As Renee Zellweger brings Judy Garland back to the big screen, Indiewire’s writers have compiled a chronological list of the 12 Best Biopic Performances. Marilyn has been portrayed in numerous films and TV shows, but the results have rarely risen above the mediocre; partly because Marilyn is so distinctive (and familiar) that playing her convincingly would stump even the most gifted actress, but also because the scripts are so often inaccurate and sensationalized. I might have expected Michelle Williams’ award-winning turn in My Week With Marilyn (2011) to make the list, but blogger Kristen Lopez (Journeys in Classic Film) has chosen Kelli Garner’s performance in the TV mini-series, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015) instead. While Kelli managed quite well in her role, I would argue that the poor material undid her best efforts (you can read my review here.)
“I watch a lot of biopics, particularly those of the classic film era variety. And I’m often the first to admit how wrong they are. But whenever the question comes up about who gives the best performance in a biopic I always point to Kelli Garner’s turn as Marilyn Monroe in the underappreciated Lifetime movie, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. (Yes, it was on Lifetime, but no one stipulated these had to be theatrical.) Under the direction of Sherrybaby director Laurie Collyer, Garner’s portrayal of Monroe isn’t focused on the surface gimmicks of the actress as we know her. The physical resemblance between the two women is uncanny, but what Garner does is show how much of Monroe’s persona was an act. She inhabits the woman, not the actress, in a movie that wants to break down the myths and the wall that has been built up as part of the cult of Monroe. I don’t care who knows this, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe will always be my go-to best biopic.”
A staged reading of Marilyn, Mom & Me – Luke Yankee’s new play about Marilyn’s “intense but short-lived” friendship with his mother, actress Eileen Heckart, during filming of Bus Stop (1956) – will be held at the Stella Adler Theatre in Los Angeles on October 16th. Another reading will follow at the Manhattan Theatre Club rehearsal space in New York on January 19th, 2020. Alisha Soper, briefly glimpsed in Feud: Bette and Joan (2017), will play Marilyn. A seasoned playwright, director and teacher of acting, Luke Yankee is also the author of Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up With Eileen Heckart(2006), now available in paperback and via Kindle.
“Like two strangers linked by fate on a Greyhound bus, the unlikely personal and professional friendship that developed between vulnerable, lost and emotionally needy Marilyn Monroe and crusty, maternal, no-nonsense Eileen Heckart on the western rodeo set of Bus Stop has now been preserved in amber by Luke Yankee as a stirring footnote to movie history you won’t want to miss. It’s a funny, dark, heartbreaking and unforgettable new play that wraps you in cashmere. Marilyn, Mom & Me is devastating!”
As Eve Arnold’s first Italian retrospective opens at the Casa-Museo Villa Bassi in Abano Terme, Padua (see here), her iconic portrait of Marilyn graces the cover of Italian magazine Art e Dossier‘s October issue.
A live reading of Some Like It Hot will be hosted by Feminist Live Reads on October 1st at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, during this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), as Janet Smith reports for The Georgia Straight. (Incidentally, the poster art shows not Marilyn but Sandra Warner, who was part of Sweet Sue’s Band. She stood in for Marilyn who was unavailable on the day of the photo shoot.)
“The film is as groundbreakingly fluid about its genre as it is about gender—opening as a mafia chase movie before Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon go undercover as women to hide with an all-female jazz orchestra led by Sugar Kane (Marilyn herself).
‘Some Like It Hot is one of my favourite movies, actually,’ says Vancouver actor Katie Findlay (best-known for the ABC series How to Get Away With Murder), speaking to the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home. ‘My dad only watches movies made before 1960.’
‘I’ve always wanted to be handsome and dashing and morally questionable,’ she enthuses about reading the part of Tony Curtis, who essentially plays three parts: Joe, the jazz musician who witnesses a mafia shootout with his buddy; Josephine, a female jazz musician in disguise; and Junior, a faux millionaire who woos Sugar and sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant. ‘People seem to have trouble with women being more than one thing. And I get to do a Cary Grant impression!’
