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.

Liz Smith 1923-2017

Legendary New York gossip columnist Liz Smith, known as ‘doyenne of dish’, has died aged 94. I have posted a tribute here. As regular readers will know, she was one of the media’s most vocal champions of Marilyn – and you read can all of our Liz-related posts right here.

Ranking Marilyn’s 29 Films

Marilyn made 29 films during her 15-year career (excluding the unfinished Something’s Got to Give.) Around half of these were made while she was still a starlet, and her screen-time is often quite limited although she always made the most of her role. In the first of an New York Magazine series profiling classic Hollywood stars, Angelica Jade Bastien has taken on the daunting task of ranking all 29 films from worst to best, with insightful commentary on each one. I don’t agree with all her opinions – for example, I would put The Seven Year Itch (ranked 10th) in my top 5. There’s also a question of whether to judge each movie as a whole, or by Marilyn’s performance – for example , her debut film, Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (ranked 24th) is enjoyable fluff, but Marilyn’s role was cut to ribbons. Whereas her next ‘bit part’, in Dangerous Years (ranked just below at 25th) was more enaging. Let’s Make Love (ranked 22nd) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (ranked 15th) are among my least favourite of Marilyn’s major films, but her musical numbers are superb. However, we all have our own preferences and it’s always great to see Marilyn’s true legacy in the spotlight, where it belongs.

“Hollywood has been creating a mythology around blonde bombshells since its beginnings. But no blonde sex symbol has had a deeper and more long-lasting impact on film and American culture than Marilyn Monroe. You probably had an image of Monroe in your mind long before you ever saw her on film. The dumb blonde. The white-hot sex symbol. The foolish girl-woman. The picture of mid-century femininity — wasp-waisted, platinum blonde, and buxom. The tragic victim. These warring images have lasted long after Monroe’s death in 1962 at 36 years old, and they’re easy to twist into caricature. She’s been flattened onto dorm-room posters, mugs, T-shirts, artist renderings. She’s been linked to falsely attributed quotes, conspiracy theories, and lurid rumors. But Monroe was more complex than her legacy suggests, as both an actress and a woman. This ranking of Monroe’s 29 films — based on her performance in each — gives a sense of what a supremely talented comedian and dramatic actress she was, with a keen understanding of the camera that few actors can replicate.”

Unveiling Marilyn’s Beautiful Scars

Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.

Now you see her, now you don’t: Marilyn in ‘Something’s Got to Give’

“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.

The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’

Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?

Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’

Guess what? Everyone has scars too—even Marilyn.”

Marilyn’s Heartbreak in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

FIlmed while she was on the cusp of stardom, Don’t Bother to Knock gave Marilyn one of her most important, yet least-known rones. Over at Birth Movies Death today, Kalyn Corrigan takes a closer look at this remarkable performance.

“For a girl who gained fame as a stunningly photogenic sex symbol, working her dumb blonde persona to her advantage, it’s fascinating to see Monroe play someone who’s so irrevocably cracked. Best known as the steamy naïve seductress in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, and this writer’s personal favorite, Some Like It Hot, it’s a graceful and gratifying pivot to see Marilyn take on the role of a damsel come undone. Jed tells Nell at one point in the film that she’s ‘silk on one side and sandpaper on the other’, and the description couldn’t be more fitting to Monroe’s performance. As she flutters back and forth between the shy, sweet girl who did everything in truth, to the manipulatively maniacal beauty queen with a screw loose, we really get to see a taste of Monroe’s range, and it’s an invigorating break from the normal romantic comedy routine. Norma Jeane was undoubtedly beautiful, but she was also an actor, and it’s cool to see her given a chance to show off her skills in a rare, multi-layered role for women in cinema in the 1950s.”