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.”

New Zealand Nurse Recalls Mystery Blonde in London

Marilyn in London, 1956

Over at The Spinoff today, there’s an extract from the New Zealand painter and poet Gregory O’Brien’s latest book, A Song in the Water. The chapter, entitled ‘A Kindness’, details his mother’s memory of attending Marilyn as a young nurse, while she recovered from foot surgery in a London hospital. It’s a touching piece, but there is no record of Marilyn having any surgery during her only visit to England in 1956, when the British press were documenting her every move. (She had injured her foot three years earlier, while filming River of No Return in Canada, but no surgery was necessary.) If Marilyn did have the operation in London, it would surely have impacted the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. Could this be a case of mistaken identity?

“Shortly after returning from a trip to England in March 2012, I was talking with my mother over the telephone, describing an in-flight movie I had watched, My Week with Marilyn – the true story of a young film-maker who had been assigned the task of looking after Marilyn Monroe on location in England sometime during the mid-1950s. My mother took a surprising interest in hearing about the film and then told me about two nights of her life in England presumably around the same time.

Signed up with a reputable nursing agency, my mother had found herself eminently employable in post-war London … She had made the most of the twelve months she had already spent in Britain and even managed to get herself invited to a Royal Garden Party – at that time the Holy Grail of stories-to-send-the-family-back-home. 

Until I mentioned the Marilyn Monroe movie, my mother had never before spoken of her employment at a central London hospital – ‘the one where all the Royal Babies were born’, by her recollection. As a contract nurse, she was always being bounced around from hospital to hospital, all over the city, with the same frequency, although for a different set of reasons, that Marilyn Monroe bounded in and out of an assortment of hospital rooms throughout her adult life.

Before being admitted to the patient’s room, my mother was taken to an adjacent office, where the nature of the night’s care was outlined. Her employment had not been arranged through the hospital – this was a separate, private contract. My mother was told that the patient was an American actress, who had earlier in the day received surgery to her feet. She was asked to sign a document or two concerning the assignment, specifically regarding the identity of the young woman in the hospital bed, who had been admitted under an assumed name.

The nature of the surgery, she was told, meant that a considerable amount of pain relief had been prescribed … With the actress as her sole charge for the night, my mother was to ensure the patient was kept warm and as comfortable as possible. If the pain became too much, a duty doctor was to be summoned. She was to remain awake, bedside, to keep an eye on things generally and also to ensure no unauthorised persons entered the room.

… Soon enough she was seated in a comfortable chair close by the bed, staring into the blonde hair of her sleeping charge and surveying, in the half-light, the well-appointed room. It was one of the best in the hospital, with large south-facing windows and good furniture.

When I asked my mother if the woman struck her as beautiful, she said that the actress was, at the time, very famous – although not quite as famous as she would be a few years later. Even my mother, not a frequent movie-goer, had recognised her instantly. She added that the actress’s appearance was perhaps a little ‘artificial’ – a word I had never heard her use before, in any context. My mother could not recall in detail any conversation that passed between them, although she could recall the woman’s sleeping head, her deep, narcotic breathing. To which she added, after further thought: ‘Oh, she was striking, yes, you could say that.’ A slight but significant revision of her earlier appraisal.

At a certain point in the night, with her charge drifting in and out of sleep, my mother herself fell into a deep slumber, from which she did not awaken until the following morning. It must have been 6am. The first thing she noticed was that one of the blankets had been removed from the bed and wrapped neatly around her. During the night, the actress had, with some considerable effort – of this my mother was certain – leaned across and, with great care, tucked her in.

About the second night, my mother had less to say … Early in the shift, my mother diligently handed over the painkillers – a formidable array, she observed, silently – and the requisite glass of water. She remained awake throughout the night, staring with girlish fascination at the face of the actress … With dawn breaking in the trees outside the brick building, a doctor knocked on the door. He told my mother that later in the day the actress was being transferred, as planned, to a private country house.”

Michelle Williams Goes From Marilyn to Gwen

My Week With Marilyn, the 2011 movie about her time in England, returns to Netflix today. Michelle Williams, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Marilyn, is currently starring choreographer Gwen Verdon in the HBO series, Fosse/Verdon. Born in Culver City, California in 1925, she married journalist James Henaghan in 1942, but left him after the birth of their son Jimmy. (Henaghan later interviewed Marilyn on several occasions, and wrote a tribute to her for Parade magazine in 1971, which you can read here.)

Verdon later worked as an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, coaching stars like Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and Marilyn (seen above with Jane Russell on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and rehearsing for There’s No Business Like Show Business.) In 1953, Verdon starred in the Broadway production of Can-Can, winning her first Tony award. (Marilyn would later be offered the lead in Fox’s big-screen adaptation, but the role was ultimately played by Shirley MacLaine.)

“From the people that I’ve spoken to, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was that [Gwen Verdon] was like the sunshine in the room,” Michelle Williams said during a panel interview with the Television Critics Association (as reported here.) “The way that I’ve come to think of her is someone who is always trying their hardest and will occasionally be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore. But as much as she possibly could, she was constantly trying to rise above and be her best self at all times.”

“I remember also this thing that Marilyn Monroe said about her,” Williams added. “Marilyn said, ‘If Gwen Verdon can’t teach you how to dance, you’re rhythm bankrupt with two left feet.'”

