Marilyn’s Still In Vogue, In White

Marilyn tops French Vogue‘s list of Iconic White Dresses in Cinema (with Elizabeth Taylor’s lacy slip from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and Sharon Stone’s turtle-neck dress from Basic Instinct also making the grade.)

“Among the iconic dresses of the cinema, the white dress remains one of our favorites. When it is not the traditional and classic uniform of the bride, the white dress has a sexy look, immortalized on screen by some of the greatest actresses of all time … When we say ‘white dress at the movies’, we immediately think of the one worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, which is a myth in itself. All it took was one scene to shape the Marilyn legend. At the end of a film session, Richard Sherman and his beautiful neighbor stop above an air vent between Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City when the hot air from the subway lifts the young woman’s dress. At the age of 29, Marilyn gained legend status with this pleated white cocktail dress designed by costume designer William Travilla, nicknamed the ‘subway dress.'”

‘Norma Jeane Baker Of Troy’ Reviewed

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, the new short play by Anne Carson, opens at The Shed in Hudson Yards, New York, tonight. However, with decidedly mixed reviews and reported walkouts at a preview over the weekend, the show is off to a rocky start. In his review for Bloomberg, James Tarmy admits it is “not for everyone.” (I’d be interested to hear what a Monroe fan thinks of it …)

“Neither [Ben] Whishaw nor [Renee] Fleming portrays the title character in this equally hypnotic and exasperating production. Or not exactly. When first seen, on a snowy New Year’s Eve in the early 1960s, their characters appear to be a rather anxious businessman (Mr. Whishaw) and the thoroughly professional stenographer (Ms. Fleming) he has recruited to help him work, after hours, on a special project.

That would be the very script of the show we’re watching, which is indeed about Norma Jeane Baker. If you don’t know that Norma Jeane was Monroe’s birth name, I wish you much luck in following this show. Because that’s only the first — and by far the simplest — of the identities attached to Monroe in Ms. Carson’s investigation of the illusion and substance of feminine beauty in a testosterone-fueled world of war.

Helen is Norma Jeane, while her ostensibly cuckolded husband, Menelaus is transformed into Arthur, King of Sparta and New York (referring to Monroe’s third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller).

Norma Jeane is further conflated with another abductee from Greek mythology, Persephone, especially as she was conjured by the 20th-century British poet Stevie Smith. All these variations on the theme of beautiful women held captive by men echo a phrase that is both spoken and sung throughout this production: ‘It’s a disaster to be a girl.’

Now why, you may well ask, is this a tale to be told by a man? Ms. Carson has said that she wrote this monologue with Mr. Whishaw in mind … His ability to cross the gender divide without coyness or caricature turns out to be an invaluable asset in Norma Jeane.

Mr. Whishaw and Ms. Fleming are, against the odds, marvelous. They somehow lend an emotional spontaneity to ritualistic words and gestures, while conjuring an affecting relationship … As might be expected, Ms. Fleming brings a luxuriant, caressing tone to the song fragments … And though it’s a man who narrates — and tries to make sense of — Norma Jeane’s story, it is fittingly a woman’s voice that supplies the aural oxygen in which it unfolds.

You don’t really you need to know your classics or even your Hollywood lore to grasp the thematic gist of Norma Jeane, which ponders the follies of war-making men and their abuses of women. Sometimes Ms. Carson’s conjunctions of figures past and present can seem too both obvious and too obscure. The show’s surprisingly predictable conclusion lacks the haunting resonance it aspires to.” – Ben Brantley, New York Times

“It is a play formed, we learn in the program, through Euripedes’ Helen, which recast the story of ‘legendarily the harlot of Troy and destroyer of two civilizations’ from her point of view, and her sorrow. In the program, #MeToo and that exhaustingly overused phrase ‘fake news’ are both invoked, as well as Carson’s intention to ‘let dark realities materialize dimly’ in particular sections of the play.

Well, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy can claim success on that score at least. The set, far too far away from the audience, feels like a retreating photograph. On it, you had two otherwise-wonderful performers, Whishaw and Fleming, playing within what first looks like the office of a gumshoe.

It’s New Year’s Eve, turning to New Year’s Day, 1963, with fireworks booming outside like bombs. Whishaw’s character has a mood board of sorts, and—it turns out—is not a detective, but a screenwriter working on a film project that is a meditation on both Marilyn Monroe (who died the previous year) and Helen of Troy.

