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.'”

Marilyn Versus 10 Great Directors

On the set of 'How to Marry a Millionaire' with director Jean Negulesco, 1953
On the set of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ with director Jean Negulesco, 1953

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).”