Marilyn Monroe

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

Not long before her death in 1962, a new psychiatrist arrives at the home of Marilyn Monroe (Kelli Garner). Even though she’s no stranger to psychotherapy, the thought of meeting a new therapist is enough to make her an insecure mess. She keeps her therapist waiting for over an hour, but when she finally does arrive, she’s ready to tell him all about her troubled childhood, her relationship with her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Susan Sarandon), her career, and her relationships with her various husbands and her aunt who cared for her.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is one of those times where I have to admit that I completely misjudged the entire project from the get-go. Although I am a big Marilyn fan, the idea of yet another Marilyn biopic was enough to make me roll my eyes a little. Not only was it yet another Marilyn biopic, it was being produced by Lifetime and their Liz & Dick fiasco from 2012 is still the punchline to many jokes in the classic film community. Plus I really didn’t know what to make of Kelli Garner being cast as Marilyn since I’d only seen her on the show Pan-Am, and that was a few years ago, so I just didn’t remember her well enough to have a strong opinion either way. Basically, the only thing that made me think this might have some modicum of potential was Susan Sarandon being cast as Gladys Mortenson, Marilyn’s mother.

Although Pan-Am may not have been enough of me to have a strong opinion of Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe changed that. I was very impressed by her performance as Marilyn; she did a fantastic job of getting the voice, the mannerisms, and the body language down. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this was my personal favorite portrayal of Marilyn in a film or mini-series. (Even though I liked Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, I hesitate to call that a Marilyn Monroe biopic because it’s not specifically about Marilyn, it’s the story of a kid who happened to encounter Marilyn.) I’ve read some reviews by people who have called Garner’s voice as Marilyn a caricature. But Michelle Williams also got a good amount of criticism for her take on Marilyn’s voice, which was really toned down from the voice we all know from Marilyn’s films. So it seems like actresses who play Marilyn just can’t win either way with getting Marilyn’s voice right. They try to make it more natural when portraying Marilyn in her day-to-day life and get criticized, but if they try to do the more signature Marilyn voice, they get criticized for that, too.

On the whole, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe had surprisingly high production values. It didn’t look cheap and low-rent. The costumes, hair, and make-up all looked great and showed a great deal of attention to detail. For example, I loved that at one point, Marilyn was seen wearing a pair of shoes very similar to these, because I remembered seeing several pictures of her wearing shoes just like them.

One thing I really liked about it is that it ultimately portrayed Marilyn to be a fighter. She had a hard childhood and with her family history of mental illness, there were somethings she simply couldn’t escape. But it never showed her to be resigned to that fact. We see her fighting for her sanity, for her career, for her respectability, and for her mother’s love. She fought for a lot and that’s something I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for.

In short, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was everything Liz & Dick wasn’t — well acted with a thoughtful script, high production values, and good costumes, hair, and make-up. Lifetime proved that yes, they are capable of producing quality movies and mini-series.  Even though I make a lot of jokes about bad Lifetime movies, but I can’t knock this one too much.

The writing isn’t perfect; it has its fair share of historical inaccuracies, but I’ve come to accept that virtually any biopic will have those. And there were a few moments where it tried too hard to shoehorn in a “Marilyn-ism” like, “I just want to be wonderful.” For some reason, that kind of annoyed me. And the title seems to be very out of place since there’s nothing about it that was a secret; it was all things the general public has known about Marilyn for decades.

It might not be perfect, but as far as Marilyn Monroe biopics go, I prefer it to the others.

A Few Thoughts on Some Like it Hot

Some Like it Hot Tony Curtis Jack Lemmon

Even though Some Like it Hot is now regarded as one of the all-time great comedies, I think one of the most remarkable things about Some Like it Hot is how easily it could have been just another run-of-the-mill movie instead of the classic it is today.

There have been times when I’ve tried explaining the plot of Some Like it Hot to someone who has never seen it before, only to have the person seem less than impressed by its premise.  In all fairness, I can see how people might get that impression because when you strip it down to its bare bones, it doesn’t sound particularly unique.  The whole trope of men dressing up as women for comedic purposes is one of the oldest tricks in the book; it’s been done for centuries.  Even one of Some Like it Hot‘s most memorable scenes, the party in the train compartment, is very reminiscent of the infamous stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.

However, the fact that Some Like it Hot is anything but mundane is a testament to the talent of Billy Wilder.  It’s like he figured out the recipe for the perfect comedy and it’s a recipe that hinges on the quality of the ingredients.  Everybody involved with it needed to bring their “A” game or it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did.

First of all, there’s the brilliant writing by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.  It may not have been the most original premise for a movie, but it’s easy to forgive that when it’s written so well.  Add to that three outstanding actors in the lead roles and one rock-solid supporting cast.  But most importantly, the actors were under the direction of someone who really brought out the best in them; even the notoriously difficult Marilyn Monroe.  All of these things combined are what took a movie that seems so common on the surface and elevated it to a much higher level.

