Monday, July 31, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Giving Miss Monroe Some Respect

Marilyn Monroe as Chérie 1956’s “Bus Stop.”
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Turner Classic Movies Gives Miss Monroe Some Respect, on its “Summer Under The Stars.”

“MARILYN MONROE is as near a genius as any actress I ever knew.  She is an artist beyond artistry.  She is the most completely realized and authentic film actress since Garbo.  Monroe is pure cinema.  Watch her work. In any film.  How rarely she has to use words.  How much she does with her eyes, her lips, with slight almost accidental gestures.

“Maybe it was because ‘Bus Stop’ was emotionally the story of her life, but I can tell you this — she inspired all of us to do our jobs better. Her performance that year was better than any other.  It was a classical film performance.”

That was Joshua Logan, the great stage and screen director, talking about Marilyn, whom he loved, and directed in 1956’s “Bus Stop,” a movie which contains one of the star’s most memorable roles — Cherie, the weary, talentless Ozark “chanteuse” who improbably dreams of Hollywood fame.
Marilyn Monroe and director Joshua Logan on the set of Bus Stop, 1956.
TOMORROW, August 1st, is the first day of Turner Classic Movies “Summer Under the Stars.”  In an unusual move, TCM is devoting this first day to MM.  (Perhaps, because on the 4th, it will be the 55th anniversary of her death.)

TCM has had an iffy relationship with Marilyn.  Over the years I would often chide the late great Robert Osborne, for the scarcity of her films shown. (To be fair to it was not a long career, and much hampered by mediocre studio obligations and long stretches of time away from Hollywood and filmmaking.) 
But Monroe herself, her very image, seemed an anathema to TCM.  When her films were shown there was an invariably snarky introduction dwelling on Marilyn’s “issues.”  (As if no other star was emotionally fragile, had substance problems, held up production, etc.)

Not long before his death, during a lively email back and forth about many things, we dwelt on Marilyn briefly.  “You know I have nothing against her. I thought she was brilliant in ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ and ‘Some Like it Hot.’  But I knew Billy Wilder and George Cukor well, and they had such tales of working with her.  Maybe that affected me.” He laughed and said, “I promise we’ll do better.”  A few months later he was gone.
Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Seven Year Itch, 1955.
SO, THIS day-long tribute is encouraging. (TCM has never produced its own documentary special on MM, as it has for others, but there are a plethora of those — some very good, to choose from, perhaps in the future.)

So here is how TCM is representing the ten-year reign of Monroe — the good, the bad and the improbably missing.

1948’s “Ladies of the Chorus” will be shown, MM’s first feature length film for Columbia. She had the lead, as the dancing daughter of a burlesque queen (a gorgeous Adel Jergens.)
In this she is essentially the popular model Norma Jeane with the new name of Marilyn Monroe and blonde hair.  She is sweet, incredibly pretty and charismatic. She sings and dances well.  She is also unencumbered by the “sexy” mannerisms that would become her trademark, for good and ill.  That she was dropped after this promising start is a mystery. (The story was she wouldn’t sleep with studio head Harry Cohn.)

She is also shown as the sleek, silky, but easy to intimidate kept girl of John Huston’s 1949 MGM classic “The Asphalt Jungle” — an attention-getting role. 
And in RKO’s 1952’s hard and jangling “Clash By Night” as a tough-talking blue-jean clad cannery worker.  Despite the brilliant work of stars Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas, Monroe is an earthy revelation. (With one her few genuinely sexy leading men, Keith Andes.)  Had her career and image taken a different turn ...
Also, somewhat ridiculously, TCM shows 1951’a “Love Nest” a 20th Century Fox film that contains MM in many changes of outfit and an approximate eight minutes onscreen. (This is how Fox used her at the time, in other films, much to her tremendous frustration.) 
OF THE major films we get 1954’s luridly Technicolored, highly entertaining “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”  Monroe’s role, shoe-horned in for box-office benefit, was her penance for having refused several roles. (Ethel Merman, Dan Daily, Donald O’ Connor and Mitzi Gaynor were also part of the Irving Berlin extravaganza.)

The studio said they’d give her the plum role of “The Seven Year Itch” if she agreed to “No Business.” Blackmail!  It is a stiff performance enlivened by her strong vocals, and Jack Cole’s wildly suggestive choreography. Her pelvic-centered “Heat Wave” number is still eyebrow raising! 
“River of No Return” also suffered from the odd enunciation she learned from her much-despised coach Natasha Lytess. But Monroe, as non-nonsense, wisecracking saloon singer, falls in and out of this affectation, so she is very good one minute, hilariously bad the next.  However, she is in her physical prime, and it is again, a movie that is much improved by her singing — especially the title song. 

