Saturday, September 24, 2022

"Blonde": a dismal and dreary viewing experience

Writing for TIME, Stephanie Zacharek criticises the one-dimensional ‘victimhood’ of Marilyn Monroe (as seen lately in Blonde), and with reference Don’t Bother to Knock, How to Marry a Millionaire, Bus Stop, and Some Like It Hot, argues that Marilyn was a ‘brilliant actor’ who made even her most stereotypical roles believable and sympathetic; and whose life was defined by hard-won agency, although overshadowed by her tragic death. “Even though we’ve had 60 years to figure out how we feel about Marilyn Monroe, no one really knows what to do with her. We know all about the sadness of her life, to the extent that her name has become a synonym for emotional fragility, a vessel we can fill with our own fears about loneliness and self-doubt. We love Marilyn so much—as a symbol, as a bottomless well that will take as much pity as we can pour into it—that collectively we seem to have lost sight of one of the central truths of her being: she was a phenomenally intelligent and gifted actor, a woman whose natural charm and devotion to her craft resulted in work so delightful, and sometimes so emotionally raw, that it’s worthy of any modern actor’s envy… Actors are always more than the sum of their parts, and Marilyn Monroe especially, as both a performer and a persona, is too complex to be reduced to some parts in the first place. 

Her performances are a major component of her story, and the one that’s most often neglected. In the 1950s, once Hollywood had figured out the secret to her bankability, she played so many sex-symbol roles that it’s tempting to lump them together, but even if Marilyn herself longed to play roles that would challenge her in different ways, she made each of these performances distinctive; there’s nothing rote or perfunctory about any of them, largely thanks to the pin-dot precision of her comic timing. Marilyn knew her power over men, over her audience, and she worked it on-screen, though never in a way that was cheap or calculating. Perhaps that’s why women love her as much as men do—she glowed with a spectacular and special feminine magic that has always felt generous rather than competitive. Everyone who has tried to learn about Marilyn—to understand her painful and lonely childhood, to come to terms with the depression and anxiety that dogged her, to reckon with the fiery intelligence that so many people around her, particularly men, preferred not to recognise—comes away with a sense of her deep fragility. But is it possible that, without ever acknowledging as much, we stress Marilyn’s fragility almost as a way of making her sexuality, and her own sexual appetites, more manageable? As if to assuage some shame we might feel about her sexuality and desirability? Marilyn fought her own shame all her life, but one fact that Blonde fails to stress—it would muddy the film’s victimisation narrative too much—is that Marilyn, though tragically insecure, she knew how to avoid being used, and railed against it. Those of us who love Marilyn yearn to protect her, even beyond the grave.” 

Writing for BBC Culture, Anna Bogutskaya asks: why do biopics always get Marilyn so wrong? “‘Please don’t make me into a joke,’ Marilyn said, to interviewer Richard Meryman near the end of her life. But Hollywood’s cruel joke has been to turn her into a trainwreck, reducing her legacy to a series of messy love affairs, daddy issues and addictions. Documentaries and TV biopics have tried to explain her many times over, but they always come back to the same narrative – that of a victim, a tragic beauty. Is there really nothing else worth saying about Marilyn and her cinematic legacy? Marilyn Monroe’s mystery is not that of her ascent, but of the extreme contradictions of her life. She was a generational talent, a movie star with undeniable charisma, charm, fantastic comedic timing and an aggressive earnestness about her that was as disarming as it was captivating. Watching her on screen, even today, is to fall under the spell of cinema. Meanwhile, the contrast between her carefree on-screen persona and her supposedly tortured off-screen existence has become the alluring core of her narrative: the woman-girl, the success-tragedy, the self-loathing-beauty. Her untimely death remains a favourite for conspiracy theories that most often include the Kennedys and the mob, and which Blonde, both book and film, indulge in. ‘People find it hard to reconcile that someone can be so exceptional and meet such a banal end,’ said Dr Lucy Bolton, a reader in film studies at Queen Mary University of London.

But why the endless drive to tear her down, to reduce her to a sad cautionary tale? ‘There is something in the most puritanical part of our nature that says, these Hollywood people, they have so much and they deserve it so little,’ the writer and film critic Farran Smith Nehme tells BBC Culture – and so because Marilyn was the biggest star of them all, it’s as if she deserves these, in Nehme’s words, ‘relentlessly downbeat interpretations of her life.’ In the wave of TV Marilyn biopics of the 1990s, Marilyn is presented at best as a hot mess and, at worst, as a wanton floozy. Every single biopic made of her life zeroes in on the tension between Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe, the woman and the movie star. It’s an incredible challenge for any actress, no matter how talented, to play Marilyn Monroe, because they’re not only playing the person, but an idea of a person that’s been manipulated and perverted over the years. ‘The biopics and impersonations of her have done more damage to her than the tragedy itself,’ Bolton says. The challenge for any biopic, Bolton continues, is ‘to convince us Marilyn is a real person, because she’s so reduced to a caricature so very often’. Most of the actresses who have portrayed her, from Poppy Montgomery to Ana de Armas, have focused on the little-girl-lost narrative. Nehme says she would love to see an actress get past ‘the clichés and the mannerisms, the tricksy things that so many people imitating her go for. There’s no way in hell Marilyn Monroe was like that when she was enjoying her life.’

