Andreea Ionescu-Berechet: „Divas used to promote the idea of capability”

15 April, 2020

„Stalin’s Divas. From the clay idols to the Soviet star system” and „The socialist diva. East-European cinema models” are the two books written by Andreea-Ionescu Berechet, which analyse quite a unique idea within the studies on Romanian cinema. The books have been recently released by the Tritonic publishing house, and are the result of a long research for Andreea’s PhD thesis at UNATC. 

I sat down with author & researcher Andreea Ionescu-Berechet about the meaning of being a diva, the differences between the Soviet divas and the American ones and also about which were the Romanian divas during the communism era.

Andreea Ionescu-Berechet
Andreea Ionescu-Berechet

How would you describe a film diva?

The definition of a diva can be found in a book by Edgar Morin – Les Stars, which was the book that started my whole research. Edgar Morin examines the „diva phenomenon”, giving examples from the French and American cinema. He suggests being a diva is not only about a particular role the actress has interpreted, but all her roles – and all these characters should have some sort of unity and some similarities with the actress’ life, or, to be more precise – with the way the media portrays her. And everything combines with her way of acting, the way she gives life to her characters, her make-up etc. That’s how a diva is born. 

So without the press, we wouldn’t have film divas.

Exactly. When movie theatres have appeared, the message sent through feminine role models reached a larger audience. The fact that women from the countryside could go to the cinema and enjoy a love story or female characters who escaped the traditional system by moving to the city or just taking their lives into their own hands, meant and helped a lot. For example, if you look at the divas of the Italian silent film, one can notice how they influenced the emancipation of Italian women. They promoted the illusion of capability to a much larger audience than the theatre ever could. A young lady could see Assunta Spina in a movie theatre and leave the hall with a strong feeling and an optimistic view on her life. 

From what you’re telling me, the central role of a diva seems to be that of sending progressive ideas through her characters.

I think the progressive ideas you are mentioning are more visible in the Italian silent film, than in American ones. At Hollywood, within its star system, the chances of success for a female character, even by moving forward in the upper class, were given by the same old norms, like a marriage. Whereas in Italian  silent cinema and later on, in the Soviet films, each female character is powerful, she can build her existence based on her capacities, her work and her luck. 

So what are the characteristics of an American film diva in the first years of cinema?

I haven’t researched so much on this vast chapter of American divas, even though there are hundreds of books on the subject. I only read a little about it, due to director Grigori Aleksandrov, husband of diva Liubov Orlova. He lived in Hollywood for a year with his wife, where he was Eisenstein’s assistant, and where they met Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich. Aleksandrov’s biography claims he came back to Moscow with one particular wish – to build a Soviet film star, which would have traits from Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich, two divas he met and studied thoroughly. And this is exactly what he does with his wife, Orlova. 

When it comes to American silent films, you can’t talk about it without thinking of Mary Pickford, which was seen as the „America’s sweetheart”. However, I also mention Clara Bow in my books – she was the it girl, so modern and avangarde for those times. And so was Louise Brooks. These two were remarkable because they stood out from the typical American star system. However, none of them reached the Socialist cinema as a model, they were too eccentric. 

Of course, I also took a closer look at Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The socialist diva took some defining traits from both of them. 

So the Socialist diva takes up some of the American diva’s traits, but is given a different role.

Yes, it becomes a different type of model. The character built here is really different, but everything from physical appearance to make-up, to the way the light is set up, were taken by Aleksandrov from Hollywood.

Lyubov Orlova
Lyubov Orlova

 What do you give up and add up when a film diva travels to the Soviet world?

She gives up her sexuality – because sexuality and press are the two main elements that separates the two types of divas. 

On giving up sexuality, my explanation is that the communist doctrine wants to portray a perfect world, where there aren’t temptations to lure you away. So there aren’t any sexual impulses because they cannot be filtered by the brain, and the communists wanted to portray a plain world.  As a result, socialist divas are models of the Soviet success, of perseverance and power. The divas of the socialist cinema do not find their fulfilment in love stories – even though a male character can exist, he’s not the purpose. Women usually strive on their own. 

If during Stalin’s administration, the promoted model was that of a perfect woman (following the doctrine’s norms), after his fall, things started to change. In your book, you talk about how socialist divas became more human, exposing weaknesses. 

