Remembering Nicolas Roeg, and ‘Insignificance’

Britain’s greatest arthouse filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg, has died aged 90. Born in London in 1928, he began his career in 1947 as a humble tea-boy at Marylebone Studios. By the 1960s, he was cinematographer for Lawrence of Arabia, Fahrenheit 451 and Far From the Madding Crowd.

In 1970, Roeg made his directorial debut with Performance, which starred Mick Jagger and has become a cult classic. Roeg followed it with Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth (starring David Bowie), Bad Timing, Eureka, Castaway, Track 29, The Witches, and Cold Heaven. His final film was released in 2007.

Roeg is also known to Monroe fans for Insignificance, the surreal comic fantasy based on Terry Johnson’s play, and starring Roeg’s then-wife, Theresa Russell, as ‘The Actress’, a character based on Marilyn.  It is one of the more successful films to feature Marilyn as a character. The story is set on the fateful night in September 1954 when Marilyn filmed her famous ‘skirt-blowing scene’ on a New York subway grate. Other characters included ‘The Professor’ (Albert Einstein), ‘The Ballplayer’ (Marilyn’s soon-to-be ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, played by Gary Busey.) In an ironic twist, ‘The Senator’, based on Joseph McCarthy, was played by Tony Curtis, Marilyn’s co-star in Some Like It Hot.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed Insignificance for the Chicago Reader:

“Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their cliched media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon … But the film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail—sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one.”

When Insignificance got the Criterion Collection treatment in 2011, Rosenbaum revisited the movie in an essay, which he has now posted to his blog:

“Insignificance pointedly doesn’t sort out the differences between fact and fancy; it’s more interested in playfully turning all four of its celebrities into metaphysicians of one kind or another … All this sport, to be sure, has specifically English inflections. These crazed American icons are being viewed from an amused and bemused distance, and much of the talk qualifies as fancy mimicry.

‘I didn’t write Insignificance because I was interested in Marilyn Monroe,’ [Terry] Johnson avowed in a 1985 interview with Richard Combs for the Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1985). This film occasioned an extensive rewrite and expansion of the original by Johnson, but even then he couldn’t be sure whether or not he’d ever seen The Seven Year Itch … One perk of his lack of interest in Monroe is complicating and confounding the popular notion of her as a dumb blonde — a stereotype that she’d helped to create herself — in order to shape and justify his outlandish plot.

The play stays glued over its two acts to Einstein’s hotel room. The film adds crosscutting and incidental characters … The new locations include not only the Trans-Lux Theater, but also a bar where McCarthy and DiMaggio nurse their separate grudges, and the shop where Monroe buys her demonstration toys. Perhaps the most significant additions are the brief, telegraphic, and sometimes cryptic flashbacks pertaining to the respective youths of Monroe, Einstein, and DiMaggio, and last but not least, the Elephant in the Room, the H-Bomb itself — which one might say puts in a crucial, last-minute appearance as the celebrity to end all celebrities, dwarfing and making irrelevant all of the others.”

Prada’s ‘Neon Dream’ of Vegas, Marilyn

Actress Sarah Paulson – best-known for her roles in American Horror Story, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and Ocean’s 8 – appears in a new short film advertising Prada’s Fall and Winter Collection. Neon Dream follows a mysterious woman (Amanda Murphy) driving into Las Vegas, where a rather sinister troop of Marilyn Monroe clones led by RuPaul’s Drag Race diva Violet Chachki are waiting. She catches the eye of a parking valet (Paulson) who follows her, morphing into Marilyn a la Seven Year Itch, and a rollerskating waitress.

Emily Berl’s Multitude of Marilyns

Hanna Nixon, UK (after Earl Baron’s Marilyn)

Los Angeles-based photographer Emily Berl has been working with Marilyn lookalikes in Tinseltown and far beyond for several years (see here.) Her portraits are now collected in a stunning monograph, and Monroe fans will notice many familiar faces striking classic poses in new settings, and a selection of images posted today on The Cut shows that there was a great deal more variety to Marilyn’s style than is generally acknowledged. Marilyn is quite an expensive book ($98) but the quality is well worth the price, for collectors and art-lovers alike.

“One of the things I have had to come to terms with this project is that it kind of dances with a lot of clichés, like the Hollywood dream, but I’ve realized I’m into that. I think even though they’re clichés, they’re kind of important. They’re not necessarily a bad thing.”

Nadine Banville, Canada (soon to appear in a new movie, ‘Reliving Marilyn’)
Debra Bakker, Netherlands (wearing a dress similar to Marilyn’s in ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’)

Sunny Thompson on ‘Becoming Marilyn’

Becoming Marilyn Monroe, the new documentary about Sunny Thompson’s one-woman show (Marilyn: Forever Blonde), is set to have its world premiere at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs on April 10. Sunny recently spoke about her long-running stage role with Bruce Fessier of the Desert Sun.

“Why is Marilyn still fascinating more than 55 years after her death?

I think it has a lot to do with her softness. You can see it in her eyes in all of her photos … I have met young girls who came to the play and said they were big Marilyn fans and yet they had never seen a movie with Marilyn in it.  Only her photos! They had fallen in love with an image.

After 10 years, what did you learn that was most interesting about her?

Maybe how absolutely terrified she was facing the press and yet how charming and witty she was at answering their questions, like coming up with something engagingly clever.

Have you learned to turn the Marilyn character on and off the way Marilyn did?

Funny you mention that because I think I might have an inkling as to how Marilyn must have felt around people. She couldn’t really just be herself … People come up to me and say ‘You play Marilyn Monroe?’ And if I just say yes, they are disappointed. But if I light up and sparkle a bit, and give them a little Marilyn look, then they go away happy.

