Bad Movies We Love About Marilyn Monroe
If you like bad movies and Marilyn Monroe, you will probably like these six bad movies about the iconic actress. Edward Margulies explored the cinema of Marilyn in the August 1991 issue of Movieline magazine.
In his 1975 movie version of The Who’s “rock opera” Tommy, Ken Russell answered everything you ever needed to know about our culture’s cultish fascination with Marilyn Monroe. In hopes of finding a miracle cure for her autistic son, a concerned mother takes the lad to a church where the lame gather to worship the image of MM. In a hall decorated with pin-up posters, the chosen acolytes wear identical platinum blonde wigs and MM lookalike masks as they lead each tragic case forward to touch the silvered slippers of a mammoth, 25-foot-tall statue of MM in her trademark Seven Year Itch pose, with the flared skirt of that pleated dress frozen forever in mid-air.
The statue stands not over a subway grating hut on a mirrored pedestal, so that as the afflicted kneel down to kiss its feet, they needn’t bother to look up in order to see her undies. When our hero approaches, things go awry: though deaf, dumb, and blind, he knows a false idol when he sees one (he ought to-his mother is played by Ann-Margret). He stumbles and knocks over the statue, and oh! how the mighty do fall: the statue shatters on the steps of its own altar, turning out to be nothing more than plaster of paris, tarted up with paint. Lest we miss Russell’s point, the camera lingers on the palpable emptiness inside the cracked shell of the broken face of MM. What more, really, needed to be said, or shown, about the rise, fall, and ensuing blind worship of Marilyn Monroe? Well, in a word, nothing. But happily for fans of Bad Movies We Love, filmmakers have not recognized Ken Russell’s final word on the subject.
In fact, quite the opposite: no other celebrity has ever been the subject of so many movies, TV flicks, and mini-series. Now, trashy, so-bad-they’re-good movies intent on convincing audiences that they wouldn’t really want to trade places with a gorgeous movie star-if only you knew what her private life was really like!-are nothing new. These star bios, which deftly combine broad strokes of “let’s-avoid-lawsuits” whitewash with lurid hype promising to “tell all,” have long been an enjoyable staple of Hollywood. In Monroe’s category alone-The Unhappy Life and Times of Blonde Stars-we’ve seen Lana Turner doing Diana Barrymore, Susan Hayward doing Lana Turner, Carroll Baker as Jean Harlow on two different occasions, Carol Lynley as a third Harlow, Jessica Lange and Susan Blakely as duelling Frances Fanners, fill Clayburgh as Carole Lombard, Cheryl Ladd as Grace Kelly, Loni Anderson as both Thelma Todd and Jayne Mansfield, Ann Jillian as both Mae West and-who else could have played it?-Ann Jillian.
But only unhappy little Norma Jean Baker and her even unhappier alter ego, Marilyn Monroe, have given life to a virtual cottage industry of Bad Movies We Love, some that use her name, some that play peek-a-boo behind pseudonyms, even one that only calls her “The Actress.” Three decades after her death, MM continues to pose beguilingly on the rocky promontory of goddessdom, singing her barbiturated siren song and luring one filmmaker after another to his doom.
Unless you have an extremely avant-garde video store near you, you’ll just have to set up your VCR to trap these gems when they play at 3 a.m. Trust me, every one is worth the trouble. For those demented enough to sigh, “Are there really only six MM bioflix?” fear not: ABC’s preparing a TV movie called “Marilyn and Me,” the story of her secret marriage to Bob Slatzcr, and though “Twin Peaks” partners David Lynch and Mark Frost will deny it’s so–insiders close to them swear the pair’s still plotting to bring to the big screen their long-planned feature version of Anthony Summers’s book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. In the meantime, these six should hold you.