The explanation might be that adaptations come into play. The socialist realism stories are relinquished. The rudimentary ones, where bad was bad and good was good. As a screenwriter, when you work on an adaptation, you notice the authors’s touch, how he developed his characters and what he left of him in them, so things evolved and characters became more human.

During Khrushchev’s administration, well-constructed characters started to appear. If you take a close look, the propaganda message is still there, but it’s more subtle. 

Were there any Romanian divas in the communist period?

First of all, we had no press. Lica Gheorghiu was the only actress who gave interviews in the name of the films she played in, or the studio’s. She always spoke about her films and the whole crew behind them, but even if she was popular in the media, she was a bad actress with an inappropriate voice. I called her the „Fraud Diva”. 

However, reading about her, I discovered Eva Cristian who played the young blonde heroine in Liviu Ciulei’s movie – Eruption, in 1957. Eva has an incredible story. She left Romania for Germany in the 60’s, where she had a great film career. She is what you call a fulfilled actress. She never came back to Romania. Ciulei’s movie was definitely all about Eva’s character, something that got Lica Gheorghiu really angry. 

Other divas in the Romanian cinema you talk about are Ioana Bulcă and Irina Petrescu – two different typologies. Irina Petrescu was known as a discrete and solitary person, not exactly the “diva” type.

The idea of a Romanian diva should be interpreted in a more aspirational way. In fact, we only had some models, some actresses everyone knew. Who was the socialist intellectual? Irina Petrescu. She represented the idea of a hard working socialist student, discrete and solitary, but powerful. Ioana Bulcă was the extroverted one, she had a magnetism which got her the roles of strong and powerful women. However, all of them said they have never felt famous. They didn’t have the notion of celebrity or fame, neither the awareness of being models. 

Why haven’t you included in your book actresses like Stela Popescu, who was probably the most famous of them all?

Stela Popescu was playing mostly in comedies, which were really appreciated but her comic characters didn’t represent the idea of a diva. No one wants to be the funny one. You want to be the perfect intellectual, a powerful woman; or the spoiled winsome, like Violeta Andrei was. You don’t want to be the funny one, but of course I have considered Stela Popescu. What also contributed to my final decision was her few roles in cinema.

What kind of a diva was Violeta Andrei?

Generally speaking, a socialist diva has a classical beauty, a bit ascetic. Perhaps, Irina Petrescu was much closer to the typology of a socialist diva – disembodied and cerebral. But Violeta Andrei was exuberant and energetic. All her roles were daring, she played herself. When I talk about her films, I’m not talking necessarily about her best ones. Usually, the most popular movies build a model or a diva – like You, me and Ovidiu. She managed to keep her characters alive and mysterious, you could never completely understand them. Like you can’t tell what’s in her head. This mystery it’s a defining element of a diva. 

On top of that, there was the gossip. All the other actresses had a private personal life, you didn’t know who’s married and who’s not. Violeta Andrei was married to the Minister of the Foreign Affairs (n. Ștefan Andrei) and you also knew Elena Ceaușescu hated her – information that made her even more famous. She was also the only one who could be glamorous, and even if you didn’t see her in the pictures of different events, you knew she was there.

And then, there are the other divas – the seditious ones. We had three: Margareta Pogonat, Margareta Pâslaru and Tora Vasilescu. For me, Tora was the most powerful, an emblematic actress whose roles were like a glove to her. Even though she only had a few, they were so well executed and exactly what the audiences expected. 

Who can be seen as a diva in the 90’s or the 2000’s in Romanian cinema? 

If you ask me, once democracy was installed, so was the sense that anyone can be a star – and that’s when the “diva phenomenon” has ended. And it’s something that has happened everywhere, not just in Romania. For example – Hollywood, I cannot think of a film diva after the 90’s, so I can’t name any diva in Romanian cinema either. 

How about Oana Pellea or Maia Morgenstern? 

No, you wouldn’t want to be like them. Being a diva is quite complex and it’s not some sort of film theory that’s hard to understand. It can be reduced to – Would you want to be like her? Would you like your daughter to be like Maia Morgenstern? No, you wouldn’t. It’s the idea of imitation. Both Oana and Maia are strong, memorable personalities, but there’s a long way from that to “this is how I want to be like”.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.