Something About Marilyn

5 Aug

Goodbye, Norma Jean: In 1973, Elton John and Bernie Taupin collaborated on “Candle in the Wind,” a moving, humanizing, tribute to Marilyn Monroe that depicted her as burning brightly yet also living vulnerably and uncertainly. Decades later, when Princess Diana died in a devastating car crash, John and Taupin insulted MM’s memory by rewriting the song as a memorial to the late beloved British royal. Candle in the wind, indeed.

Today marks 50 years since the passing of Marilyn Monroe.  Had she lived, she would have turned 86 this past June.  There’s not a doubt in my mind that no other American film star has been written about as exhaustively as Marilyn Monroe (though Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor probably come close). At this point, there does not seem to be anything left to write about regarding Marilyn though, of course, the opposite is actually closer to the truth. We seem to know everything about her, yet we still know almost nothing. That’s because Marilyn died so young (36, to clarify), because her death occurred under such mysterious circumstances (was it suicide, an accidental drug overdose, or something much more sinister), and because, to be just a tad obvious, Marilyn is no longer here to explain herself to us. If she had lived, she could have written a tell-all book and promoted it on, say, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or with Oprah on her own show, but there’s more.

One of the thing that keeps us fascinated about Marilyn is trying to reconcile the two halves of a complex whole. We all know that MM was born Norma Jean Mortensen–though later commonly known as Norma Jean Baker–and that she had a miserably unhappy childhood: no relationship with her father, a troubled relationship with her mother, a stint in an orphanage, passed around from one well-intentioned do-gooder to another, etc. That’s the backstory of the damaged young woman who willed herself to be a star in the guise of Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean’s greatest creation.  Marilyn Monroe, of course, was that flirtatious, larger-than-life sex kitten with a creamy complexion,  silky soft hair, dreamy bedroom eyes, a dazzling mega-watt smile, a knock-out figure, of course, and a voice that cooed sweetly yet hinted at even more delicious possibilities.  Her act was so great that it only confused the men in her life, and she even said as much, I believe, explaining  the dilemma of  men going to bed with Marilyn Monroe and waking up with Norma Jean.  She could never live up to their expectations, and she suffered because of it. (Note: A similar quote has also been attributed to sultry Rita Hayworth: “Men go to bed with Gilda [her famous vamp] and wake up with Rita.) Yes, Marilyn Monroe was Norman Jean’s greatest creation: almost everything about her was calculated for effect. There is at least one account–awkwardly recreated in last year’s My Week with Marilyn–in which Norma could turn “Marilyn” off and on at will, going from being a regular Jane in a crowd to creating a frenzy just by rechanneling her energy, smiling,  and striking a Marilynesque pose. I recall reading one time in a book someone working with her on a movie watching MM go through her script, making notes and saying stuff like, “Marilyn wouldn’t say that; she wouldn’t do that.” Trippy, huh?  At some point, I think managing Marilyn became even too much for her creator, and that’s probably one factor in her rollercoaster adult life with its extreme highs and lows: Norma Jean was never secure enough to handle all that Marilyn was.

This piece won’t be a film by film tribute to MM–it would be a bit much, and many of us already know how great she was, and we all have our favorites. I’ll probably write about a few of the movies more in depth, individually, at a later time when the mood strikes me.  That noted, most of us surely already know that MM never earned a single Oscar nomination even though she was one of the biggest stars of her era–and I pity the fools who like to argue that, while popular, she only became a superstar in death.  Not so. There’s enough evidence to dispute that cynical claim. The truth is, she was a top box office draw with both the public and the press following her every move.  There are probably two important reasons why she never scored with the Academy.  The first reason is three-fold: once Marilyn hit the big-time, she was often cast in comedies, and comedies do not typically play as well with jaded Oscar voters. Of course, there are exceptions, but, generally, the Academy prefers “meatier” fare; comedies register as lightweight(s). The second part of that very factor is that, aside from playing in comedies, Marilyn was frequently cast as, well, gold diggers, perhaps gold diggers with heart, but gold diggers nonetheless. The characters were perceived as shallow compared to say someone like Ingrid Bergman playing an amnesiac who may or may not be the lost daughter of Russian Czar Nicolas II in 1956’s Anastasia. Bergman won the Oscar the same year that Marilyn stretched her talents as a second-rate chanteuse in Bus Stop, which many critics believe to be her finest performance. There’s also the feeling that in role after role Marilyn was somehow not acting, that she was just playing herself or that she was simply playing the same character over and over again, which might be true on some meta level but also somehow misses the point of what makes MM so great.  Finally, the other important factor to consider when it comes to Marilyn and the Oscars is that other Academy members–the colleagues who actually vote for the awards–were likely exasperated by her off-screen antics. She was notorious for holding up production through her own insecurities, an unhealthy dependence on her acting coaches, and a seeming inability to remember her lines, often requiring dozens upon dozens of takes, though in a recent TV documentary, no less than  former co-star Mitzi Gaynor allowed that the bit about not memorizing her lines was often a strategic ploy for MM to get out of doing something she didn’t feel comfortable doing–and esteemed writer-director Billy Wilder is quoted in Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, offering that “Anyone can remember lines, but it takes a real artist to come on the set and not know her lines and give the performance [in Some Like It Hot] that she did.” Peary tries to right the Academy’s wrong by giving MM the 1959 Best Actress Oscar for Some Like It Hot, and he (Peary) also names her an alternate runner-up for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and the aforementioned Bus Stop. To clarify, she actually claimed the Globe for  Some Like It Hot, was likewise nominated for Bus Stop, and won the Globe for World Film Favorite-Female twice (1954 and 1962).