THE GODDESS (1958). The knowledge of obscure show-biz trivia can add a crazed layer of fun to any of the Bad Movies We Love About Marilyn Monroe, but this is especially true with The Goddess, the only film about MM made while she was still alive (though even in 1958, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky made it clear he didn’t expect her to last too much longer). For example, in the film’s opening scene where Monroe’s desperately unhappy mother tries to pawn off her little girl on in-laws (the kid overhears the whole conversation, natch), the woman playing the aunt who doesn’t really want to take in MM as a member of her immediate family is-get this-Joan Copeland, the real-life sister of Arthur Miller, and hence actually MM’s sister-in-law. What’s more, MM as a child is played by Patty Duke, who would one day star in Valley of the Dolls, in which a bosomy blonde character resembling MM ODs on sleeping pills. Wait, there’s more: the adult MM in The Goddess is played by Broadway legend Kim Stanley, who-having lost her own greatest stage role, Cherie in Bus Stop, to MM when the movie version was made in 1956–had a score to settle in playing this particularly unflattering portrait of MM. But that’s not all: Lloyd Bridges, who is cast here as the has-been athlete (read: Joe DiMaggio) who marries MM, would turn up 20-odd years later in one of the MM TV minis, playing Johnny Hyde, the real-life agent who loved and launched MM, but died before she met and married DiMaggio. Got all that? Good.
Now, all that aside, The Goddess stands on its own as a preposterously overwrought and-this is vintage Chayefsky, after all-overwritten cautionary tale about the price of fame. It’s guaranteed to give you the giggles from its dialogue alone. While making out on Lover’s Lane with a backwoods teen, Emily Ann (as Norma Jean is called here) says, “I’m going to Hollywood someday, I am, I am,” establishing the film’s penchant for never showing us anything without first telling us about it, twice if possible. “You don’t know what loneliness is,” her suicidally-inclined first husband says, early on. “You think it’s not having a date on Saturday night. You don’t know the great, ultimate ache of desolation, desolation.” Oh but she will, she will, and when she does, she’ll talk, and talk, and talk about it. “I can hardly get out of a taxi cab in New York but what there’s hundreds of people crowding around me screaming how much they love me,” she tells that particular hubby when they run into each other years later, “If you ever get out to Hollywood, you be sure and look me up.” Here, we’re meant to know that she’s really at the end of her rope, because she doesn’t repeat “look me up” twice.
Between these laugh-out-loud bookends, the movie goes gaga as Emily Ann moves to Hollywood, gets renamed Rita Shawn, marries the athlete played by Bridges, and goes bonkers. Chayefsky invents things that are even nuttier than MM’s true saga. You doubt that’s possible? Consider his conceit that has the couple honeymoon in a suite in a Beverly Hills hotel, and then never leave it to move anywhere else during their entire marriage, though God knows they talk about wanting to-It’s sort of a Hollywood version of “No Exit,” with room service. A real highpoint occurs when Bridges asks a movie producer whether MM has any real talent as an actress. “She’s got something,” he’s told. “She’s got what I call a quality of availability. She’s not particularly pretty, it’s a warmth some women have that makes every man in the audience think he could make her if he only knew her.” Well, he’s half-right, anyway: Kim Stanley’s not particularly pretty. But for all her quality acting, Stanley is woefully unable to convey that “quality of availability.” The best she can muster is a Dorothy Maloneish glamour, which sinks the whole enterprise.
THE SEX SYMBOL (1974). In attempting to tell MM’s whole story in under two hours, this TV movie creates an unintentionally funny flip-book effect: it plays like an illustrated Cliffs Notes version of her sorry saga, racing at breakneck speed from one sordid high point to another. The overwrought opening sets the breathless pace as a Hedda Hopper-like TV gossip dishes with fake sincerity, “Such a pity! In less than 10 years, a once-great beauty has disintegrated into a neurotic, alcoholic mess,” while Connie Stevens, playing the washed-up MM prototype “Kelly Williams,” sneers, “Canned from one stinking movie, anybody would think I was dead!” before throwing her vodka bottle through the TV screen. “Kelly” then races to call her shrink. “My first husband complained I wasn’t very good in bed,” she whines, “Now I’m just a lush, I’ll go with any man who asks.” The doctor comforts her: “You’re not a lush.” Whew! You think things are going to slow down a bit when the film flashes back to her rapid rise to fame, starting with the moment she was named (I swear I’m not making this up) “Miss Blowtorch of 1945”-but in fact, the movie wants to cram so much in, it gets speedier. Before you know it, “Kelly” is having sex with her much older agent, then sex with her much, much older studio boss, then sex with a retired sports star who works with orphans (“I was an orphan,” she says, and with that in common, they get married, then divorced), then sex with a married senator, and then sex with a world-famous artiste (she marries him, too).
