Cléo, Meet Marilyn (From 5 to 7)

In a tribute to filmmaker Agnès Varda, who died last week aged 90, Genna Rivieccio notes on her Culled Culture blog the parallels between Marilyn’s life and the tragic young heroine faced with a cancer diagnosis played by Corinne Marchand in Cléo From 5 to 7, the movie released just a few months before  Marilyn’s death, and which helped to launch the French New Wave.

“Although Cléo is beautiful and has a relatively successful singing career, the dark shadow potentially case by the reaper above her won’t go away, nor is it remedied by seeing a fortune teller at the outset of the movie, one who confirms all her worst fears about waiting for some potentially fatal test results from her doctor.

Distraught at first over the reading, Cléo insists to herself that ‘as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive,’ because ‘ugliness is a kind of death’ so how can she be suffering from it if she’s not aesthetically hideous? Even so, she is aware that if she is dying, it’s only the inside that will matter now–not from a personality or ‘good person’ standpoint, but in terms of it affecting whether or not her demise is imminent. To that former notion, however, Cléo suddenly becomes hyperconscious of the vacuity of her life. Buying hats, lounging around, cursing men. What does it all mean? And what can she do to go on preserving that vacuous little life? Thus, she tells her maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray) that she’ll kill herself if it turns out to be cancer. Angèle does little to comfort her, noting that ‘men hate illness’ and that Cléo ought not to wear a new hat on Tuesday as it’s bad luck.

So, too, did Cléo, a singer who bemoans wanting to project more poignant lyrics but then grows filled with melancholy as she sings a new composition filled with too much death imagery to bear. She wants to remain as she always has been in order to survive, to feel somewhat happy: at the surface of things. Unfortunately, like Marilyn Monroe before her, the woman endlessly preoccupied with her image and looks ends up driving any potential for real and meaningful love away. And as we all know, especially Narcissus, a reflection can’t reciprocate anything, nor love or hate you as much as you do it. Cléo’s childlike [im]maturity, is, in fact, directly related to her self-obsession. In being faced with the reality that her death is imminent, however, she is forced to come to grips with certain truths both about herself and existence that she never would have otherwise.”

PS: And if you should doubt Marilyn’s influence on the nouvelle vague, this photo taken by George Barris just weeks before her death is glimpsed briefly  in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 musical directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, and starring lifelong MM fan Catherine Deneuve. (According to IMDB, the film is set in 1957 which makes it a goof.) And in Demy’s 1963 film Bay of Angels, Jeanne Moreau donned a Monroesque blonde wig to play an unhappy divorcee (not unlike Roslyn in The Misfits) who becomes addicted to gambling.

Gladys: Portrait of Marilyn’s Mother

Marilyn Monroe was one of the world’s most photographed women, but her mother Gladys, who suffered from severe mental illness, was a more shadowy figure. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Katherine Yamada reveals how Louie Deisbeck of the Glendale News-Press, who died in January this year, captured a rare image of Gladys Eley (her deceased third husband’s name) as a 60 year-old on the run from Rockhaven Sanitarium in July 1963.

“Less than a year after Monroe died, the 60-year-old Eley fashioned a rope out of two uniforms, climbed through an 18-inch-square closet window and lowered herself to the ground. After climbing over the wire mesh fence surrounding the property, she began walking.

Twenty-four hours later, she was discovered some 15 miles away in a church on Foothill Boulevard. She had spent the night in the church’s utility room, sitting near the water heater to keep warm.

The minister who found her called the police; they were soon followed by Glendale News-Press photographer Louie Deisbeck and a reporter.

Deisbeck, who had been with the newspaper since 1957, had many contacts in the city.

Louie Deisbeck

‘Police and firemen contacted him all the time in those days, they knew to call him directly at home,’ his son Rusty said in a recent phone interview.

Deisbeck was met at the church by two female police officers. ‘It was real hush hush,’ his son recalled.

After he got the photo — the first taken of Eley in more than 20 years [although several family photos of Gladys were taken in the late 1940s] — Deisbeck raced back to the News-Press, leaving the reporter to get the story.

The police officers told the reporter (who did not get a byline in the July 5, 1963 article) that Eley stated she wanted to get away from the sanitarium and practice her Christian Science teaching. After determining that she was unharmed, they returned her to the sanitarium.

Deisbeck’s photo earned front-page coverage in many newspapers.

‘That was the most famous picture he ever did,’ son Rusty said. ‘He sold it to magazines and newspapers all over the world.'”

Pete Seeger’s Ballad for Norma Jean

The great American folk singer, Pete Seeger, died on Monday, January 27, aged 94. MM fans may not be aware that in 1963, he set Norman Rosten’s poem, ‘Who Killed Norma Jean?’ (based on an English nursery rhyme) to music, and performed the song in his legendary Carnegie Hall concert, as explained on the Murder Ballad Monday blog.

“Pete Seeger opens Chapter 11 ‘Money and Music’ in his book The Incompleat Folksinger (Bison Book, 1972) with this reflection.

‘The vision of hollow claws and fangs has come back to me more than once when I have seen a friend in the clutches of the ‘culture’ industry, which values human beings only for what profit can be sucked from them. This destruction goes on all the time, though it seldom is dramatically visible to the general public.’

As Seeger mentions in his introduction to the Carnegie Hall performance, the song was written by Norman Rosten, a close friend of Monroe’s. Seeger writes in his songbook, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography, that he first read the poem in Life magazine, and put the tune to it then. He got Rosten’s permission to perform it after that.

‘Who Killed Norma Jean?’ appears not to have had much performance life outside of Pete Seeger’s performances of it. There are doubtless many other songs about Marilyn Monroe which we could explore, but that’s for another day. For this one, we’ll conclude with Janis Ian’s performance of the song on Seeds–Volume 3 of a series of tribute albums to Pete’s music, which was released in 2003.”