I happen to think that Marilyn is one of the greatest screen actresses ever, perhaps the most purely cinematic actress since the advent of talkies.  Hers is/was a particular talent in that I don’t know how she would have ever fared onstage, but onscreen she was magic though her magic was the result of enormous skill. Simply, almost nobody has ever been as aware of how to play to the camera, to work all the lighting and all the angles to her advantage, as well as Marilyn. Every Marilyn performance is an act of well-calibrated contrivance. Every gesture, every flutter,  and every pose are all there to do one thing and one thing only: to make sure the camera stays squarely fixed on her–and, of course, the camera responds accordingly. The camera loves her as do we in the audience; moreover, how she does what she does is a feat because she makes all that effort appear so, well, spontaneous.  The next time you watch an MM movie, try watching only her if you can. Separate her from her character, the plot, and the other actors and watch how she takes advantage of the camera down to even the smallest detail. (Not that she ever ignores characterization, per se; it’s the way she uses technique to serve the character.)  Once again, fascinating stuff. Of course, some people might argue that I give her too much credit, and that the directors are equally responsible for her successes. I say, well, yes, of course, but I also believe that no one could direct Marilyn better than Marilyn herself.

Besides her success at the Golden Globes, Marilyn Monroe was a seven-time nominee for the Laurel Awards, per Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine. Additionally, she was a two time Photoplay award winner (often called the Photoplay Gold Medal).  She won a British Academy award–and Italy’s David Di Donatella prize–for 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl. She snagged an additional British Academy nomination for 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. She made the Quigley Publications Top Ten list in 1953, 1954, and 1956–the highest ranked female star on the list each and every time.

Here’s my question: had she lived, what would Marilyn be doing now–or what would she have gone on to do in her illustrious career? Her roles in Bus Stop and The Misfits (1961) showed that she was moving into more dramatic terrain, and the available footage of her last film, the abandoned Something’s Got to Give, shows incredible sensitivity. The plot, borrowed from 1940’s My Favorite Wife (starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), shows what happens when a woman, both a wife and a mom believed to have been drowned at sea and declared dead after several years, miraculously returns just as her husband (Dean Martin) has remarried (to Cyd Charisse). Years ago, AMC television cobbled together the footage into a featurette as a follow-up to yet another Marilyn documentary, and the result was stunning. Not only did Marilyn look as lovely as always, there was something touching about the brief scenes with her children, and that showed a whole new side to the star. Though 20th Century Fox pulled the plug, the same scenario was later resurrected as the hit Move Over, Darling with Doris Day, James Garner, and Polly Bergen.

I started making a list of movies, many of them with iconic roles and/or performances, that Marilyn might have been perfect for had she lived; my friend contributed one or two as well.

