Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Playground Gets Ponderous: Goodbye, Norma Jean (Or What Makes a Movie Star)

Part One: Let’s Start with a Little Odyssey I Went On Recently

This whole mess began when (somehow, perhaps by magic) My Week with Marilyn (2011) landed into my instant queue.  

My Week with Marilyn is not a very good movie, at least by my semi-professional estimation.  The film feels a bit like a stale diet soda version of a Merchant Ivory production.  We follow a young man named Colin Clark (a boring performance by some guy named Eddie Redmayne) as he chases after his dream of “getting in the picture business!”  (There’s a family to do about this...his father wants him to be a doctor or something.  It’s only there to add a lazy shade of character coloring...and really, who cares?)

Colin “gets in” by planting himself in the office of Sir Laurence Olivier on a daily basis.  (I will mention that Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh.  It’s a good performance; he doesn’t do a strict impersonation but a real and nuanced acting job.)  The secretary finally caves and lets him start answering the phone while she is at lunch.  After that, we watch as Colin has a ring side seat for the making of a not very good film called The Prince and the Showgirl.  This is a romantic comedy starring Olivier and Marilyn Monroe  (Michelle Williams, we’ll get to that).  

Shit goes down after that: Colin gets involved with Marilyn, after she is abandoned by her relatively new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).  The shoot goes down the tubes, because Marilyn is incredibly troubled with pills and mental illness.  She has two handlers that constantly coddle her, and presumably get paid well to do it.  There’s another girl that Colin hurts terribly by dismissing her for his fling with Marilyn (and she’s played by WhatsHerFace from Harry Potter).  

There are two issues that make My Week with Marilyn difficult for me to dismiss:
    • Michelle Williams as Marilyn: Michelle Williams is most certainly not the real Marilyn.  She has somehow sidestepped becoming a movie star and settled for doing legitimate work in small films.  That is why she is able to “ape” Marilyn successfully, but also go the extra step by completely tearing off the band aid.  She manages to funnel all of Marilyn’s deep wounds through the signature baby soft voice.  
    • Everyone in the story comes off stinking like a clogged toilet.  Olivier is an insensitive jerk on set.  Arthur Miller decides that the best way to solve his problems is to run away from them.  That only happens after Marilyn finds notes for an incredibly unflattering script he is writing about her.  Colin might seem like the innocent in this situation.  However, I see him more as an opportunistic scum bag in training.  The real Colin managed to write not just one, but two books about his fling with Marilyn.  That was the source material for this outing.  Most of all, there’s Marilyn herself.  She uses everyone around her for her own benefit, as most drug addicts do.  The “little girl lost” act might have made her a star, but it was also the scape goat for some extremely bad behavior.  In short, some mediocre people made a mediocre movie and then moved on.  I suppose this is where you would insert a: “Welcome to the film industry” comment.  

As you can gather from my somewhat flippant tone, this movie got under my skin.  That’s when I had a realization: I had never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie.  “Could that be right?” I thought as I read through her filmography.  How did that happen?

Part Two: Of Course I Knew Who She Was

The fact that I have never seen a Marilyn Monroe film seemed almost (to quote The Princess Bride) inconceivable to me.  Why?

She’s ubiquitous in American culture:
    • Who hasn’t seen the Andy Warhol silkscreen of her?  
    • We’ve all had to hear Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” ten thousand times, and most of them at the dentist’s office.  (My teeth are hurting just thinking of it.)
    • I remember reading a Gloria Steinem essay somewhere in the haze of English 102.  Steinem’s astute point (from what I can remember) was this: Marilyn Monroe was pushed over the edge by our cultural expectations of her.  She was the ultimate sex symbol, and the sad carrier for literally millions of juvenile sexual fantasies.  Pay attention to this, kids.  I’m going to piggy back off of Gloria for some of my later remarks in this essay.  
    • Hell, I even “met” Marilyn once.  Okay, so she was an impersonator outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in LA.  She wasn’t even a very good one: she was pushing 40 and looked like she had spent some of that tip money on some “help” with her looks.  She was standing next to Batman with a Beer Gut and some Hobo dressed up as Gandalf.  

With all this said, how the hell had I not seen a Marilyn movie?  (I would like my audience to ignore the fact that I had ZERO FUCKING INTEREST in Marilyn Monroe before this.  Or if I was to sing it in true Marilyn style...ZERO FUCKING INTEREST...boop boop be do...yeah.)  

What to do?  

Part Three: The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot

We should all celebrate when something in this life happens easily.  By a stroke of luck, both The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot popped up on Instant.  

I would like to start with what I knew about these films before watching them.  Everyone has seen the iconic shot from The Seven Year Itch, with Marilyn standing on top of the grate “feeling the breeze.”  I also knew that Some Like it Hot had something to do with cross dressing.  

The Seven Year Itch is nothing great.  The truth is that it is slight, horribly dated, and somewhat sexist (towards both are nothing but libidinous monsters and women are their all too willing victims).  The whole affair is an over boiled sitcom without the laugh track.  

