You can read my review of Michelle Morgan’s new book, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, here.
British fans can expect lots of media coverage for Marilyn this month. In this week’s issue of free magazine Stylist, Rhiannon Lucy Coslett interviews gallery director Amy Thornett about Up Close With Marilyn, the exhibition of Milton Greene photos at London’s Proud Central until June 24. You can read it here, or buy a copy (N415) for just £1 from Newsstand (shipping costs may vary outside the UK.)
And in the latest issue of The Lady (dated May 11), ‘Marilyn Monroe: An Unlikely Feminist’, a four-page article by Michelle Morgan, author of The Girl (just published in the US, and coming to our shores very soon), is accompanied by more Greene photos.
Thanks to Fraser, Valerie and Nicola at Marilyn Remembered
UPDATE: Here’s a few more…
An extract from Michelle Morgan’s upcoming book, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, has been published in L.A. Weekly. Looking not only at Marilyn’s life but also the culture surrounding women in her time, Michelle brings some much-needed historic nuance to our perception of what it is to be a feminist.
“Since she was such a complex character, Marilyn Monroe found herself stuck in the middle of two different types of women: those who were disgusted or intimidated by her glamour and wanted her to tone everything down, and those who loved her look just as it was and wanted her to stop trying to be taken seriously.
It could easily be argued that Marilyn suffered frequent frustration because people wanted to pigeonhole her into being just one kind of personality. This undoubtedly came as a result of her unique and modern outlook on life—one more fitting to the twenty-first century rather than the 1950s. She was actually a modern-day feminist, though the very idea struck the nerves of many at the time.
Although vulnerable and complex, Marilyn was a strong woman who consistently fought for what she believed in. However, because of the confusion and stigma related to the word, it is highly unlikely that she would ever have considered herself a feminist in 1955. Friend Norman Rosten further doubted that she would have joined the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and argued that in terms of economic equality, she had already proven herself.”
A new book by one of Marilyn’s best biographers, Michelle Morgan’s The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, is due to be published in May. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy, and will be reviewing it in due course. (And rest assured – you’re going to love it!)
But wait, there’s more – if you’re in London on the afternoon of May 16, Michelle will be discussing her book from 2-5 pm with Gabriella Apicella, Underwire Film Fest founder and ardent Monroe fan, and Catherine Grant, Professor of Screen Studies at the Birkbeck University cinema on Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. The conversation will be followed by a Q&A – more details here.
Arthur Miller: Writer, the new documentary from daughter Rebecca Miller, has its US television premiere on pay-per-view channel HBO tonight. Over at The Ringer, Lindsay Zoladz has penned a rather wide-ranging article about Marilyn and Arthur, including hints of what’s in the documentary.
“When Arthur Miller met Marilyn Monroe, she was crying. Or at least that’s the story he always told her, the one she repeats in footage used in the new documentary Arthur Miller: Writer: ‘As he describes it, I was crying when he met me.’ As he describes it.
Comprising home movies and interviews Rebecca shot of her father in his later years, Arthur Miller: Writer has a homey, scrapbook intimacy … Rebecca was born in 1962, just weeks after Monroe died. Imagine grilling your elderly father, on camera, on what it was like to have been with Marilyn Monroe.
The portrait of Monroe that emerges from Arthur Miller: Writer, then, is inherently lopsided and not nearly as intimate as the one we get of Miller himself. One of the hardest parts of putting together the film, Rebecca admits, was finding ways to diminish Monroe’s presence, to prevent her from completely overtaking her father’s story … Monroe always seems to be doing that—inconveniencing narratives. It’s the most potent power she’s retained after death.
Monroe has, throughout the years, been a sticking point for feminists; the many contradictions of her story do not fit cleanly into the doctrines of any of its waves. Perhaps for the best, she maps particularly awkwardly onto this moment of pop-cultural ’empowerment feminism’ … And yet gender stereotypes are exactly what imprisoned Monroe, and what her star persona was crafted to reinforce.
‘I just thought it would be a terrific gift for her,’ he says in Arthur Miller: Writer, ‘because she’d never had a part in which she was supposed to be taken seriously. And she really wanted to do that.’
Arthur Miller: Writer is, among other things, a fresh reason to mourn the fact that Marilyn Monroe never got to be old and wise like her last husband … But maybe, at least for a fleeting moment, Miller took her seriously. In Rebecca Miller’s interviews, filmed at his kitchen table in Connecticut near the end of his life, the playwright seemed to retain a real compassion for his second wife.