  • Hud (1963) – Though perhaps more a supporting role than a starring one, Patricia Neal nonetheless won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of  the housekeeper who comes between Paul Newman’s title character and his nephew (played by Brandon De Wilde).  Neal was only 37 at the time, more or less the same age as Marilyn, and she had a worldliness (a weariness) that wasn’t immediately as apparent in Monroe, but I always loved Neal’s Southern drawl, and I can appreciate the way Marilyn’s sweetness could have been given new dimension by playing a woman who’s been around the block a few times. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see Newman and Monroe in a picture together?
  • Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) – The great Kim Stanley snagged an Oscar nomination for this tidy British made thriller about a psychic “medium” and her efforts in a kidnapping case (and, really, that’s just a small thread in a complicated yarn).  Though, the film, again, is a British production, Stanley is an American, and she has a connection to Monroe, so it kind of makes sense to imagine Monroe in the film. See, Stanley originated the role of Cherie in the stage version of William Inge’s Bus Stop (later played onscreen by Monroe as noted elsewhere); likewise, Stanley created quite a splash in The Goddess, a 1958 film written by Oscar nominee Paddy Chayefsky that portrays the rise to fame of a sexy movie star born into impoverished conditions. Of course, the parallels to MM are unmistakable, so if Stanley can play Monroe, why shouldn’t Monroe be able to take yet another crack at a role (that would be) made famous by Stanley, especially since MM has a spacey quality that would work well for Séance‘s increasingly desperate psychic.
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) – Elizabeth Taylor won her second Oscar for playing the blowzy wife of a history professor (portrayed by her then hubby and frequent co-star Richard Burton) in the big screen version of Edward Albee’s Tony winning play. Liz, still in her early 30s at the time of the film, put on weight and played down her glamorous image in order to become fiftyish Martha. Monroe would have been right at 40 at the time and might have relished the chance to sink her teeth into such a demanding role. Also, given the glimmers of maternal possibilities in Something’s Got to Give, as well as her own reported miscarriages, Monroe could have gone even further than ever imagined in the role of a woman mourning the child she never had.
  • The Graduate (1967) – “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” Who wouldn’t love to see Monroe as Mrs. Robinson, the classic role inhabited by Oscar nominee Anne Bancroft? When Bancroft played the character of middle-aged Mrs. Robinson, she was only 36 or so–only 6 years older than Dustin Hoffman in the role of Benjamin Braddock (he played younger; she played older). Monroe was 5 years older than Bancroft (11 years older than Hoffman) and would have been over 40 if she had played the role, which seems about right. Doris Day reportedly turned down the sexy, edgy part, but, again, since she and Monroe were reportedly considered for some of the same roles, it would have made sense for Monroe to have also been considered.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – Louise Fletcher won great acclaim and, yes, a Best Actress Oscar, for her take on the villainous Nurse Ratched in the famous movie version of Ken Kesey’s counter-culture classic set in a mental hospital. At the time of the film’s release, critics praised Fletcher for not playing Ratched as an obvious monster but as a chillingly soulless woman whose soft spoken, yet firm, demeanor made her seem even more threatening.  Hmmmm…consider all the possibilities as Monroe–who would have been 49 by that time–draws upon that petal soft voice from her youth, albeit with a slight edge, to a whole new effect.
  • Dressed to Kill (1980) – Angie Dickinson was in her 40s when she played the sexually frustrated wife (and mother) who has an active fantasy life and enjoys a torrid one night stand with a complete stranger–all the while being stalked by a crazed killer. Monroe would have been in her 50s, perhaps a little too old to play the mother of a teen whiz kid (played by Keith Gordon), but adjusting the script from a high schooler to a college student would not have been a big deal. Of course, Dressed to Kill, written and directed by Brian de Palma,  is not everyone’s cup of tea. It was considered shockingly violent in its day–and perhaps it still is. Dickinson is a stunner in the part and conveys a lot of emotion in a role with minimal dialogue. Again, MM would certainly know how to play to the camera in order to make this happen, and even though it’s a well known fact that Dickinson used a body double for selected shots in the opening shower sequence (De Palma’s nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho), the very idea of a prolonged sequence with Monroe in a shower–even with a body double–tantalizes the imagination.

Well, those are some of my thoughts. I guess if Monroe had continued acting, she might have guest-starred on such TV shows as Fantasy Island and Love Boat, just as many other stars from the old Hollywood studio era often did in the 1970s and 1980s.  Maybe Monroe would have found a whole new career playing, say, sensuous, man-hungry Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls (sorry, Rue). Who wouldn’t want to see a still luscious, if aging, Monroe square off against Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Estelle Getty? Maybe MM could have even played White’s  easily confused Rose Nyland. Certainly, she’d had experience playing dizzy dames in the past.  Like Taylor, Monroe might have had luck reinventing herself as a cosmetics and toiletries maven with her own line of products seen in infomercials and on the Home Shopping Network. Who knows….perhaps some of the biggest and brightest directors (Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and Woody Allen to name a few) might have created wonderful characters just for her.  Maybe Tennessee Williams would have been inspired to write one last passionate–if fading–Southern belle for her as well.

Oh, Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn, maybe we should not even contemplate what might have been if only…maybe we should treasure you just the way you were and forever will be…

Thanks, Marilyn…

Thanks, Norma Jean…

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