The script drifts, utterly unmoored, between the two, their lives, ambitions, beliefs, and the men, dramas, and in Helen’s case war. Misogyny, ambition, and marriage pulse as themes.

As the play progresses, Whishaw, darting here and there, gradually changes into Monroe—via breast and buttock padding, make up and a wig—until finally putting on a dress that recalls the famous flowing white dress Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. As Monroe, we hear of the actress’ private pain; there are pills, a champagne bottle that stubbornly refused to pop open (how symbolic that seemed on Saturday night), and then death.” – Tim Teenan, Daily Beast

“Ben Whishaw plays Marilyn/Norma Jeane, or rather he plays a young man in suit and tie (costumes by Sussie Juhlin-Wallen) who dictates a modern update of the Euripides play to a stenographer (Renee Fleming) on New Year’s Eve, 1963. The two of them sit at desks in a very film noir office (set by Alex Eales, the minimal lighting by Anthony Doran) before Whishaw begins to dress up like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, complete with her signature white halter-top dress and ukulele. Ukulele? Maybe Whishaw’s drag persona borrows it from Sugar in Some Like It Hot, but then, inconsistency is Carson’s trademark.

Whishaw’s young man first mentions Marilyn in her preproduction days on Clash by Night where MGM is helping to wage the battle of Troy — even though RKO released Fritz Lang’s 1952 classic.

Whishaw often dictates that Marilyn ‘enter as Truman Capote’ before imitating that writer’s high-pitched voice. This Marilyn also has a young daughter, Hermione, which is also the name of Helen’s long-lost daughter. Marilyn’s Hermione lives in New York City, and occasionally Pearl Bailey makes an appearance there.

Carson plays slow and loose with the Monroe legend, and in press materials, she connects her subject to the #MeToo movement. #WhatAgain? is more like it.” – Robert Hofler, The Wrap

“Carson’s interest in a multitude of genres and in mixing registers is on full display in Norma Jeane. Many of Whishaw’s lines, like “She’s just a bit of grit caught in the world’s need for transcendence,” are gorgeous and heightened, like poetry; the references tossed around range from Persephone to Pearl Bailey; the set is naturalistic, but the action happening on it is mythic and strange. We’re ostensibly watching two people write a play within a play about Marilyn Monroe, but they’re also investigating the Trojan War, and (in Fleming’s case) delivering operatic sung-monologues about rape and Greek tragedy, and (in Whishaw’s case) getting into full, Seven Year Itch Marilyn drag. It’s about gender and pain and war and mythmaking—all interesting, but wordy and not easy to follow. If my attention wandered off at any point, at least the Griffin’s beautiful raised stage and sleek all-black look gave me plenty to appreciate.” – Amanda Feinman, Bedford + Bowery

“Carson entwines the stories of Norma Jeane—the sweet-faced pinup girl who would one day be recast by Hollywood, then by life, as Marilyn Monroe—and Euripides’s Helen … Here Norma Jeane tells the story of how her husband Arthur, king of Sparta and New York, invaded Troy reportedly to rescue her while she, safely stowed at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, is reduced to ‘box office poison.’

For ninety minutes, Fleming and Wishaw—a luminous duo if ever there was one—did their best to make things interesting, but the scenario they were given was oppressively thin. The always marvelous Wishaw spoke as Fleming typed along, recording him, singing passages to him, with him, less amanuensis than an alighted angel, a tender force. As the Steno paper spilled across the desk and piled up on the floor, Wishaw gradually swapped his suit for a girdle, a bra and some padding, a platinum wig, and a white halter dress, becoming ‘Marilyn Monroe’ (a drag, it must be noted, first worn by Norma Jeane).

This production of Norma Jeane woefully never transcended the appearance of an exercise, never bloomed into a total work, in large part because it backed away from devising compelling and imaginative solutions to the challenges Carson poses: how to revise a famous tale to reveal the false truths that shape and warp women and men; how to pave space for possible collisions between stage and screen; how to tickle and tug at the thin membranes that separate person from persona, performer from icon.”

Jennifer Krasinski, Artforum

Prada’s ‘Neon Dream’ of Vegas, Marilyn

Actress Sarah Paulson – best-known for her roles in American Horror Story, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and Ocean’s 8 – appears in a new short film advertising Prada’s Fall and Winter Collection. Neon Dream follows a mysterious woman (Amanda Murphy) driving into Las Vegas, where a rather sinister troop of Marilyn Monroe clones led by RuPaul’s Drag Race diva Violet Chachki are waiting. She catches the eye of a parking valet (Paulson) who follows her, morphing into Marilyn a la Seven Year Itch, and a rollerskating waitress.

