Biopic Stars: Marilyn, Judy, Gloria

As a new Judy Garland biopic is released, Inkoo Kang looks at how classic female entertainers are portrayed, over at Slate. Her analysis is interesting, though I would argue that ageing is not as central to My Week With Marilyn (set at the peak of her career) as it is to Judy and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (another recent biopic of a neglected screen icon, Gloria Grahame), which are both set at the end of the womens’ lives. In fact, the strongest link between all three subjects might be their loneliness.

“It’s obvious enough why Judy and company keep getting made … [Michelle] Williams used her portrayal as Monroe to play against type, injecting a dose of flirty, cunning sexuality into her screen image and earning herself a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in the process … These films do revise the public images of their titular characters in meaningful ways … Monroe—still considered the ultimate dumb blonde in too many circles—is reclaimed as a serious actress with lofty ambitions.

But these films are also, by design, not as empathetic toward their subjects as they could be. Each movie is too enamored of its legend, of her talent and beauty, to acknowledge that her circumstances and pathologies aren’t exceptional but widely shared, borne largely of gendered inequality: unequal pay, imbalance of power, public hypersexualization, and the fast-approaching or long-past expiration date on her usefulness to Hollywood. It’s likely not a coincidence that all three movies are set in England, far from where any Hollywood star ostensibly should be …

But if the film industry’s #MeToo movement has reminded us of anything, it’s that, even in Hollywood, women’s experiences of pressure and discrimination aren’t so much unusual as devastatingly similar. Too many women lived in silence and shame, believing that their encounters were unique, or even that the abuse was somehow their fault, but after the dam broke, we understood how many of these stories were practically interchangeable, no matter the stars’ wattage, or whether they were stars at all.

But by failing to account for the unfortunate commonness of their fates, at least within the entertainment industry, the movies of this genre tend to become opportunities to focus morbidly and myopically on the self-destructive habits of a flailing figure, rather than understand the larger context that gave rise to her. The individual struggle of a Garland, Monroe, or Grahame may be inherently interesting in tight close-up, but these movies would be more revealing if they zoomed out a little to show the fuller picture.”

Feminist Live Reads: ‘Some Like It Hot’ in Vancouver

A live reading of Some Like It Hot will be hosted by Feminist Live Reads on October 1st at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, during this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), as Janet Smith reports for The Georgia Straight. (Incidentally, the poster art shows not Marilyn but Sandra Warner, who was part of Sweet Sue’s Band. She stood in for Marilyn who was unavailable on the day of the photo shoot.)

“The film is as groundbreakingly fluid about its genre as it is about gender—opening as a mafia chase movie before Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon go undercover as women to hide with an all-female jazz orchestra led by Sugar Kane (Marilyn herself).

‘Some Like It Hot is one of my favourite movies, actually,’ says Vancouver actor Katie Findlay (best-known for the ABC series How to Get Away With Murder), speaking to the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home. ‘My dad only watches movies made before 1960.’

‘I’ve always wanted to be handsome and dashing and morally questionable,’ she enthuses about reading the part of Tony Curtis, who essentially plays three parts: Joe, the jazz musician who witnesses a mafia shootout with his buddy; Josephine, a female jazz musician in disguise; and Junior, a faux millionaire who woos Sugar and sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant. ‘People seem to have trouble with women being more than one thing. And I get to do a Cary Grant impression!’

It helps that her bestie Kacey Rohl (who stars in VIFF 2019 movie White Lie) is reading Jack Lemmon’s role; they’ve watched Some Like It Hot many times together.

In this era of #MeToo and talk of consent, Findlay sees the ongoing relevance of Wilder’s film. When Curtis and Lemmon become women, they’re suddenly the target of a lot of unwanted attention. ‘As a movie I think it has female consciousness; it’s aware of how a woman feels,’ Findlay observes of the male characters facing constant harrassment once they take on female personas.

Adding to the experience, [Chandler] Levack reads stage directions on-stage while local songstress Jill Barber brings to life some of Monroe’s iconic songs from Some Like It Hot ( ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ ).”


Thanks to Eiji Aoki

Marilyn Meets Shakespeare in Dallas

C.C. Weatherly as Marilyn

Marilyn, Pursued By A Bear – a new play by Nicole Neely, blending Marilyn’s life story with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale – is being staged at the Bath House Cultural Center as part of the 21st Festival of Independent Theatres in Dallas, Martha Heinberg reports for TheaterJones.

“Marilyn Monroe wakes up in a mental institution, where she’s been taken by her third husband. The Hollywood icon is back in the hospital because she’s overdosed again.

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a jealous duke casts out his faithful wife and newborn daughter because he thinks she’s an adulteress and the baby is a bastard. At one point, the duke’s man ordered to carry out the cruel errand, is chased by a bear, dropping the baby as he exits. Daughter lives, man devoured offstage. The playwright sees some reflections of the bard’s late romance in the real-life traumas of Norma Jean Baker, the funny, gorgeous daughter and granddaughter of abused and abandoned women. 