A perky cutie-pie with spunk, Stevens could maybe have played Carroll Baker, but she’s unfathomably out of her element as the kind of media bombshell who wears only a bathing suit and high heels to her hands-in-cement ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. To be fair, there’s no actress alive who could hope to get anything but unintentional laughs with dialogue like this typical exchange: “My fans love me,” “Kelly” tells her Arthur-Miller-like painter husband. He replies, “You can’t love a symbol, and I can’t live with one. You castrate me! I haven’t painted anything worthwhile in two years, because I spend all my time wet-nursing a neurotic movie star going from analyst to analyst, pill to pill, bed to bed!” “Kelly” reminds him, “Before we were married, you didn’t have any trouble painting 100 dirty pictures of me,” and his I-can’t-believe-I’m-hearing-this response is, “That’s because you are dirty!”
Hoping against hope for a sort of authenticity-by-association, the producers cast Monroe’s Bus Stop leading man Don Murray as the Kennedy-like politician, and Monroe’s one-time roommate and buddy Shelley Winters as the Hopper-esque gossip columnist who tells “Kelly,” “I was an actress myself, young lady.” So she was, but you’d never guess it from Winters’s high camp, scenery-chewing antics here. This casting demonstrates that perhaps the real Monroe (if that’s not an oxymoron) was lucky to die so young-after all, Murray and Winters offer sad proof of just what there was to look forward to. Once your own starry career is over, you can always earn a fast buck by co-starring in a TV movie about someone else’s career-and then try to make a career out of that. Murray went on to play Judy Garland’s father in “Rainbow” and Winters moved on to portraying Elvis Presley’s mother in “Elvis.”
GOODBYE NORMA JEAN (1976). Here we have the only MM bioflick that comes close to fully achieving its (modest) aims: no pseudo-intellectual psychological insight, no sirree, just lots of four-letter words and plenty of t&a. Misty Rowe, a sort of talent-free Charlene Tilton, seems comfortable taking off her bra-the primary requirement of her role as Norma Jean Baker trying to break into The Biz. The film’s tone, such as it is, is set up by Norma Jean’s foster mother’s thuggish date, who growls, “I spent a buck sixty on you, now I want some action here!” So, too, do the drive-in audiences this soft-core fantasy was made for, and boy oh boy, do they get it: in the first nine minutes, Norma Jean’s been ogled once, propositioned twice, felt up once, stripped twice, and been thrown out of her foster home. Soon after, she’s raped by a cop, snapped by a photographer she has sex with, named “Miss Whammo Ammo,” then embarks on a sleazy modeling career. Her agent offers up this memorable monologue: “These cheap magazines come and go like the clap. I don’t envy you. You won’t like most of what you’re doing. You’ll meet every kind of creep and deviant you’ve ever heard about, and some new ones too… but it’s a living.” So, too, is appearing in movies like this one, to judge from the determinedly blank, “I won’t think about this today, I’ll think about it tomorrow, back at Tara” expression on Misty Rowe’s face.
As so often happens in real life, being handcuffed and gagged for photo sessions soon leads to Norma Jean’s getting the opportunity to meet the head of a big movie studio in his office. “I don’t believe in formalities,” he says, dropping his trousers, “they bore me.” Misty Rowe gets to deliver an unforgettable response: “There was a time, not too long ago, when that would have shocked me. Now I’m just disgusted.. You win-I’ll be your degraded whore.” She then drops a pillow onto the floor in front of him, adding, “but not before I give you a message from every girl who ever had to kneel in front of a slimey scum like you for a chance to work: how we hate you, because you make us hate ourselves.” Understandably, Norma Jean takes sleeping pills to help her forget; less understandably, she sees a vision of her unkempt, straight-jacketed mother in the mirror. “Take a good look, ’cause this is how it’ll be for you, baby, before you know it,” she is warned. “The tomcats are after you, with their sweet words, their promises, and their hard cocks!”
Needing cash, Norma Jean makes a stag film, which gets her a come-on from a lesbian movie executive. When she rejects the advances (“I’ll make you love it”) the exec knocks Norma Jean to the floor and rages, “You dumb little bitch!… Now, you can walk out of here now, and you’re finished, or you can walk into that bedroom like a good girl.” Who could resist this woman’s charm? After she’s done as she’s told but doesn’t get a screen test, Norma Jean tries to kill herself, Just then, a kindly old producer with a bad ticker who has taken an interest, offers to pay for plastic surgery, and by donning a platinum blonde wig, voila!…Norma Jean looks just as much like Marilyn Monroe as Misty Rowe possibly could. (How much does she look like her, you wonder? Well… It’s worth noting that Misty didn’t find her real niche in showbiz till she became a regular on the syndicated TV series “Hee Haw”.)
