THE LAST STAR
In The Season, his classic study of showbiz, screenwriter William Goldman relates a tale which takes place at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid 1950s.
MoMA's film department had prepared a reel of highlights from Marlene Dietrich's films (chasing Gary Cooper across the desert in heels, flashing a chubby thigh while warbling in The Blue Angel) as a fundraising tool and decided to debut it, for the general public, early on a Saturday morning. A man whom Goldman describes as a film buff (but who was probably Goldman himself) arrived at MoMA's auditorium and, viewing the pastiche of Marlene, discovered, for the first time, Dietrich's "amazing vast range as an actress."
No sooner had the tribute film ended than the actress herself steps from behind the stage curtain to thank the attendees personally. "He never realized that such a beautiful human could exist," Goldman continues, describing the attendee (maybe himself). "Then Dietrich exited the stage, not to the wings, but slowly walking down the center aisle, and the fan, ditching his girlfriend, got up and followed her, wanting to stay close to such a thing of beauty."
He follows Marlene up the stairs, through MoMA's lobby and out into the street. Dietrich puts up her hand to hail a cab: the man looks up and stumbles into a construction site, falling at the feet of the star. "Dietrich looked back, with a face full of understanding, as if to say 'I have done all this for you’."
Next week another star returns to MoMA, also for a retrospective, also pushing the age of 60, with her mystery undiminished and the sense that she has, indeed, done all this for us. Her name is Cindy Sherman and, in spite of the overwhelming bang of a career transforming art itself on MoMA's walls, what this exhibition is about is Cindy assuming her rightful place as the last star of the art world, the successor to Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock and Warhol as a transformative figure elevated to the heavens.
Cindy's modesty, fierce personal control of the means of her own production, universal interpretation of woman's being and strange transfiguration of intimacy into objects of universality are as distantly alluring as Dietrich, as private as Garbo, as glitzy as Elizabeth Taylor and as vulnerable as Marilyn Monroe. And she is not just the actress, she is the writer, the director, the producer, behind the camera while simultaneously standing in front of it.
Yet the sense remains that without her public, she is nothing. To reach the firmament, Cindy Sherman has never debased herself by having to hire a factory of drones to recreate a plastic toy lobster or paint millions of dull redundant dots. Sexual perversity dripped through her not in the penetration of some blonde Italian porn star, but through the macabre arrangement of sex toys purchased through the mail. Death gaped from her own head in a pool of blue effluvia, not some bisected farm animal stripped of its barnyard dignity for a gallery dollar.
There comes a time when the true star shines and that time, when a modern Sleeping Beauty lies dead in her glass sarcophagus in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, while her public partied on downstairs, has arrived for Cindy Sherman, whose message of artificial seduction and the simulated trap of the image over our lives is more germane than ever. So let Cindy pause in the street and look back at her fallen fans. Her triumph belongs to us.
“Cindy Sherman,” Feb. 26-June 11, 2012, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).