmetrical dainty mammaries. There was strength in the derriere. Models like Joan Crawford wore corsets under short-sleeved dresses. Women also dressed femininely by wearing pearl necklaces.
Marlene Dietrich ditched her cozy shapewear in favor of slip dresses that revealed a luxuriant cleavage. And she wore shorter, stouter hair and no makeup.
Around the time the movie star Wilhelmina Cotillard was making waves for playing starlets in films like La Vie en Rose and as a femme fatale in Diamantino , my coworker and I went shopping for bargains at Barneys and other New York department stores. We were well aware that fabulous Hollywood stars of the 1930s looked just like their contemporary counterparts, but there wasn’t much to help.
Instead of “From the Archives” or some other tchotchke collecting society page that offers “Collectables to Remember This Spring,” we looked to another side of Hollywood. We wanted to reclaim the pre-1935 era of women who so beautifully preened, danced and were —yes —asphyxiated in front of camera lights.
By that time, eyes would roll when anyone said they were an actress. I remember talking to a young model friend about her idol, Elizabeth Taylor, “You don’t see her with sunglasses or playing the piano.”
That was how Hollywood women were defined then. As exotic creatures allowed only to act as entertainment. They could not have their own aspirations. They could not live by their own edicts. The only way they could be represented was to act as if they had always existed.
But look who’s eating now. Watch Patti Smith and Angie Dickinson and Kitty Flanagan and Rosanna Arquette. And yes, Groucho Marx.