Glory is most visible when it fades. Only when the facade peels off does one get a glimpse behind it. Allowed to see how unstable the walls that held up the facade were. This is hardly clearer than with dead stars. The alcohol-swollen faces of David Hasselhoff, Johnny Depp or Lindsay Lohan are the result of an attention-grabbing machine that has exposed them first to the fame and then to the ridicule of the world.
The photographer Helmut Newton was no mocker. Working on behalf of “Vogue” since 1956, he became one of the most sought-after fashion and advertising photographers in the 1970s. He photographed them, the rich, the beautiful, the powerful: Madonna, David Bowie, Marlon Brando, Helmut Kohl. The Helmut Newton Foundation is now showing some of his photographs in the group exhibition “Hollywood”, together with star portraits by other photographers and with photo series about life in Los Angeles.
For example, we see Elizabeth Taylor, film star of old Hollywood, in a pool. Newton took the photo for Vanity Fair in 1985: at a time when Taylor hadn’t won a major award for a film in more than a decade, he was rarely making box office hits. From the point of view of the (almost all male) directors and producers, she was too old; too old and fat. Two years earlier, she first visited the – itself famous – Betty Ford rehab.
Taylor’s pose in the photo is upright. She’s probably at the bottom of the pool. She confidently directs her eyes into the camera. The water covers her body up to the breasts – whether she is completely naked is left to the speculation of the viewer. Her made-up face is reflected in the water.
She wears jewellery, two earrings and a necklace containing heavy black gemstones. And: a green parrot on hand. The parrot is also looking at the camera, but he has to turn his head sideways to do so. An empty folding chair at the edge of the pool: “Elizabeth Taylor” is written on the armrest.
“There’s just nothing wrong here, everything is an illusion,” says Matthias Harder, director of the Newton Foundation. Decadence that takes itself ad absurdum. The image lends an irony to the perception of Taylor’s fading fame that challenges the Hollywood system itself. “But Newton’s portrait is by no means condescending. It’s brilliantly composed. The photographer is literally at eye level with her. He might even have been in the pool himself.”
Another photo shows Nastassja Kinski. “Our world star in Hollywood” was the title of “Stern” in 1979, for “Welt” she was still “Germany’s great Lolita” in 2011. Shortly thereafter, her half-sister Pola Kinski made it public that her father Klaus had raped her for decades. Nastassja Kinski, on the other hand, played the young seductress in films by Roman Polanski and Wolfgang Petersen – a character that men still use today to talk themselves into sexual violence.
For Newton’s camera, the actress lies naked in front of a pool, wearing only a black feather boa, some fishnet, and black stiletto heels. Next to her, about half as long: a doll that looks like Marlene Dietrich. Kinski, Dietrich: “Two German actresses who went to Hollywood like many others,” explains Harder. “And that’s what Newton is later on.” Two Germans who played the seductress. It seems clear which of the two is the puppet and which is the human.
But the fact that Nastassja Kinski is also lying there motionless, doll-like stiff, yes, almost dead: that’s irritating, that’s worrying. Again nothing is right here because of sheer illusion. The cultural scientist Elisabeth Bronfen summarizes an influential pictorial scheme of the representation of women as “beautiful corpse”. Again Newton fulfills this scheme – and at the same time exhibits it, drags it into the absurd.
So it is pictures upon pictures that hang in the exhibition. Star photographs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, which are also part of the show, make it clear how these images became so powerful. Film studios created stars, even gave them new names. Greta Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, Lucille Fay LeSueur became Joan Crawford.
The studios rigorously controlled the image of their stars and threatened to fire them if they disobeyed the strict moral standards of the US film industry. The films themselves were also subject to censorship. The self-commitment valid until 1967, the “Hays Code”, forbade depicting homosexuality and sex between whites and blacks.
The faces, the physiognomies of the actors formed the basis of this system of domination. Their faces and bodies were made into brands to sell. And which should guarantee the political stability of the United States. In the film essay “I am not your N****”, based on a manuscript by James Baldwin, it is said: “The obligatory kiss in the final scene of the classic American film spoke not of love, much less sex. He spoke of reconciliation.”
The magic of show business, the American promise of fame, is present even in the portraits of those who didn’t make the covers of either Vogue or Vanity Fair. Michael Dressel’s Los(t) Angeles series features amateurs, paupers, wannabes on the city streets: a man in a Batman costume; a pseudo-Jedi in front of a garbage collector in front of a Bentley.
Crumpled faces. The waste of the machine. “Fake it till you make it” is the advice of the self-marketing gurus. It contains the promise of a glorious future, of success, of salvation. Some are never redeemed.
Even the fat years of Hollywood are over today. The film business has always been in crisis, with competing media and new ways of life lurking. Streaming services like Netflix are tearing the ground away from traditional blockbuster cinema. Nevertheless, Harder does not see his exhibition as a swan song.
“The shine, the glamor of Hollywood hasn’t completely faded. That special light, that special situation in Los Angeles, they still have their allure and a certain appeal.” Americans are always reinventing themselves, says Harder.