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.”

‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ in the Age of #MeToo

As first reported here, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino – who starred in the 1996 mini-series, Norma Jean and Marilyn – have both become leading voices in the #MeToo movement following last year’s Harvey Weinstein scandal. In an article for the Austin Chronicle, Britt Hayes admits that recent events have led her to view Norma Jean and Marilyn in a different light.

“Norma Jean & Marilyn premiered on HBO in 1996, when I was just 11 years old. My father was, like most baby boomers, quite smitten with Monroe – the Hollywood bombshell whose life was cut short following a drug overdose in 1962. Posters featuring the platinum-haired, sleepy-eyed icon adorned my father’s workspace. Naturally, I was curious about the only woman ever permitted to take up permanent residence in a space that was usually off-limits. And so my own infatuation with this breathtaking Hollywood tragedy began, and by 1996 I was well-versed in the woman, the myth, the legend that was Marilyn.

The HBO film admittedly hasn’t aged that well (the acting in particular is quite soapy), but its more ambitious elements – such as daydream sequences in which Norma Jean/Marilyn recalls and reimagines her traumatic upbringing – evoke the waking-nightmare surrealism of David Lynch. It feels more voyeuristic than conventional biopics, due in large part to the bold visual choice of having Judd’s Norma Jean interact with Sorvino’s Marilyn during the latter’s most crushing personal moments, as when she doubts her talent or makes choices that might stifle her career (like marrying Joe DiMaggio).

Judd’s Norma Jean is tenacious and resilient, having endured – as told via recurring flashback – repeated physical and emotional trauma at the hands of various men throughout her life. From predatory father figures to former lovers who underestimated and devalued her, Norma Jean learned early on that her body was both a tool and a weapon, capable of making her dreams a reality just as easily as it could destroy them. Sorvino’s Marilyn fights to repress this past, changing her name to ‘kill’ Norma Jean and, when that doesn’t work, using an assortment of prescription drugs to finish the job.”

While this perspective may be valid in general terms, Norma Jean and Marilyn is flawed in many ways – not least because it is based on Norma Jean: My Secret Life With Marilyn Monroe, the 1991 memoir by her self-proclaimed lover, Ted Jordan. There is no evidence of a relationship between Marilyn and Jordan, whose book is so riddled with factual errors and salacious fantasy that even the most ardent conspiracy theorists now agree that it should be treated as hokum.

Additionally, it’s something of a tired old trope to depict Marilyn as a split personality just because she changed her name. Many other actors did the same and still do, but I’ve yet to see the biopic, Marion and the Duke! On a more serious note, while Marilyn, like other actresses, experienced sexism in Hollywood, she was never simply a victim. And frankly, she deserves a lot better than Norma Jean and Marilyn.

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’.”