Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “hollywood”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #80: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

This author, who also penned the best-selling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, gives us another book on sisterhood but this time in a more modern context. While a fascinating glimpse into the life of Chinese women in the mid-20th century United States, and of the political turmoil in China during this same period, this novel somehow lacked the emotional depth of Snow Flower. The fact that I found neither of the sisters to be truly appealing was another factor that left me less involved in the story. Nonetheless, I found this book worth the read.

Pearl and May are the spoiled beautiful daughters of a wealthy Shanghai merchant in 1937. Both make pocket-money by posing for calendar painters, unaware that their father’s gambling addiction has grown out of control. Early in the novel, we are introduced to the girls’ carefree existence in detail, only to have it shattered when they learn of their father’s unpayable debt to the Green Triad and he sells them as brides to two brothers living in Los Angeles as a way out of his debt. The girls attempt to escape their fate, but are trapped when the Japanese invade Shanghai, and they go through horrific experiences—including the gang-rape of both their mother and of Pearl—before they are able to escape to the U.S., and to their husbands. Along the way, a child is born which changes both their lives forever.

Once again, See portrays Chinese women at the mercy of their traditionalist families, husbands, or husbands’ families, with little opportunity to forge an independent and satisfying existence. Pearl was “bought” as a servant and broodmare, and while harboring plans to escape her bondage, never does and eventually adopts the family as her own. May, whose “husband” is a sickly, brain-damaged 14-year boy, manages to find escape through taking a growing number of small but well-paid stereotyped roles as a Chinese peasant or helpless maiden in a series of Hollywood’s wartime films. She spends luxuriously on both herself and her family, but never engages with her new family, nor with reality. May, in essence, remains the frivolous teenager of her Shanghai days, with a strong survival instinct and fearing only the encroachment of age, while Pearl matures and adapts, even as she grows increasingly fearful about her and her family’s lack of security as the Communist revolution in China triggers a violent anti-Communist/anti-Chinese response inside the US.

Through it all, the sisters and their shared history have an emotional bond that keeps them together, but that bond becomes increasingly frayed once they reach the U.S. and comes near to rupturing altogether with the outbreak of tragedy in the family. The author’s conclusion, perhaps paving the way for a sequel or perhaps not knowing how to end her story, was provocative but ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #49: The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie, by Tony Curtis

“Some people say that Some Like it Hot is the funniest movie ever made. I don’t know. All I know is that it gave me a chance to work with four comic geniuses: I.A.L. Diamond, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, and Marilyn Monroe.”

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon

In Tony Curtis’s memoir, The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie the well-known Hollywood actor tells his version of what went on behind-the-scenes of one of the funniest movies ever made. Written with the assistance of film historian Mark Vieira, the book is packed full of great color and black and white photos from the set.

Curtis, who died in 2010, had already written two memoirs, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (1994) and American Prince: A Memoir (2008). So why write a third? Two reasons. Some Like it Hot’s recent heralding as the #1 American comedy of all time by The American Film Institute (AFI).  And cashing in on the enduring popularity of Marilyn Monroe, which would certainly guarantee book sales.

While Curtis is always an entertaining read, his never-ending ego does grow tiresome after a while. He tries to sound humble, but can’t help pondering that he was possibly “the handsomest” actor in Hollywood: “Some Like it Hot did a lot for my development as an actor. It was enough for me to be a handsome actor, maybe the handsomest in town. It wasn’t enough to learn the lines and show up. Being around artists like Jack and Billy and Marilyn affected me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to get closer to the source of the art. I wanted to know how to create that magic, like stars did in the pictures I’d seen when I was a kid.”

Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and director Billy Wilder

He complains endlessly about the “special treatment” that Marilyn received. “I looked at the film and I thought that in the beginning of it I was weaker than I really was. Everything was done to keep Marilyn happy. She was chosen, favored over Jack and me. That’s what colored my perception of the film for a long time. Too long. But I finally got past that.” He may have gotten past those feelings, but that didn’t stop him from writing about them, repeatedly. He clearly felt that Lemmon was director Billy Wilder’s favorite and that Marilyn’s difficult behavior earned her special privileges. But for all of the stories about Marilyn’s reputation for keeping people waiting or blowing lines, Curtis has just as many instances where she was letter-perfect or got a scene in one take. The scene where Sugar meets Shell Oil, Jr. on the beach had to be filmed quickly, as noisy jets from a nearby naval base were taking off every ten minutes. Marilyn got everything right on the first take.

Marilyn seemed to flub her lines more often when the camera shot was a close-up, when the pressure was on her and her alone. There are numerous accounts of how well she did in group scenes, getting everything right, and right away. As Curtis recounts, “I had seen her last picture, The Prince and the Showgirl. She did long scenes where the camera kept moving and there were no cuts. She was excellent, holding her own against the great Laurence Olivier. We saw the same thing in our film. She did well in uninterrupted scenes, yet when it came to two-shots or close-ups, she suddenly lost confidence.” Billy Wilder observed, “I’ve noticed that if she gets past the first two or three lines she sometimes can go on and on, even if it’s a long speech. She doesn’t seem to get tired. She’ll do take after take. She poops out the other actors, but she blooms as the day goes on. She’s at her best in the late afternoon, when the other actors are dropping like flies.”

Jack Lemmon had a different perspective on why Marilyn needed multiple takes to get a scene right: “Marilyn had a kind of built-in alarm system. It would go off in the middle of a scene if it wasn’t right for her, and she would stop. It would look like she was doing exactly what she’d done in the previous take. But for her, something wasn’t clicking. She knew she was limited. She knew what was right for Marilyn. She wasn’t about to do anything else. So would stand there with her eyes closed, biting her lip, and wringing her hands until she had worked it out.”