Marilyn’s ‘Most Expensive’ Dresses

Over at Beam Fashion, Nadja Beschetnikova looks at the stories behind Marilyn’s three ‘most expensive dresses’ (which sold for the highest prices at auction.)

Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend

‘Apart from the two side seams, the dress was folded into shape rather like cardboard. Any other girl would have looked like she was wearing cardboard, but on-screen I swear you would have thought Marilyn had on a pale, thin piece of silk. Her body was so fabulous it still came through’ – Travilla

The Seven Year Itch

Travilla called it ‘that silly little dress’. The dress indeed has a simple sewing pattern with a typical silhouette for a cocktail dress, which was in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the designer never paid much heed to his creation, it’s now one of the most famous dresses of all time.

Happy Birthday Mr President

Jean Louis had originally designed a version of the dress for Marlene Dietrich. Her live performances always had almost a magical effect to the audience thanks in no small part to her fascinating outfits. This backless flesh-colored gown remains an example to emulate for modern celebrities and pioneered the trend for ‘naked’ dresses.”

American Goddess: Gillian Anderson as Marilyn

As reported here last summer, Gillian Anderson has appeared as Marilyn for her ‘Media’ role in ‘Lemon Scented You’, the fifth episode of American Gods, a new sci-fi series on the US Starz channel. While Gillian may not resemble Marilyn physically (I was reminded of another Hollywood icon, Barbara Stanwyck) her performance has been praised by both critics and fans of the show. Morit Chaplynne  reviews it on Culturess:

“The two best things about this episode are Gillian Anderson and Gillian Anderson. Sure, Shadow —and us along with him — manages to learn a little more about his new weird reality, and that’s definitely interesting. But Gillian Anderson appears as both David Bowie (in the teal Ziggy Stardust suit with the short red hair) and as Marilyn Monroe (in the iconic white dress from The Seven Year Itch) and it is everything.

Back at the police station, they lock Shadow and Wednesday in an interrogation room … Someone unlocks the door. It’s not the cops. It’s Marilyn Monroe.

Media floats into the room and speaks to them in a breathy whisper. Shadow asks Wednesday to tell him it isn’t real. He does not. The mysterious Mr. World enters the room, all overcoat and fedora, apologizing to Wednesday for not reaching out ages ago, but he hadn’t seen him.

Wouldn’t you like an upgrade? A brand new lemon-scented you?

Media gives an extensive sales pitch. Wednesday wants no part of it. He smells a con. When he laughs in Mr. World’s face, Media blows him a high-powered kiss that knocks out his two front teeth and leaves his mouth bloody.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gillian talks about her multifaceted role:

“I didn’t know all that much about Marilyn as much as we all know what’s in the greater consciousness: the key pieces of her death and her struggle and her marriage and all that. And actually, I was surprised at how easy I found it to immerse myself in that and how much fun it was. She was definitely the one I had the most fun doing, just because there’s an imminent joy to her. There is also with Judy [Garland], but there’s something so delightful and delicious about Marilyn that was a lot of fun to jump into. And there’s a mechanism that we used to get her floating — I was on this robotic contraption that had been built with fans in it so that my skirt was constantly moving, even though they were going to recreate and enhance some of that in CGI. So for the majority of that scene, it was me being driven around via remote control with fans blasting vertically up my dress. So, that was fun.

The fact that [Media] does manifest as male and female and however Bowie might identify himself… I mean, certainly, you say ‘worship,’ and Michael Jackson was worshipped as much as any female icon we’ve ever had. Actually, we discussed Michael Jackson at one point as a character I might do, and Prince. But to me, what was important for Media, male or female, was that we got to see that the women, the female gods, and the females in general are and can be as powerful as the male gods and the men [on the show]. That they are equal. I guess it makes sense that one of the most powerful gods in the story is embodied as female.”

Danica Kennedy: ‘I Was a Marilyn Lookalike’

In an interview for Cosmopolitan, TV presenter Danica Kennedy looks back on her stint as a Marilyn lookalike at Universal Studios.

