How Norma Jeane Inspired ‘Blonde’

With the Netflix adaptation of Blonde now in production, Joyce Carol Oates tells Crime Reads that it was originally conceived on a more modest scale – and while this epic novel has its admirers, others may wish it had stayed that way. (The photo above shows Norma Jeane aged 17 or 18. Oates was inspired by a picture of her at 16, but doesn’t say which one. As there aren’t many photos of Norma Jeane at 16 apart from her wedding portraits, I’ve chosen this one as it seems to capture the hopeful innocence that first caught Oates’ eye.)

“I saw a very touching photograph of Norma Jeane Baker taken when she was 16—brunette, pretty but not glamorous, very sweet & hopeful—looking—not unlike my mother & girls with whom I went to school many years ago. Girls whose great hope was to be loved—married, & to have children. I felt such sympathy for her, who would be dead in twenty years, as an American ‘icon’—who made millions of dollars for others (men) but not so much for herself. The project began as a short novel, a post-Modernist ironic tragedy that would end with Norma Jeane’s new name: ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ But when I came to this ending, I saw that the great story lay ahead—& reconstituted the material as an epic, with many sub-themes that allowed me to explore obsessions of the era, particularly Cold War politics.”

House Passes Marilyn’s Post Office Bill

Norma Jeane by Bruno Bernard, 1946

Plans to name a Van Nuys Boulevard office after Marilyn, proposed by local representative Tony Cardenas, were approved by the House this week. The bill, which also requests for another post office to be named after musician Ritchie Valens, will now go to the Senate for further consideration. (The young Norma Jeane Baker lived in Van Nuys with her legal guardian, Grace Goddard. She was a student at Van Nuys High School, and later returned to the area with her first husband, Jim Dougherty.)

“Marilyn Monroe was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Van Nuys and attended Van Nuys High school. She grew up poor and bounced around orphanages as a child. Back then, the chances of a poor woman like Marilyn Monroe becoming a national success and musical legend was nearly impossible.

But she beat the odds.

Despite her turbulent childhood, Marilyn Monroe found stability and joy while living in Van Nuys. Her hard work and perseverance led her to become a timeless internationally recognized icon. In a world where many believe wealth, status, or name determines one’s destiny, Marilyn Monroe’s story defies the odds and inspires many others to believe they too can also achieve similar success.

She showed us that dreaming big and working hard means something in America. She went off to become an artistic trailblazer starring in her own movies and setting records during her singing career.”

Van Nuys News Press

‘Blondes’ Preferred On the London Stage

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Broadway musical which Marilyn brought to the big screen in 1953, is currently being revived at London’s Union Theatre, as Julia Rank reports for The Stage.

“It’s less astringent than Anita Loos’ 1925 novel and inevitably it feels dated, but mostly in a charming way (the dirty-old man character notwithstanding). The plot is lightweight in the extreme … but the tunes are catchy and the characters exude moxie.

As Lorelei, Abigayle Honeywill pleasingly doesn’t give a breathy Monroe impression. She has more in common with Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. With a speaking voice that could strip paint, Lorelei isn’t exactly endearing, but ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in context does show why such materialism is a valid survival method.”

When Marilyn Met Marlene

Founded in 1969, Andy Warhol’s Interview was the magazine to be seen in for nearly forty years. Although it ceased publication last year, Interview still has an online presence and earlier this week, a snippet from the past was discovered.

“As a notable admirer of Marilyn Monroe’s, Andy Warhol was sure to get some of the juiciest gossip in his celebrity circle. While he was still Editor-in-Chief of Interview, alongside Paul Morissey and Fred Hughes, he buried a drama bomb of information in the ‘Small Talk’ section of the June 1973 issue involving Marlene Dietrich and M.M herself. However, not one of the contributing editors took credit for the gossip; they instead chose to keep the source anonymous … According to the ‘Small Talk’ column, Dietrich attended a screening of one of Monroe’s earlier films and talked through every one of her scenes, mumbling: ‘So this is what they want now. This is what they call sexy.'”