1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire” directed by Jean Negulesco was a huge hit, thanks to Marilyn then-unprecedented popularity and the new innovation of Cinemascope.  MM is delightful as the near-sighted model who trips and falls because she won’t wear her glasses, but the film really belongs to Lauren Bacall, whose unexpectedly nasty, bitter, sizzling cynical performance dominates.  Betty Grable, one-time the queen of Fox, usurped by MM, is also very good.
That year also saw Monroe in the Technicolor noir “Niagara” directed by Henry Hathaway.  As Rose Loomis, Marilyn plays the only “bad girl” of her career; wishing to do away with jealous hubby Joseph Cotton. The movie is packed with stunning visuals of the star, and she surely could have had a strong career as a femme fatale, but that was not to be.
“The Seven Year Itch,” MM’s 1955 smash hit directed by Billy Wilder, presents Marilyn as fantasy object. The sweet Girl Upstairs with no name and an overabundance of good-natured trust. It is a charming, relaxed performance, and Marilyn rises above the obviousness of Wilder’s invasive camera, and the censoring of the time. (In the stage version, The Girl actually sleeps with Tom Ewell’s character.  In the film she must remain unattainable but poignantly, perhaps, interested.)  Her inherent sweetness takes the curse off the tight dresses and obvious trapping of glamour.  Few women could truly feel threatened by this platinum-haired child-woman.  In fact, they felt inexplicably protective. (By the time of Marilyn’s death, the long-troubled star had carved out a hugely affectionate niche among women.)
AFTER “Itch” Marilyn declared herself unhappy with the ties that bound her to Fox.  She went on strike for an astonishing 13 months, threatened with ruin, and mocked.  In the end, she won.  She formed a production company with photographer Milton Greene, and accepted the role of Cherie in “Bus Stop.”  The realness, rawness and aching vulnerability of her performance drew raves here and aboard (In Europe, she was worshipped as an actress, more so than a sex-symbol.)
In Wilder’s second film with Monroe, 1959’s “Some Like It’s Hot,” she is even more objectified — those costumes!   And even more vulnerable and real.  She is the soft human center of Wilder’s story of two Prohibition-era musicians on the lam, in drag. (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.)   Her three songs are high-points and also inherent to the plot and to the evolution of the character she plays — a ukulele-strumming singer with taste for bourbon and abusive sax players.
Finally, Turner Classic Movies presents her 1957 production company’s one film. “The Prince and Showgirl” with Laurence Olivier.  They did not get along.  But it is perhaps Marilyn’s most complete and delicious comic performance.  For one thing, she is in almost every scene — given far more screen time than in many of her other movies, where she is often dangled as a living pin-up in satin. Whether it was her teaching at the Actors Studio — now with another hated coach, Paula Strasberg by her side, or the directorial efforts of Olivier, no matter what he thought of her, she is superb. As the interfering, impossible-to-get-rid-of showgirl, Elsie, MM is utterly natural, vivacious, clever, adorable.  She does things no film had previously required of her, or would again.  France and Italy would award her Best Actress awards.

As a movie, it is somewhat slow-going.  But Marilyn is astonishing. 
ODDLY, TCM does not include 1952’s remarkable “Don’t Bother to Knock” with MM as a mentally disturbed babysitter.  Not perfect, but a deeply committed effort, especially given her inexperience. (The movie gives some indication that had she lived, she might have been a splendid Blanche DuBois.) 
Also missing, Marilyn’s greatest all-around most entertaining, truly perfect film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” partnered with the great Jane Russell.  The minor “Let’s Make Love” is excluded. Poorly directed by George Cukor, with a lackluster role for MM, she nevertheless works overtime to invest the little she has to do with some meaning. And also offers the classic “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” number.
1961’s “The Misfits,” her last completed film, with Clark Gable, Monty Clift and Eli Wallach is also absent.  This is a pretentious, condescending “valentine” to Monroe from screenwriter/hubby Arthur Miller.  It is worshipped by many for what I feel are the wrong reasons.  Still, Monroe manages her usual incandescence, and looks marvelous in her Jean Louis clothes and a long, straight-ish hairstyle — her most contemporary look. Russell Metty’s cinematography is superb. 
ENDQUOTE:  Monroe, 1962:  “Years ago, I thought if I became a better actress, I’d become a better human being.  Now I believe if I become a better human being, I’ll be a better actress.  The thing is, I have this whole superstructure, with no foundation.  But I’m working on the foundation.”
Sam Shaw, 1954
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