Very few of the films that purport to tell us ‘what really happened’ actually focus on the fact that made Marilyn so successful: her dedication to her craft. ‘If you are born with what the world calls sex-appeal, you can either let it wreck you or use it to advantage in the tough show business struggle. It isn’t always easy to pick the right route,’ Marilyn said to the Chicago Tribune in 1952. The same year, one of her most enduring performances, that of endearing gold-digger Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would cement her in the dumb blonde persona that Marilyn found so frustrating and limiting. “She’s conflated with Lorelei Lee,’ thinks Bolton. "The biopics choose to disempower her further by forgetting about the middle part of the story, the part where she became an extremely successful, highly-paid actress, who challenged Fox for underpaying her, and founded her own production company with Milton Greene." ‘I’m not sure if people perceive her as an actress at all’, says Nehme, while pointing out that if you look at the actual work, ‘you start to see how unique and how intelligent her choices are, to make it as funny as possible.’

The only exception, perhaps, is My Week With Marilyn (2011), a light-touch take on the troubled making of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), told from the perspective of real-life, love-struck set assistant Colin Clark, on whose memoirs the film is based. With Marilyn played by Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams, the film is very much a part of the ‘Marilyn and me’ sub-genre of books and films… However, this is the only example that even tries to recreate Marilyn’s charm, not just her fickle and unreliable on-set antics. Williams captures Marilyn’s sensuality without leaning into the sex-pot persona. There are hints at her duality, but it focuses on the work and the drive, as well as the crippling insecurity that somehow Marilyn found a way to transform into moments of pure comedic gold. There is hope, though. Nehme believes there’s a generational shift that is inspiring a reappraisal of Marilyn Monroe: ‘As film critics have been getting younger, they’ve been going back to the work. They’re very interested in the role she played in creating her own persona.’ Her image may be universally familiar now, but discovering Marilyn’s performances is always a revelation for many. Her feline femininity in Niagara, her coy clumsiness in The Prince and the Showgirl, and her adroit delivery of all-timer quips in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn’s awareness of how she was perceived imbues every performance and informs every choice. While it might not capture Marilyn’s star power, the best thing that Blonde can do for her is inspire more people to watch her actual work.” Source:

consists mainly of ugly, abusive scenes one after another, so I had to keep reminding myself, “This is fiction, and most of these terrible things really didn’t really happen to Marilyn Monroe. They are figments of Oates and Dominik's disturbed imagination.” It left me to wonder, “why would anyone make up and spread these types of violent, warped, heinous details?” I hoped the movie version couldn’t possibly sink to such depths, especially with the radiant Ana De Armas in the title role. But about ten minutes in, I found I was being painfully delusional. We see Marilyn as no more than a tragic victim, with not even a hint of  strength, intelligence, or joy. In the beginning we see her mother trying to drown her in a bathtub, before she’s unceremoniously dropped off at an orphanage. Then it’s a fast forward to pin-up girl, followed by her grueling climb to super stardom, via exploitation, abuse, drug addiction, and an abortion, the latter  shown via an awkward womb camera angle. Maybe it’s a wise choice to present it as an artistic vision of a fever dream, perhaps a nightmare. This way, hopefully viewers will realize it’s an interpretation, a prevarication, rather than a factual biopic. In the end, I find it both disturbing and unfair that both author Joyce Carol Oates and director Andrew Dominik chose to reduce Marilyn Monroe to little more than a tragic victim. I bet nobody wants to be defined by the fabricated worst parts of her life, and less than most Marilyn. 

And after watching the loopy “Blonde,” some viewers might argue that this movie takes the streamer to a new low. Sadly, Dominik’s adaptation isn’t as cagey as Oates's novel. Where Oates channels the actress and iconic sex-symbol climbing inside her mind in a sometimes-unmoored stream of consciousness, Dominik uses his camera to leer at the Monroe body—the result is cinematic masturbation of the highest order. It’s hard on the eyes. And the sound design is assaultive. And while de Armas fits the role's physicality, her lightly detectible accent strikes an odd tone for the Marilyn we know. Dominik’s adaptation is an indulgent meander. He approaches Monroe as a platform for nausea, wallowing in everything sad and depressing about her life without giving viewers any of the magic, love or happiness that Oates was able to subtly weave into her itchy fiction. The craving for a child was a theme that Oates explored but not to the exclusion of other parts of Norma Jeane’s life. Oates was more sensitive to the exploitation that marked the time and the Monroe alter ego. Dominik’s film is so morbidly focused on her abortion that it makes the story unnecessarily unpleasant. All this wastes de Armas, who could have brought more dimension to the character if given the opportunity. Instead of giving us enough of the authentic Norma Jeane side of the protagonist, Dominik leaves his talented actress in Monroe mode almost exclusively. We get it, Monroe was a tragic icon, but Norma Jeane was more than just a sad sack. Even Oates knew that all too well; But Dominik didn’t. Blonde is a dismal and dreary viewing experience. It seems filmed through the same kind of hallucinatory nightmare lens as Requiem for a Dream. Source:

In the fall of 1953, just before one of his performances, during his second week as Hal in Picnic, Paul Newman was alerted by Joshua Logan that both Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe were in the audience. "I wasn't so afraid of Marilyn, but of Sinatra. For some reason, I thought he'd make fun of me. I knew he hated Method actors like Brando." Sinatra congratulated Paul on his performance. "You're great, kid," Sinatra told him. "Originally Logan wanted Brando for the part. That jerk would have fucked it up big time." Paul accepted their invitation for an apres-theater dinner. Every head in the restaurant turned to watch Marilyn slither across the restaurant floor while Newman and Sinatra were virtually ignored. Newman deciphered the real purpose of the visit. Marilyn was lobbying for the role of Madge in the movie version of Picnic. "Janice Rule would be okay," Marilyn said, "but she's got no sex appeal." Newman said that being in the presence of two fabled stars was going to his head even more than the wine. 