Marlene Dietrich by Eve Arnold, 1952

Eve Arnold, who photographed Marlene at work in a recording studio for Esquire magazine in 1952, recalled that when she later met Marilyn, the subject of Dietrich came up:
“Marilyn asked – with that mixture of naïveté and self-promotion that was uniquely hers – ‘If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you could do with me?'”

Mariene Dietrich by Milton Greene, 1952

Another photographer who worked with Dietrich was Milton Greene, who later became Marilyn’s business partner. In 1955, he invited Marlene to a New York press conference to announce the formation of their new company, Marilyn Monroe Productions.

Like all stars (Marilyn included), Dietrich was naturally competitive. But although she may have briefly ‘thrown shade’ in Marilyn’s direction – to use a term that didn’t exist back then – there’s no sign of any rancour between them in these photographs.

In 1957, Marilyn was offered the lead role in a remake of The Blue Angel, which had made Marlene a global star many years before. That never came to pass, but a year later, Marilyn would recreate the character in her ‘Fabled Enchantresses’ photo session with Richard Avedon, although out of respect for Dietrich, she later asked the photographer to withdraw the images and they were not made public until long after Marilyn died.

Marilyn poses as Marlene for photographer Richard Avedon, 1958

Marilyn would take a leaf out of Marlene’s playbook again in 1962, asking costumer Jean Louis to recreate the beaded ‘nude’ dress he had made for Dietrich to wear during nightclub performances. Monroe’s version became immortalised that May, when she sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

Whatever Marlene’s initial thoughts on Marilyn may have been, she would remember her admiringly, writing in her 1987 memoir: “Marilyn Monroe was an authentic sex symbol, because not only was she ‘sexy’ by nature but she also liked being one – and she showed it.”

‘Yours Retro’ Names Marilyn as No. 1 Movie Icon

A special edition of Yours Retro magazine, 100 Greatest Movie Icons, is now available in the UK – and Marilyn tops the list! Her Monkey Business co-star Cary Grant takes second place, with Bette Davis (All About Eve) coming 7th, Sir Laurence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl) 18th, Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) 19th, and Clark Gable (The Misfits) 20th. Ginger Rogers (also in Monkey Business) is at #29, Jack Lemmon (also in Some Like It Hot) at #32, Lauren Bacall (How to Marry a Millionaire) at #36, Robert Mitchum (River Of No Return) at #46, Donald O’Connor (There’s No Business Like Show Business) at #58, and Mickey Rooney (The Fireball) is 60th. Bringing up the rear are Montgomery Clift (also in The Misfits) at #73, Claudette Colbert (Let’s Make It Legal) at #87, and last but not least, the great Barbara Stanwyck (Clash By Night) is ranked 90th.

Of all Marilyn’s illustrious co-stars, her good friends Jane Russell (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Betty Grable (How to Marry a Millionaire) are perhaps the most notable omissions. Marilyn’s 3-page spread is only slightly marred by a couple of misattributed quotes (can you spot them?) Overall, though, it’s a great read for lovers of classic film. Interestingly, The Prince and the Showgirl – which features one of Marilyn’s best performances, but is often neglected – is named here among her top 5 movie highlights. Yours Retro: 100 Greatest Movie Icons is available now from UK newsagents, or to order online from Great Magazines.

Candles in the Wind: From Norma Jeane to England’s Rose

In his new memoir, Me, Elton John explains his decision to rework ‘Candle in the Wind’, his 1973 hit song about Marilyn, which he performed at Westminster Abbey for the state funeral of his friend Princess Diana in 1997.

“A couple of days after Diana’s death, Richard Branson called me. He told me when people signed the book of condolence at St James’s Palace, a lot of them were writing down quotations from the lyrics of ‘Candle In The Wind’. Apparently, it was being played a lot on the radio as well.

He asked if I’d be prepared to rewrite the lyrics and sing it at the funeral. I think he’d been contacted by the Spencer family, because they felt the funeral should be something that people would really connect to.

So I called Bernie [Taupin], who’d written the original lyrics. He was fantastic: he acted as if writing a song that the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to check through first was all in a day’s work and faxed the altered lyrics over the next morning.

