Beverley Owen 1937-2019

Beverley Owen, the first actress to play Marilyn Munster in TV’s The Munsters, has died aged 81. Born in Iowa, Beverley studied with the prestigious acting teacher Sanford Meisner and completed a degree at the University of Michigan before landing a role in the classic sitcom in 1964.

Named after Marilyn Monroe (who had died two years before), Marilyn Munster was a cousin to the ghoulish Munster clan. Although a beauty by conventional standards (Beverley donned a blonde wig for the part), she is an object of pity among her oddball relatives, who consider her hopelessly plain. Nonetheless, Marilyn adores them and seems unaware of their strangeness.

Unfortunately, the show was not a happy experience for Beverley, who was pushed into it as part of her studio contract. She also desperately missed her fiance in New York. She was let go after fourteen episodes and replaced by Pat Priest. Later that year, Beverley married the writer and producer Jon Stone, and they had two daughters before divorcing in 1974.

Beverley gained a master’s degree in Early American Studies in 1989. She remained close to actor Fred Gwynne (who played Herman Munster) and attended a 25th anniversary celebration of the show.

Why Marilyn and the BBC’s Iconic Women Lost Out

The BBC documentary series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century, has concluded with viewers voting the code-breaking British scientist Alan Turing the overall winner. Marilyn came second to David Bowie in the entertainment category, but as several commentators have noted, none of the female candidates – including Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Virginia Woolf, among other luminaries – made it to the final round.

“The gender-challenged outcome came despite efforts from a range of experts to push women in their field. This, incidentally, is a tactic favoured by the authors of a Harvard Business School (HBS) report about the pitfalls of consumer voting: namely, using a ‘curated list’ to ensure choices aren’t biased in the first instance.

Viewers, however, were not to be swayed … although actress Kathleen Turner suggested either Marilyn Monroe or Billie Holiday could triumph over Charlie Chaplin or David Bowie, it was the man from Brixton who won the entertainers’ subset.

Does this mean TV executives should halt the public vote in an attempt to save face? Roger Mosey, who has held many top jobs at the BBC, including editorial director and director of sport, thinks not. ‘Programmers like interactivity and think it’s great to get people involved.’ But he warns that it’s ‘very, very hard to control a vote’, especially in the age of social media because the temptation to ‘have a laugh and subvert votes even more’ can be too great to resist.

In the case of BBC Icons, it isn’t clear whether more men voted than women; a spokesperson declined to reveal a gender split – or, indeed, any further details about the poll. Which isn’t to suggest that women would automatically vote for a female candidate … Mosey suggests that, perhaps, the show was simply flawed.

‘The problem with Icons is that it’s a not very good remake of Great Britons, made when Jane Root was the controller of BBC Two. The problem with Icons is you’re comparing lots of people who aren’t very alike really. They should have spotted that the whole series was a little bit on thin ice.'” – Susie Mesure, The Independent

“‘I wasn’t surprised,’ Clare [Balding]  said when asked by host, Strictly Come Dancing‘s Claudia Winkleman, about the lack of women. ‘I’m a bit disappointed, but not surprised because I think you can’t be an icon unless you are allowed to have the limelight. I think the 20th century largely was the history of men, told by men and women have started to find their voice and started to find their feet so that if we did this programme all of us back again in 50 years’ time, we’d be looking at people like Oprah Winfrey or J.K. Rowling. We’d be looking at Madonna or Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. We’d be looking at Serena Williams or Malala, Michelle Obama. I think there are so many women who have an influence in their sphere and outside it and they’re beginning to have an impact now, but almost the 20th century was too short. We need to be knocking into the 21st.'” – Digital Spy

“All of these women were disregarded in one way or another during their career, so it’s unbelievably disappointing to see a repeat pattern all these years later … The accolades of most of the women included in the BBC longlist are known to the majority of modern day people. Voters made a choice to ignore these women once again.

But blaming the average person isn’t the solution. Society is still clearly receiving the message that women’s achievements are nothing in comparison to men’s. Although a select group of people recognise this isn’t true, it’s the unconverted that need to be preached to. The people who still say female sports players aren’t as good as men. The young people who still grow up unable to name five prominent historical women off the top of their heads. The people who display everyday sexism without even realising.