Here, we see Marilyn (slight, pretty CC Weatherly in platinum wig and blue scrubs) haunted by visions of her dead grandmother (loving, touching Sally Soldo) and her mother Gladys (sharp-featured, defensive Stephany Cambra), trying to battle her way out of a drug fog on an empty stage with blue lighting and three white blocks as props. A chorus of four characters in black, representing everything from accusing orderlies to the dark bear of death (svelte Olivia Cinquepalmi in a clingy satin gown), pursue the anguished actress as she struggles to defend herself against false accusations.

The tone of the play shifts from a sense of pity for the embattled heroine shrinking from a menacing animal growl in the distance to the overly melodramatic … The action swirls and the bear growls, but unlike the Shakespearean romance, there is no magical ending in this evocative, sad remembrance of a woman. We are, however, left with a sense that ‘like mother, like daughter,’ might also mean that these poor women are also forgiving and supporting, despite the husbands, doctors and fathers who left them behind.” 

Marilyn Book Signing in Savannah, GA

Author Amanda Konkle will be signing copies of her new book, Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe, at E. Shaver Booksellers in Savannah, Georgia on Saturday, May 18, from 1 – 3 pm EDT. Amanda, who is an assistant professor of film studies and English at Georgia Southern University, has written a dynamic study of how Marilyn’s screen performances both reflected and pushed the boundaries of attitudes towards women and sex in 1950s America. (I’m currently working on a review of Some Kind of Mirror, and I thoroughly recommend it!)

Marilyn and the Not-So-Dumb Blondes

Over at Refinery 29, Daniela Morsini looks at the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype so unfairly applied to Marilyn, and still a staple of lame jokes today. While I strongly agree that it’s an outdated, sexist trope, I’d like to add that in her movies, Marilyn often parodied those assumptions. Her characters were usually wiser than the men who flocked to them, and in reality, Marilyn was sensitive and intelligent. (Unfortunately, not everyone was smart enough to get the joke – then, or now!)

“Being blonde is loaded. You can be an expensive blonde like Gwyneth Paltrow. You can be rock’n’roll blonde like Debbie Harry. You can be sexpot blonde like Marilyn Monroe. Hell, you can be any kind of blonde you want – as long as you’re a dumb one.

Of course, of all the stereotypes women face, the ‘dumb blonde’ is a mild one, especially considering how harmful and dangerous the hair stereotypes faced by women of colour can be. But it is curiously persistent … I’ve never forgotten a date in 2016, after having what I believed to be pleasant chatter with a man for an evening, him uttering the immortal words: ‘Well, you don’t look clever.’

Historians roundly agree that the notion of blondes being dumb dates back to a play performed some 250 years ago, titled Les Curiosités de la Foire, based on the misdemeanours of the legendary courtesan Rosalie Duthé, which established blondes as both stupid and sexually available. Duthé took long pauses before she spoke, leading people to believe she was literally dumb, as well as stupid. Fast forward to 1953, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hit the box office with Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei, epitomised as the dumb blonde. Portrayed as absent minded, slightly scatty and interested in marrying solely for money, some of Lorelei’s most famous lines only serve to emphasise the stereotype: ‘I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.’

Over time, the dumb blonde trope has morphed into the ‘beauty and brains’ dichotomy, which at least allows a whole other crop of women to have their intelligence questioned. This is not a step forward, even if it does represent inching away from Western beauty ideals. Calling a blonde ‘dumb’ is a surprisingly effective way to curb someone’s appetite for life and confidence in their own abilities, effective enough to render them docile so they can’t unlock their powers.”

Marilyn and the ‘Warhol Women’ in NYC

Warhol Women, a new exhibition showcasing 42 portraits of Andy Warhol’s female subjects, is on display at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, through to June 15, as Lane Florsheim reports for the Wall Street Journal. (Marilyn is featured next to Warhol’s take on the Mona Lisa, and opposite Jackie Kennedy.)

“Gorvy and Lévy have arranged the show so that the first works viewers see are portraits of Jackie Onassis and Marilyn Monroe, facing one another. [Dominique] Lévy, who came up with the show’s concept, says that no other man has been able to look at women the way Warhol did. ‘Without sexualizing the subject, he was able to do these portraits where the woman is allowed to be who she is,’ she says. ‘He captures the openness, the self-consciousness, the self-assurance, the insecurity. Aren’t we all self-conscious? I think nobody [else] does that, and that’s where he becomes conceptual.’ In Warhol’s depiction of Monroe, Lévy says, he ‘sees the enormous sadness’ that she felt.”

To Valerie and Marilyn, in Desparation

Valerie Solanos – the female artist notorious for shooting Andy Warhol – and Marilyn – his most famous subject – may seem to have little in common. But composer Pauline Oliveros thought otherwise, and her 1970 work, To Valerie Solanos and Marilyn Monroe In Recognition Of Their Desperation, has now been restaged in Toronto by the experimental music collective Public Recordings, as Lise Hosein reports for  CBC Arts.

“The work referenced Monroe, whose talent may have been somewhat eclipsed by her objectification, and Solanas, an impassioned figure who shot Andy Warhol. Oliveros saw both figures as ‘desperate and caught in the traps of inequality.’

