Marilyn Warned Joan Collins About the Casting Couch

Actress Joan Collins has told the Daily Mail about her early experiences in Hollywood, and how Marilyn warned her about sexual harassment. It’s not a new story, but in light of recent allegations, it makes for an interesting read. Interestingly, she recalled the meeting in her 1978 autobiography, Past Imperfect, but the ‘wolves’ story only appeared in Second Act, almost twenty years later. (Another star from Marilyn’s era, Rita Moreno, has also spoken out about how Fox executives preyed on young women.)

“Shortly after arriving in Hollywood aged 21, under contract to 20th Century Fox, I attended a party at Gene Kelly’s house. The star of An American In Paris and Singin’ In The Rain hosted a weekly gathering for an eclectic group of movie industry power-brokers, A-list actors and actresses, intellectuals and his friends. It was where I first met Marilyn Monroe.

At first I didn’t recognise the blonde sitting alone at the bar until she turned to me and said rather ruefully: ‘They wanted me for the lead in Red Velvet Swing, but I’m too old.’

The part of Evelyn Nesbit in The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing was one of my first lead roles in Hollywood, but I knew it had originally been intended for Monroe.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that the woman in front of me was the legendary figure herself. We started chatting and after a couple of martinis, Marilyn poured out a cautionary tale of sexual harassment she and other actresses endured from ‘the wolves in this town’.

I replied that I was well used to ‘wolves’ after a few years in the British film industry. I decided it definitely wasn’t something I’d put up with. I told Marilyn I was well prepared to deal with men patting my bottom, leering down my cleavage and whatever else.

She shook her head. ‘There’s nothing like the power of the studio bosses here, honey. If they don’t get what they want, they’ll drop you. It’s happened to lots of gals. ‘Specially watch out for Zanuck. If he doesn’t get what he wants, honey, he’ll drop your contract.’ It was a timely warning, because days later, Darryl Zanuck, vice-president of production at 20th Century Fox, pounced.

Marilyn and Joan Collins in the audience at a studio screening of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, 1954

Hollywood studio bosses considered it their due to b*** all the good-looking women who came their way and were notorious for it. Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, for example, had no qualms about firing any starlet who rejected him. He was totally amoral.

Another role I coveted was that of Cleopatra. The head of 20th Century Fox at the time, Buddy Adler, and the chairman of the board — [Spyros Skouras], a Greek gentleman old enough to be my grandfather — bombarded me with propositions and promises that the role was mine if I would be ‘nice’ to them. It was a euphemism prevalent in Hollywood. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t — the very thought of these old men was utterly repugnant. So, I dodged and I dived, and hid from them around the lot and made excuses while undergoing endless screen tests for the role of Egypt’s Queen.

At one point, Mr Adler told me at a party that I would have ‘the pick of the scripts’ after Cleopatra and he would set me up in an apartment he would pay for as long as he could come to visit me three or four times a week. Running out of excuses, I blurted out: ‘Mr Adler, I came here with my agent, Jay Kanter. Why don’t we discuss the deal with him?’

‘Honey, you have quite a sense of humour,’ he spluttered.

‘And a sense of humour is all you’ll ever get from me,’ I murmured as I left. In due course, Elizabeth Taylor got the role.

But it wasn’t just studio bosses and producers who were predatory. Many actors I worked with considered it their divine right to have sex with their leading lady … Anyone naive enough to believe the era of the casting couch had been consigned to history will have been shocked by the Weinstein scandal and the predatory institutional sexism of Hollywood power brokers it has revealed.

But it’s not just the film industry that’s been complicit in sanctioning this appalling behaviour, and it’s not just actresses subjected to it. It may occur in any business dominated by powerful, ruthless and misogynistic men, and it’s women (sometimes men) in subservient positions who are unfortunate enough to have to deal with them.”

Marilyn and the Hollywood Wolves

Following recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, I’ve been thinking of Marilyn’s own experiences among the Hollywood ‘wolves’. (Incidentally, Weinstein produced the 2011 biopic, My Week With Marilyn.)

‘I met them all,’ Marilyn stated in her 1954 memoir, My Story. ‘Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes – an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.’

My Story was written with Ben Hecht, who may be responsible for some of the more elaborate metaphors, but he insisted it was true to the spirit of what Marilyn told him. It remained unpublished until long after her death, perhaps because it was too controversial.

When British writer W J Weatherby asked her whether the stories about the casting couch were true, Marilyn responded: ‘They can be. You can’t sleep your way into being a star, though. It takes much, much more. But it helps. A lot of actresses get their first chance that way. Most of the men are such horrors, they deserve all they can get out of them!’

This conversation also remained private during her lifetime. Sadly, Marilyn has been retrospectively punished for her outspokenness, with tales of her supposed promiscuity circulating to this day. Even film critic Mick LaSalle, who once defended her against lurid allegations by Tony Curtis, wrote this week, ‘Ever hear of Marilyn Monroe? Of course you have. Well, she said no to very few people.’

Her relationship with agent Johnny Hyde is well-known, and some believe her friendship with movie mogul Joe Schenck was more than platonic. But the rumours of her being a glorified call-girl are utterly baseless. Several men who dated Marilyn remember her being so cautious that she wouldn’t kiss them goodnight.

Perhaps one of the most important stories relating to Marilyn and the Hollywood ‘wolves’ is her refusal to spend a weekend alone with Columbia boss Harry Cohn on his yacht while she was under contract to him in 1948. He was furious, and quickly fired her. The story is almost identical to some of the allegations being made today.