The BBC’s programme may have started out with the best intentions, but the outcome was a sad reflection of society’s views. Changing those views isn’t going to be a quick process. It’s going to take months, maybe years, of government-funded campaigns, of media organisations bringing women to the forefront, and of average people pushing back against inequality.” – Lauren Sharkey, Bustle

Marilyn Entertains in BBC’s ‘Icons’

Last night, Marilyn was featured alongside Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday and David Bowie in the entertainment segment of the BBC series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century. The episode was presented by actress Kathleen Turner, with biographer Sarah Churchwell and photographer Douglas Kirkland among the guests. Marilyn was nominated as an icon of glamour; or in Turner’s words, ‘the sex symbol who took on Hollywood.’

Her frank admission to having posed for a nude calendar, and later on her triumphant battle with Twentieth Century Fox and setting up her own production company, were cited as exemplifying her refusal to be bound by the limitations imposed on her by an industry which failed to recognise that she could have both brains and beauty. Sarah Churchwell praised her ability to spoof feminine stereotypes, with clips from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes showcasing her comedic skill.

The public vote was won by David Bowie, who will now be featured in the series finale. As noted in Mixmag, Marilyn came in second. Viewers in the UK (with a current TV licence) can watch the full episode here.

Thanks to Fraser Penney 

Marilyn and the BBC Icons

Marilyn is one of just 28 people nominated by an expert panel for the new BBC TV series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century.  This 8-parter invites viewers to vote for the greatest icon of them all. Also in the entertainment category are Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday and David Bowie. All four will be featured in the second episode, on BBC2 at 9 pm on Tuesday, January 15, with actress Kathleen Turner among the advocates; and the result will be announced the following day on The One Show (on BBC1 at 7 pm.) The live final is scheduled for February 5 at 9 pm on BBC2.

Smithsonian to Screen ‘Marilyn for Sale’

Marilyn Monroe: Auction of a Lifetime, the documentary about the 2016 Julien’s sale (in which Marilyn’s ‘birthday dress sold for $4.8m) has been acquired by the Smithsonian Channel, and will be screened on December 23 at 9pm, as Daniele Alcinii reports for RealScreen. Originally produced by Oxford Film and Television and broadcast in the UK on Channel 4, the documentary has been renamed Marilyn Monroe For Sale. You can read my review here.

‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ in the Age of #MeToo

As first reported here, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino – who starred in the 1996 mini-series, Norma Jean and Marilyn – have both become leading voices in the #MeToo movement following last year’s Harvey Weinstein scandal. In an article for the Austin Chronicle, Britt Hayes admits that recent events have led her to view Norma Jean and Marilyn in a different light.

“Norma Jean & Marilyn premiered on HBO in 1996, when I was just 11 years old. My father was, like most baby boomers, quite smitten with Monroe – the Hollywood bombshell whose life was cut short following a drug overdose in 1962. Posters featuring the platinum-haired, sleepy-eyed icon adorned my father’s workspace. Naturally, I was curious about the only woman ever permitted to take up permanent residence in a space that was usually off-limits. And so my own infatuation with this breathtaking Hollywood tragedy began, and by 1996 I was well-versed in the woman, the myth, the legend that was Marilyn.

The HBO film admittedly hasn’t aged that well (the acting in particular is quite soapy), but its more ambitious elements – such as daydream sequences in which Norma Jean/Marilyn recalls and reimagines her traumatic upbringing – evoke the waking-nightmare surrealism of David Lynch. It feels more voyeuristic than conventional biopics, due in large part to the bold visual choice of having Judd’s Norma Jean interact with Sorvino’s Marilyn during the latter’s most crushing personal moments, as when she doubts her talent or makes choices that might stifle her career (like marrying Joe DiMaggio).

Judd’s Norma Jean is tenacious and resilient, having endured – as told via recurring flashback – repeated physical and emotional trauma at the hands of various men throughout her life. From predatory father figures to former lovers who underestimated and devalued her, Norma Jean learned early on that her body was both a tool and a weapon, capable of making her dreams a reality just as easily as it could destroy them. Sorvino’s Marilyn fights to repress this past, changing her name to ‘kill’ Norma Jean and, when that doesn’t work, using an assortment of prescription drugs to finish the job.”

