Terry Johnson’s Marilyn: From ‘Prism’ to ‘Insignificance’

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in ‘Prism’

Prism, Terry Johnson’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre about the twilight years of Marilyn’s favourite cameraman Jack Cardiff, is enjoying  positive reviews. Elsewhere in London, Johnson’s most famous work – Insignificance – will be revived next month at the Arcola Theatre, with his daughter, Alice Bailey-Johnson, playing the Monroe-inspired leading lady.

Poster art for ‘Insignificance’

“Gorgeous photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich hang around the garage, and an expensive camera is held up on a stand. There’s a problem though; the device doesn’t work, as it’s missing a vital component, the prism. The prism is a miracle of light, and an object that splits this light into a rainbow of three colours, creating a Technicolor fantasy.

Written and directed by Terry Johnson, the play cleverly weaves together two time periods: the Fifties and present day. Despite not much happening in terms of dramatic action, the text is full of light-hearted motifs and one-liners, keeping the audience engaged. However, Prism also packs a real punch, as it deals with an illness currently effecting a lot of people: dementia.

Suffering from the disease, Jack doesn’t know who he is or who his family are. His son Mason (Barnaby Kay), has requested he write a memoir, however Jack only seems to remember the past without its glory. Riddled with anxiety over the task, he is supported by a carer (Rebecca Night). As Jack, Robert Lindsay gives a masterclass in stage acting. The comedy lands at all the right points and his full embodiment of every Cardiff trait is surreal to watch.” – Alistair Wilkinson, Broadway World

“Cardiff’s memories of his famous subjects – Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen, Marilyn Monroe accompanied by her husband Arthur Miller on The Prince and the Showgirl – glimmer in the air … There’s strong support too from Claire Skinner who gets to impersonate Katharine Hepburn, and from Rebecca Night who is transformed from carer into Monroe and Lauren Bacall. But it’s Lindsay’s night.” – Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage

“Lucy (Rebecca Night), who’s been hired as Jack’s carer and typist, doesn’t have much of a clue about how to fulfil either role, though she does eventually prove to have a kind of natural empathy for him … Night is also reborn as a shimmering, statuesque Marilyn Monroe, to re-enact an earlier scene she shared with Cardiff as Lucy when the ailing cinematographer imagined her as the Blonde Bombshell on his own casting couch. Barnaby doubles as Monroe’s affronted husband Arthur Miller.” – Adam Sweeting, The Arts Desk

“When Robert Lindsay’s concertedly serene, quietly agitated Jack holds up the refractive optical marvel that was a key component of his adventures in colour – ‘God’s eye’ – it’s hard not to feel a frisson of wonder. Our response to the way the domestic scene that greets him in his converted, memorabilia-crammed Buckinghamshire garage is twisted by his diseased mind into memories of yore is more complex, however. Johnson invites some hesitant laughter as Cardiff talks funny, imagines his local boozer has gone missing and fleetingly confuses his carer with Monroe and his son with Arthur Miller, reliving old conversations. Yet the piece is suffused with real pain, the family torn between despair and indulgence.” – Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph

“The problem is that because Cardiff worked so much with the famous, the play doesn’t inspire the immediate empathy of a work like Florian Zeller’s The Father, with its more mundane hero. If it finally touches our hearts, it is because it reveals the cost to those close to Cardiff of his final decline and because of its recognition that no life achieves a perfect narrative arc, and is instead more akin to shooting a film than watching one.

Lindsay is amazing to watch. He evokes the casual charm that made Cardiff magnetic to the women he worked with as well as the professional obsessiveness that led him to experiment with prisms and seek to reproduce the textures of a Vermeer or Renoir on screen. Above all, Lindsay’s performance has a humanity that suggests Cardiff’s cinematic memories are accompanied by a spasmodic grasp of reality.

Claire Skinner shifting between Cardiff’s wife and his idealised Katharine Hepburn, Rebecca Night as the carer who becomes his memorialised Marilyn Monroe and Barnaby Kay as the son who turns into Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller, also show the pangs of becoming part of someone else’s disordered dreams.” – Michael Billington, The Guardian

“The structure is artful. Rebecca Night reappears as a lustrous Marilyn Monroe, in order to re-enact, word for world, an earlier scene with Jack in which he’d confused his carer, Lucy, with the screen goddess, draped on his casting couch. (Kay is a pompously affronted Arthur Miller). These lapses between precarious present and distorted past take us into the jungle of Jack’s ailing mind, while the doubling and tripling bring home the ache of being mistaken for one of the luminaries in his thronging cinematic memory-bank.” – Paul Taylor, The Independent

2016: A Year In Marilyn Headlines

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In January, exhibitions featuring Milton Greene and Douglas Kirkland’s photographs of Marilyn opened in London and Amsterdam. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art paid tribute to Marilyn’s choreographer, Jack Cole. Also this month, James Turiello’s book, Marilyn: The Quest for an Oscar, was published. And Edward Parone, assistant producer of The Misfits, died.