When she makes love to the older producer-which kills him-Norma Jean at last gets the screen test she’s longed for. When it’s being shown to the studio brass, she secretly watches from inside the projection booth. And though the filmmakers are laughing out loud (clearly seeing clips of the same performance we’ve been watching all along), Norma Jean just knows she’s good. And she knows that she’ll at last be offered a studio contract. And she knows she’s finally made it to the big time. She leans against the wall next to the projector and mutters the film’s final line, the bit of dialogue that puts this movie into the pantheon of Bad Movies We Love: “That’s the last cock I’ll ever have to suck!”
THIS YEAR’S BLONDE (1980). “Biographies are my bedtime reading-they’re the best stories in the world to put you to sleep,” agent Johnny Hyde tells starlet Marilyn Monroe in one of the three TV films that made up “Moviola,” the TV mini-series based on Garson Kanin’s book, Now, you’ve just gotta love any TV bio that so brazenly verbalizes its own true sentiments, and flirts openly with the reason the audience may have tuned in: there’s no Seconal in the house. And you gotta love such over-the-top touches as the couple’s round bed covered in pink satin, purchased, apparently, from a Harlow garage sale. But, in fact, there are other reasons to catch this, one of the few MM bios with anything at all on its mind. The film wisely eschews any attempt to tell MM’s whole story, and satisfies itself instead with showing us the machinations of the flesh-peddling powerbrokers of Tinseltown, to whom MM was just one in a long line of sirens. This so-called “romance” of an actress wannabe and a powerful womanizing/agent/shows MM and Hyde as two users who set out to use each other and happened to fall in love. Best of all is the on-target, trenchant dialogue that captures the way moguls talk, then as now. When Fox chairman Joe Schenck loses the favors of budding starlet MM (Constance Forslund) to William Morris agent Hyde (Lloyd Bridges), Schenck dismisses Hyde as follows: “If Hyde had been born a girl, he’d have been a hooker and given it away free. He couldn’t become a hooker, so he became an agent. Same thing.” Another of Hyde’s industry pals, seeing that Hyde’s going off the deep end over MM, says to Hyde, “I know that a man who lives in the pastry capital of the world is not going to be done in by one cupcake.” Bridges is excellent as Hyde, equal parts Hollywood smoothie and killer car salesman. Where the film lets one down is, predictably, with the casting of Forslund as MM. Admittedly, Forslund is at a disadvantage in playing Monroe at an early stage, before she’d honed her trademark mannerisms. Nevertheless, when Hyde declares, “she’s one of a kind,” Forslund seems nothing of the sort-she’s just another cupcake.
MARILYN: THE UNTOLD STORY (1980). This TV mini-series might better have been called “Marilyn: The Oft-Told Story”. Certainly, with its two-night format, it’s unquestionably the longest MM story, though that’s by no means a recommendation. Based on the hook by Norman Mailer and, in one of the most elusively-worded screen credits in history, “other sources,” this troubled maxi-production boasts-if that’s the word-three different directors, and it plays like none of the three ever screened any of the scenes shot by the two others. That would at least explain the sometimes awful, sometimes passable, sometimes brilliant performance by Catherine Hicks as MM. Had she worked solely with just the right one director, hers might have been the definitive portrayal. Sheree North, the onetime ’50s Fox starlet who was groomed to keep Monroe in line (and even made movies MM turned down), is cast here as-no! yes!-Monroe’s institutionalized mother, which at first seems a comedown so tacky you’d never believe it if you read it in a Jackie Collins novel. However, buried in the back-end credits is the fact that North was also the film’s “dialogue coach,” and one cannot help but wonder if it was therefore North-and not any of the three revolving-door directors-who deserves the credit for coaching Hicks into her few sterling scenes. (Hicks has never been as good since.) Trying to fit in every detail of the whole 36-year saga, the mini-series generally flips through the famous highpoints in patented idiotic style, often with hilariously improbable dialogue. During a really cheap-o recreation of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, MM meets Arthur Miller and delivers this eye-opening hello: “I’m getting a terrible reputation,” she says, “I never wear my undies and I’m always late,” Miller’s riposte is perhaps the single greatest non sequitur in the entire history of Bad Movies We Love: “I’d like to write something for you someday.”