It helps that her bestie Kacey Rohl (who stars in VIFF 2019 movie White Lie) is reading Jack Lemmon’s role; they’ve watched Some Like It Hot many times together.
In this era of #MeToo and talk of consent, Findlay sees the ongoing relevance of Wilder’s film. When Curtis and Lemmon become women, they’re suddenly the target of a lot of unwanted attention. ‘As a movie I think it has female consciousness; it’s aware of how a woman feels,’ Findlay observes of the male characters facing constant harrassment once they take on female personas.
Adding to the experience, [Chandler] Levack reads stage directions on-stage while local songstress Jill Barber brings to life some of Monroe’s iconic songs from Some Like It Hot ( ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ ).”
Film historian Rudy Behlmer has died aged 92, Varietyreports.
“Behlmer was among the most widely respected historians of Golden Age Hollywood, in part because of his insistence upon researching ‘primary source material’ and not relying on faulty memories or exaggerated press accounts of the time.
Memo From David O. Selznick, which Behlmer edited from thousands of Selznick’s private letters, telegrams and memoranda, was a best seller in 1972. Behlmer first interviewed the Gone With the Wind producer for a 1963 article for Films in Review, one of dozens of magazine pieces he wrote over the decades.
Other books followed: Hollywood’s Hollywood: The Movies About the Movies (with co-author Tony Thomas, 1975), Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951 (1985), Behind the Scenes: The Making Of… (1989) and Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck (1993).
But essays and journalism were only part of Behlmer’s life. He enjoyed a lively and successful career in television and advertising throughout the 1950s and ’60s … He was director on ABC’s Ray Anthony Show, featuring the big-band leader and his orchestra, during the 1956-57 season, and served as executive producer and director for KCOP from 1960 to 1963, overseeing various shows including his own Movies’ Golden Age. “
InMemo From Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox, which is still in print after a quarter of a century, Behlmer offered insights into Marilyn’s prickly relationship with her studio boss, including this letter he sent to her North Crescent Drive address in December 1951, regarding her leading role in Don’t Bother to Knock and her insistence on having her dramatic coach Natasha Lytess on the set. (This was a battle Zanuck ultimately lost: Natasha continued working with Marilyn – much to the annoyance of her co-workers – until she was replaced by Paula Strasberg in 1956.)
“… I think you are capable of playing this role without the help of anyone but the director and yourself. You have built up a Svengali and if you are going to progress with your career and become as important talent-wise as you have publicity-wise then you must destroy this Svengali before it destroys you. When I cast you for the role I cast you as an individual …”
This memo from September 1952 reveals Zanuck’s vision for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Marilyn would play Lorelei to Jane Russell’s Dorothy – making clear that he recognised how crucial their friendship was to the movie. (This memo was addressed to producer Sol Siegel, director Howard Hawks and writer Charles Lederer.)
“There are two things which I consider vital to the telling of the story, and which I want to emphasise in the script. These are (1) The love story between Dorothy and Malone [Elliott Reid]; (2) Dorothy’s genuine affection for Lorelei.
This is not a satire. It is a solid and honest comedy … We must be completely sold on Dorothy’s love for Malone, or we won’t be able to accept her taking him back. And we must be sold on her real affection for Lorelei or we won’t be able to understand her sticking her neck out for her in the courtroom scene.
In order to accomplish these two things we must be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice comedy in these particular scenes …”
In March 1953, Zanuck contacted writer Nunnally Johnson, director Jean Negulesco and others involved with How to Marry a Millionaire, to express his satisfaction at how CinemaScope technology was enhancing the movie.
“… Almost in all instances the composition has been vastly improved over previous material. The full figure shot of [Lauren] Bacall on the bed and the big closeup filling the screen of Monroe were unique examples of the new medium.
I am still opposed to too much camera movement. I fully believe that while we have to occasionally move the camera we should put the emphasis on moving the actors …”
In 1954, Zanuck mooted the idea of a torrid biblical epic, The Queen of Sheba. It was never made, although United Artists would later produce Solomon and Sheba, starring Gina Lollobrigida.