The appeal of this composition to Toronto experimental music collective Public Recordings may have been in the moment in which it was written. Public Recordings producer Christopher Willes notes: ‘We wanted to bring this piece to people now because the moment that it was created — 1970 — was a moment of conservative backlash to many things. In many ways, we’re living through what feel like similar time politically, socially, and doing this piece because it’s about people finding, in real time, new ways of being together and new ways of organizing themselves.'”

Marilyn’s Girl Power in ‘Some Like It Hot’

Another 60th anniversary tribute to Some Like It Hot, this time from Simi Horowitz at the Hollywood Reporter.

“Yet at its core, the film is about sexual relations and attraction, and to judge by some of the film’s 1959 reviews it was pushing the good-taste envelope. Repeatedly, our two very heterosexual leads are suppressing their arousal as they’re flanked on all sides by nubile female musicians. In one legendary snippet, these nightie-clad instrumentalists are frolicking about in a train berth with Jerry/Daphne, for whom the experience is by turns delightful and tormenting.

And how’s this for a bit of convention-defying vulgarity? The women are heavy-duty drinkers and sexually schooled, and not feeling unhappy about it at all. On the contrary, they’re boisterous, living out loud and having a hell of a time reveling in their agency.

Admittedly, Sugar Kane has been exploited by love’em-and-leave’em saxophone players. But make no mistake: She milks her victimization for all it’s worth. Like Monroe herself, Sugar is an embodiment of the male fantasy (breathless, helpless and in need of saving), and employs it to her advantage. When Joe, in the guise of Junior, who is trying hard to evoke Cary Grant, says he likes classical music, Sugar lies outright, proclaiming she studied at the Sheboygan Conservatory. The film is a heady celebration of play-acting.

Manipulation and deception are the name of the game, and everyone indulges with impunity. Even at the end, when Jerry admits to Sugar that he’s a lying louse, just another one of her abusive saxophone players, he hasn’t really changed and neither has she. But true to movie tradition, heterosexual love conquers all — or does it?

Wilder’s universe is far too nuanced for anything as obvious as that. Here, homoerotic twists are everywhere — not least the full mouth-on-mouth kiss between Sugar and Josephine. It’s the turning point when Sugar realizes that Josephine and Junior are one and the same. The line straddling best female bud and male lover is fluid; Sugar adores both sides of that mask, conceivably loving Josephine even more, while Joe has virtually disappeared in the melee of disguises.”

Ben Whishaw Prepares for ‘Norma Jeane Baker of Troy’

In an interview with The Times, Ben Whishaw reveals more about his intriguing role in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, which opens at New York’s hottest new arts venue, The Shed, on April 6 through May 19.

“Whishaw, 38, is rehearsing a play called Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, in which he plays a man who likes to dress up as Marilyn Monroe. ‘We just got the costumes,’ he says. ‘I wear a dress that’s a replica of the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch — the white one where the wind comes up. They’ve also given me the bum, hips and breasts. I don’t think they’re as big as Marilyn’s, but they’re proportionate to my body. It’s a strange thing. I’m not playing Marilyn, I’m playing a man who’s infatuated with her. The play is set in the year she died and he’s in mourning for her. Apparently there was a spate of copycat suicides that year.’

To research the role, Whishaw has been reading a book called Fragments. ‘It’s bits of Marilyn’s diary, notes on hotel paper, poetry,’ he says. ‘She writes beautifully. Arthur Miller was here with her when they were doing the film The Prince and the Showgirl, and she opened his diary and read about how disappointed he was with her, how embarrassed he was being around his intellectual friends with her. Apparently this was devastating to Marilyn. All these men say how difficult she was. It makes you want to strangle them. But she really was amazing. She had a lot going on, a lot of sadness on her plate, poor darling. To be a star in that star system and those men.’

If she had been born 50 years later, does he think she would have been part of the #MeToo movement? ‘I’m sure she would have. I’ve been listening to interviews with her. She doesn’t seem afraid of anything.’

Fearless and vulnerable. It’s a contradiction that could possibly describe both of them. ‘Yes,’ he smiles.”

Kirkland’s Marilyn Inspires ‘Skinwork’ Project

Photographer Bettina Bogar was inspired by fellow Canadian Douglas Kirkland’s iconic 1961 shots of Marilyn between the sheets to launch Skinwork, a women’s empowerment project in aid of skin cancer awareness, on display at Toronto’s Artscape Youngplace until March 16, as Wing Tze Tang reports for the Toronto Star.

“When Toronto photographer Bettina Bogar visited a local art gallery a few years ago, she was struck by a picture of Marilyn Monroe, facing Douglas Kirkland’s camera wearing nothing but white bedsheets. ‘I thought, she feels so comfortable in her skin. I’ve never seen a woman feeling that good about herself,’ says Bogar, who decided to create her own shoot inspired by that iconic image … The photos celebrate the female figure and skin in intimate and varied detail, including close-ups of skin tags, scars and markings, all cast in a bright and beautiful light. None of the images were retouched.”

Meanwhile, a Douglas Kirkland retrospective opens today at the Palos Verdes Art Center in California – more details here.