Clash By Night will be screened at the BFI Southbank in London on February 23rd and 25th, as part of a retrospective for leading lady Barbara Stanwyck.
“In Lang’s imaginative adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play, Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns home to a small fishing town after an extended stay in New York. Defiant, cynical, disenchanted, she soon finds herself unexpectedly caught up in a tangle of relationships. Stanwyck’s mature, complex characterisation is one of several excellent performances, which include Monroe’s memorable portrayal of a trusting young woman.”
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.'”
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes gets a one-off ‘singalong‘ screening at London’s Southbank on Monday, March 20, as part of the BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival, with further showings in April. And for those outside the capital, Blondes will also be screened at selected Picturehouse cinemas nationwide next month.
‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?’ was the title of a panel discussion held at the BFI in June as part of their MM retrospective. Film programmer Jemma Desai chaired a wide-ranging debate that encompassed acting methods, body image and feminism. Film scholar Lucy Bolton, writer Jacqueline Rose (Women in Dark Times) and playwright/novelist/critic Bonnie Greer (Marilyn and Ella) share their perspectives on why Monroe’s life and work continue to fascinate – with Greer even suggesting that “Marilyn was a hundred times more radical than Arthur Miller could even begin to dream of being.” You can watch the discussion in full here.
In another great article for the BFI website, Nigel Arthur explores photographs from the National Archive, and considers how Marilyn’s image was purveyed through different modes of photography: including promotional and paparazzi shots, film stills, portraits and behind-the-scenes photos.
“In Richard Dyer’s Stars, first published by BFI in 1979, the author refers to Marilyn Monroe’s image as ‘situated in the flux of ideas about morality and sexuality that characterised 1950s America’. Indeed, her image transcended her films, and swiftly became firmly entrenched in pop culture. Andy Warhol (Marilyn Diptych, 1962) and Richard Hamilton (My Marilyn, 1964/65) both manipulated her photographic image using a silkscreen process, provocatively referencing her wide eyes and open mouth. In the early 1950s, Monroe was put under contract by Darryl F. Zanuck and became the leading artist at Twentieth Century-Fox. Her public persona was constructed, to a large extent, through the distribution of a wide variety of images, which served to increase her popularity with cinema goers.”
While the troubled production of The Misfits might have felled a lesser project, Marilyn’s last complete filmwears its scars well, Geoff Andrew argues in another excellent piece for the BFI website.
“The almost palpable atmosphere of pain, disappointment and ubiquitous mortality reinforces, complicates and enriches the script’s sometimes trite conception of damaged masculine souls (the ranchers and rodeo-riders played by Gable, Clift and Wallach) redeemed by their encounter with a woman (Monroe’s divorcee Roslyn). Roslyn is essentially presented as a life-force corrective to their apparent indifference regarding the suffering of all the gentle, innocent and beautiful creatures on this earth.
Due to their various personal circumstances, Gable, Clift and Monroe come across as fragile, vulnerable, indecisive and not quite sure where they’re headed or why. That rather muddies Miller’s ‘message’ (which was probably inspired by his own feelings about and experiences with Monroe), which is no bad thing. For all the (strikingly staged and shot) struggles with stallions and so on, the film consequently feels less like some sort of poetic fable about primal forces, and more like something recognisably human in scale and nature.”
In another great article for the BFI website, Christina Newland explores the sometimes difficult, but highly creative relationships that Marilyn forged with her many gifted directors. (I was a little disappointed that Joshua Logan, another brilliant director who guided Marilyn through one of her finest performances in Bus Stop, didn’t make the cut.)
“The breathy voice, the windswept white dress, and the endless litany of falsely attributed Pinterest quotes: since her death of a drug overdose in 1962, Marilyn Monroe has been so relentlessly mythologised that she often seems to exist more as commemorative poster art than as a film star…
The immediate persona – deemed ‘vulgar’ by numerous critics and commentators – was that of a well-meaning dumb blonde; all baby talk and male fantasy made flesh. That she was apparently ill-at-ease with this image has long passed into common lore about Monroe.
In spite of early attempts at breaking into more serious dramatic roles – as with Don’t Bother to Knock in 1952 – sexist condescension was never far behind. Archer Winston, a critic at the New York Post remarked: ‘[…] they’ve thrown MM into the deep dramatic waters, sink or swim. And while she doesn’t really do either, you might say that she floats. With that figure, what else can she do?’
Estranged from her sex goddess image and striving for artistic validity, Marilyn went on to study at the Actors Studio, hiring Paula Strasberg as her acting coach. Strasberg was Marilyn’s constant companion on set, to the fury of numerous directors.
Nonetheless, each director Marilyn worked with – from Billy Wilder to George Cukor – helped to piece together a part of her persona. There is the exaggerated, almost burlesque femininity of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); the wounded and childlike vulnerability of her role in The Misfits (1961); and the less-discussed, duplicitous femme fatales of her early career, as in Niagara (1953).”
The full programme for the BFI’s June season of MM films is now online, with tickets available now for members, or from May 12 for non-members. All of Marilyn’s films from 1952-62 are included (apart from O. Henry’s Full House), with multiple showings of The Misfits as part of its nationwide reissue, and a new print of Niagara. This retrospective includes two other events: ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?‘ on June 3rd, featuring authors Jacqueline Rose and Bonnie Greer; and a Marilyn Monroe Study Day on June 27, with guests including Sarah Churchwell. You can view the digital guide for June here.