Paul Newman was crushed when he learned Logan had cast Don Murray for the role of Bo in Bus Stop, but he tried to be gracious about his loss. Newman admitted to Kim Stanley: "I'm horribly disappointed. But Marilyn is such big box office, and she is right for the role. You and I have seen her act at the studio. We know how good she is. None of us believe that she's the lightweight her fans think of her." Much in the same way the arrival of a train-hopping drifter shook up the small-town residents in William Inge’s Picnic, the emotional (and sexual) disruption instigated by the intrusion of Lila Green—a peroxided, emotionally-wounded, aging starlet with a squalid past and a childlike disposition—into the Baird household is the source of The Stripper’s central conflict. The film was provisionally called Celebration, and then originally titled Woman of Summer, was released in the US on 19 June 1963 as The Stripper. It was released as Woman of Summer in the UK. 

Marilyn Monroe was set to play Lila Green but she died during production and was replaced by Joanne Woodward. The original New York production of William Inge's play A Loss of Roses had opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on 28 November 1959. 20th Century Fox directive, Buddy Adler, purchased the rights to A Loss of Roses for a whopping $400,000 before it even opened on Broadway. As Adler told columnist Louella Parsons: “Yes, we paid a big price, but Inge writes only hits. He wrote 'Bus Stop,' 'Picnic,' and 'Dark at the Top of the Stairs.'” The Stripper's sole Oscar nomination was for the costume designs of William Travilla (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Valley of the Dolls). In school it was revealed that Joanne Woodward had a high I.Q. of 135, and she excelled in her grades. Life seemed so happy in the Woodward household that Joanne was devastated when her parents got divorced. Returning to Greenville, South Carolina, she appeared in a local production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie-ironically, the same play in which Paul Newman had appeared during his own school years in Ohio. In 1987, Joanne would star in a film version of that same play, directed by none other than Paul himself. —Paul Newman: A Life (2009) by Lawrence J. Quirk 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Two very different blondes: Marilyn Monroe and Joanne Woodward

If your stance is, rightly, that Marilyn Monroe was a kind of genius, an actress for whom the status of sex symbol comes with an asterisk, because she was not helplessly beholden to her iconic image—not the fatuous, buxom blonde that many mistook her to be—but rather an extremely savvy engineer of her own persona, a whip-smart, and self-aware talent for whom the culture’s low expectations proved an opportunity for success; if it’s your belief that this is the truth of Marilyn Monroe’s appeal and the essence of her timelessness, then Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, will not be the movie for you. 

To start, this isn’t so much a movie about Marilyn Monroe. Andrew Dominik’s fictionalized biopic is a relentless pseudo-psychoanalysis that wallows in the screen icon's suffering and ignores her true genius. Blonde and its flaws are already being diagnosed with a handful of compatible but unflattering descriptors (pretentious, misogynistic, masochistic, and ludicrous). More than any of that, this movie is psychoanalytic in excess. From first to last, Blonde tries to draw linear pathways from its heroine’s behavior (and by association the mask-like, glamorous persona she creates) to her experiences, like some cursed psychological map. Monroe’s charisma as a screen presence remains mesmerizing, even for the people still discovering her today, because of its mystery, its contours that feel impossible to properly trace. Nothing about Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, by contrast, is mysterious or mesmerizing. Everything is contingent and predictable. Dominik’s script is more interested in the more incisive question of whether these men would know how to love Marilyn selflessly. It seems it's unknown for Dominik that selfishness is not automatically contrary to love; that’s what can make love so real and difficult. Admittedly, a honest filmmaker would probably find it wise to avoid Oates’ novel altogether, because the novel itself is so histerically reductive. The scandalous, the sensational, are Oates' tools since she can use our helpless fascination against us, by inspiring true repulsion, much like a trickster who’d warned us to be careful what we wish for. Blonde tries to deny who Marilyn Monroe really was, punishing her to punish all of us. The math does not check out, and it shows. Source: 

Blonde does not see Marilyn Monroe's joy, it does not see her humour, it does not see her artistry, it does not see her humanity. It uses her as a vessel to comment on consumerism and the darkness at the heart of the Hollywood machine. It claims to be feminist, yet is so so deeply steeped in misogyny. In watching Monroe’s films, you can see an intelligence, a bravery, and a spark that Andrew Dominik’s script and direction never allows Ana De Armas’s performance to even come close to approaching. Blonde wants you to believe that it’s bringing an internal depth to Monroe, as if her performances didn’t already have ten times as much complexity as whatever the hell this movie is trying to do. Marilyn Monroe was not just one of the greatest film comediennes, but also one of its greatest dramatic performers. Dominik seems to resent Monroe's capacity for comedy and interrupts some famous scenes from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot with her sudden meltdowns. It's quite safe to think Marilyn would respond to Dominik's revisionist nightmare with something like Boop-boop-a-doop.” Source:

Joanne Woodward in the film Rachel, Rachel (1969) where she gave a fascinating performance, expanding the cliché of the old maid to incorporate a wistful lyricism, intelligence and wit. She was Oscar-nominated but that year the Academy gave an unprecedented tie to Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. Woodward had already won the Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1957), which was a triumph of Method technique, but with Rachel, Rachel she achieved real depth. Woodward's greatest strengths as a performer were her pragmatism and likability. Pauline Kael wrote that Woodward had a trouper quality: she was an actress with solidity, great audience rapport and a wide streak of humor about herself. Woodward’s expression of anger was nearly always funny, as in her comedies with Paul Newman—Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) and A New Kind of Love (1963). 

