Marilyn Book News: Women Writers Take Charge

Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe is a new academic study of Marilyn’s movie performances by Amanda Konkle. Although set for publication on February 28, it’s already in stock at The Book Depository.  Having just read it, I can whole-heartedly recommend this book: it’s thoughtful without being stuffy, and puts the focus back on Marilyn’s work. Some Kind of Mirror is illustrated with screen-captures from Marilyn’s films, as well as the beautiful cover photo by Eve Arnold (showing Marilyn during filming of The Misfits, toasting her loyal friends and co-workers.)

Sarah Churchwell’s excellent 2005 ‘meta-biography’, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, will be reissued in March, as well as being published digitally for the first time. (The only downside for me is no Marilyn on the cover!)

And looking further ahead, The Little Book of Marilyn: Inspiration From the Goddess of Glam – the latest from ace biographer Michelle Morgan – is coming in July.

“A lifestyle guide and tribute to the style, glamour, and showmanship of Hollywood’s most iconic star, with Marilyn-inspired lessons and inspiration for today’s woman.

While the 1950s was in many ways an era of repression for women, Marilyn Monroe broke barriers and rebelled against convention — and charmed the world with her beauty, talent, and irresistible personality. Filled with gorgeous photos, The Little Book of Marilyn will show you how to bring a touch of that glamour into your own life through:

  • * Tutorials on recreating the star’s makeup looks
  • * Style advice and tips on where to find Marilyn-like fashions
  • * Décor ideas from Marilyn’s own homes
  • * Everyday inspiration from her life that will let your inner Marilyn shine, and much more!”

Marilyn Entertains in BBC’s ‘Icons’

Last night, Marilyn was featured alongside Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday and David Bowie in the entertainment segment of the BBC series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century. The episode was presented by actress Kathleen Turner, with biographer Sarah Churchwell and photographer Douglas Kirkland among the guests. Marilyn was nominated as an icon of glamour; or in Turner’s words, ‘the sex symbol who took on Hollywood.’

Her frank admission to having posed for a nude calendar, and later on her triumphant battle with Twentieth Century Fox and setting up her own production company, were cited as exemplifying her refusal to be bound by the limitations imposed on her by an industry which failed to recognise that she could have both brains and beauty. Sarah Churchwell praised her ability to spoof feminine stereotypes, with clips from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes showcasing her comedic skill.

The public vote was won by David Bowie, who will now be featured in the series finale. As noted in Mixmag, Marilyn came in second. Viewers in the UK (with a current TV licence) can watch the full episode here.

Thanks to Fraser Penney 

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’.”

Finnish Pop Star Brings ‘M’ to Venice

M, a Finnish horror film inspired by Marilyn and starring pop star Anna Eriksson, is heading to the Venice Film Festival this year, where it has been described as the most experimental film in the line-up, as Nancy Tartaglione reports for Deadline. Finnish news sources indicate that Eriksson became interested in Marilyn after reading Sarah Churchwell’s feminist ‘meta-biography’,The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe – a good place to start – and her film explores the objectification of women. (M was also the title of Fritz Lang’s classic 1931 film, starring Peter Lorre as a child-killer.)

Eriksson discussed her inspiration in a recent Facebook post:

“Even though Marilyn Monroe was my inspiration for the film, in the end M turned out to be a deeply personal work. Somewhere along the way I realized that the link between sexuality and death, that to me so profoundly defines Monroe’s fate, is a link that we all share with her. That the ancient bond between these two forces is in fact an integral part of humanity. And that the myth that is Marilyn, holds in itself a reflection of our own dreams, our desires and our losses.”

Thanks to Merja Pohjola

When Marilyn Broke the Silence

In the wake of recent revelations about sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn has often been mentioned in discussions about the ‘casting couch’. Unfortunately, much of this coverage has been inaccurate, depicting Marilyn as either a passive victim or somehow complicit.

A new article by Sean Braswell for OZY takes a different perspective, praising Marilyn as ‘Hollywood’s first big silence-breaker.’ Braswell cites the story of Marilyn turning down a pass from Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as well as her 1953 piece for Motion Picture magazine, ‘Wolves I Have Known.’

“In the years after her death, Monroe’s biographers, largely men, tended to ignore the star’s silence-breaking role, preferring to focus instead on the more salacious details of her personal life and the rumors that she slept her way to the top. Nor did Monroe, while she was alive, think of herself as a social reformer or a trailblazer for women’s rights. As the singer Ella Fitzgerald, a good friend of Monroe’s, once reflected about the screen legend: ‘She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times, and she didn’t know it.'”

Braswell also refers to authors Michelle Morgan and Sarah Churchwell, both of whom have done excellent work in recent years to address the sexist presumptions of earlier biographers. ‘Marilyn was really one of the first big stars to speak out about what we would now call sexual harassment,’ says Churchwell. ‘She was talking about a culture in which women were unsafe [and] her whole point was to say this happens over and over and over.’

Unfortunately, Braswell is on shakier ground when he uses ‘off the record’ quotes. For example, he quotes her saying in an interview before her death, ‘When I started modeling, [sex] was like part of the job … and if you didn’t go along, there were twenty-five girls who would.’ Braswell also states that Marilyn wrote ‘You know that when a producer calls an actress into his office to discuss a script, that isn’t all he has in mind. I’ve slept with producers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t,’ in her 1954 memoir, My Story – but that line doesn’t appear in any version of the text.