I insisted on having a teleprompter by the piano, with Bernie’s new lyrics on it. Up until then, I’d been against their use … But this time, I relaxed the rules. It was a unique experience. There was a sense in which it was the biggest gig of my life — for four minutes, I was literally going to be the centre of the world’s attention — but equally, it wasn’t an Elton John moment, it wasn’t about me at all …  I wasn’t suffering from stage fright, more a very specific fear: What if I went into autopilot and sang the wrong version?

I’d performed ‘Candle In The Wind’ hundreds of times. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might lose myself in the performance, forget about the teleprompter and start singing the original lyrics. How bad would it be if I did that? Appalling. Huge chunks of the lyrics were completely inappropriate for the occasion. You’d have a hard time bluffing your way out of singing about Marilyn Monroe being found dead in the nude, or how your feelings were something more than sexual, at a state funeral.

After the funeral, I went straight to a studio in Shepherd’s Bush, where George Martin was waiting: they were going to release the new version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ as a single to raise money for a charity set up in Diana’s name. I sang it twice and went home.

That was when I finally broke down. I hadn’t felt able to show emotion all day. I’d had a job to do, and how I felt about Diana’s death might have interfered with my ability to do it.

The funeral version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ became the biggest-selling single since the charts began. There was part of me that couldn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it. Under what circumstances would you play it? I never did. I listened back to it once at the studio to OK the mix and that was it: never again.

In the end, I started feeling really uncomfortable with the single’s longevity … The Diana version of ‘Candle In The Wind’ has never been included on any Greatest Hits album I’ve put out, and it’s never been re-released. I’ve always tried to avoid the topic with journalists. It wasn’t that I wanted to forget it — or her. I just wanted life to get back to some semblance of normality.”

Daily Mail

Biopic Stars: Marilyn, Judy, Gloria

As a new Judy Garland biopic is released, Inkoo Kang looks at how classic female entertainers are portrayed, over at Slate. Her analysis is interesting, though I would argue that ageing is not as central to My Week With Marilyn (set at the peak of her career) as it is to Judy and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (another recent biopic of a neglected screen icon, Gloria Grahame), which are both set at the end of the womens’ lives. In fact, the strongest link between all three subjects might be their loneliness.

“It’s obvious enough why Judy and company keep getting made … [Michelle] Williams used her portrayal as Monroe to play against type, injecting a dose of flirty, cunning sexuality into her screen image and earning herself a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in the process … These films do revise the public images of their titular characters in meaningful ways … Monroe—still considered the ultimate dumb blonde in too many circles—is reclaimed as a serious actress with lofty ambitions.

But these films are also, by design, not as empathetic toward their subjects as they could be. Each movie is too enamored of its legend, of her talent and beauty, to acknowledge that her circumstances and pathologies aren’t exceptional but widely shared, borne largely of gendered inequality: unequal pay, imbalance of power, public hypersexualization, and the fast-approaching or long-past expiration date on her usefulness to Hollywood. It’s likely not a coincidence that all three movies are set in England, far from where any Hollywood star ostensibly should be …

But if the film industry’s #MeToo movement has reminded us of anything, it’s that, even in Hollywood, women’s experiences of pressure and discrimination aren’t so much unusual as devastatingly similar. Too many women lived in silence and shame, believing that their encounters were unique, or even that the abuse was somehow their fault, but after the dam broke, we understood how many of these stories were practically interchangeable, no matter the stars’ wattage, or whether they were stars at all.

But by failing to account for the unfortunate commonness of their fates, at least within the entertainment industry, the movies of this genre tend to become opportunities to focus morbidly and myopically on the self-destructive habits of a flailing figure, rather than understand the larger context that gave rise to her. The individual struggle of a Garland, Monroe, or Grahame may be inherently interesting in tight close-up, but these movies would be more revealing if they zoomed out a little to show the fuller picture.”