I’m not going to go too far into summarizing the story.  You know it’s about Tom Ewell as a horny middle aged man whose wife and kids leave for the summer.  The central conflict occurs when Marilyn (as a character simply called The Girl) starts to sublet the apartment upstairs.  The guy feels “the seven year itch...” after being married for “so long.”  

Here’s the crux of it:  Nothing really ever happens between the Tom Ewell character and Marilyn.  He invites her down for a drink, feels unreasonably guilty, and then (through a series of events) lets The Girl live in his apartment.  (Spoiler: In a terribly constructed ending, he goes back to his wife and you can’t help but wonder what the point of the movie was).  

Marilyn is there to play a fantasy figure, and she’s adequate.  She has impeccable comic timing, she looks great, and is by far the most interesting thing in the film.  I finally had my “eureka” moment: this was what all the hoopla was about; a real movie star.  Perhaps not a great actress, but a perfect Marilyn Monroe.  I would like a chance to see her in a better movie.  

Now what?

The next stop on the trip was Some Like It Hot.

Now Some Like It Hot is a completely different beast from The Seven Year Itch.  That’s because Some Like It Hot is, quite simply, a great film.  The dialogue is sharp and the plot is immaculately constructed.  The subject mater is particularly daring and risque for the time.  The biggest surprise: the thing is laugh out loud hilarious.  

All of that doesn’t concern us for this piece, though.  Marilyn is given a substantial character to play, or at least a role that seems tailor made to fit her personae.  She is Sugar, a down on her luck night club singer that always falls for saxophonists.  She’s vulnerable, she’s funny, and even sings four or five songs.  Her singing voice is somewhat thin, but watch how she plays to the night club audience.  

I haven’t even mentioned the substantial scenes she shares with both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  The sterling example (in my mind) is the scene with Tony Curtis (badly impersonating Cary Grant) on the beach.  Of the Marilyn performances I’ve seen (all two of them), this is the one I would freeze in a time capsule as quintessential. 

Part Four: What I Have to Say about Marilyn Monroe

Judging from my glowing review of Some Like it Hot, I am a newly minted Marilyn Monroe fan.  I’m going to seek out her other films; and even watch (from what I’ve heard) her ill fated attempt to really act in The Misfits.

That said, I can’t help but think about the dark side of the mystique.  

I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you: Marilyn Monroe was Norman Jean Baker.  There are cracks in the facade and you can see them.  This is a bizarre thing to nit pick: but take a close look at her hair.  You can tell it’s completely fake, and stylized beyond all belief.  You could just assume that she made “more sense” as a blonde.  (I don’t know enough about her biography to know who made that decision.) 

Even more than the hair: pay close attention to what she says in both films.  The Seven Year Itch is predicated on the fact that she would at least have a passing interest in a dude like Tom Ewell.  Her character’s ultimate fantasy in Some LIke it Hot is to meet a “man with glasses.”  She assumes that they are “gentle.”  

Is that something a beautiful woman would say?  Or is it an industry full of men projecting their fantasies onto her?  I can’t help but contrast this fantasy image with the “real” woman as portrayed in My Week with Marilyn.  The one that “cougars” the kid; is this man eater the same delicate creature who loves glasses wearers?  

We’re in Gloria Steinem land here: Marilyn Monroe was the giant sacrifice for our collective fantasy.    

However, I can’t help but think about the opposite of the coin.  Who goes looking for this sort of attention?  She wanted to be rich, famous, and intensely adored.  Was this a case of “be careful what you wish for?”

At any rate, her early death was an incredible waste of beauty and talent.

I’m rambling. 

So I will end with two thoughts that are not my own. 

To quote Bernie Taupin: “Goodbye, Norma Jean...”

And to borrow the immortal last line from Some Like It Hot: “Nobody’s perfect.”

Next Up: Some thoughts on the twisted world of Crown International Pictures.  


  1. Nice work Dusty, I totally get what you mean. I could never get into Monroe or even understand the deification. I enjoy the better movies she's in more for the movies themselves than her participation. Weirdly, I've been heavily into Jayne Mansfield of late who's widely seen as an ersatz Monroe. I think I prefer her as she took more chances (I'm sure not by choice) role-wise early in her career. Unfortunately, like Monroe, she started drinking the bombshell Kool-aid and capitalized solely on her looks much to the detriment of her talent credibility.

  2. Thanks, Shiftless! The funny thing is that I have totally seen WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? I loved it, and in some ways found Mansfield more appealing than Monroe...or at least funnier. I have the last movie she acted in (SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED) and am planning to review it some time in the future. Thanks for reading!

  3. I've got surprisingly little comment on Miss Monroe at this moment -- whether it's Marilyn the actress or Marilyn the sex symbol. I will say, however, that the sidebar on my site contains a photo of her which illustrates what is, to my mind, perhaps The Perfect Pair of Breasts.

  4. In the words of a true film critic, true dat yo!