In fact, both quotes are taken from an alleged conversation with writer Jaik Rosenstein, published in Anthony Summers’ 1985 biography, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe.  Summers claims that Marilyn had known Rosenstein for years, and she trusted him not to write about it at the time. Whether or not Rosenstein is a reliable source, it should be made clear that Marilyn did not say them for publication.

Billy Wilder, Marilyn and ‘that Bourbon’

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In an article for Fredericksburg.com, Gary Olsen repeats an oft-told tale about Billy Wilder’s on-set travails with Marilyn:

“Film director Billy Wilder was tearing out what little hair he had on his head while filming a scene in Some Like It Hot. His ire was directed toward Marilyn Monroe, who was botching her lines as she was looking for a bottle of bourbon in a bureau.

He decided to tape her written line inside the drawer. On the next take, she opened the wrong drawer. Finally, he papered every drawer with the line, so it wouldn’t matter which one she opened. Eighty-three takes later, she nailed the line: ‘Where’s that bourbon?’

Wilder’s adventures with Monroe’s work habits during the film’s production are legendary…But Monroe’s performance in the 1958 film is cited as the best in her career. Wilder was astonished at what he saw live, versus what he witnessed viewing the rushes on the screen. ‘[Monroe’s performance] looks like nothing on the set,’ said Wilder, ‘and then when it goes on the screen, it all comes out in neon light. It’s fantastic how celluloid loves Monroe. Just incredible.'”

Like so many of Wilder’s anecdotes, this story – and in particular, the exact number of takes Marilyn allegedly required – has grown over time. However, there is no question that Billy found her difficult to work with, although the results were always stellar.

With Marilyn out of the picture for so long, she was never really able to tell her side of the story. In Volume II of Icon: The Life, Times and Films of MM, author Gary Vitacco-Robles reviewed the episode in detail – drawing a more complex picture of their fraught collaboration than has hitherto been noted.

“Biographer Sarah Churchwell observes that the scene was filmed with Marilyn’s back to the camera, enabling her to easily dub the line in post-production. Wilder’s demand for repeated takes suggests an overt power struggle between director and star. Donald H. Wolfe theorises that Marilyn staged the repeated takes in order to control the interpretation of her character and as a way to defy Wilder’s direction. She would deliver an incorrect line in the manner Wilder instructed for a series of takes (‘Where’s the whiskey?’ ‘Where’s the bottle?’) and purposefully wear down her director. In later takes, she would deliver the line verbatim to the script in the manner in which she believed fit her characterisation. Donald H. Wolfe observed: ‘She knew she was right and believed that a star of her stature had the prerogative of playing the scene the way she felt it.’ It was a battle of the wills but in the end, Marilyn won.”

Marilyn at the BFI: Full Schedule Announced

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Flyer shared by Valerie

The full programme for the BFI’s June season of MM films is now online, with tickets available now for members, or from May 12 for non-members. All of Marilyn’s films from 1952-62 are included (apart from O. Henry’s Full House), with multiple showings of The Misfits as part of its nationwide reissue, and a new print of Niagara. This retrospective includes two other events: ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?‘ on June 3rd, featuring authors Jacqueline Rose and Bonnie Greer; and a Marilyn Monroe Study Day on June 27, with guests including Sarah Churchwell. You can view the digital guide for June here.

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‘Max Factor Can’t Claim Credit for Marilyn’

Photo by Ed Cronenwerth, 1948
Photo by Ed Cronenwerth, 1948

Sarah Churchwell, author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, has written an excellent article for The Guardian about Max Factor’s upcoming ad campaign featuring Marilyn, and their rather spurious claim to have ‘created’ and ‘transformed’ her.

“If Max Factor wants to emphasise history it should start by paying a little more attention to it. Monroe had her first – tiny – film role in 1947; she did not have her first starring role until 1952. Throughout the 1940s, she was still ‘mousey’ Norma Jeane. For my book on Monroe, I read every major biography then published, as well as many ancillary accounts – about 300 books in all. Not one reported that Max Factor suggested the aspiring starlet should bleach her hair. I don’t think any of them mentioned Max Factor at all. Instead, nearly all credit a woman named Emmeline Snively, the head of Monroe’s first modelling agency, with whom she signed in 1945.

Marilyn Monroe was not created by Max Factor – or by her studio head, Darryl F Zanuck (who hated her); or by her agent, Johnny Hyde, who paid for her to have minor plastic surgery (to the tip of her nose and her jawline) and got her first big roles; or by any of her directors, or husbands, or any other of a legion of men, and a handful of women, who have tried to claim the credit, now including Max Factor’s heirs. She was not created by makeup, in any sense: cosmetics were not sufficient to create Marilyn Monroe, and neither were other people. Emmeline Snively herself said that what distinguished the girl she knew was how hard she worked: ‘She wanted to learn, wanted to be somebody, more than anybody I ever saw before in my life.’

Everyone from Elton John to Joyce Carol Oates (who should know better) has trotted out this tenacious, tiresome story: ‘ordinary’ Norma Jeane was changed by someone else into the glamorous movie star Marilyn Monroe. But Norma Jeane Baker, as she was known in childhood (Mortenson was the name on her birth certificate, but she never knew her father), was always an extremely beautiful girl.

No doubt Marilyn attended the Max Factor beauty salon near Hollywood Boulevard in the 1940s, along with hundreds of other young starlets. I have no reason to disbelieve that she may have worked with Max Factor Jr himself in the 1950s, once she was famous. But no one except Marilyn Monroe created Marilyn Monroe, and in 2015 it’s past time for us to give credit to the woman who earned it.”