Her attempts at sexpot roles, like The Stripper (1963), were more problematic since she was not the Marilyn Monroe type at all. Woodward’s training with the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio had her perceived as a Method actress. In her book The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1987), Molly Haskell describes Woodward as one of the serious artist-actresses in film, comparing her to Geraldine Page, Anne Bancroft, Julie Harris, Kim Stanley and Shelley Winters. These actresses emerged in the Hollywood studio system, but were not movie stars in living Technicolor like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner or Grace Kelly. 

Haskell seemed to have a point about Woodward, since in the black-and-white The Three Faces of Eve she didn’t give a typical movie-star performance. Her Method origins were also evident in her actor mannerisms, though she used them in real life when interviewed as well. Fox had reportedly had trouble with the film version of The Three Faces of Eve, which was first called The Woman with Three Lives. One problem was casting, since it was hard to find an actress capable of playing the title character who suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder. In 1956, writer-director Nunnally Johnson offered the part to Lana Turner, Olivia de Havilland, Doris Day, Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker, who all declined. Johnson suggested Marilyn Monroe, whom he knew after he had produced and written the screenplay for Fox’s romantic comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

Marilyn was making Bus Stop at the time, and when Johnson asked her about the part, the actress told him that she didn’t feel capable of assuming three personalities at once. June Allyson said that she was offered it but her husband, Dick Powell, talked her out of it, thinking her miscast for the role. The June 29, 1956, New York Times reported that Susan Hayward was negotiating with Johnson for the role, though another source claims that he went to Hayward after Judy Garland. Johnson had talked to Garland and had decided she would be perfect after she had proven her dramatic skills in the Warner Bros. musical romance A Star Is Born (1954). He sent Garland the script in Las Vegas where she was then performing at the New Frontier Hotel. Garland didn’t quite understand the script, feeling it came across more as a domestic comedy than a dramatic piece. Another source had Paul Newman visiting Judy Garland in her Hollywood home, where he was introduced to Johnson as he was leaving. There Garland showed Newman the script because she wanted him to play her husband. 

Newman borrowed the script to show it to Woodward, who was then attached to The Wayward Bus. Rather he wanted Gore Vidal to read it, partly to have the husband part beefed up, so that Newman could take these revisions to the director if he was offered it. Vidal believed the part could be a good star vehicle for Woodward. She was shown the script, though she believed Fox would want Susan Hayward. Garland changed her mind about the film and got cold feet. Woodward supposedly told Newman she feared she had all of Eve’s characteristics but playing her could tip her over the deep edge. The role terrified her because she identified so strongly with Eve. Newman thought that the way was clear for Woodward but Johnson sent the script to Jennifer Jones. Fortunately, she declined the part. Johnson had apparently seen Woodward in a Dick Powell television drama and had been impressed. He said when he finished the screenplay for the film, Johnson had her in the back of his mind. But despite Johnson and Buddy Adler being interested, apparently the people in Fox’s New York office still believed that they needed a star. Woodward said she only got the part because Fox couldn’t get any of the actresses they really wanted. 

The Long, Hot Summer had a screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., and it was based on three Faulkner works: the 1931 novella Spotted Horses, the 1939 short story “Barn Burning” and the 1940 novel The Hamlet. The director was Martin Ritt. Filming took place on the Fox studio backlot and it was completed on November 21 with a final sequence shot on December 6. The story centered on alleged barn burner and farmer Ben Quick (Paul Newman), who arrives in the town of Frenchmen’s Bend, Mississippi, and ingratiates himself with the Varners family. Second billed after Newman, Joanne Woodward played 23-year-old Clara Varner, the schoolteacher daughter of farmer Will Varner (Orson Welles). Her shoulder-length blonde hair was made by Helen Turpin and mostly worn tied back with bangs. Her clothes by Adele Palmer favor pastel colors with matching hair ribbons. Woodward’s scenes with Newman are brimming with sexual tension all through. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote that Woodward was excellent as Clara Varner. 

While Newman commented that in their scenes together they were fighting each other, Woodward reported that they had a close relationship and got along and that’s what emerged in the film. During production she became pregnant with his child. One observer noted that everybody knew better than to knock on the door of whichever trailer the couple was. Newman supposedly once grabbed the collar of the assistant director and told him 'if the trailer’s rockin, don’t bother knockin’! Another version of this story is that Newman told Ritt, “If my dressing room is rock ’n’ rolling, take the advice of that Marilyn Monroe film, Don’t Bother to Knock.” Ritt had originally wanted to cast Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in the film, so that they would be reuniting after On the Waterfront. But Brando declined and Newman became Ritt’s third choice after Robert Mitchum also turned down the role of Ben Quick. Saint withdrew when she became pregnant and Woodward was cast though there was some resistance from the studio. 

Angela Lansbury, who played Minnie Littlejohn, commented that Newman and Woodward together were a wonderful duo and that’s what made their chemistry so exciting and realistic. They seemed to have such a total understanding of each other that they were able to work in scenes where they were at each other’s throats or falling under each other’s spell. Lansbury also recalled that the couple spent most of their off-camera time alone and away from the other cast members. 

After filming was completed, Woodward and Newman made a trip to Mexico. One source claims this was to allow Newman to arrange a fast divorce, though another says this did not happen until January when he went to Mexico before joining Woodward in Las Vegas. Newman's ex-wife Jackie Witte was given a generous, lifelong financial settlement and agreed the children should live with her. Newman said he felt guilty as hell about leaving his first marriage and family, but without Woodward he would not be happy. They had their wedding at the El Rancho Hotel on January 29, 1958. The tackiness of the locale was said to have fit the couple’s sense of humor. Newman said that after all the anxiety and secrecy surrounding their romance and his divorce, the ability to walk around freely as a man with his wife was intoxicating. 