“In a nutshell, this should be the story of a glamorous but evil temptress … As you know, confidentially, I have even flirted with the idea of Marilyn Monroe as Sheba. I think it might be one of the biggest box-office combinations of all time …”
And in 1955, Zanuck revealed that he had been offered I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the sensational biopic about alcoholic singer Lillian Roth, as a potential vehicle for Marilyn (then involved in a contractual dispute with Fox.) After Zanuck passed on it, the film was produced at MGM.
“This is a very interesting, solid, downbeat story and, while it has an outstanding performance by Susan Hayward, I considered it to be overrated … We turned down I’ll Cry Tomorrow, frankly because we were all afraid of the subject matter and of the fact that Lillian Roth was not a really famous personality. [Producer Julian] Blaustein wanted it but only if he could get Marilyn Monroe for the role …”
Zanuck left Fox to become an independent producer in 1956. By the time he returned in 1962, the studio was fighting bankruptcy. Reportedly, it was Zanuck who argued for Marilyn to be re-hired for Something’s Got to Give, although she would pass away before her final studio battle was concluded.
In 1960, columnist Hedda Hopper asked Zanuck why he had left Hollywood. His response makes it clear that he had anticipated the demise of the studio system…
“I just got well fed up with being an executive and no longer being a producer. That’s what the job became. Actors are now directing, writing, producing. Actors have taken over Hollywood completely with their agents. They want approval of everything … scripts, stars, still pictures. The producer hasn’t got a chance to exercise any authority! … What the hell, I’m not going to work with them!”
Three of Marilyn’s movie costumes and a black silk dress she owned are now on display at London’s May Fair Hotel until October 21, ahead of their sale at Julien’s Auctions in November. The hotel will be screening her films and offering a range of Marilyn-themed cocktails, and the exhibit is also featured in the current issue of The Lady. (You can read all my posts on the sale here.)
Plans to bring Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn’, to Palm Springs are now in motion, the Desert Sunreports.
“‘Forever Marilyn,’ the popular 26-foot-tall statue of actress Marilyn Monroe that was on display in downtown Palm Springs from 2012 to 2014, will return to the city permanently, Mayor Robert Moon and Councilman J.R. Roberts said Wednesday. The city has not officially announced Marilyn’s return and has not finalized details on when it expects the statue back and where it may go, but Roberts said both a new downtown park and Town and Country Center were options.
‘Marilyn has become somewhat of an icon for Palm Springs and some love her and some not so much, but at the end of the day she’s become part of our brand,’ Roberts said. ‘And she was discovered here poolside in Palm Springs,’ he added, referring to a legend that she was first scouted by a talent agent in 1949 at Charles Farrell’s Racquet Club compound.
The statue, created by Seward Johnson, first came to Palm Springs as part of a loan arranged by the Sculpture Foundation, an organization the artist founded to promote public art and sculpture. In 2014, the 16.5-ton stainless steel and aluminum sculpture that depicts the screen legend from a scene in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, was shipped to New Jersey for a retrospective on the artist’s work. It was later exhibited in Connecticut and the Australian city of Bendigo.
Since ‘Forever Marilyn’ left, PS Resorts, a nonprofit group that aims to boost tourism in Palm Springs, has been working to bring the Instagrammable icon back to downtown. City Manager David Ready couldn’t confirm exact details about the statue’s cost, but said it was estimated to be more than $1 million. Moon said the city is ‘not putting any funds’ into the acquisition of the statue.
Moon said he knew the idea to locate the state in the center of Town and Country would be controversial. ‘Some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it,’ he said in his State of the City Speech, noting the statue would be several feet higher than the Town and Country roofline.
Since the statue left Palm Springs, various plans have been discussed to bring it back and install it at a temporary location; one proposal would have seen the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians host it at the tribe’s casino at Calle Encilia and Andreas Road. That plan never came to fruition. Another plan is to locate the returning Marilyn in a new downtown park envisioned for a plot across from the Palm Springs Art Museum. The park has been in the works for years but has yet to come to fruition.”
