‘Blonde’ and the Hollywood Novel

Following reports that Cuban actress Ana de Armas will star in a big-screen adaptation of Blonde, Karina Longworth – author of a new Howard Hughes biography, and podcaster at You Must Remember This – lists Joyce Carol Oates’ epic novel among the best Hollywood-inspired fictions in an article for the Wall Street Journal. While Karina believes Oates’ liberal attitude towards the facts is forgivable, I think there are many better novels based on Marilyn’s life (including Doris Grumbach’s The Missing Person, Adam Braver’s Misfit, and Sean O’Hagan’s Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog.)

“The magic of Joyce Carol Oates’s epic imagining of the life of Norma Jeane Baker (aka Marilyn Monroe) lies not in its realism or accuracy but the quality of its fabrication. All of the characters around the orphan-turned-bombshell feel not like ‘real people’—even though most of them are, or were—but like characters in a novel, each with an inner life as richly drawn as the protagonist’s. The star herself remains an enigma, which feels more true to life than any biography that has tried to psychoanalyze or explain this woman who seemed at best a fragmented puzzle to herself. Ms. Oates heartbreakingly juxtaposes the construction of the Marilyn image with its meaning, evident in a snapshot from the set of The Seven Year Itch: “She’s been squealing and laughing, her mouth aches. . . . Her scalp and her pubis burn from that morning’s peroxide applications. . . . That emptiness. Guaranteed. She’s been scooped out, drained clean, no scar tissue to interfere with your pleasure, and no odor. Especially no odor. The Girl with No Name, the girl with no memory.'”

Joyce Carol Oates Goes Back to ‘Blonde’

Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about Marilyn, Blonde (2000), will be reissued later this month. In a review for The Times, Liza Klaussman claims it is now even more relevant given the recent revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, and the #MeToo movement.

“To capture a quicksilver persona such as Monroe’s is no easy feat. Oates puts multiple perspectives to use, bringing Monroe’s life to us in shards of Technicolor. It is told at once through Norma Jeane’s voice and those close to her … What saves Blonde from descending into a darkness so deep that the reader is forced to look away is in part Oates’s lavish language and its loose structure, which gives the story a high-octane energy. And it can’t be denied that there is voyeuristic pleasure in it. However, the novel is also infused with Monroe’s sly, subversive wit, breaking up the darker matter … What Oates achieves is to restore a crucial element of Monroe’s story, one that has been lost, overlooked — the element of fury. Blonde stands as a cry of rage against the violence, symbolic and physical, that was perpetrated against the woman known as Marilyn Monroe. And, in the end, it leaves us in no doubt of the personal price to be paid for denying that rage.”

However, while Blonde is revered by some critics, others felt that Oates took too many liberties with the facts of Marilyn’s life and presented her as a helpless victim. In her 2004 ‘meta-biography’, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Sarah Churchwell challenged Oates’ claim that fictional devices enabled her to give full expression to Marilyn’s complex nature.

“Oates repeatedly protests in interviews against the ‘literalism’ of critics who disliked her extravagant fabrications, but it is not crudely literal to acknowledge that Marilyn Monroe is not totally a product of Joyce Carol Oates’ imagination, and that the story Oates tells is not entirely a product of her imagination. Although Oates can (and does) hide behind the intellectual justification that the novel is postmodern in its ‘experimentations’ with blending fact and fiction, it is hard not to conclude that the experimentation is expedient, and arbitrary … Oates’ postmodern ‘experimentation’ reconfirmed the Marilyn Monroe we’ve known since 1946: artificial, one-dimensional and dim. Oates’ technique is not archetype but stereotype, not only of ‘the Ex-Athlete’ and ‘the Playwright,’ but particularly of breathless, confused, stammering, disintegrating ‘Marilyn’ … In Oates’ approach, Marilyn’s life is such an open secret that we need not bother with its details: we can simply stand back and take in the whole as a panorama adequately represented by selected symbolic ‘truths’.”

Hugh Hefner 1926-2017

Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, has died aged 91.