Back at Chesham Place, Woodward complained of stomach pains so Gore Vidal summoned a doctor, who said that she was having a miscarriage. Taken to St. George’s Hospital, the actress lost their child and remained there to recover from her ordeal. Paul Newman was said to be devastated by the news, and Claire Bloom visited Woodward bringing her flowers. The miscarriage occurred in early March 1958. It was a dark period for the Newmans, since their fights seemed to be more intense during those dark days. Some recriminations, according to close sources, were centered around Woodward's brief fling with Playhouse 90's writer Timmy Everett and Newman's liaison with co-star Lita Milan, both relationships previous to their wedding. 

The Newmans attended the Academy Awards ceremony with their friend Joan Collins on March 26, 1958, at the RKO Hollywood Pantages Theater in Hollywood. The television broadcast directed by Alan Handley was on NBC. On the red carpet, Joanne Woodward predicted that Deborah Kerr would win the Best Actress Oscar, and announced that the dress she wore was homemade. The attention the award gave the actress also evinced comment on her marriage, with a comically jealous Joan Crawford saying Newman could have dated some of the biggest names in Hollywood but preferred “this Georgian redneck and her feedsack dress.” It was rumored that Crawford had sent a letter to Newman, inviting him to a dinner date he'd refused. 

In The Fugitive Kind (1960)Woodward hated working with Marlon Brando, resenting his pauses and vagueness, feeling she had nothing to reach out to, and she complained to Sidney Lumet that Brando was a complete blank “regardless of how much money he was hauling in for this turkey.” Woodward stated the only way she would work with Brando again was if he was “in rear projection.” A source claims that the actor somehow mistreated her to get back at Newman who was now considered a greater exponent of the Actors Studio Method than him. To torment both Newmans, Brando spread the rumor that he was shacking up with Woodward during the making of the film. Though it was untrue, Newman knew that Brando had dated Woodward briefly in 1953 and he suspected that Brando had seduced the actress. During production, director Otto Preminger noted that Newman was an oddity in the business because he really loved his wife. Newman was a sex symbol who was off limits to that special breed of Hollywood starlet who circled young men like sharks ready for the kill; apparently, Newman could not be seduced and was devoted to Woodward. 

Woodward was confirmed to be in the United Artists musical romance Paris Blues (1961) and the director was again Martin Ritt. It was shot on location in Paris and at the Studios de Boulogne from October 10 to late December. The screenplay was by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp and Walter Bernstein, adapted by Lulla Adler from the novel by Harold Flender. Trombonist Ram Bowen (Newman) and saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier), American ex-pat jazz musicians living in Paris, perform at the Club Prive. They meet and fall in love with two American tourist girls on vacation. Woodward played Lillian “Lilly” Corning, a divorced mother of two. Her hair by Carita is blonde, worn in a short sculptured style with bangs. Her wardrobe includes a black shimmery short-sleeve knee-length dress with a wide coat, and in one scene she wears only a bodice outfit. The film was released on September 27, 1961; although it was not a box office success but its music score was Oscar-nominated.

Marilyn Monroe was also considered for the part of Lilly but declined. During filming, Woodward became pregnant again. She reported that they rented a place in Montmartre. One source claims it was a two-story house, another that it was an apartment that Picasso had once lived in. Sources do agree there was a backyard garden. In her time off, the actress visited museums and looked after Nell. She was also visited by her mother for three weeks. The Newmans grew tired of the French food that Desiree, the studio maid, prepared, so Newman set up a barbecue in their garden. The couple also frequented an American Southern–style restaurant they found just below Place Pigalle. To the Parisians they did not look like movie stars, with Woodward described as looking more like a Kansas housewife. The Newmans toyed with the idea of buying an apartment in Paris and relocating but lost interest. They sailed back to the United States and reportedly lent their support to John F. Kennedy, the Democrat presidential hopeful. The couple also campaigned for Gore Vidal in his unsuccessful run for a Congressional seat in the New York State. 

The Stripper (1963) was a drama shot at 20th Century-Fox. The screenplay was written by Meade Roberts and the director was Franklin Schaffner. Lila Green (Woodward) is a failed Hollywood actress and showgirl in The Great Ronaldo & Madame Olga Magic show, which comes to a small town in Kansas. Her hair by George Masters appears peroxide-blonde and is worn in a straight short bubble style with bangs. Travilla gives Lila an all-white wardrobe, which includes a midriff-baring pants and top outfit, and a jaguar fur jacket. The role sees Woodward participate in a magic act and she does a stripping act singing “Something’s Gotta Give.” Director Schaffner and Travilla protect her from being physically exposed in the stripping scene, as she wears a fishnet and tassel under-costume and balloons strategically placed over her. Pauline Kael wrote that everything Woodward did in The Stripper was worth watching, and gave the Marilyn Monroe–ish role a nervousness that cut through its pathos. In fact, the role of Lila had been originally intended for Monroe. Kim Novak had been announced to replace her before Woodward was cast. 

Her hairstyle recalled the same that Monroe donned for the unfinished Fox comedy Something’s Got to Give, and Woodward also sang the title song of Monroe's last film. Marilyn Monroe’s death on August 3, 1962, oddly contributed to the idea of her ghost hovering over the part played by Woodward. There had been a specific reference to Marilyn that was cut in the film, when Lila was seen walking down the street. Originally an observer asked who Lila was, adding that she looked like Marilyn Monroe, and a bus driver said that it was not her. But the name was changed to Jayne Mansfield and Woodward said it just wasn’t right. Woodward also commented that she had a visual image of Lila as Marilyn but she wasn’t imitating her. Woodward described the film as a mess and was sorry that it was botched. Screenwriter Meade Roberts invented a wonderful prop for her: the teddy bear she held onto. 