Diahann Carroll 1935-2019

Diahann Carroll by Milton Greene, 1962

Diahann Carroll, the pioneering African-American singer and actress, has died aged 84 after a long battle with cancer. She was born in the Bronx, and studied at the LaGuardia High School for Music and Arts before modelling for Ebony magazine at fifteen. She later attended New York University, majoring in sociology.

At eighteen, she got her big break as a contestant on TV’s Chance of a Lifetime, where her performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Why Was I Born’ began a four-week victory lap. She then worked as a nightclub singer, making her film debut opposite Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954.) She later appeared in Paris Blues (1961), a jazz film produced by photographer Sam Shaw. Originally offered to Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, the lead roles were played by Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward.

In 1962, Diahann was part of the all-star line-up performing at Madison Square Garden in a birthday tribute to President John F. Kennedy. She met Marilyn backstage, and also sang for guests at the gala’s after-party. (In 2016, Diahann would host an opening party for Some Like It Hot, an exhibition featuring Milton Greene’s photos of Marilyn.)

“‘It was a very exciting night. Everybody in the world was there,’ Diahann remembered. ‘Marilyn was hysterical, but very good. It was good to watch her at work. I think we all enjoyed it.’ As for Kennedy, ‘he was extremely pleasant,’ she said. ‘He was a very entitled human being, but you had to forgive him for that.’

Diahann Carroll was previously interviewed by J. Randy Taraborrelli for his 2009 book, The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, telling him of her first encounter with MM in 1960, while singing at the Mocambo Club in Los Angeles.

Diahann was then pregnant with her daughter Suzanne, and knew of Marilyn’s struggle to have children. “I took her hand and put it on my stomach and said, ‘You pat right there, sweetheart, and say a prayer and a wish, and I hope with all my heart that your dream comes true.’ She looked at me with tears in her eye, and said, ‘Oh, I do, too. I do, too.’”

They met again in Mac Krim’s apartment in 1962. ‘It’s certainly her beauty I remember most,’ she told Taraborrelli. ‘As I sang, I distinctly remember being somewhat distracted by her gaze. Her tragic beauty, so vulnerable … so lost.’”

ES Updates
Marilyn watches Diahann performing at the JFK gala after-party in 1962

In 1969, Diahann won a Golden Globe for her role as a widowed nurse in Julia, a television sitcom which ran for three seasons. Back on the big screen, she would earn an Oscar nomination for the romantic comedy Claudine (1974), playing a struggling single mother.

Her later TV roles included the glamorous Dominique Devereaux on TV’s Dynasty and its spin-off, The Colbys. She joined an all-black cast in the acclaimed Eve’s Bayou (1997), and recreated Gloria Swanson’s role as fading star Norma Desmond in a Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s stage musical based on Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

Her four husbands included singer Vic Damone, and she was also romantically linked to Sidney Poitier and David Frost. She was a founding member of the Celebrity Action Council, a volunteer group serving vulnerable women in Los Angeles.

With Joshua Greene at the Some Like It Hot exhibit in West Hollywood, 2016

Margot Robbie’s Diamond Moment

Having recently starred as Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, Margot Robbie is no stranger to playing iconic blondes. Now, as she reprises her Harley Quinn role in the forthcoming Birds of Prey, the trailer includes a brief homage to Marilyn’s ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as Dirk Libbey reports for Cinemablend.

“While the context of the shots in the trailer are not clear, as seen in the image above, we see Margot Robbie’s Harley apparently singing and dancing. She’s dressed elegantly, not Harley’s usual style, and has backup dancers, who look like comic book villain thugs, of course. 

There isn’t much of an explanation in the trailer as to how this sequence fits into the larger story. We see Harley Quinn, apparently being beat-up, likely tortured for information, drop her head, and then we see her raise her head in her Marilyn Monroe inspired outfit. If these two shots really are in sequence in the film, and not just in the trailer, then the musical number could be a sort of mental escape for Quinn since she doesn’t like the place where she is in real life.

Since Harley Quinn is supposed to be ‘crazy’ we could potentially see multiple moments like this where the character’s reality and fantasy get more than a little blurry. Will this musical interlude just be a dive into Harley’s psyche that includes a dance number or is there more going on here?”