In this 2014 article for Bustle, Anneliese Cooper ranked her favourites among Marilyn’s comedy performances, both on the big screen (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot) and her famous offscreen ‘Monroeisms.’
Over at The Spinoff today, there’s an extract from the New Zealand painter and poet Gregory O’Brien’s latest book, A Song in the Water. The chapter, entitled ‘A Kindness’, details his mother’s memory of attending Marilyn as a young nurse, while she recovered from foot surgery in a London hospital. It’s a touching piece, but there is no record of Marilyn having any surgery during her only visit to England in 1956, when the British press were documenting her every move. (She had injured her foot three years earlier, while filming River of No Return in Canada, but no surgery was necessary.) If Marilyn did have the operation in London, it would surely have impacted the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. Could this be a case of mistaken identity?
“Shortly after returning from a trip to England in March 2012, I was talking with my mother over the telephone, describing an in-flight movie I had watched, My Week with Marilyn – the true story of a young film-maker who had been assigned the task of looking after Marilyn Monroe on location in England sometime during the mid-1950s. My mother took a surprising interest in hearing about the film and then told me about two nights of her life in England presumably around the same time.
Signed up with a reputable nursing agency, my mother had found herself eminently employable in post-war London … She had made the most of the twelve months she had already spent in Britain and even managed to get herself invited to a Royal Garden Party – at that time the Holy Grail of stories-to-send-the-family-back-home.
Until I mentioned the Marilyn Monroe movie, my mother had never before spoken of her employment at a central London hospital – ‘the one where all the Royal Babies were born’, by her recollection. As a contract nurse, she was always being bounced around from hospital to hospital, all over the city, with the same frequency, although for a different set of reasons, that Marilyn Monroe bounded in and out of an assortment of hospital rooms throughout her adult life.
Before being admitted to the patient’s room, my mother was taken to an adjacent office, where the nature of the night’s care was outlined. Her employment had not been arranged through the hospital – this was a separate, private contract. My mother was told that the patient was an American actress, who had earlier in the day received surgery to her feet. She was asked to sign a document or two concerning the assignment, specifically regarding the identity of the young woman in the hospital bed, who had been admitted under an assumed name.
The nature of the surgery, she was told, meant that a considerable amount of pain relief had been prescribed … With the actress as her sole charge for the night, my mother was to ensure the patient was kept warm and as comfortable as possible. If the pain became too much, a duty doctor was to be summoned. She was to remain awake, bedside, to keep an eye on things generally and also to ensure no unauthorised persons entered the room.
… Soon enough she was seated in a comfortable chair close by the bed, staring into the blonde hair of her sleeping charge and surveying, in the half-light, the well-appointed room. It was one of the best in the hospital, with large south-facing windows and good furniture.
When I asked my mother if the woman struck her as beautiful, she said that the actress was, at the time, very famous – although not quite as famous as she would be a few years later. Even my mother, not a frequent movie-goer, had recognised her instantly. She added that the actress’s appearance was perhaps a little ‘artificial’ – a word I had never heard her use before, in any context. My mother could not recall in detail any conversation that passed between them, although she could recall the woman’s sleeping head, her deep, narcotic breathing. To which she added, after further thought: ‘Oh, she was striking, yes, you could say that.’ A slight but significant revision of her earlier appraisal.
At a certain point in the night, with her charge drifting in and out of sleep, my mother herself fell into a deep slumber, from which she did not awaken until the following morning. It must have been 6am. The first thing she noticed was that one of the blankets had been removed from the bed and wrapped neatly around her. During the night, the actress had, with some considerable effort – of this my mother was certain – leaned across and, with great care, tucked her in.
About the second night, my mother had less to say … Early in the shift, my mother diligently handed over the painkillers – a formidable array, she observed, silently – and the requisite glass of water. She remained awake throughout the night, staring with girlish fascination at the face of the actress … With dawn breaking in the trees outside the brick building, a doctor knocked on the door. He told my mother that later in the day the actress was being transferred, as planned, to a private country house.”