Canyons of Difference: Lohan, Schrader and Marilyn

Most Monroe fans heave an exhausted sigh each time comparisons to Lindsay Lohan are made. For us, these parallels arise simply because Lindsay is perhaps the world’s most famous MM fan. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Most recently, I saw her reading her idol’s own words in Love, Marilyn. Checking through my tags, I’m surprised to find that Lindsay has now produced no less than 22 posts. The Canyons will be screened at the Lincoln Center (where Arthur Miller’s Marilyn-influenced play, After the Fall, was the inaugural theatrical production in 1964) on July 29th, reports IndieWire.

But others see them both mainly as troubled starlets, when in fact they are different in many ways. Lindsay’s career, thus far, is that of a former child star who has struggled to make the transition to adult roles. She is undoubtedly gifted, though, and I wish her all the best, both personally and professionally.

Marilyn, on the other hand, maintained her star status, despite private turmoil, for well over a decade, until her untimely death: and, half a century on, her movies remain among the most popular of all time.

Paul Schrader, director of Lindsay’s latest film, The Canyons (watch the trailer here) addresses – and exploits – these comparisons in an op-ed for Film Comment. It’s an interesting piece,  though I can’t agree with him that Lindsay has ‘more natural talent’ than Marilyn did (or that she was protected by the studios; or that she sought prestige merely to be accepted.) No disrespect to Lohan, I just think he’s – fatally – under-estimating Monroe.

“While preparing and directing The Canyons I was reading James Goode’s book The Making of The Misfits, and I was struck by the similarities between Marilyn Monroe and the actress I was working with, Lindsay Lohan. (I wasn’t the only one so struck. Stephen Rodrick, a writer for The New York Times Magazine who was on set with us, titled his article about the film ‘The Misfits’, which appeared on the cover with the line: “This is what happens when you cast Lindsay Lohan in your movie.” Not even the Times is immune to the hurricane force of the LiLo phenomenon.)

Similarities? Tardiness, unpredictability, tantrums, absences, neediness, psychodrama—yes, all that, but something more, that thing that keeps you watching someone on screen, that thing you can’t take your eyes off of, that magic, that mystery. That thing that made John Huston say, I wonder why I put myself through all this, then I go to dailies.

Monroe and Lohan exist in the space between actors and celebrities, people whose professional and personal performances are more or less indistinguishable. Entertainers understand the distinction. To be successful, a performer controls the balance between the professional and personal, that is, he or she makes it seem like the professional is personal. It is the lack of this control that gives performers like Monroe and Lohan (and others) their unique attraction. We sense that the actress is not performing, that we are watching life itself. We call them ‘troubled,’ ‘tormented,’ ‘train wrecks’—but we can’t turn away. We can’t stop watching. They get under our skin in a way that controlled performers can’t.

I think Lohan has more natural acting talent than Monroe did, but, like Monroe, her weakness is her inability to fake it. She feels she must be experiencing an emotion in order to play it. This leads to all sorts of emotional turmoil, not to mention on-set delays and melodrama. It also leads, when the gods smile, to movie magic. Monroe had the same affliction. They live large, both in life and on screen. This is an essential part of what draws viewers to them.

But LL is not MM. The differences are even more interesting than the similarities. Those differences are marked by the almost 50 years that separate Monroe and Lohan. Over that time our notions of acting, stardom, celebrity, and talent have fundamentally changed. Marilyn had two things going for her that Lindsay doesn’t. She was the product of a culture that mandated public responsibility. An acting gift, good looks, and a zesty personality only got you so far. To be taken seriously one had to appear serious: study your craft, be mentored, read literature, respect your creative elders, marry a playwright, get the support of an established theater group or studio. To receive the system’s rewards—fame, money—you play-acted by the system’s rules. And Monroe did.

Second, Monroe was a product of the studio system. The studios used their influence in the media and the courts to protect their stars. Damage was controlled and discipline en-forced. It’s inconceivable that Monroe would have faced the legal troubles that have beset Lohan over the last five years. A star’s difficulties only became public when they were impossible to contain; until then, he or she was protected.”

Marilyn in the Blogosphere

John Gilmore’s 2007 memoir, Inside Marilyn Monroe, is now available as an E-Book. According to the blurb, ‘This new e-book edition includes an extended, revealing interview with John Gilmore on his friendship with Marilyn Monroe.’

And in other literary news, Marilyn’s poetry (revealed last year in Fragments) was featured in ‘Poetry and the Creative Mind’, the annual celebration of verse at New York’s Lincoln Centre. ‘The classic and the colloquial were paired from the beginning,’ Associated Press reported earlier this week. ‘Master of ceremonies Chip Kidd read a gloomy excerpt by Marilyn Monroe and continued a tradition of fitting (Emily) Dickinson’s compressed verse to contemporary song.’