The filmmakers have so much trouble thinking up scenes to fill out the bloated running time that the show stops cold for long, long montages (MM drives through the desert; MM and Miller walk the streets of NY) while someone named Syreeta sings on the soundtrack. When writer Dalene Young does, infrequently, come up with something for the characters to talk about, one is almost convinced there was, indeed, a good movie to be made out of MM’s life. Late in the show, Monroe’s depicted as maddeningly self-involved, and Miller (played with real bite by playwright/actor Jason Miller, no relation) makes no attempt to hide his disgust with her. “You’re lethal, you and that baby doll characterization you dreamed up,” he rages. “You’re made of steel-you’ve beaten the studios, you’ve beaten me, you’ve beaten everyone.” Hicks, in response, manages to be both harrowing and heartbreaking, both monster and victim. It’s anguishing to watch Miller as he realizes, at last, the full extent of her madness. For a fleeting moment, one thinks, if only the mini-series had elected to focus in on this fascinating mismatch from the outset. But, no-one then recalls Arthur Miller’s own play, “After the Fall,” which tried that exact ploy to very little success. In any case, all too soon the mini-series slides right hack into standard ol’ tacky-movies-about-MM fare, and even seems to know this about itself: as MM swims in the buff on the set of Something’s Got to Give, the director tells her that she’s doing beautifully, and she shoots back, “Oh, Mr. Cukor, it’s the same old thing-a bad script and a dumb blonde.” Exactly-we could hardly put it better ourselves-but the sad fact is that those few glimpses of real fire in “Marilyn: The Untold Story” suggest it didn’t have to be so.
INSIGNIFICANCE (1985). Nicolas Roeg’s bizarre meditation on metaphysics, McCarthyism, and MM, Insignificance, answers the heretofore unasked question, “What would Monroe and Albert Einstein have talked about if they had ever spent a night together?” Based on a little-known play, it’s a precious-sounding piece with characters who don’t have names, just iconographic labels like “The Actress,” “The Senator,” and so on. That the movie version works as well as it does is a tribute to both Roeg’s own skills as a fascinating filmmaker, and to his astute casting of his wife, Theresa Russell, as “The Actress”–in other words, MM. Though she’s never become a major star (in no small part because she works with her husband on off-center movies like this one!, Russell possesses real star quality-and it is exactly this that separates her from all the other actresses who have tried to play Monroe. Russell is so utterly convincing as the none-too-bright woman who finds herself trapped inside her own deadhead creation, she’s able to make pretentious lines such as “Ever notice how ‘What the hell’ is always the right decision to make'” seem freshly minted.
Set in 1954, Insignificance opens as MM is filming the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch where her skirt is blown sky-high by air coming up from prop fans underneath the subway grating. Below, a movie grip looks directly up MM’s dress and says, “I saw the face of God.” The first half of the movie is filled with high comedy of this sort, the best of which is a sequence in which MM says to Einsten (Michael Emil), “You honestly believe I understand relativity? Swear to God!” and then uses balloons and model trains to prove she does indeed. In large part because it isn’t trying to present the so-called “facts” of Monroe’s life in any linear manner, this film is the only one that’s succeeded in capturing the inherent dark humor in Monroe’s surreal situation: when the Joe McCarthy character comes across MM sleeping in Einstein’s bed, McCarthy assumes she’s a lookalike hooker-who else could she be! “That’s astounding!” he says. “You could be her spitting image.” “I know,” replies a sleepy MM, who’s heard this more than once before, “if I were eight years younger, and I took better care of myself.”
That McCarthy is played by Tony Curtis, who co-starred opposite MM in Some Like It Hot, adds depth to the gag, and allows for some delirious little throwaway hits throughout, as when Curtis spots vintage period movie magazines with real photos of himself and Monroe when they were decades younger. The movie sags in its second half, when it tries to feign concern for the inevitable demise of MM’s unhappy marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), Still, if you haven’t seen it, go out and rent this film, and be sure to stick around for what can only be called the big finish: the explosion of the atom bomb, culminating with the literal, on-screen meltdown of Marilyn Monroe. You can almost hear Roeg chortling, “Now, that’s entertainment!”
Edward Margulies is one of the Executive Editors of Movieline.