Some Like it Hot: Marilyn’s Finest Role

Marilyn Monroe Some Like it Hot

Despite being such an enormous pop culture icon, Marilyn Monroe is often very misunderstood and underestimated.  Many people claim to adore Marilyn, but would be hard pressed to even name one her movies.  Others only know Marilyn from that image of her standing over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch and assume she didn’t actually have any talent.

If I were to recommend a Marilyn Monroe movie to someone who has never seen one of her movies before, I would go with Some Like it Hot.  Sure, Marilyn was funny in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but you see none of her dramatic skills there.  If you only watched Don’t Bother to Knock, you’d never take her for a comedienne.  But Some Like it Hot offers a look at everything that made Marilyn great.   It let her be a bombshell, it let her show off her comedic talents, and it let her have moments of melancholy as well.  She’s bubbly, yet cynical.

Marilyn Monroe Some Like it Hot Entrance

When we first meet Sugar Kane, it’s a signature Bombshell Marilyn moment.  As she walks through the crowded train station, moving just like Jell-O on springs, not only is she beautiful, she’s the embodiment of all the intangible qualities the camera adores.  Call it what you like — magnetism, star quality, screen presence — she had it in spades.  When she’s singing songs like “Running Wild” and “I Want to be Loved By You,” her magnetism is so far off the charts it makes you wonder what this band is doing playing little gigs at hotels when they’ve got a lead singer like that.

Marilyn Monroe Some Like it Hot Train Party Scene

Of course, Marilyn the Comedienne has plenty of time to shine in Some Like it Hot.  Comedic actors often don’t get the credit they deserve because so many people have the mistaken idea that you don’t have to be particularly talented to do comedy.  That couldn’t be further from the truth, but there’s no denying that Marilyn made comedy look like the easiest thing in the world in Some Like it Hot.  Her comedic timing was absolutely impeccable and feels completely natural.

Marilyn Monroe Some Like it Hot Phone Call SceneLast, but certainly not least, there’s Marilyn the Serious Actress.  Marilyn the Serious Actress only gets a few scenes in Some Like it Hot, but when those moments come, they’re some of her best moments in the movie.  Those are the moments that prevent Sugar Kane from being just like Marilyn’s other characters who were out to land a rich husband.  Sugar’s been jilted in ways that Lorelei Lee would never tolerate and she has a cynical streak to show for it.  Lorelei Lee would never let herself end up playing in a second-rate band, sneaking booze on a train and lamenting all the men who have mistreated her and taken her money. I love how completely and totally unimpressed Marilyn sounds in the scene when Sugar talks about that.

Marilyn’s heaviest acting moments come close to the end of the film.  The first of which is when Sugar gets the phone call from “Shell Oil Jr.” explaining why he has to leave.  In that scene, Sugar goes from being on top of the world to feeling the lowest she’s ever felt.  Her heartbreak is very evident, but Marilyn never resorts to over-the-top hysterics.  Instead of actually sobbing uncontrollably, when she talks, she sounds like she wants to sob uncontrollably but is trying to hold herself together.  You really hear this when she offers her band to play at his wedding and when she tells Josephine and Daphne that she could never forget him when there’s a Shell station on every corner.

One of the most poignant scenes I’ve ever seen Marilyn do is when she sings “I’m Through With Love.”  By the end of the song, she sounds so thoroughly defeated. You don’t doubt that she meant every single word of that song.  I also love the little mannerisms that Marilyn works into this scene to show how uncomfortable Sugar is.  She keeps fidgeting with her scarf and when she puts her head down at the end of the song, she moves her shoulders in a way that suggests she’s trying not to cry.

Marilyn’s performance in Some Like it Hot is definitely not the work of an amateur — it’s the work of an actress who has really applied herself to improving her work.  Some Like it Hot was released just four years after she caused a sensation in The Seven Year Itch and the progress she made in that time is remarkable.  She really upped her own ante here.

The Ghosts of Old Hollywood

Betty Grable Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone!  Halloween just wouldn’t be complete without a few ghost stories, right?  So for the sake of getting into the Halloween spirit, here are a few ghost stories featuring some familiar characters.  If these stories are to be believed, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might still have the chance to encounter some of Hollywood’s most legendary stars.
(more…)

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

(more…)

Niagara (1953)

When Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter) head to Niagara Falls for their belated honeymoon, all they’re expecting is a relaxing vacation and maybe a little bit of business networking for Ray.  The last thing they expect is to find themselves mixed up in a murder plot.  When they arrive at their cabin, they find the previous occupants, Rose and George Loomis (Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton), haven’t left yet.  Rose explains that her husband isn’t well, so Polly and Ray agree to stay in another cabin instead.