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In February, Marilyn ‘starred’ with Willem Dafoe in a Snickers commercial for the US Superbowl. Monroe Sixer Jimmy Collins’ candid photographs were sold at Heritage Auctions, and the touring exhibition, Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon, came to Albury, Australia.

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Another major Australian exhibition, Twentieth Century Fox Presents Marilyn Monroe, featuring the collections of Debbie ReynoldsScott Fortner, Greg Schreiner and Maite Minguez Ricart – opened at the Bendigo Art Gallery in March. And Barbara Sichtermann’s book, Marilyn Monroe: Myth and Muse, was published in Germany.

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In April, a special edition of Vanity Fair magazine – dedicated to MM – was published. A campaign to save Rockhaven, the former women’s sanitarium where Marilyn’s mother Gladys once lived – was launched. And actress Anne Jackson – wife of Eli Wallach, and friend to Marilyn – passed away.

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In May, Marilyn graced the cover of a Life magazine special about ‘hidden Hollywood’, and Sebastien Cauchon’s novel, Marilyn 1962, was published in France. Cabaret singer Marissa Mulder’s one-woman show, Marilyn in Fragments, opened in New York, while Chinese artist Chen Ke unveiled Dream-Dew, a series of paintings inspired by Marilyn’s life story. The remarkable collection of David Gainsborough Roberts was displayed in London. Finally, Alan Young – the comedian and Mister Ed star, who befriended a young Marilyn – died.

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June 1st marked what would be Marilyn’s 90th birthday. Also in June, New Yorkers were treated to an Andre de Dienes retrospective, Marilyn and the California Girls. An exhibition of the Ted Stampfer collection, Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Behind the Myth, opened in Turin, Italy. A new documentary, Artists in Love: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, was broadcast in the UK, while Australia honoured Marilyn with a commemorative stamp folder, and genealogists investigated Marilyn’s Scottish ancestry.

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In July, the birthday celebrations continued in Marilyn’s Los Angeles hometown with tributes from painter David Bromley, and another Greene exhibition. A new musical, Marilyn!, opened in Glendale. Rapper Frank Ocean appeared alongside a Monroe impersonator in a Calvin Klein commercial. And Marni Nixon, the Hollywood soprano who sang the opening bars of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, passed away.

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August 5th marked the 54th anniversary of Marilyn’s death. Also this month, it was announced that Seward Johnson’s ‘Forever Marilyn’ sculpture may return permanently to Palm Springs. April VeVea’s Marilyn Monroe: A Day in the Life was published, and Marilyn’s role in Niagara was featured in another Life magazine special, celebrating 75 years of film noir.

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In September, Marilyn: Character Not Image – an exhibition curated by Whoopi Goldberg – opened in New Jersey. Terry Johnson’s fantasy play, Insignificance, was revived in Wales. Two locks of Marilyn’s hair were sold by Julien’s Auctions for $70,000. And author Michelle Morgan published The Marilyn Journal, first in a series of books chronicling the Marilyn Lives Society; and A Girl Called Pearl, a novel for children with a Monroe connection.

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In October, Happy Birthday Marilyn – a touring showcase for the collection of Ted Stampfer – came to Amsterdam, while Marilyn: I Wanna Be Loved By You, a retrospective for some of her best photographers, opened in France. Marilyn Forever, Boze Hadleigh’s book of quotes, was published. Marilyn’s friendship with Ella Fitzgerald was depicted on the cult TV show, Drunk History. And on a sadder note, photographer George Barris, biographer John Gilmore, and William Morris agent Norman Brokaw all passed away this month.

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In November, Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President‘ dress was sold for a record-breaking $4.8 million during a three-day sale at Julien’s Auctions, featuring items from the David Gainsborough Roberts collection, the Lee Strasberg estate, and many others including the candid photos of Monroe Sixer Frieda Hull. Also this month, comedienne Rachel Bloom spoofed ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in a musical sequence for her TV sitcom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And Marilyn Monroe: Lost Photo Collection, a limited edition book featuring images by Milton Greene, Gene Lester and Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, was published.

05E065FF-9E98-4677-8946-85623619BBF3-2686-0000014DE181D724_tmpFinally, in December the EYE Film Institute began a Marilyn movie season in Amsterdam. The Asphalt Jungle was released on Blu-Ray by Criterion. And actresses Zsa Zsa Gabor and Debbie Reynolds both passed away.