In 1953, he acquired Tom Kelley’s nude calendar shot of Marilyn for the magazine’s first issue, also putting her on the cover. (You can read the full story here.) ‘She was actually in my brother’s acting class in New York,’ he told CNN. ‘But the reality is that I never met her. I talked to her once on the phone, but I never met her. She was gone, sadly, before I came out here.’

In 1960, Playboy published another laudatory feature headlined ‘The Magnificent Marilyn.’ If Marilyn sometimes resented others profiteering from her nude calendar – for which she had earned a flat $50 back in 1949 – by 1962 she was considering posing for Playboy‘s Christmas issue (although some sources indicate she changed her mind.)

Lawrence Schiller’s poolside nudes, taken during filming of the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, were published by Playboy in 1964, two years after Marilyn’s death.

The women’s rights campaigner Gloria Steinem, who would later write a biography of Marilyn, went ‘undercover’ as a Bunny Girl in a Playboy club for a magazine assignment durging the 1960s, and found the experience degrading – an opinion echoed by feminists today, as the BBC reports. Cultural historian Camille Paglia takes a different view, citing Hefner as ‘one of the principal architects of the social revolution.’

Marilyn has made many posthumous appearances on Playboy covers through the years. The magazine has also revealed rare and unseen images, such as Jon Whitcomb’s 1958 painting of Marilyn (based on a photo by Carl Perutz), and illustrator Earl Moran’s photos of a young Marilyn.

Many distinguished authors have written about Marilyn for Playboy, including John Updike, Roger Ebert, and Joyce Carol Oates. More dubiously, the magazine also published detective John Miner’s contested transcripts of tapes allegedly made by Marilyn for her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson.

Since his death was announced earlier today, Twitter users and even some news websites have mistakenly posted a photo of Marilyn with Sir Laurence Olivier, confusing him with Hefner, as Mashable reports (a final absurdity that all three would probably have found hilarious.)

In 1992, Hefner reportedly purchased the crypt next to Marilyn’s in Westwood Memorial Park for $75,000. If he is buried there, it will either pave the way for extra security measures, or make Marilyn’s final resting place even more of a spectacle.

Director Casts Doubt on Netflix ‘Blonde’

Despite reports this summer that filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s long-mooted adaptation of Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates’ controversial novel about Marilyn, would be produced for Netflix in 2017, it is “not a done deal,” as Dominik admits in a new interview for Collider. (Criticised by MM fans for its factual liberties, Blonde will be available  via Kindle for the first time in English next March – so if you haven’t read it yet, judge for yourself.)

“When I spoke to you for Killing Them Softly, you were going to do Blonde next, but that was back in 2012. We’ve recently heard that Netflix was going to step in and finance that, so are you finally going to go into production on that film?

DOMINIK: I don’t know. I hope so, but it’s not, in any way, a done deal.

So, you don’t have a possible production date yet?

DOMINIK: No.

What is it about that film and that story that’s made you stick with it all this time, and still want to get it made?

DOMINIK: I think that Blonde will be one of the ten best movies ever made. That’s why I want to do it.

Why do you think that is?

DOMINIK: It’s a film about the human condition. It tells the story of how a childhood trauma shapes an adult who’s split between a public and a private self. It’s basically the story of every human being, but it’s using a certain sense of association that we have with something very familiar, just through media exposure. It takes all of those things and turns the meanings of them inside out, according to how she feels, which is basically how we live. It’s how we all operate in the world. It just seems to me to be very resonant. I think the project has got a lot of really exciting possibilities, in terms of what can be done, cinematically.

Are you still hoping to have Jessica Chastain play Marilyn Monroe, or will you have to recast the role once you finally get a firm start date?

DOMINIK: Well, it’s a chicken and the egg type of thing. But, I don’t think it’s going to be Jessica Chastain.”

Netflix Goes ‘Blonde’ For Marilyn

Blonde (2000)

After several years of planning, acclaimed filmmaker Andrew Dominik will direct his adaptation of Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates’ controversial novel about Marilyn, for Netflix in 2017, as Jordan Raup reports for The Film Stage.

“Dominik confirms rumors that Netflix is backing the film, with New Regency Pictures and Plan B previously on board. While Jessica Chastain was previously set to star, and Naomi Watts before her, Dominik says neither are attached anymore and that he’ll cast a new actress, to be announced this January.

