Marilyn Takes TCM to the Jungle

US fans, take note: The Asphalt Jungle is on TCM tonight at 5:45 pm (EST.) Over at his 24 Frames blog, John Greco looks back on how the ultimate heist movie broke all the rules of star-making…

“[John] Huston cast the film with an excellent group of actors. For Sterling Hayden, this was his first leading role in a major film. Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen were known entities but lacked marquee strength. Marilyn Monroe was still a starlet in what was essentially her first substantial part in a major film. She was not even Huston’s first choice for the role; he originally wanted Lola Albright. Monroe does not have much screen time as the young plaything to the sleazeball lawyer but she manages to make a big impression with her limited exposure, and she looks great.”

Beaton’s Marilyn in the Sotheby Archive

The Sotheby’s blog takes a look at Cecil Beaton’s extraordinary portraits of Marilyn today. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive is located at the London auction house.

“Cecil Beaton had only one shoot with Marilyn Monroe, which took place at the Ambassador Hotel in New York in February 1956. The actress turned up at his suite 90 minutes late and in his diary Beaton admitted that he was: ‘startled, then disarmed, by her lack of inhibition’.

Marilyn shot to fame playing dumb yet witty blondes in films … Beaton acknowledged that while it was likely ‘press agentry or manufactured illusion’ that had helped her find success, it was ‘her own weird genius that [had] sustained her flight’ .

Prophetically, his diary entry ends, ‘It will probably end in tears’.”

Celebrating Marilyn: Queen of Burlesque

Photo by John Florea, 1953

As Marilyn’s birthday month draws to a close, here’s a look back at ‘The Burlesque of Marilyn Monroe‘, an insightful tribute from author and vaudeville historian Trav S.D.

“Monroe’s persona was an invention, an act of self-creation. From a poverty stricken, neglected background, she went on to transform herself into the ultimate symbol of luxury (‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’).

Monroe was never in burlesque but as she began to develop her screen persona and gradually got more attention, burlesque comedy was the natural touchstone for her talents … Later comedies and musical comedies all riff on the idea of her either as the comically ‘dumb blonde’ and/or some degree of burlesque style glamour.

While she is usually cast as a wide-eyed innocent who was vulnerable and easily taken advantage of, on occasion, she went against type as a psycho or femme fatale … Most of her work as a print model gives off this quality as well, and I frankly find her far more beguiling and alluring in photographs than her film work … but even that could revert to burlesque.

And yet we all know, the story of Marilyn Monroe is ultimately a tragedy rather than a burlesque sketch. She spent all this time creating an artificial self, and then became trapped in a reality where people could only see that creation …”

Beauty Queens: Garbo and Monroe

Over at the Watch More Movies blog, there’s an interesting post about Greta Garbo and her influence on Marilyn – with a special focus on their makeup styles. (Marilyn told one interviewer that she never missed a Garbo film on television, while Susan Strasberg mentioned Marilyn ‘doing her Garbo eyes’ for nights on the town.)

“Often when people talk about Marilyn Monroe’s predecessors, they can’t seem to get past her fluffy blonde hair. They draw endless parallels to Jean Harlow, with whom she shares little more than a hair color. Monroe herself idolized Garbo. And it shows if you’re looking for it.

All together, the lazy/sexy ideal is embodied by both women. Where Monroe usually infused this spirit into dizzy comedic roles, Garbo primarily put it to use playing women of mystery. Suffice it to say, both stars have reached an iconic status at least in part because their roles were intertwined so cleverly with their respective public images.

I look to Monroe’s eye makeup as the dead giveaway. Monroe and her makeup artist, Whitey Snyder, created much the same shapes but with gentler lines.

When Garbo first emerged with her long bob, it was admired by fans, but magazine writers were quick to point out that this was unflatteringly long and advised that only Garbo could pull it off. Likewise, Monroe was put down in the press for her too-long unstylish hair–some journalists even comparing her to a dog. (The ideal then being closer to Elizabeth Taylor’s neatly coiffed short curls.) Funny that both styles are considered almost universally flattering today.

According to Katharine Cornell, when Garbo was considering a return to the screen she wanted to star alongside Monroe. Garbo confided that she wanted to play Dorian Gray with Monroe as Sibyl Vane. If you’re queer-hearted like myself (and Garbo) it’s devastating that we never got that film.

I suppose I’ll sign off now with tears in my eyes for what could have been and for the mutual appreciation that Marilyn Monroe probably never knew about.”

The Goddess Paradox: From Marilyn to Beyoncé

Reviewing Beyoncé’s recent Coachella performance for Vox, Constance Grady argues that the singer is a truly iconic star because she embodies and resolves a specific problem of our time, with an interesting reference to Marilyn:

“One of the things that separates a star who will fade from an icon who will last is this: Icons can reconcile a major cultural paradox through the power of their images. A star is a person onto whom the rest of us project all of our fantasies and fears, so when the star is able to resolve one of those fears, to make us feel that it is meaningless and insignificant just for as long as we’re looking at them, we love them for it. We turn them into icons.

Marilyn Monroe is the prime example here. Marilyn was both pure sex and pure innocence at once, in a time that was profoundly anxious about sex and women’s bodies. You didn’t need to be worried about whether sex was corrupt or dirty when you looked at Marilyn because she made sex feel innocent just by existing as Marilyn.

