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.”

Girlfriends Forever: Marilyn and Jane’s Sister Act

Perhaps more than any other of Marilyn’s major films, the critical reputation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its subversive gender politics has grown in recent years, making it both a perfect satire of fifties femininity, and a strikingly modern sex comedy. Back in 1953, it was a box office smash though deemed mere Hollywood fluff, as Christina Newland notes in ‘Male Critics, Female Friendships on Film,’ over at the BFI blog.

“Even when beloved male auteurs turned their attention to female friendship, their films were often not spared. When it comes to women, objectification is more common than nuance. In Howard Hawks’ classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the gold-digging comedy-musical sees its two showgirls turn men into ineffable fools. But a Time magazine reviewer misses the subtext in order to celebrate what he calls ‘the three-dimensional attractions of its two leading ladies’.”

Meanwhile, in the March issue of the BFI magazine, Sight & Sound (with Greta Gerwig on the cover), Hannah McGill’s article, ‘Sister Act’, takes another look at Blondes alongside other movies featured in next month’s ‘Girlfriends’ season at BFI Southbank (where it’s screening on March 1st, and 11th.)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with its sugar daddies, its greedy women and its dressing-up games, positions its women as clever and dirty, not pure or mysterious; gives them strength specifically through the fact that they prioritise one another over sexual conquests; and plays on the idea that the absorption of stereotypes about women weakens men. The last thing the male characters expect is for Lorelei and Dorothy to team up and outsmart them, because women who look like them are expected to be both disloyal to each other, and unintelligent. ‘I can be smart when it’s important,’ Lorelei notes, ‘but men don’t like it.'”

Sailing the High Seas With Marilyn

The cruise liner which once conveyed Lorelei Lee to Paris is referenced in a major new exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, at the V&A until June. “We can’t talk about these great ships without a trip to the movies, showing how this age has inspired Hollywood,” Tabish Khan writes in his review for Londonist, citing the memorable scene where “Marilyn Monroe clambers out of a porthole in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…”

Of course, Blondes was filmed on dry land – the Fox lot in Hollywood, in fact. In a 2017 post over at the History Scout blog, A.J. Jelonek explored the nautical aspects of Blondes and its lesser-known 1955 sequel, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (in which Jane Russell returned as Dorothy, minus Marilyn.)

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mostly takes place on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. In the 1920s book which the movie is based off of, their ship is the RMS Majestic. By the 1950’s, the Majestic was long gone. Although all the scenes were filmed on sound stages, a ship still had to be cast as the ‘only way to cross.’ Which one would they choose? Depends where you stop the movie.

The first ship you see is a model of the RMS Queen Mary, but look closely. The ship is outfitted with the Mary’s name, stacks, vents, and other details. But her body is unmistakably the RMS Titanic. It’s a nice money-saving idea to reuse a model, and creates a very … interesting ship.

When they dock in France, the following shot is briefly shown … The SS Conte di Savoia, back from the grave?! This ocean liner was bombed in 1943 and sank in shallow waters. In 1945, her burned hull was raised in the hopes of restoring her to some sailing use. When repairs were deemed too costly, she was scrapped in 1950 (source). How is she here then? Probably some stock footage from the late 30’s/early 40’s was used. Still, weird.

In the next shot, the movie fades to a black-topped smokestack whistling its steam horns. Didn’t we just see the funnels were red on top?? Later, when the the ladies sail back to the States, a shot of the RMS Titan Mary appears again. These shots are shown very briefly and [mostly] spaced far apart from each other, which helps to overlook their inconsistencies while watching the movie.”

Happy Birthday, Mister Lemmon

Marilyn with Jack Lemmon (centre) and Tony Curtis in ‘Some Like It Hot’

Jack Lemmon was born on this day in 1925. Today, Hannah Gatward has posted a selection of Lemmon’s best films on the BFI blog – and unsurprisingly, Some Like It Hot is right up there.

“The first of seven films with Billy Wilder, and Lemmon’s most iconic comedic performance. On the run after witnessing the St Valentine’s Day massacre, musicians Jerry (Lemmon) and his partner Joe (Tony Curtis) disguise themselves as women and escape in an all-girls band, befriending Marilyn Monroe’s magnificent Sugar Kane along the way. It’s timeless farcical fun, with every scene expertly executed. One of the film’s greatest joys is the way Lemmon immerses himself into his alter ego Daphne – his enthusiasm is infectious.”

Meanwhile, the ever-popular Some Like It Hot will be screened soon in two very different, yet fitting venues: firstly, at the Pickwick Theater in Chicago’s upscale Park Ridge district on February 13 (the movie’s storyline begins in Chicago); and secondly, at the Brighton Bar in Long Branch, New Jersey on February 14 (Some Like It Hot also features the notorious St Valentine’s Day Massacre as a plot device.)

Marilyn in New York: From Subway Grate to Sutton Place

Over at the Village Voice, Molly Fitzpatrick looks at New York’s many iconic movie locations with blogger Nick Carr (Scouting New York) and Sarah Louise Lilley, a guide for TCM’s On Location tours.

“At times, there was an almost virtual reality–like quality to the experience, when Lilley’s commentary and film clips, cued up to play on overhead monitors when we passed the real-life locations within them, transformed the present-day city seen from the bus windows into a long-lost version of itself … Had Lilley not pointed it out, the subway grate at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue where Marilyn Monroe famously posed in The Seven Year Itch could have been any one of the city’s thousands and thousands more just like it, unglamorously trod on every day by locals and visitors alike.