Based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, he told us, ‘Blonde‘s interesting because it has very little dialogue in it. My previous three movies have relied on a lot of talking and I don’t think there’s a scene in Blonde that’s longer than two pages. I’m really excited about doing a movie that’s an avalanche of images and events. It’s just a different way. It’s a different thing for me to do. And the main character is female. My films are fairly bereft of woman and now I’m imagining what it’s like to be one.’

He adds, ‘My idea with the film is to make something a little more accessible than what I’ve done before. It moves a bit faster.'”

UPDATE: Immortal Marilyn has blogged about Blonde, outlying the potential problems of a fictional ‘biopic’.

Book News: ‘Marilyn: Myth and Muse’

Marilyn Monroe: Mythos und Muse is a new German book edited by Barbara Sichtermann, and featuring various writings on Marilyn – including Truman Capote’s A Beautiful Child, and extracts from Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, and Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Blonde. It is published by Ebersach & Simon as part of their Blue Notes series, profiling various cultural icons. 

“Barbara Sichtermann draws a multifaceted portrait of Marilyn Monroe and a collection of texts of famous contemporaries, showing the desperate struggle of the most famous blonde in the world to love and recognition, their fragility and fragmentation, but also her exceptional talent. A fascinating look behind the Hollywood scenes and an intimate encounter with the woman behind the mythical MM, a versatile and still underrated actress.”

‘The Misfits’ and the Meaning of Home

While browsing on the Lapham’s Quarterly website yesterday, I found this thoughtful 2011 essay by J.M. Tyrell, ‘The Meaning of Home‘, in which he suggests that The Misfits depicted ‘a new kind of American family.’ (I’ve collated the parts relevant to MM here, but the essay is well worth reading in its entirety.)

“Yet it’s clear from Miller’s screenplay for John Huston’s movie The Misfits—a film celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year—that Miller didn’t see the American family as a problem that had an answer. Flee the traps of family life on an Eastern stage, and you might find yourself wandering lost and mangled in a film set in the deserts of Nevada, atomized and disconnected, drifting among strangers from divorce court to highway to rodeo to whiskey bottle to bed with fast friends. The myth of the family and the myth of self-reliance—how does the same culture hatch two such irreconcilable dreams? Miller’s characters are always being crushed by conflicting motives and impulses, forced into impossible situations by self-delusions or the repression of past betrayals. In his Eastern plays, blood relations doom one another, acting like planets circling closer and closer to moral black holes. In the movie script that heralded the end of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, absolute freedom from family ties in the West appears to be another kind of American disaster—one papered over with a Hollywood ending.

Bigsby [Christopher Bigsby, Miller’s biographer] suggests that the playwright may have been drawn to Marilyn Monroe because the star, like Miller’s father, had been an abandoned child, and also notes the curious fact that Monroe and Isidore continued to socialize after her divorce from his son. In one sense, Monroe had been searching for a substitute father all her life—many of her lovers were older men, including Miller. According to Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalized version of her life, Blonde (2000), she had grown up thinking that an image of Clark Gable in her mother’s home was a picture of her long-lost dad, and this stunningly imagined episode from the novel is based in fact. An irony of fate that also foreshadowed doom brought them together in 1960 to play lovers on the set of John Huston’s filmed adaptation of The Misfits. Miller had written the screenplay to honor Monroe, but their marriage collapsed on the set.

‘Hello’ was one of Miller’s keywords in the 1960s. It reappears at key points in The Misfits, as in the famous moment when Roslyn calms down Guido after spurning his advances by saying, ‘Hello, Guido!’ It’s also the final line of dialog in Miller’s 1964 play After the Fall, where it denotes a much more hopeful potential for the characters Quentin and Holga, modeled on Miller and his third wife, Inge Morath, to find each other in the ruins of twentieth-century history and the fracturing of families and marriages. (Miller and Morath first met on the set of The Misfits.) Hello: it’s an all-purpose interjection with an American ring to it. It’s ready-made for a country of ‘interesting strangers,’ as Isabelle calls Reno in The Misfits. It can be a question or a statement that amounts to admitting that we don’t know one another and we aren’t family: ‘Yes, I’m here, I exist, and who might you be?’