‘She was witty,’ Miller says, gazing wistfully from his kitchen table in Connecticut. ‘She was making fun of the situation as she was playing it. That was the difference. People thought they could imitate her by being cute. But she was being cute and making fun of being cute at the same time. There was another dimension, which is very difficult to do.'”
Australian actress Margot Robbie, currently starring in the Oscar-nominated I, Tonya, has revealed her thoughts on Marilyn and her era, The List reports. “I love old films,” Margot says, “but my heart breaks when I watch Marilyn Monroe’s, because the characters she plays are so misogynistic and degrading that it’s mind-boggling that that was the norm. The same with Bonnie and Clyde; parts of it make my blood boil.” (I mostly agree with this, although I would add that it’s a testament to Marilyn’s talent that she was able to rise above or at least subvert her ‘dumb blonde’ typecasting. And sadly, sexism in movies is far from being a thing of the past.)
Canadian-American musician Meghan Remy aka U.S. Girls is about to release her sixth studio album. In an interview for The Ringer, Meghan takes Lindsay Zoladz on a sightseeing tour of New York, including the subway grate on Lexington and 52nd Street where Marilyn shot an iconic movie scene, while her marriage fell apart.
“The night that iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe was taken—you know the one: stilettos on a subway grate, billowing white dress—Monroe and her husband Joe DiMaggio got into a screaming match. The fight was partially about the photo itself: While shooting The Seven Year Itch, the studio had savvily leaked Monroe’s whereabouts to the press, and by the time Billy Wilder was ready to roll camera on what would become the most notorious scene in the movie, several thousand onlookers had shown up to watch. (They were almost all men, but I hardly need to tell you that.) DiMaggio was there, and he wasn’t too keen on what he took to be his wife’s public exhibitionism. When she showed up to set the next morning, Monroe’s hairdresser applied foundation to hide fresh bruises. She filed for divorce from DiMaggio before The Seven Year Itch wrapped.
‘We’re constantly presented with this smiling Marilyn,’ says Meg Remy, the singer and eccentric creative mastermind behind the band U.S. Girls. ‘But for some reason, when you have all the information, it just feels so heavy.’
I should mention that Remy is speaking into a headset, as she drives a rented, 15-seat van deftly through the streets of Manhattan. In anticipation of the release of U.S. Girls’ new album In a Poem Unlimited—the most ambitious and, as it happens, best album of Remy’s decade-long career—her label suggested a listening party for fans and members of the press. Remy asked around enough to learn what a listening party was, and, ever the DIY-minded eccentric, then decided it just wasn’t her style. What she came up with instead was this: a van tour of ‘sites of injustices in New York City,’ written and narrated by Remy herself, while we listen to the new album in the background.”
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.'”
A lecture given this week by the British-based academic Griselda Pollock at the CaixiForum in Madrid, Spain has generated a buzz on social media. Beginning a series taking a closer look at the artist-muse relationship, Pollock focused on Marilyn’s relationship with Arthur Miller, as Paula Lindom reports for Classical & Modern. (Any errors in translation are mine…)
“‘What united this couple? Or, what destroyed them?’ Pollock asked the audience. ‘And what were the influences that each one had in the career of the other – did Monroe become Miller’s sinister muse? Or was Miller the monster that killed Monroe? Had Monroe killed Miller’s talent in some way? What influence did Miller have on Monroe’s creative life and life? To what extent did Monroe use Miller for her own creative work?'”
Pollock is also quoted in an article for the Turkey Telegraph. (The wording was a little hard to follow, so I have edited it slightly.)
“Griselda Pollock highlights many biographies of the iconic actress in which, however, ‘there is very little analysis of her work. How did a white woman, uneducated and abused, become a star like one she was? Why was Andy Warhol crying at her death? Why did Elton John identify with her? Why did Madonna forge her image in Monroe’s likeness?’
Of Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller, Pollock remarks, ‘What a patriarchal mythology: genius and muse. The classical opposition between activity and passivity, desire and object of desire, creativity and inspiration. A different language is needed.’
‘She was given vapid comedy scripts remembered only because of her genius before the camera,’ Pollock adds. ‘She was intelligent, inquisitive and politically engaged; passionate and desperately ambitious to understand the art of acting. Miller did not inspire her; he was obsessed with her. I think they were both flawed geniuses.'”