“For wardrobe, all of the Marilyn impersonators always wore that classic white dress from The Seven Year Itch. That includes pantyhose, Spanx shorts for when the fan blew up our skirts, and this corset bustier that was totally crazy … I would step on a platform and a fan would blow my skirt up. Then I’d have to say, ‘Oops!’

When you play somebody for two years, sometimes their characteristics can blur into your personal life accidentally. If I’m out and drinking champagne, which was Marilyn’s favorite, I’ll accidentally slip into using my sexy baby voice. It’s so awkward, especially since I’m not trying to be Marilyn.

I don’t think playing Marilyn has affected my psyche, but that’s probably because I never took playing the character too seriously. But when people want to debate with me about how she died or what she was like, I find myself standing up for her … We have all been through tough times, and her story is so tragic yet relatable.”

‘The Seven Year Itch’: The Girl, a Dress and a Mystery

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That iconic scene from The Seven Year Itch – and the dress worn by Marilyn as she stood over the subway grate – is constantly being referenced in popular culture. One recent example is this magazine ad for the Marilyn-themed Sexy Hair brand.

On Immortal Marilyn this week, Marijane Gray unravels the mystery of what happened to that dress, designed by Marilyn’s regular costumer, Travilla.

“The white pleated halter dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch is always described in superlatives: most iconic, most recognized, most recreated, most expensive. It can also be called the most mysterious: how many copies of the dress were there? Is there another one in existence, hidden away all these years? Did Marilyn herself own a copy of the dress, and if so, where did it end up? And perhaps most intriguing: was a copy of the dress really stolen back in 1993?”

Also this week, Keena Al-Wahaidi reviews the movie that started it all for The Medium, the student magazine for the University of Toronto. (Incidentally, the campus is based at Mississauga, which is also home to a skyscraper complex whose curvaceous design has earned the nickname The Marilyn Monroe Towers.)

“The most notable aspect of The Girl is her obliviousness towards her own allure …. The most dubious fixture of this film is the lack of identity in Monroe’s character. The reason for her ambiguity is because she’s nameless … However, Monroe’s lack of identity contributes to the mystery of the film’s plot. Regardless of the immorality of the situation, we find ourselves rooting for Richard and The Girl. Despite the futility of their relationship, or perhaps owing to it, their fling is undeniably enthralling.”

Debbie Reynolds 1932-2016

Debbie Reynolds, star of Singin’ in the Rain and other classic Hollywood musicals, has died after suffering a stroke, aged 84 – just one day after her famous daughter, Carrie Fisher, also passed away.

She was born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas in 1932. As a child she moved with her family to Los Angeles, and was crowned Miss Burbank in 1948. She began her career at Warner Brothers, where she was renamed Debbie.

In Three Little Words (1950), a nostalgic musical about the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, she played Helen Kane, the singer famed for her 1928 hit, ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You‘ (later revived by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.)

Debbie Reynolds sings ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ to Carleton Carpenter in Three Little Words (1950)

After moving to MGM, Debbie’s big break came when she was cast in her first dancing role, as chorus girl Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), recently named as the all-time Greatest Movie Musical (and fifth-greatest movie overall) by the AFI. She went on to star in Frank Tashlin’s Susan Slept Here (1954), and with Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap (1955.)

In 1956, she played a bride-to-be in The Catered Affair. That year, her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher was feted by Hollywood’s fan magazines as the dawn of a new, all-American golden couple. They were swiftly paired in Bundle of Joy, with Debbie playing a shopgirl who takes in an abandoned baby.

Their daughter Carrie was born in 1956, followed by son Todd in 1958. He was named after Eddie’s mentor, theatrical impresario Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash soon after.  The Fishers’ seemingly idyllic life was shattered in 1959, when Eddie left Debbie for Mike Todd’s widow, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal rocked Hollywood, although the two women resumed their friendship after Taylor divorced Fisher a few years later. Debbie married the millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, in 1960.

Debbie was the best-selling female singer of 1957, thanks to her hugely popular theme from Tammy. She later released an album, and went on to appear in Henry Hathaway’s How the West Was Won (1962), and opposite Tony Curtis in Goodbye Charlie (1964), in a role first offered to Marilyn Monroe.

With Tony Curtis in Goodbye Charlie (1964)

In later years, Debbie would claim that evangelist Billy Graham approached her in 1962, after experiencing a premonition that Marilyn’s life was in danger. As Debbie did not know Marilyn well, she instead contacted a mutual friend, hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff, who allegedly spoke with Marilyn by telephone just hours before her death.