‘Don’t you have a home?’ Roslyn asks Gay when they’re driving around. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘Never was a better one, either.’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘Right here,’ Gay says, and nods at the road and out at the desert. The camera shows us a stretch of land blurred by the speed of the drive: scrub brush, sand, and mountains. Sometimes the land looks grand, sublime, and inviting; on other viewings, it seems sadly desolate and empty, a kind of lie. Anyone who has ever been to Nevada knows the feeling of being divorced from everything, stuck between two sets of mountains, the time zones piling up between you and your family, everyone you once loved, and everything that once loved you. Roslyn’s response to Gay’s childlike faith in the open country—a place where you can ‘just live,’ as he puts it in an earlier scene—seems to open into a void. Monroe’s face conjures a movie star’s well of loneliness, a wounded look that seems to stare out from the foster homes of Norma Jean’s own childhood.

‘I don’t feel that way about you, Gay,’ Roslyn says, and the next thing you know he is kissing her awake for breakfast. Eroticism becomes the great American balm for lonely hearts, the fake cure-all from the movies, from Marilyn. The characters in The Misfits try to fabricate an artificial tribe out of the magic dust of sexual alchemy and instant friendship in a broken-down void that isn’t even a frontier anymore. In the East, Miller’s characters cannot escape their fates because of their closely knit families, or because of events that loom out of the past to entrap parents and children. In the West, Miller’s characters are completely free but also completely unstuck, there’s too much room and nobody knows what to do. Maybe the East contains too much love and the West not enough—absolute freedom can be as terrifyingly lonely as family life can be cloying. At any rate, there’s no solution anywhere; the signs leading to the freeway or back home are pointing in different directions. ‘Well, you’re free,’ Isabelle toasts Roslyn near the beginning of the film. ‘Maybe the trouble is you’re not used to it yet.’ Or maybe the real trouble is that the heart cannot stand this kind of freedom.

The Misfits is regarded as an artistic and personal death-trap: in Hollywood lore, it is the picture that destroyed Miller’s marriage with Monroe through various infidelities, behind-the-scenes dramas, and on-set disasters. In fact, Monroe already had entered the abyss for good and would not complete another picture. After insisting on performing many of his own strenuous stunts in the desert heat, Gable died of heart failure soon after filming ended. Yet unlike the real-life background of the production, and very much unlike Miller’s best plays, the movie itself is desperate to conjure magic and restore belief in the possibility of a happy ending. ‘Gay,’ Roslyn says, ‘if there could be one person in the world—a child who could be brave from the beginning…’ Monroe had miscarried twice with Miller. According to Miller’s ‘cinema novel’ version of The Misfits, ‘The love between them is viable, holding them a little above the earth.’

We want to believe it can all work out, and so does Miller, at least he does here. This is sorrow-tinged, impossible wish-fulfillment, not just another manipulation cooked up by the studios. The Misfits is one of those movies that jumps right out of its frame, telling us almost everything we need to know about the movies, about the insecure relationship between writers and Hollywood, about what happened to the West, and maybe even about how the American Dream had gone wrong. Happy ending aside—Joyce Carol Oates in Blonde calls it a ‘fairy tale’—the movie contradicts itself. Actually, it doesn’t contain a lot of good news.

The Misfits’ portrayal of double-edged freedom from family ties in the West couldn’t be further removed from the tragic irony of the Lomans’ ‘free and clear’ home ownership that draws the curtain in Death of a Salesman. When asked about his home, Gay gestures outside his truck at the desert. It’s the place that he’s taking Roslyn in the Hollywood happy ending of The Misfits. She’s told him that she’s ready to start a family. But, really, is there any reason to suspect that it will last longer than Gay’s previous marriage, the children of which run into their falling-down-drunk father at a rinky-dink rodeo? (Or any longer than Miller’s own marriage to Monroe, for that matter?) An Eastern family might be a self-poisoning well or a fouled nest, but The Misfits raises questions about what happens to American souls when they achieve the national dream of breaking loose from all moorings and drifting into a vast continent where nobody’s home. Which is a worse fate, to have a bad family or to have no family at all? The ending of The Misfits gives us a false or movie-dream solution to an enduring problem. It’s an answer we want to believe in but which we know is a temporary shelter at best, at worst a mirage—a mirage that surely will lead to the production of one more unhappy family.”