Sutton Place, as seen in ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’

Both Lilley and Silverman cited Sutton Place Park as their favorite movie landmark on the tour, a tiny, peaceful lookout onto the East River with a stunning view of the Queensboro Bridge … Sutton Place is the swanky, townhouse-lined neighborhood that lies just south of the bridge. ‘The history of New York and the history of film is beautifully interwoven there,’ Lilley says. In the early-twentieth century, the same stretch of East River waterfront was home to not only luxurious apartments with views to match, but poverty-stricken tenements and the gangs who inhabited them, as depicted onscreen in 1937’s Dead End. By 1953, Sutton Place had become the must-have address for the trio of enterprising husband-seekers — Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall — in How to Marry a Millionaire.”

The interior of the Sutton Place South building was recreated in Hollywood – but Marilyn would rent an apartment there in 1956.

Rewriting History: Marilyn, Arthur and #MeToo

In the wake of last year’s revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn’s own experiences have often been cited as historical precedent. While she certainly did experience sexual harassment, it’s notable that she managed to succeed without recourse to the fabled ‘casting couch.’ She resisted Harry Cohn’s advances; was a friend but not a mistress to Joe Schenck; and her relationship with Johnny Hyde was based on real affection. As for Darryl F. Zanuck – perhaps the most significant Hollywood figure in her career – they were never close, and Zanuck himself admitted that Marilyn’s triumphs were of her own creation.

In a new article for the Daily Beast, Maria Dahvana Headley turns her attention to Arthur Miller, claiming that he ‘smeared’ Marilyn and ‘invented the myth of the male witch hunt.’ She begins with his 1952 play, The Crucible, based on the Salem witch trials of 1692, but widely perceived as an allegory for the contemporary ‘red-baiting’ crusade by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which Arthur would later be implicated – but ultimately exonerated.

Arthur and Marilyn first met in 1951, when he was still married. There was a strong attraction between them, and they corresponded intermittently thereafter. Headley is not the first to argue that the adulterous affair between the teenage Abigail Williams and John Proctor might have been inspired by his conflicted feelings for Marilyn – Barbara Leaming also suggested this in her 1999 biography, Marilyn Monroe. Many historians have pointed out that Miller’s depiction of these protagonists is not accurate – Abigail was still a child, and there was no affair with Proctor. This mooted association between Abigail and Marilyn is purely speculative, however, and Miller would hardly be the first playwright to fictionalise events. (For a factual account of the trials, I can recommend Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.)

But Headley goes further still, conflating the story of Arthur rubbing Marilyn’s feet at a Hollywood party (as later told by Marilyn to her acting coach, Natasha Lytess) with an incident noted in the Salem court reports that inspired The Crucible, of Abigail touching Proctor’s hood and then becoming hysterical, crying out that her hands were burning. ‘Women, unless they are very devout and very old, The Crucible tells us, are unreliable and changeable,’ Headley writes. ‘They’re jealous. They’re vengeful. They’re confused about sex and about love. They might, given very little provocation, ruin the life of a good man, and everything else in the world too.’

Headley is on firmer ground with her interpretation of After the Fall, Miller’s 1964 play which featured a self-destructive singer, Maggie, who marries lawyer Quentin – a relationship widely acknowledged to be based on Arthur’s marriage to Marilyn (though he seemingly remained in denial.) ‘Maggie uses sex to bewitch Quentin out of his marriage to the long-suffering Louise,’ Headley writes, ‘marries him herself, and then becomes a catastrophe. By the end of the play, Quentin is wrestling a bottle of pills out of her hand. She drains their bank accounts, uses all of his energy for her own career, and demands endless love.’

This is a harsh portrayal of Marilyn, and many felt that Miller went too far. However, it is not without compassion. By focusing on the real-life parallels, Headley sidelines the broader themes of both plays. The Crucible was about the persecution of innocents for imaginary crimes, and After the Fall was, at least partly, a reckoning with the Holocaust (as well as Arthur’s own guilt over Marilyn’s death.) While the victims of the Salem witch hunts were mostly women, it is not surprising that Miller would identify more closely with a male protagonist. And the horrors of his own time – the holocaust, and HUAC – claimed both men and women.

In his final work, Finishing the Picture, Arthur revisited the troubled production of The Misfits. ‘She’s ceased to be the sex goddess she’s supposed to be,’ Headley says of Kitty, the Marilyn-figure in the play. ‘Instead, she is once again a naked girl in the woods, glimpsed running from the rest of the story, and in her flight, she makes everyone around her miserable … In Miller’s final statement on the matter, she’s what the world might become if a woman wanted too much consideration.’

In November 2017, Anna Graham Hunter accused actor Dustin Hoffman of sexually harassing her as a 17 year-old intern on the set of Death of a Salesman, the 1985 TV adaptation of Miller’s most famous play. According to the Hollywood Reporter, film director Volker Schlondorff responded with the glib remark that ‘I wish Arthur Miller was around, he would find the right words, but then he might get accused of sexually molesting Marilyn Monroe.’ Since then, other women have come forward with allegations against Hoffman. Whatever Schlondorff may believe, it’s impossible to know what Arthur would have made of the scandal, but it’s worth remembering that he reportedly disliked Hoffman’s performance in the prior stage production, although it had won a Tony award for Best Revival.

Anna Graham Hunter’s story needs to be heard, as do countless other victims of predatory men. In Marilyn’s case, however, there’s a danger of rewriting history. While Headley’s literary critique is valid and interesting, her attempt to recast Miller as an abuser of women is grossly unfair.