Just before Ray and Polly head out to do some sightseeing, Rose says she’s going to go grocery shopping.  But when the Polly sees Rose kissing another man, the Cutlers write her off as an unfaithful wife, but don’t really dwell on it.  Later, after Rose returns to the cabin, George finds a ticket stub in her coat pocket that proves she didn’t just go shopping like she said and starts to suspect she’s been seeing someone else.  His jealousy reaches a breaking point that night when Rose goes to a social wearing a very tight dress and requests a romantic song be played.  George storms out of the cabin and smashes the record.

The next morning, Rose and George are set to leave for Chicago.  But when Rose says she wants to go to the bus station for tickets, George gets suspicious again and this time for a good reason.  She and her boyfriend Patrick have come up with a scheme to kill him and run away together.  When she goes to a gift shop to meet up with Patrick, George follows her and, thinking they’ve gone to some caves, buys a ticket for the caves.  The plan is for Patrick to follow George into the caves, kill him, and when he’s dead, let her know by having the bell tower play their special song.  So while Patrick goes to take care of George, Rose goes back to the cabin and puts on her act about her husband being missing.  When a body is recovered from the falls, Rose is called to identify it, but faints after seeing it.  The authorities take her fainting to mean the body found was indeed George.  However, Polly soon discovers that Rose and Patrick’s plan didn’t go exactly as planned.

Of all of Marlyn Monroe’s movies, I’ve always thought Niagara was one of her most under-appreciated.  I love Marilyn’s comedies, but she was fabulous as a film noir femme fatale.  It’s too bad she didn’t make more noir films because she was a natural in Niagara.  As good as Marilyn is in it, Joseph Cotton is pretty outstanding as well.  He really nailed it as the mentally unstable, jealous George.  I also can’t neglect to mention Jean Peters and Max Showalter, who were perfect for the naive, innocent couple who got dragged into this whole mess.  They really seemed so completely Midwestern.

There are some scenes in it that are genuinely terrifying.  I’m always on the edge of my seat for that scene on the wooden stairs by the Falls.  It makes me nervous enough just to see people walking on those things normally, but having Joseph Cotton chasing Jean Peters on them?  Yeah, I was pretty horrified, but in just the right way.  All in all, Niagara is a pretty good thriller that doesn’t really get as much recognition as it deserves.

My Five Favorite Marilyn Monroe Performances

What is there to say about Marilyn Monroe that hasn’t already been said?  Fifty years after her untimely death, Marilyn’s star is still as bright as it ever was.  But for all the hype surrounding Marilyn’s image, the one thing I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for is the quality of her performances.

So many people only know Marilyn for standing over that subway grate or assume she was famous for her looks, not her talent.  But she really did give some phenomenal performances that often seem to be overshadowed by the myth of Marilyn.  Marilyn’s movies played a huge part in my becoming such a big classic film fan, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite performances of hers:

1.  Sugar Kane Kowalczyk – Some Like it Hot  (1959)

It’s safe to say that Marilyn is best remembered for her comedic roles and for my money, she was never better than she was in Some Like it Hot.  This was the perfect way for her to combine her incredible comedic timing with some of the vulnerability she brought to some of her best dramatic roles.  Plus, this movie will forever be one of my all-time favorites.  It’s one of the first classic films I remember really loving.

2.  Nell Forbes – Don’t Bother to Knock  (1952)

If you only know Marilyn for her blonde bombshell persona, Don’t Bother to Knock will blow your mind.  It was Marilyn’s first attempt at dramatic acting and she hit it out of the park on her first try.  It’s hard to be both terrifying and vulnerable, but she pulled it off.

3.  Rose Loomis – Niagara (1953)

It’s too bad that Marilyn didn’t do more film noir because she made an amazing femme fatale!  She’s got the glamor and she could play sinister quite well.  She was a perfect choice for that role.

4.  Cherie – Bus Stop (1956)

How did Don Murray get an Oscar nomination for his role while Marilyn only got a Golden Globe nomination for her work?  Bus Stop was the first movie Marilyn made after taking a year off from making movies to go to New York and enroll in the Actors Studio.  Making Bus Stop was a smart way for her to reclaim control over her career, get away from the “dumb blonde” roles, and give a richer performance than she’d given before then.

5. Roslyn Taber – The Misfits (1961)

I always thought Roslyn Taber was Marilyn’s most genuinely human role.  When I watch her in The Misfits, I don’t see Marilyn Monroe, the movie star; I see a real person.  There’s none of the glamor generally associated with Marilyn’s movies.  There are no Travilla gowns, elaborate hairstyles, diamonds, subway grates, musical numbers; nothing to distract from Marilyn’s very heartfelt performance.

This is just one (of many) contributions to the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Jill of Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael of ScribeHard on Film.  All month long, bloggers will be contributing posts about the stars and the movies as seen on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars, so join the party!