‘Blonde’ and the Lonesome Reader

Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde is not one of my own favourite novels (nor one of my favourite books about Marilyn), although to be fair I haven’t revisited it since it was first published in 2000. After that first reading, I felt that Oates – a writer I had admired – distorted aspects of MM’s life, and portrayed her as a rather one-dimensional victim.

Since then, I’ve spoken to many fans who feel the same. Obviously, I’m not impartial here, having written my own fictional take on Marilyn. Six years after completing The Mmm Girl, I’d like to read Blonde again, mainly out of curiosity – and especially if it was reissued on Kindle, as it’s rather a weighty tome!

However, I was pleased to discover the positive experience that Blonde has been for some others, leading them to impart their knowledge and challenge misconceptions – as posted recently on the Lonesome Reader blog.

“I wanted to highlight this novel specifically because I had a strange conversation with a colleague once. Somehow we started talking about Marilyn Monroe and he instantly said ‘Oh, that slut.’ I flinched in shock that he’d be so disdainful and answered him angrily. He tried to justify himself by saying that she basically slept with everyone and that’s the only reason she had a career. I have no doubt his opinion is shared by many people. It’s this sort of casual dismissal and thinking about women in only simplistic misogynistic terms which is the reason why feminism and the promotion of women’s writing is especially important.”

‘White Rose’ and Other Stories

Black Dahlia & White Rose, a new short story collection by Joyce Carol Oates, will be published next month. The title story imagines an encounter between Elizabeth Short – the young woman murdered in Los Angeles in 1947, and known as The Black Dahlia – and a young Marilyn. It first appeared in a 2011 e-anthology, LA Noire, and you can read the story here. (My review is here.)

Oates, author of the Marilyn-inspired novel, Blonde, spoke to the New York Times about her latest publication.

“The title story in your new collection, Black Dahlia & White Rose, was first published in conjunction with a bloody video game, L.A. Noire, which was noted for its narrative sophistication. Did you get a chance to play it?

No, but it sounds very imaginative and interesting, like you’re in a waking dream. I just don’t have the apparatus to see it. But we were all — the creators of the video game and I — inspired by the idea of Los Angeles in a certain period of time.

 

The ‘Black Dahlia’ here refers to Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress who was gruesomely murdered in Los Angeles in 1947.

Yes, and if you’re interested in hard-boiled mystery, the Black Dahlia is like the Virgin Mary.

She was mutilated, her body cut in half. In your story, you assume her voice from beyond the grave.

Well, I’m very interested in voices. I also had my novel Blonde about Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes Marilyn Monroe, narrated by the posthumous Norma Jeane Baker.

Marilyn is also in this story; you imagine her as the Black Dahlia’s roommate. There have already been eight new books about Monroe just this year. Why do you think she endures?

After having had a high-profile but not necessarily successful career and then a disastrous ending, she became what we might call ‘iconic’, a sort of awkward word that means that people relate to the icon without any historical sense or intellectual comprehension of what it means.”

If Marilyn Had Lived…

The Huffington Post asked John Strasberg, Sarah Churchwell and Joyce Carol Oates what direction Marilyn’s career might have taken if she had lived beyond 1962.

“Back in those days, women, after a certain age, just weren’t cast in movies. Bette Davis was the first one to fight through the prejudice about how women should look in movies and playing leading roles; she had won Academy Awards, but she couldn’t get a job, so she put out ads in Variety and the such. Whether Marilyn could have done that, I don’t know. Certainly there was the possibility of that.” – John Strasberg

“My belief about Marilyn Monroe is that if she had only resisted returning to Hollywood, to make such an egregious movie as Let’s Make Love, but had remained in NYC in association with the Actors Studio, she might well have had a stage career as a serious mature actress; she might even be alive today.” – Joyce Carol Oates

“She had seen women like Betty Grable bow out gracefully, say, ‘I’ve had my time, and now it’s time for something else.’ So I don’t think it was difficult for Marilyn to imagine that.” – Sarah Churchwell