Marilyn, Joe, Einstein and McCarthy in Clwyd

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A new stage revival of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (which was famously adapted for the screen in 1985), starring Sophie Melville as Marilyn, is currently playing at Theatr Clywd in North Wales until October 15, reports the Chester Chronicle.

Insignificance takes four iconic faces of the post Second World War era in America – Marilyn Monroe, her husband, New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio, physicist Albert Einstein and communist witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy – and explores their explosive interaction in an imagined meeting in a hotel room in New York in 1955.

Sophie said: ‘I’m thrilled to wear the white dress and play the part of Marilyn – it’s a dream, it really is. It’s been hard work because it’s the first time I’ve played a character who is a real person.’

‘I’ve tried to take on her quality but at the same time make the part my own rather than try to impersonate her. The main thing was getting the voice right and once I’d got that everything just fell into place.’

The show’s director Kate Wasserberg returns to Theatr Clwyd following her production of [Arthur Miller’s] All My Sons last year.

She said: ‘Insignificance is a play I’ve wanted to direct since I saw it at my local theatre when I was 12 or 13 years old. My dad took me along and thought we were going to see The Kiss of the Spiderwoman but it wasn’t on.

‘Even though I was very young, there are several moments from the play that are seared into my memory. I remember laughing a lot. It’s a play about politics, life, love and the stars. Terry Johnson’s work is incredibly intelligent, it works on several levels at once but, line for line, it’s properly funny. I read his plays and laugh out loud.'”

mailyn.jpg.gallery (1)Lew  Baxter gives Insignificance a rave review in the Wirral Globe

“This latest rather spiffing theatrical production directed by Kate Wasserberg in Mold demonstrates just how on several levels the confrontations and verbal jousting between the protagonists still has potent relevance that surprises and amuses.

It is in many ways an emotional rollercoaster particularly when embracing the emotional fragility and conflicts that shaped the relationship of Monroe and DiMaggio, never mind the manic nature of McCarthy whose demonising of America’s intelligentsia leaves a stain on that country’s contemporary history.

And Einstein, branded a Soviet stooge, was himself vulnerable and is here played with considerable aplomb by Brendan Charleson.

Wasserberg has completely nailed the essence of Johnson’s work, which is enhanced by a really top-notch cast: there is a chemistry that fizzes like a sparkler between all four participants and each has that magnetic attribute that engrosses those watching.

Sophie Melville, relatively fresh out of drama school, is simply sublime as Marilyn … here is – if you’ll pardon the pun – a pitch-perfect portrayal of Monroe’s passionate if rather unsophisticated spouse Di Maggio by Ben Deery.

The play begins, in this instance, with the soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’, which under the circumstances is most appropriate … This is the kind of production that emphasises how live, breathing theatre, more so than film, can captivate an audience and keep them gripped to the last fading light.”

Marilyn Plays to Open in London and New York

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As the new year begins, Marilyn-related plays are due to open on both sides of the Atlantic. Insignificance, Terry Johnson’s surreal fantasy about Marilyn and other American icons – which was made into a 1985 film – is being revived by the London-based theatre company, Defribilator, and in keeping with its New York hotel setting, will be staged in a 5-star suite at Langham Place, NYC, for four weeks from February 19.

Meanwhile, Hello Norma Jeane – a comedy by British playwright Dylan Costello, first staged in Chicago back in 2012 – returns home to the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, London from February 23-March 19. Vicki Michelle, best-known as Yvette in the 80s TV sitcom, ‘Allo ‘Allo, stars as ‘Lynnie’, an Essex grandma with a hidden identity.

Marilyn, Nic Roeg and ‘Insignificance’

Theresa Russell as 'The Actress' in 'Insignifance' (1985)
Theresa Russell as ‘The Actress’ in “Insignificance” (1985)

Insignificance is a 1985 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, based on Terry Johnson’s play which imagines a mythic encounter between four iconic figures – based on Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Senator Joe McCarthy (played by Tony Curtis) – and set in a New York hotel room, on the fateful night in September 1954 when Marilyn filmed the ‘subway scene’ for The Seven Year Itch.

Roeg, a British director born in 1928 (just two years after MM), has enjoyed cult success with films including PerformanceThe Man Who Fell to Earth and The Witches, and is the subject of new documentary, Nicolas Roeg: It’s About Time, to be broadcast on BBC4 on Sunday, June 28, at 10pm.

"Insignificance" director Nicolas Roeg
“Insignificance” director Nicolas Roeg

Bernard Rose has recalled his own collaboration with Roeg on Insignificance in a new interview with Sight & Sound magazine.