There was a vulnerability and resilience in the character that the actress tried to capture in her walk, a combination of a jiggle and a voluptuous swagger. She felt Travilla had designed the wardrobe as an homage to Marilyn Monroe (who was still alive during pre-production). They had a wonderful time rehearsing and the script was charming but the death of Jerry Wald saw Darryl Zanuck, now back as Fox studio head, take over. Zanuck saw a rough cut and threw Schaffner off the film. Zanuck said that Woodward couldn’t sing or dance so he cut almost all of her dancing, which had been choreographed by Alex Romero, though Lila not being able to sing or dance was the point. 

The only place where Woodward was a sex symbol was at home, she said, and she was very lucky that Newman thought her so sexy and alluring. Woodward also said she didn’t worry about other women coming on strong with him because she knew what Newman thought of them. Long-time friend Stewart Stern described the Newmans as the most hand-holding couple he'd ever seen and it was Newman who reached for his wife’s hand more often than her. When Marilyn Monroe was found dead, the Newmans attended a private homage at the Actors Studio held by Lee Strasberg. There was despair in the air, Strasberg recalled. Woodward was glad she "wasn’t grabbed at and mauled" the way she had seen Marilyn Monroe at an Actors Studio premiere for East of Eden (1955). Also there were in its day rumors about Marilyn flirting with Paul Newman during the acting classes at the Studio.

In WUSA (1970), Joanne Woodward played Geraldine Crosby, a former prostitute from West Virginia. A jaded widow, she starts a relationship with Rheinhardt (Paul Newman) who gets a job at the WUSA station. Woodward's hair by Sydney Guilaroff is a soft blonde shade, worn in a straight casual style, and her wardrobe is by Travilla. Woodward also wears a scar on her right cheek, courtesy of makeup by Lynn Reynolds. The role has her use a Southern accent, and she adds to her mannerisms by playing with her hair, though it has context since Geraldine sometimes does so to hide her facial scar. Woodward’s best scene is when Geraldine is imprisoned and the actress has a silent reaction of fear, stopping herself from screaming in hysterics, and pondering how she can kill herself. Satisfied by her enacting of such a difficult role, Woodward also regarded her husband’s performance in WUSA as one of the best of his career. Newman was angry with Paramount and denounced the studio for its interferences in the production of the film. For his part, director Stuart Rosenberg found the Newmans to be virtuosos and observed their different approaches they took to reach an accomplished performance level. —Joanne Woodward: Her Life and Career (2019) by Peter Shelley

Friday, September 16, 2022

Marilyn Monroe's myths reconstructed in "Blonde"

In Dominik’s eyes, Marilyn Monroe is a weirdo artist, a clever and experimental mind who was thwarted by things beyond her control, poor mental health and the Hollywood system, mostly. But as much as Dominik seems to appreciate Monroe on those merits, he eventually puts her through a nightmarish ordeal leading to her death that is  harrowing and relentless (and, eventually, tiresome) on film. Ana de Armas can’t do much to conceal her Cuban accent as she approximates Monroe’s breathy vocal melodiousness. Unfortunately, she lacks the necessary nuance which is far off her reach. We don’t necessarily get to know the reality of Monroe here; the movie offers precious little of her at work, or in her social element. It’s pretty much all pain, all the time, crafting a vivid and frightening picture of the madness of fame. 

Throughout her numerous travails, Monroe conceives and then loses several babies, either by coerced abortion or miscarriage. That becomes a heavy emotional throughline in the film, as does Monroe’s yearning to know her father, whom she’s never met but idolizes nonetheless. Dominik explores several noted film productions (Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot are all attenuated through interesting moments) and significant license is taken when examining her more famous romantic, troubled relationships. And it's especially insulting the portrait of Joe DiMaggio and President John F Kennedy as abusive chauvinists. In May, Christie’s sold Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn portrait of the actress for a staggering $195 million. It is the most expensive 20th-century artwork to ever sell at auction. In the summer, Madame Tussauds installed a wax sculpture of the film legend at the Lexington Hotel, a place Marilyn and her husband Joe DiMaggio once called their home. In 2020, Forbes listed Monroe as the 13th-highest-paid dead celebrity, raking in $13 million her estate earned the year prior. The outlet reported that her likeness was officially licensed by nearly 100 brands globally, including Dolce & Gabbana, Zales, and Lego Group. 

As art historian Gail Levin told PBS’ American Masters about Monroe, “She could, arguably, be the most-photographed person of the 20th century.” By her own admission, the woman she presented onscreen to the American public was just the façade of a glamorous sex bomb Hollywood decided to market her as, not the insecure Norma Jeane Baker who grew up in a string of foster homes. A persona that now, decades after her death, threatens to totally eclipse her actuality and erase any genuine human complexity that doesn’t align with her best-selling tragic paradigm. In Blonde Marilyn Monroe is no longer a real person but a more of a void that members of the public can fill with their own vague desires. In her essay “Thirty Are Better Than One: Marilyn Monroe and the Performance of Americanness,” academic Susanne Hamscha writes that Monroe has become “a surface on which narratives of American culture can be (re-) constructed” and “functions as a cultural type that can be reproduced, transformed, translated into new contexts, and enacted by other people.” 