In June 1955, Marilyn saw Gwen performing in her latest hit musical, Damn Yankees, at the 46th Street Theatre. Gwen returned to Hollywood in 1958 to film the movie version. She married choreographer Bob Fosse in 1960, and returned to Broadway in Sweet Charity (1966.) Although she and Fosse separated in 1971, they never divorced and continued working together on Chicago (1975), and the 1979 movie, All That Jazz. She also appeared in films like The Cotton Club (1984) Cocoon (1985) Alice (1990), and Marvin’s Room (1996.)

In 1999, Gwen was the artistic consultant on Fosse, a Broadway musical tribute to her former partner, who had died in 1987. Gwen Verdon passed away in her sleep at the home of their daughter Nicole Fosse in Woodstock, Vermont in October 18, 2000. That night at 8 pm, Broadway dimmed its lights in her honour.

Alexa Bliss Inspired By Marilyn

WWE star Alexa Bliss reveals how Marilyn inspired her feisty persona in a new interview for Sports Illustrated.

“In the moments leading up to WrestleMania 35, where she served as the show’s host, witnesses caught Bliss pacing furiously in the backstage areas of MetLife Stadium. For those who were unaware, there was a transformation taking place: the kindhearted Alexis Kaufman was no more, replaced by the conniving Alexa Bliss.

‘I love Marilyn Monroe,’ said Kaufman, who is known on a worldwide scale as Bliss. ‘And there is a scene in My Week with Marilyn where she is this shy, timid person. Then she turns to the guy next to her and asks, “Do you want to see me be her?” So she turns into Marilyn and her entire demeanor changes—and everyone recognizes her. That’s what I think of Alexa Bliss: she is not me, she is the complete opposite of me.’

Bliss has the biggest heart in WWE but plays the cruelest character.

‘I love portraying a bad guy,’ said Bliss. ‘I can go the extra mile with all the creativity. Plus, you can expect a lot of sass …'”

Marilyn Biopic Producer Accuses Harvey Weinstein

David Parfitt, producer of My Week With Marilyn (2011) has accused Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie mogul whose company distributed the film, of assault, in Working With Weinstein, a new documentary to be aired on British television tonight, as Peter White reports for Deadline.

“‘When we actually got through the main shoot and into the test, he decided it wasn’t enough Marilyn’s film and that he wanted more Marilyn,’ Parfitt said in the documentary. ‘The scores came in at the end of the test and they were very good, and I think he’d expected it to be not good. In his fury about it doing so well when he thought it wouldn’t, he physically assaulted me. We were talking at the back of the theater after the audience had left, but the Miramax crowd were around, and he pinned me up against a Coke machine and threatened all sorts of stuff. It was very scary. But he was just furious that the film in our version had worked.’

A spokeswoman released the following statement on behalf of Harvey Weinstein.

“Mr. Weinstein categorically denies Mr. Parfitt’s claims as provably untrue and outrageous fiction. Mr. Parfitt and Mr. Weinstein had creative differences and any conflict between them was solely over their different visions for the film. While they had a series of spirited arguments where Mr. Weinstein made a lot of stupid remarks that he wishes he could take back, nothing physical happened.

The original version that Mr. Parfitt screened, didn’t include the musical numbers that Mr. Weinstein fought and personally financed to have included in the award winning film. In David Parfitt’s version, the movie felt like an ensemble piece. With Simon Curtis and Harvey Weinstein putting in the musical numbers, it felt like a Marilyn Monroe story.

Michelle Williams won the golden globe for her performance in the best musical comedy category and everyone that was associated with the movie, who saw it with the musical numbers, liked it better.'”

Movie Magic: Marilyn at Pinewood

Marilyn with Sir Laurence Olivier in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl.’ (Photo by Milton H. Greene)

With the opening of the BFI retrospective, there has been much talk of Marilyn in the UK media this week. There was a discussion of Marilyn’s business acumen on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on Thursday; you can listen again here.

On BBC2 tonight at 9 pm, Jonathan Ross presents an hour-long documentary, Pinewood: 80 Years of Movie Magic. As Marilyn filmed The Prince and the Showgirl at the legendary English studio in 1956, it is followed at 10:30 pm by a screening of My Week With Marilyn, the 2011 movie about the offscreen battles between Marilyn and her co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, starring Michelle Williams and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Kenny Kingston: Psychic to the Stars

Kenny Kingston shows off his framed photos of Marilyn and Clifton Webb, 1970s

Self-proclaimed ‘Psychic to the Stars’ Kenny Kingston has died aged 87, reports the the Los Angeles Times. Kingston claimed that Marilyn first visited him in 1953, on the advice of her friend, actor Clifton Webb. She got out of a cab five blocks from his home and walked the rest of the way, explaining, ‘I didn’t want your reputation spoiled.’ Kingston said that they remained friends until her death – and long afterward…

According to Kingston, Marilyn’s spirit was reunited with ex-husband Joe DiMaggio following his death in 1999. During filming of My Week With Marilyn in 2011, the celebrity psychic told Yahoo Voices that MM contacted him from beyond the grave to express her approval of actress Michelle Williams.

Marilyn in Princeton

In honour of the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death, the Princeton Public Library will be screening four movies over the next week: The Prince and The Showgirl (4pm) and My Week With Marilyn (7pm, both August 3rd); The Misfits (4pm, August 4); and on August 5, ‘MM: The Never-Ending Dream’, a lecture by Paul Sofian, at 3pm, followed by Some Like it Hot at 4pm.

Marilyn’s Week in Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s Filmhouse will screen several Monroe movies in August: Niagara and Some Like it Hot (on the 5th); Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (6th); The Misfits (7th); Monkey Business (8th); The Asphalt Jungle (9th); last year’s biopic, My Week With Marilyn (10th); All About Eve and The Prince and the Showgirl (11th.)