“She was a gentle, childlike girl who was always looking for that white knight on the white horse,” Debbie said of Marilyn, adding, “And why not? What sex symbol is happy?” Debbie also claimed that they attended the same church, although no further details have been uncovered.

Throughout the 1960s, Debbie played a three-month residency in Las Vegas each year. Her performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) earned her an Oscar nomination. Her second marriage ended in 1973. Four years later, her daughter Carrie Fisher found fame In her own right as Princess Leia in Star Wars.

With daughter Carrie Fisher in 2015

Carrie would later become an acclaimed author. Postcards From the Edge, a novel about her close, if occasionally fractious relationship with her celebrated mother, was filmed by Mike Nichols in 1990, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in the leading roles. Todd Fisher has also worked extensively in film, as well as assisting his mother with her business ventures.

The Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio opened in Los Angeles in 1979, and is still thriving. Her third marriage, to real estate developer Richard Hamlett, ended in 1996. She starred in several Broadway musicals and appeared in numerous television shows, including The Love Boat, Hotel, The Golden Girls, Roseanne, and Will & Grace. A former Girl Scout leader, she has also worked tirelessly for AIDS and mental health charities.

Debbie played herself in The Bodyguard (1992), and was reunited with Elizabeth Taylor for a 2001 TV movie, These Old Broads. One of her final roles was as Liberace’s mother in Behind the Candelabra (2013.) Her memoir, the aptly-titled Unsinkable, was published in 2015; and a new documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, premiered at Cannes in 2016, and has since been acquired by HBO.

Debbie with her Hollywood costume collection

Debbie Reynolds will also be remembered fondly for her efforts to preserve the legacy of Hollywood’s golden age, which began when she purchased costumes from classic films (including many made for Marilyn) at an MGM auction in 1970. Her dream of opening a movie museum was sadly never realised, and in 2011, she relinquished her collection.

Among the many Marilyn-related items sold in a two-part event at Profiles in History was the cream silk halter-dress designed by Travilla, and worn by Marilyn as she stood over a subway grate in an iconic scene from The Seven Year Itch. The dress sold for $4.6 million, a sum surpassed only by the sale of Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress at Julien’s last month for $4.8 million.

Although the buyer was not named, the Seven Year Itch dress is rumoured to have been purchased by Authentic Brands Group (ABG), the Canadian company which is the licensing arm of Marilyn’s estate.

Meryl, Debbie and Marilyn’s Elusive Dress

In an article for Woman’s Day magazine, tracing the history of Marilyn’s iconic white halter dress – designed by Travilla, and famously worn in The Seven Year Itch – Marlisse Cepeda reveals how Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep helped track it down. (However, as Scott Fortner noted in 2011, that dress may have been a prototype rather than the one worn by Marilyn.)

“In June 2011, Debbie [Reynolds] put much of her collection up for auction, including the white cocktail dress. It was purchased for $5.52 million, the most money ever paid for a movie costume. The winning bid was made over the phone, and the dress is now part of a private collection—the mysterious owner has remained unidentified.

The last time the dress was seen in public was in October 2012, for the “Hollywood Costume” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The last-minute addition was made possible by another actress, Meryl Streep.

The exhibition’s curator happened to tell Meryl that she was hoping to add Eliza Doolittle’s Ascot dress from My Fair Lady to the show. Meryl claimed she knew the dress’s current owner, and helped the curator track her down. But it turned out the woman didn’t have the Ascot number, but she did, in fact, own Marilyn’s iconic costume. She agreed to loan the gown to the exhibit, and just like that, it made its way to London, into the spotlight once again. “

 

A Girl, A Grate and the Censors

US poster - unaltered
US poster – unaltered

Although tame by today’s standards, Marilyn’s movies often fell foul of the rigid censorship code of the time. The Seven Year Itch was toned down to gloss over its theme of adultery, while the famous ‘skirt-blowing scene’, which garnered huge publicity, was cut to a minimum.

Even after its release, the film was considered risque. The Irish Examiner notes that posters featuring Marilyn’s windblown skirt were altered so that her thighs were entirely covered. And in Spain, another Catholic country, the same tactic was used.

‘I think they were doing it because they were afraid the local parish priest would close it down,’ said Dublin auctioneer Ian Whyte.

Irish poster
Irish poster

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Spanish poster