As Ana de Armas says in the trailer’s voice-over, “Marilyn doesn’t exist. When I come out of my dressing room, I’m Norma Jeane. I’m still her when the camera is rolling. Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.” We've abstracted this woman so far from herself, even during her own life, that she was always essentially a figment of our imagination. What we conceive of as Marilyn is actually just the output of our collective projection of her. And, as a heavily fictionalized version of her life, Blonde makes no attempt at correcting the legends surrounding this woman or grounding her in reality, instead adding yet another layer of illusion to her already mythologized existence, and a particularly scandalous one at that. Source:

“One of the bright spots in Ladies of Chorus (1948) is Miss Monroe’s singing,” wrote critic Tibor Krekes. “She is pretty and, with her pleasing voice and style, she shows promise”—hardly a rave, but nevertheless a gratifying first review that altered Marilyn's career. Marilyn’s singing is more than pleasing, and she displays a remarkable control of pitch and range. Perhaps more remarkable is her on-screen lambency. Even in this early role, when Marilyn appears in-frame, everything around her fades into the background. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, was not impressed and her contract was not renewed. Her dismissal from Columbia did not have the same impact on her as her earlier dismissal from Fox. After a brief hiatus, Marilyn’s next appearance on film would be in a Mary Pickford production, featuring her in a scene with Groucho Marx in Love Happy (1949).

Natasha Lytess was the staff drama and acting coach at Columbia when Marilyn signed her six month contract. Natasha left Columbia and became Marilyn’s formal drama coach, a function she performed through the filming of The Seven Year Itch. Marilyn’s directors, co-stars and many other Hollywood notables blamed Natasha over the years for what was occasionally termed Marilyn’s stiff mannered speech. Harry Cohn was probably the most despised man in Hollywood. Later, after Marilyn’s rise to international fame, Cohn admitted his mistake of not having renewed her contract at Columbia. 

Marilyn was just one of several female stars that Cohn pursued, along with Rita Hayworth, Mary Castle, Kim Novak and Evelyn Keyes. Lucille Carroll, whose stage name was Jane Starr, she worked as a Broadway actress and she would become the first female studio executive in Hollywood. According to Lucille Carroll, “Under Marilyn’s baby-doll, kitten exterior, she was tough and shrewd and calculating,” was Lucille’s assessment. One day during her last summer in 1962, Marilyn told her confidante Susan Strasberg: ‘Hollywood will never forgive me—not for leaving, not for fighting the system—but for winning, which I’m going to do.’ Maybe Hollywood has not forgiven her after all this time. —Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (2014) by Donald Spoto

Thursday, September 15, 2022

"Blonde" (spoilers), Lotusland, The Hustler

“It soon became clear that Marilyn was no pushover,” Anthony Summers wrote. “She worked the Hollywood system to her advantage.” And yet, in an interview with Summers, director John Huston describes what he saw in Marilyn Monroe: “Something so vulnerable, something you felt could be destroyed.” In interviews with over 700 people, Anthony Summers, author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2017) encountered nothing to suggest that Daryl Zanuck or another Hollywood producer assaulted Marilyn Monroe. Summers is suspicious about Andrew Dominik's film Blonde: "When Oates’ novel Blonde came out, her defence was that, in a work of fiction, she ‘had no particular obligation’ to the facts. In my view, that is not so. The people she named in her novel were real people with real reputations – and historical legacies – and such fictional fabrication is unjustifiably cruel. The fact that the individuals concerned are dead is no defence." Joyce Carol Oates's only defence was her warning: What follows is fiction. Biographical facts should be sought elsewhere. 

In Blonde, Cass Chaplin and Eddy G.— played, respectively, by Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams, and who in Oates’ book are as victimised by the Hollywood system as Monroe is—are conniving rotters in the film, with uncomfortable echoes of homophobic films of the 1950s. Blonde also contains moments of erotic surrealism, including a threesome filmed as an elegantly distorted kneading of flesh into strange new configurations, like a sexy version of the climax of Brian Yuzna's Society. Spoilers: The star’s death is reframed to directly implicate these former lovers rather than the Kennedys. The dialogue is cringey, the direction is misguided, and again, there is far too much skin shown. Blonde isn’t subtle, that’s for sure. Sometimes pushing the envelope helps a movie excel, but in this case it doesn’t work out. In fact, it drastically takes away from what this could have been. Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is exploitative. For most of the film the despair is palpable; the dramatic purpose is not. Blonde frames Monroe, stylishly and icily, as a hysterical woman. She deserves better. Source:

A femme fatale, at least in her own mind, Anais Nin was a woman of mystery and passion, known for extravagant sexual exploits which included a torrid affair with Henry Miller and his wife June. She was not known at the time for her bicoastal life where she had a husband stashed in New York and a younger husband in Los Angeles. "She was liberated decades before female liberation," said the chauvinist author Norman Mailer. "I never let her seduce me that day she came on to me at a party in Greenwich Village. She got Jack Kerouac instead." Anais told novelist James Leo Herlihy she was intrigued by Paul Newman, while Herlihy was lobbying to get Newman to star as Willart in John Frankenheimer's All Fall Down (1962), a role with similarities to Newman's Hud, that ended up on Warren Beatty's hands. Anais told Herlihy. "I suspect Newman will go far in an industry that is all about illusion. There is a self-awareness in this handsome young man. In spite of the hot sun, he already knows that California is a cold, harsh land. He does not want it to hurt him. So what must he do? 