In the wake of last year’s revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn’s own experiences have often been cited as historical precedent. While she certainly did experience sexual harassment, it’s notable that she managed to succeed without recourse to the fabled ‘casting couch.’ She resisted Harry Cohn’s advances; was a friend but not a mistress to Joe Schenck; and her relationship with Johnny Hyde was based on real affection. As for Darryl F. Zanuck – perhaps the most significant Hollywood figure in her career – they were never close, and Zanuck himself admitted that Marilyn’s triumphs were of her own creation.
In a new article for the Daily Beast, Maria Dahvana Headley turns her attention to Arthur Miller, claiming that he ‘smeared’ Marilyn and ‘invented the myth of the male witch hunt.’ She begins with his 1952 play, The Crucible, based on the Salem witch trials of 1692, but widely perceived as an allegory for the contemporary ‘red-baiting’ crusade by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which Arthur would later be implicated – but ultimately exonerated.
Arthur and Marilyn first met in 1951, when he was still married. There was a strong attraction between them, and they corresponded intermittently thereafter. Headley is not the first to argue that the adulterous affair between the teenage Abigail Williams and John Proctor might have been inspired by his conflicted feelings for Marilyn – Barbara Leaming also suggested this in her 1999 biography, Marilyn Monroe. Many historians have pointed out that Miller’s depiction of these protagonists is not accurate – Abigail was still a child, and there was no affair with Proctor. This mooted association between Abigail and Marilyn is purely speculative, however, and Miller would hardly be the first playwright to fictionalise events. (For a factual account of the trials, I can recommend Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.)
But Headley goes further still, conflating the story of Arthur rubbing Marilyn’s feet at a Hollywood party (as later told by Marilyn to her acting coach, Natasha Lytess) with an incident noted in the Salem court reports that inspired The Crucible, of Abigail touching Proctor’s hood and then becoming hysterical, crying out that her hands were burning. ‘Women, unless they are very devout and very old, The Crucible tells us, are unreliable and changeable,’ Headley writes. ‘They’re jealous. They’re vengeful. They’re confused about sex and about love. They might, given very little provocation, ruin the life of a good man, and everything else in the world too.’
Headley is on firmer ground with her interpretation of After the Fall, Miller’s 1964 play which featured a self-destructive singer, Maggie, who marries lawyer Quentin – a relationship widely acknowledged to be based on Arthur’s marriage to Marilyn (though he seemingly remained in denial.) ‘Maggie uses sex to bewitch Quentin out of his marriage to the long-suffering Louise,’ Headley writes, ‘marries him herself, and then becomes a catastrophe. By the end of the play, Quentin is wrestling a bottle of pills out of her hand. She drains their bank accounts, uses all of his energy for her own career, and demands endless love.’
This is a harsh portrayal of Marilyn, and many felt that Miller went too far. However, it is not without compassion. By focusing on the real-life parallels, Headley sidelines the broader themes of both plays. The Crucible was about the persecution of innocents for imaginary crimes, and After the Fall was, at least partly, a reckoning with the Holocaust (as well as Arthur’s own guilt over Marilyn’s death.) While the victims of the Salem witch hunts were mostly women, it is not surprising that Miller would identify more closely with a male protagonist. And the horrors of his own time – the holocaust, and HUAC – claimed both men and women.
In his final work, Finishing the Picture, Arthur revisited the troubled production of The Misfits. ‘She’s ceased to be the sex goddess she’s supposed to be,’ Headley says of Kitty, the Marilyn-figure in the play. ‘Instead, she is once again a naked girl in the woods, glimpsed running from the rest of the story, and in her flight, she makes everyone around her miserable … In Miller’s final statement on the matter, she’s what the world might become if a woman wanted too much consideration.’
In November 2017, Anna Graham Hunter accused actor Dustin Hoffman of sexually harassing her as a 17 year-old intern on the set of Death of a Salesman, the 1985 TV adaptation of Miller’s most famous play. According to the Hollywood Reporter, film director Volker Schlondorff responded with the glib remark that ‘I wish Arthur Miller was around, he would find the right words, but then he might get accused of sexually molesting Marilyn Monroe.’ Since then, other women have come forward with allegations against Hoffman. Whatever Schlondorff may believe, it’s impossible to know what Arthur would have made of the scandal, but it’s worth remembering that he reportedly disliked Hoffman’s performance in the prior stage production, although it had won a Tony award for Best Revival.
Anna Graham Hunter’s story needs to be heard, as do countless other victims of predatory men. In Marilyn’s case, however, there’s a danger of rewriting history. While Headley’s literary critique is valid and interesting, her attempt to recast Miller as an abuser of women is grossly unfair.