How would you describe Marilyn’s state of mind on the last day of her life? 

I lived that day on stage hundreds of times and I always felt Marilyn was feeling unloved and disillusioned. I play her reliving her life before an audience and deathly afraid that when her looks go and her body goes she will be nothing! I want to believe she didn’t purposely take her own life.”

‘Avatar Marilyn’ Created at Pinewood

Monroe impersonator Suzie Kennedy has been transformed into an ‘avatar’ for a new film project, as Lauren Probert reports for The Sun.

“Suzie spent hours having her face and body scanned to produce a ‘digital double’ which will play the part of the troubled star in the movie. The project is the brainchild of London producer and writer Chris Ongaro. He teamed up with writer Kim Fuller, who penned the Spice Girls movie Spice World, produced by his brother Simon, the band’s manager.

To make the digital Marilyn, Suzie had more than 3,000 photos of her face and body taken, working with Amanda Darby, head of Pinewood 3D. She had to stand on a platform surrounded by 181 cameras snapping every inch of her. Markers were drawn on her face and another 60 cameras were used to pick up her facial expressions. She then had a motion capture session with Phil Stilgoe of Centroid, experts in the field, in which she moved about in a bodysuit with a helmet and camera attached to map all her movements.

Kim [Fuller] said: ‘Marilyn Monroe is a an iconic figure and we’re giving her a 21 century digital makeover. This is a very exciting project and it will be as much Marilyn as it is possible to be without her actually being there. As she’s digital, you can do anything. You have a lot of license dramatically. We want to do a movie which re-interprets her in a modern context and shows she is still relevant. She was a massive glamour star and was exploited. If she was around today, there would be a lot of #MeToo.’

The Marilyn Monroe project is in its early stages but there are already plans for films with celebrities who are long dead. Chris [Ongaro] said: ‘’There is very keen interest in Hollywood in the concept of bringing dead celebrities back to life. It’s an exciting time. Al Capone is next.'”

Ariel Pink Plays Marilyn’s Ghost in Music Video

A ghostly Marilyn Monroe (in drag) features in a Hollywood-themed new music video, as Randall Roberts reports for the Orlando Sentinel.

“Ssion featuring Ariel Pink, “At Least the Sky Is Blue” (Dero Arcade). The multi-disciplinary artist born Cody Critcheloe, who performs as Ssion, has carved a fascinating life for himself. As a video director, he’s worked with such acts as Peaches, Kylie Minogue, Santigold and Perfume Genius; as a bandleader and producer, he crafts dense, slightly off-balance club tracks.

For his new ‘At Least the Sky Is Blue’ video, which is taken from his forthcoming album ‘O’ (May 11), he and collaborator Ariel Pink portray characters in a VCR-tinted set piece featuring a Mercedes convertible cruising through the city. Dressed in drag as the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, Pink appears as a vision being pushed along the sidewalk in a wheelchair.”

Marilyn at the Diner in ‘LA Overnight’

Marilyn is referenced in Los Angeles Overnight, a new thriller starring Arielle Brachfeld which opens in the US and online tomorrow, as reviewed by Frank Schek in the Hollywood Reporter. (Actress Sally Kirkland, who has a cameo role, previously played an older MM in The Island, while another of the cast, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, encountered Marilyn at the Actors Studio.)

“Arielle Brachfeld (whose extensive screen credits include the likes of Chemical Peel and Snake OuttaCompton) plays the central role of Priscilla, an aspiring actress who supports herself waitressing at a low-rent diner in which the servers wear Marilyn Monroe wigs … Brachfeld is appealing as the innocent heroine turned unlikely femme fatale.”

‘Becoming Marilyn Monroe’ in Palm Springs

Of all the Marilyn-inspired plays staged in recent years, Marilyn: Forever Blonde – a one-woman show starring Sunny Thompson – is perhaps the only one to win the hearts of fans as well as critical acclaim. And now Becoming Marilyn Monroe, Tammy Plimmer’s new hour-long documentary about the making of a star tribute, will have its premiere on April 10 at the Camelot Theatre in Palm Springs, as part of the American Documentary Film Festival.

“In 1952, a 10-year-old boy falls in love with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the cover of a magazine. 47 years later he marries her. This improbable true story of a successful producer of musical revues who discovers a young girl from a small town in Northern Minnesota, marries her, and makes her the star of his one-woman theatrical tribute to Hollywood’s most famous star, Marilyn Monroe. This results in an award-winning, critically-acclaimed theatrical play with music, Marilyn Forever Blonde.”

Marilyn and the Presidents Club Scandal

Images of Marilyn have been used to promote a controversial gala held last night at London’s Dorchester Hotel for the Presidents Club, a men-only organisation, as Martin Belam reports for The Guardian. Female staff at the most recent ball have complained of groping and sexual harassment, leading to calls for better protection of workers in the hospitality trade. It’s unclear whether the use of Marilyn’s image has been approved by her estate, but regardless, this is yet another example of corporate branding at its most crass.

However, Monroe impersonator Suzie Kennedy, who has performed at a past gala, takes a different view, as she told LBC Radio‘s Shelagh Fogarty today…

“It was three years ago. It’s rich men having a night out. They are usually very powerful in business and are very generous to the charities. The charities need these balls to happen.

Everybody at that job was told what the job is. It’s a businessman’s night out. Everyone’s going to drink, they are going to have cigars, they are going to have fun.

I didn’t see any of the girls thinking ‘Oh no, I have to wear this’. They were fine with wearing it. In nightclubs in London, girls are wearing a lot less.”