I predict he'll have a miserable life in Hollywood. Beneath all of his swagger, I suspect there is a sensitive man lurking somewhere there. I feel sorry for Newman because if he wants to be a movie star, then he has to be as artificial as Marilyn Monroe. He has to become a sort of dream figure for the women of America. And American women are shallow. They always make gods and goddesses out of cardboard figures. I predict Newman will turn into a cardboard figure. There will be no reality to him. He can't be real. We'll never know who Paul Newman is, because he doesn't know himself. Perhaps one harsh, brutal morning, when that world tumbles in around him, he'll look into the mirror and see himself for the first time. But it will frighten him. A tragedy, really. But, this is, after all, Lotusland." Later, Herlihy confided: "I don't know if I learned anything about Paul Newman from listening to her. But Anais was not clever enough to conceal her own deceit. She was actually attracted to Newman, but could not admit that to herself. From the way she talked about him, I felt she wanted to add him to her stable of lovers. But knowing how hopeless that was, she chose to trash him instead, the way she did with Gore Vidal in her diary." –Anais Nin: The Last Days (2013) by Barbara Kraft

The Hustler's (1961) - Journey of Ambition and Redemption: One of Paul Newman’s most iconic films, it remains a frighteningly nuanced psychological study and societal portrait. The film delights in illuminating the dark “shadows” of our times: ruthless ambition, pangs of personal growth, capitalist dreams, and the pursuit of alcohol to provide a fleeting smile in times of sorrow. These themes are often silently stalking us, hiding around unforeseen corners, as we do not generally bring them up in polite discourse. As Fast Eddie Felson approaches his peak, the need for mastery looms. The drive for mere pleasure falters when confronted by the will for being recognized and having lasting power. And to Eddie, power is achieved by beating the greatest pool player in the country, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). 

Eddie finds refuge in the form of the eternal feminine. His love interest, Sarah Packard, is attracted to the charming masculinity of Newman's character, yet she's painfully aware of his immaturity. Her instinct to introspection is actually frightening to him. Eddie secretly knows he must accept the instinct of Sarah to improve himself before he can embark on a disciplined and mature approach to life. However, success in his life will entail a confrontation with the Mephistophelian “devil” straight from the tragedy of Goethe’s Faust. This force is personified by Bert Gordon, a rich speculator, gambler and owner of men’s souls. Eddie’s “excuses” for losing do not gain any sympathy from such a Machiavellian character. In a deep conversation with Sarah, Eddie finds the source of his passion, likening it to a jockey having developed such precise control of the powerful stallion (his inner nature), that propels him towards an undeniable victory. Sarah calls Eddie a winner.

The Hustler culminates with an emotionally wrenching and tragic climax. Fast Eddie enters the Ames Pool Hall, the billiard coliseum, with his final $3000 dollars. Harnessing his remnant passion for the game and for life that he realized through Sarah, he now drags his damaged pride during his last pool match. Sarah’s insight helped Eddie find out the truth about his moral weakness. Rossen shows the pool game as a graveyard collection of dispassionate symbols. Fats is a champion, but his love for the game has been reduced to a “high percentage” ritual. Eddie won’t lose because he has someone who inspires him to fight for. Eddie says defiantly to Bert, “You don't know what winning is. You're a loser, Bert. 'Cause you're dead inside. You can't live unless you make everything else dead around you!”

Despite its reputation as a truly bleak film, it's somehow a story of moral triumph. A determined hustler can beat the system, no matter how far he has fallen. When Eddie invests all he’s got (his life savings), no mere percentage player can match his fervent determination. And yet it also warns us against chasing false symbols of success that prevent a deeper emotional connection. All the glitz and glam of a Las Vegas evening cannot fill that unquenchable human void that inspires the greatest of feats. “I think Robert Rossen had actually signed somebody else,” Newman remembered, “and then he found out I was available and called me and said, ‘Can I send you a script?’ I read half of it and called my New York agent at six o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Get me this film.’ And he did.” Rossen, whose major Hollywood career had been interrupted by encounters with the House Un-American Activities Committee, was now hobbled by a combination of diabetes and alcoholism, but he was determined to make a film about a world that he knew well, the demimonde of smoky billiard halls and itinerant pool sharks. It was a bravura bit of pulp, tightly atmospheric, filled with pinpoint detail and spare, snappy dialogue. 

Newman respected Rossen’s knowledge of the subject matter and his commitment to the job. “He just pulled himself together to do the film,” Newman remembered, “and he was incredible.” Too, Newman loved the material and knew it was the best thing he’d ever had in his career. In his view, Eddie Felson was a guy trying to find himself, to express himself and his talents in an unorthodox way, to burst into the world and be a somebody instead of a nobody, and mostly, to realize his true self. Newman told an interviewer, “I spent the first thirty years of my life looking for a way to explode. For me, apparently, acting is that way.” Newman always recalled The Hustler fondly, as one of his best roles. “It was one of those movies when you woke every day and could hardly wait to get to work,” Newman said, “because you knew it was so good that nobody was going to be able to louse it up.” Rossen was free to operate on the cheap and get an authentic feel; the picture was shot in mid-town Manhattan during the spring of 1961. Rossen used the Greyhound Bus Terminal, some dive bars on Eighth Avenue, and, especially, the Ames Billiard Academy on West Forty-fourth Street.

Piper Laurie, a promising young actress with a résumé rather like Joanne Woodward’s of a couple years before, would play brilliantly her bittersweet role as Eddie's love interest. Sarah is an alcoholic writer with a shady past, and she's partly lame. Laurie's chemistry with Newman is so powerful and disturbing that evokes the best noir dramas. To prepare for the film, Newman took lessons from the famed billiard champion Willie Mosconi; he moved a billiard table into his Upper East Side apartment where he lived with Joanne, getting good enough to play most of his pool shots in the film. The Hustler was in contention for an impressive nine Oscar awards: best picture, actor, actress, director, screenplay, cinematography, art direction, and two for best supporting actor. All these nominations were worthy, but Paul Newman’s was especially well deserved. He was the center of the film and carried it all—the naïvete, the swagger, the nervous tension, the sexual confidence, the crushing humiliation, the not-quite-focused calculation, the hard-earned redemption—with disarming certainty. 
—Paul Newman: A Life (2009) by Shawn Levy