Among the many stories making the rounds lately comes from actress Gretchen Mol, who was rumoured to have been promoted by Weinstein in exchange for sexual favours. In fact, she has never been alone with him, and yet this false rumour has unjustly tarnished her reputation.

Her story reminded me a lot of Marilyn, who has been endlessly ‘slut-shamed’ simply for being honest and open about her sexuality. In January 1953, she approved a story for Motion Picture magazine which is illuminating about the harassment she experienced – I have posted it below, courtesy of the Everlasting Star boards (please click on the files below to enlarge.)

What strikes me as sad is that she almost seemed to accept it as an occupational hazard.  Let’s hope that the buck won’t stop with Mr Weinstein, and that real changes will be made. Sexual exploitation is not unique to Hollywood, and until people stop blaming the victims, predators will continue to thrive.

Further Reading

Marilyn Warned Joan Collins About the Casting Couch

‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ Stars Speak Out On Abuse

Marilyn Impersonator Reveals Sexual Harassment

Marilyn: A Sex Symbol’s Anger

A scene from ‘The Misfits’

In an intriguing article for the feminist magazine, Bust, author Dana Burnell suggests that Marilyn’s reputation for ‘difficult’ behaviour  was a manifestation of her suppressed anger at the Hollywood system’s exploitation and disregard of her talent.

“The sense of watching a trapped butterfly permeates her best performances; it’s the quality that the starlets set up to compete against her were missing. They might have had more professionalism, but they lacked Monroe’s self-lacerating perception. That Monroe was angry, there can be no doubt. All of her actions speak to it: The lateness, the passivity, the pills and the booze, the relationships. The paralyzing depressions that are the rage of those who feel they are not allowed rage. The pills just damped down the anger and became the only thing that killed it — and her. For only half a moment did fame do what she thought it would, and make her happy.”

Celebrity ‘Marilyn Moments’ in the News

kate middleton mm moment
Photo by Fraser Penney

Paparazzi shots of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, having a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ moment during a trip to India have made front pages across the globe today, as her dress blew up while laying a wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. A bit like that ‘subway scene’ in The Seven Year Itch, except that was staged with MM’s full consent.

Similar ‘Marilyn moments’ featuring numerous female celebrities are constantly reported in the media, but few inspire the protective feeling and deference reserved for royalty –  with many on social media condemning the coverage as sexist, as Suresh Matthew reports for The Quint.

While it’s fun to see Marilyn’s name in the news, there’s something rather tacky about potentially embarrassing moments being exploited in this way – and after all, Kate was simply paying her respects to the dead when the incident occurred.

ariana-grande-2016-mtv-movie-awards

Meanwhile, Ariana Grande has paid tribute to Marilyn at the 2016 MTV Movie Awards, with her performance of new single ‘Dangerous Woman’ while wearing a white fur stole and strapless pink satin gown, reminiscent of Marilyn’s attire in her iconic ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Ariana has made no secret of her admiration for Marilyn, wishing her a happy birthday on Twitter back in 2014, and offering a spirited defence of MM. However, her look may also be inspired by another of her idols, Madonna, who famously recreated the ‘Diamonds’ setpiece for her ‘Material Girl’ video back in 1985.

As Christopher Rosa reports for VH1, Ariana’s performance was also reminiscent of Madonna’s ‘Sooner or Later’ number at the Oscars in 1991, when La Ciccone once again paid homage to Monroe.

Mariella: ‘Blonde on Blonde’

Photo by Rupert Hartley

Broadcaster and journalist Mariella Frostrup has told the Radio Times that after presenting the BBC Radio 2 series Blonde on Blonde in 2009 (profiling three iconic blondes, Doris Day, Diana Dors and Marilyn Monroe), made her realise how little the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype has progressed over the years. (Unfortunately, Blonde on Blonde is not currently available on BBC i-Player. It was an interesting series, despite some factual errors. If it is repeated anytime I will mention it here.)

The broadcaster, 47, said she “would have thought twice” about going blonde at 16, when her father’s death left her grey, if she had “known then what my shade of choice suggested to the world”.

“Few women may be born blonde but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a noun. In blonde world whether you’re a brain surgeon, a lapdancer or an oligarch’s wife, it’s all the same. Blonde is the description – anything else merely informs us of the variety. Pinch me if I’m living in the 21st century.”

Of famous blondes like Monroe, Frostrup commented:

“Beneath the make-up and beyond the studio publicist’s spin a sorrier bunch of women you couldn’t stumble across… like so much else in their lives their most celebrated asset, their platinum locks, were fake. Perhaps it was the shadow of that deception, one of the many required to qualify as screen sirens, that saw so many of their dreams end in tragedy.”

According to Frostrup: “Being blonde means never saying you don’t understand unless you want to be predictable. Being blonde means always trying to tell the blonde joke first.” She added: “Our roots are often only skin deep and, despite assumptions to the contrary, proven side effects don’t include brain impairment.”

She cited Meryl Streep, Hillary Clinton and the pop singer Lady Gaga as examples of women who combine blonde with brains. And she quoted Dolly Parton, who famously said: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb – and I’m not blonde either.”

It’s not the first time Frostrup has spoken out about sexism and ‘blonde prejudice’. “Men are hideously predictable,” she told the Radio Times back in 1998. “They all want blondes with big breasts. Men expect a sweet, cute blonde and get me. They have a problem with women who are bright and good-looking. Women, on the other hand, would welcome the combination in men, given the opportunity.”