“The first thing I did professionally with Nic was make this music video for Roy Orbison’s ‘Wild Hearts Run Out of Time’ for Insignificance. I went to Nashville to shoot some stuff with Orbison. Then it was going to be cut into footage from Insignificance, which is what we did. I had to match the camera style Peter Hannan had used in Insignificance, which was very interesting: I was tracking on something and then suddenly zooming in on somebody’s drink. The cameraman at the time turned to me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ The moment he said that, I thought, ‘I’ve got Nic’s style.’ Not that I make any great claims for that video, but you can see that it was quite intricate to make the camera style run from one element to the other without seeming to jar.”

Deconstructing Stardom

Over at Film School Rejects, an interesting review of Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 fantasy, Insignificance:

“We may be introduced to Monroe in a staging of the famous upskirt moment from The Seven Year Itch (1955), but this moment is de-authenticated and deconstructed as we’re shown the complex process of staging a deliberately career-defining moment. Later, Monroe explicates the Theory of Relativity to Einstein using some balloons, flashlights, and model trains. Insignificance poses that neither of these manifestations of Monroe are more ‘authentic’ than the other. That the film also co-stars Curtis – who famously co-starred with Monroe in Some Like It Hot (1959) and whose character attempted to comically seduce Monroe’s – acting here as McCarthy trying to seduce Monroe further confounds the line between the authentic and the artificial in the construction of the star image.

In creating a fantastic scenario based on these star icons, Insignificance makes the case that the ubiquitous image of the public figure does not belong to the person who embodies them, but to the public, for by entering the public and articulating a constructed persona, the star has already entered the realm of fiction.”

Variations on Marilyn

 

The myriad imitators of Marilyn Monroe have been much-discussed of late. Perhaps the most interesting analysis comes from The AV Club, considering past film portrayals in The Goddess, The Sex Symbol, Insignificance, and Mister Lonely; Marilyn-inspired characters in The Munsters and Gilligan’s Island; famous fans like Anna Nicole Smith and Lindsay Lohan; the music of Marilyn Manson; fictionalisations by Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, and John Varley’s Gaea trilogy; recreations of Marilyn’s birthday song for President Kennedy, by Madonna and Jennifer Lopez; and the forthcoming NBC series, Smash.

‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’

Over at Flavorwire, a look back at past depictions of Marilyn in popular culture, in anticipation of Michelle Williams’ upcoming movie role. Pictured above is Catherine Hicks in the TV movie, Marilyn: An Untold Story (1980.)

I would also nominate Theresa Russell’s portrayal of ‘The Actress’ in the 1985 movie, Insignificance; Madonna in her ‘Material Girl’ video and ‘Homage to Norma Jean’ photo shoot; Drew Barrymore’s George magazine cover shot from 1996; and Angelina Jolie’s recreation of Monroe’s 1961 session with Douglas Kirkland.

In your opinion, what are the best – and worst – portrayals of Marilyn around? Or can nobody match the sublime MM?

Rediscovered Treasures

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Thanks to the continuing Marilyn! season in Brooklyn, some of Marilyn’s lesser-known movies are being reassessed. AltScreen devotes an entire post to critical analysis of Monkey Business, while over at Slant, Joseph Jan Lanthier compares Marilyn’s portrait of a disturbed young woman in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) to the character played by Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s classic 1965 chiller, Repulsion.

‘Forgotten Hollywood’ reviews What a Way to Go, the 1964 movie starring Shirley MacLaine that would probably have been Marilyn’s next film if she had completed Something’s Got to Give.

And finally, Jose Solis Mayen writes for PopMatters about Insignificance, an unusual, Marilyn-inspired movie from 1985, now available as a Criterion DVD:

“As the characters meet, the film subtly plays with their well known back stories. We see how the Actress longs to be a mother (an ominous Picasso painting seen throughout the film reflects both this yearning and also the film’s own cubist structure) but has had enough of her brute husband: the Ballplayer.

The film’s melancholy and fear is best summed up in an exchange between the Professor and the Actress. As she points out her image in a huge billboard outside the hotel, the wise man says ‘I prefer to look up,’ as he points to the stars. ‘They make me feel sad and lonely,’ replies the Actress. ‘All who look up feel small and lonely,’ he says. A movie star talking about feeling lonely with other stars? It’s absolutely no coincidence.”

 

 

Marilyn on Blu-Ray

Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, featuring an MM-inspired heroine, will be released by Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 14.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION:

  • Newly restored digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
  • New video interviews with Roeg, Thomas, and editor Tony Lawson
  • Making “Insignificance,” a short documentary shot on the set of the film
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and a reprinted exchange between Roeg and screenwriter Terry Johnson

Also, Some Like it Hot will be released on Blu-Ray by Fox on May 10. According to Hi-TechDigest, ‘There’s no word on tech specs or extras as of yet…apparently will be a digibook treatment…suggested list price $34.99.’