While this perspective may be valid in general terms, Norma Jean and Marilyn is flawed in many ways – not least because it is based on Norma Jean: My Secret Life With Marilyn Monroe, the 1991 memoir by her self-proclaimed lover, Ted Jordan. There is no evidence of a relationship between Marilyn and Jordan, whose book is so riddled with factual errors and salacious fantasy that even the most ardent conspiracy theorists now agree that it should be treated as hokum.

Additionally, it’s something of a tired old trope to depict Marilyn as a split personality just because she changed her name. Many other actors did the same and still do, but I’ve yet to see the biopic, Marion and the Duke! On a more serious note, while Marilyn, like other actresses, experienced sexism in Hollywood, she was never simply a victim. And frankly, she deserves a lot better than Norma Jean and Marilyn.

Reinventing Marilyn’s ‘Misfits’ in Dublin

A stage adaptation of The Misfits is set to open at the Dublin Theatre Festival on September 27. Ahead of the premiere, Donald Clarke surveys the production for the Irish Times. As the photos indicate, the cast and crew are not going to replicate the 1961 movie (Aoibhinn McGinnity, who will play Roslyn Tabor, hasn’t seen it.) This is probably a wise decision as the original is so iconic – however, director Annie Ryan has much to say about it, and Marilyn’s performance.

“The picture has an awkward position in film history. It is remembered for a famously disordered production … Most poignantly, the last scene in The Misfits, showing Monroe and Gable sharing the front seat of a truck, stands as a farewell to both those imperishable stars.

Elements of the picture deserve celebration … Monroe really does make something of a dramatic role. Working with Paula Strasberg, one of the era’s great acting coaches, she managed to excise almost all traces of the breathy comic persona that helped her to superstardom.

‘The work in it,’ Ryan sighs. ‘You can really feel Paula Strasberg right behind the camera. She is going for a moment-to-moment method acting truth, but what I see there is the effort in every scene. I watch it thinking: that poor woman. From an acting perspective, it is absolute torture.’

The Misfits is something different. Even before we sit down, Ryan, her Chicagoan accent still largely intact, is giving out about the way Thelma Ritter is underused and about how uncomfortable she is with Miller’s attempts to ‘save’ Marilyn through art.

‘This isn’t a great film. It’s a really flawed film,’ she says. ‘I came upon it because it’s in his collected plays. My impulse came before the 2016 election. There isn’t a strong narrative, but there could be something to it. And it only has five people. I can’t afford a bigger cast than that unless I partner with a bigger company. Part of my thinking was: Can this work?’

She mentions the 2016 US presidential election. Obviously, all American art is now about Donald Trump. You can’t get away from him. The Misfits finds Monroe’s Roslyn, in Reno for a divorce, meeting three very different, but equally damaged, hunks of cowboy masculinity and then following them as they hunt mustangs in the nearby desert. Over 50 years ago, these characters were already complaining that the world had passed them by.

‘I suspect 60 or 70 per cent of those going in won’t have seen the film,’ Ryan says. ‘But they’ll know the iconography. They’ll have seen the photographs. Everyone knows about The Misfits even if they haven’t seen it. The image of the expanse. The image of Marilyn in the hat and the shirt. They are famous images. You have to accept they are in the room.’

It helps that Ryan is not working from the original script. Her production of The Misfits is officially an adaptation of a novella that Miller published to tie in with the release of the film.

‘That’s what I have the rights to cut,’ she says. ‘It’s very hard to get the rights to a film because the film company owns the rights.’

‘I think Miller did [Marilyn] a disservice by writing a version of herself,’ Ryan says. ‘He did this as a gift. But there’s no mask. She has an innocence. She has a compassion for all living things, which comes from Marilyn. She has an incredibly dysfunctional family background, which comes from Marilyn. Men are falling over each other to be next to her. There is a lot of language in the text about “the golden girl” arriving. No actor can play themselves. Most actors can’t face speaking in public, They just can’t bear it.’

Echoes of the #MeToo movement creep into The Misfits. The production will have much to do with how men interact with (and sometimes ignore) women in social engagements. Marilyn Monroe suffered more from those abuses than most. You see it in her films. You read about it in her life.

‘We see how she has become expert at saying “no” in a really nice way,’ Ryan says of Roslyn. ‘We have all been there to some degree. What would it be like to imagine that character now without sexing her up?’

 Some reclaiming and revaluating is in order.

‘I feel that we are doing this for Marilyn’s ghost in some way.'”