Today, you might think of Angelina Jolie, who is both a sex symbol and a mother figure, or Oprah, who is both our wise, empathetic, and selfless best friend and a brilliant businesswoman mogul: They have resolved a contradiction that we don’t like, and because of that, we love them.

The Bey Paradox does the kind of work that made Marilyn Monroe an icon. It takes one of the major questions our culture frets over — Should women be naturally beautiful/good at their work/perfect in general? Or should they take pride in working hard and earning their perfection? — and it answers, yes. Both. Natural perfection and high-maintenance perfectionism, both at the same time.

Beyoncé dreams it and works hard, and then she wakes up flawless. That’s what makes her Queen Bey.”

Marilyn, Billy and the Fabulous Fifties

As part of an ongoing series for The Guardian, Wendy Ide names the 1950s as her favourite decade in film.

“Marilyn Monroe was the blond bombshell of choice – although for a while it looked as though Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) might be a contender – and became a global icon. Hers was a career that played out almost entirely during the 50s. A supporting role in All About Eve led to a studio contract and a star-making double whammy of Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Highlights of her decade, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, saw her teamed with director Billy Wilder …”

And over at Film School Rejects, Will DiGravio argues that the comedy classic, alongside other greats like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Hawks’ Rio Bravo, makes 1959 the best year in movies.

“Today, it seems as though many know Monroe only for her beauty, not as the greatest comedic actress of all time. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are hilarious in the film as two musicians pretending to be women in order to play with a female band in Florida and escape the Chicago mob after they witness a murder. Yet, their performances pale in comparison to Monroe’s, whose comedic timing and delivery is so effortless it is easy to under-appreciate her brilliance.”

When Marilyn Broke the Silence

In the wake of recent revelations about sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn has often been mentioned in discussions about the ‘casting couch’. Unfortunately, much of this coverage has been inaccurate, depicting Marilyn as either a passive victim or somehow complicit.

A new article by Sean Braswell for OZY takes a different perspective, praising Marilyn as ‘Hollywood’s first big silence-breaker.’ Braswell cites the story of Marilyn turning down a pass from Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as well as her 1953 piece for Motion Picture magazine, ‘Wolves I Have Known.’

“In the years after her death, Monroe’s biographers, largely men, tended to ignore the star’s silence-breaking role, preferring to focus instead on the more salacious details of her personal life and the rumors that she slept her way to the top. Nor did Monroe, while she was alive, think of herself as a social reformer or a trailblazer for women’s rights. As the singer Ella Fitzgerald, a good friend of Monroe’s, once reflected about the screen legend: ‘She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times, and she didn’t know it.'”

Braswell also refers to authors Michelle Morgan and Sarah Churchwell, both of whom have done excellent work in recent years to address the sexist presumptions of earlier biographers. ‘Marilyn was really one of the first big stars to speak out about what we would now call sexual harassment,’ says Churchwell. ‘She was talking about a culture in which women were unsafe [and] her whole point was to say this happens over and over and over.’

Unfortunately, Braswell is on shakier ground when he uses ‘off the record’ quotes. For example, he quotes her saying in an interview before her death, ‘When I started modeling, [sex] was like part of the job … and if you didn’t go along, there were twenty-five girls who would.’ Braswell also states that Marilyn wrote ‘You know that when a producer calls an actress into his office to discuss a script, that isn’t all he has in mind. I’ve slept with producers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t,’ in her 1954 memoir, My Story – but that line doesn’t appear in any version of the text.

In fact, both quotes are taken from an alleged conversation with writer Jaik Rosenstein, published in Anthony Summers’ 1985 biography, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe.  Summers claims that Marilyn had known Rosenstein for years, and she trusted him not to write about it at the time. Whether or not Rosenstein is a reliable source, it should be made clear that Marilyn did not say them for publication.

‘The Misfits’: When Marilyn Did a 180

Greg Ferrara cites Marilyn’s performance in The Misfits as a prime example of an actor expanding their range and exceeding expectations, in an article for Filmstruck.

“It’s obviously a tragedy in countless ways that we lost Monroe so soon but adding to that tragedy is the fact that her performance in THE MISFITS showed she was ready to move into middle age and take on roles outside of what studio executives thought of her. It was already clear that Monroe could play a wide range long before this, but THE MISFITS really put into perspective just how wide-ranging her future career would be. This one hurts more than most because it shows so much potential without leading to anything else.”

Insignificant Others: Nicolas Roeg and Marilyn

Insignificance, the 1985 fantasy imagining a meeting between Marilyn, Einstein and other icons of 1950s America, is ranked sixth among director Nicolas Roeg’s thirteen films, in an article by Shane Scott-Travis for Taste of Cinema.

“These recognizable popular culture figures, in typical Roeg fashion, riff on grandiose ideas and floundering emotions. What begins as trivial digressions gains momentum and significance, buoyed by stellar performances (like Tony Curtis’s Senator McCarthy, witch-hunting endlessly in his mind, or Theresa Russell’s Monroe, who, despite her ditzy dilettante routine can still teach Einstein a thing or two about relativity).

On the surface Insignificance may not be the exacting pedigree of Roeg’s recognized masterpieces, but it’s still a vast, ingenious allegory on fame, life, love, obsession, jealousy, and substantially so much more.”