Joe E. Brown and Lemmon

Curtis repeats the now-infamous anecdotes of the “Where’s the bourbon?” scene which took 59 takes; and how the studio wanted a “big name” like Frank Sinatra to star (who didn’t seem at all interested). What I hadn’t heard before was that Danny Kaye wanted to be in the film, but that Wilder turned him down and requested Jack Lemmon. Curtis comes up with an elaborate explanation for his “like kissing Hitler” quote; and is still smarting from jokes about his line reading, “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah,” from an early film, Son of Ali Baba.

Even with all of his grand-standing, Curtis can’t help but be interesting on how Hollywood shaped his life. He describes how intense ambition for Hollywood success was the cornerstone of his marriage to Janet Leigh, “Our marriage changed that [feeling like he was a long way from stardom]. The explosion of publicity pushed both of us much farther than we would have gone in the same amount of time if we hadn’t gotten married.” He is unapologetic about his countless affairs — he had a reputation for having affairs with his leading ladies, and wife Leigh was used to it — it was part of the territory.

But he always comes back to Marilyn, which does make for the most interesting stories in the book. He claims to have had an affair with her, when they were both just starting out in Hollywood. That seems possible, but all such claims are suspect when they appear so long after the other party has died. What doesn’t ring true at all are his claims that later he had a one-night stand with her on the set of Some Like it Hot,which resulted in her becoming pregnant, complete with a show-down scene with her husband Arthur Miller.

Curtis signing autographs

Curtis clearly had no love lost with the famous playwright. He repeats a wicked quote from Wilder about Miller, “In meeting him, I had at last met someone who resented Marilyn more than I did.” Ouch, but observant. Curtis can’t wait to share another story which shines an unflattering light on Miller. At at a pre-movie Hollywood party he witnessed Miller being pretentious to Billy Wilder and co-writer I. A. L. “Izzy” Diamond, pontificating on comedy and tragedy. “Billy and Izzy just stood there, with faces down, listening to this bullshit. Finally Billy rolled his eyes and shifted his weight. Arthur backed off. I could see Marilyn. She was standing off to the side, watching. She looked uneasy. She knew that her husband had made a fool of himself and had insulted Billy’s intelligence. It was not a happy scene. It was not a happy way to start a picture.”

He’s alternately full of praise for Marilyn and knocking her down, saying she had hips “like a Polish washerwoman” and “an incredible, unique body.” Like so many, he couldn’t understand why she found some things so difficult. “She was the most important star in movies, she didn’t really understand that. She had so much power. She could have used it in so many ways, become so great. … So much of Some Like it Hot rested on her. If only she used her power to bolster her self-confidence. But she didn’t. Even if she was turning in this miraculous performance, she was losing her sense of self.”

Fun facts he includes about Marilyn:

Marilyn “stole” one of Jack Lemmon’s black dresses from wardrobe for herself to wear in the film.

She recorded her songs for the picture and then, unsatisfied, re-recorded them, “A picture has to be great to be good.”

She posed for countless publicity stills but only approved a few, as she was self-conscious about her weight gain — of which the press was unremittingly unkind. Marilyn had to put up with a lot of crap during filming about her weight. Wilder asked if she would consider losing a few pounds. She used humor to deflect the insult. “You want your audience to be able to distinguish me from Tony and Jack, don’t you? And besides, my husband likes me plump.” She was pregnant at the time.

She traveled with an entourage — secretary May Reis, acting coach Paula Strasberg, dance director Jack Cole, and hair designer Sidney Guilaroff.

Marilyn was unsatisfied with her first scene in the film, which consisted of just walking past the train, and complained to Wilder. He and Diamond then came up with the burst of steam that gooses her — and makes a much funnier, more memorable entrance.

Everyone came to see Marilyn on set, from extras to Montgomery Clift and Maureen Stapleton — they all were enthralled with her.

Curtis, Lemmon, and Montgomery Clift

Possibly the most important thing that Curtis reminds us of is that the two guys being in drag for most of the picture was quite daring and unusual for its time. That edge is exactly what makes Some Like it Hot still so brilliant, so entertaining, so funny today. But Curtis can’t just end his story there. His ego demands additional soothing. He quotes a review of the film by Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times: “‘Curtis is good enough … But his Cary Grant accent (not his doing) annoyed the hell out of me.’ Some actors never read reviews. I do. Mr. Scheuer’s review annoyed the hell out of me. To make myself feel better, I bought the rights to the autobiography of the Italian poet Gabriel d’Annunzio, a wild, sexy artist not unlike myself.”

Photos from Some Like it Hot

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #46: My Story, by Marilyn Monroe

In 1954 Marilyn, at the height of her fame and popularity, was persuaded by friend and publicist Sidney Skolsky to publish her autobiography. They enlisted screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms) to ghostwrite, and sat down for a series of interviews which they intended to have published in a magazine, not in book form, in The Ladies Home Journal. The interviews focused mainly on her rough and tumble childhood. Hecht’s agent, without his or Marilyn’s knowledge or approval, sold it as serialized articles to the London Empire News, who ran it between between May 9 and Aug 1, 1954. In 1974, twelve years after her death, photographer and former business partner Milton Greene produced a copy of the manuscript and had it published in book form.

There has been much debate about the authenticity of the book. Some of the stories may have been embellished or streamlined by Hecht, but the overall feeling rings true to Marilyn. Marilyn was well-known for telling and retelling the stories of her life, frequently heightening the drama. She was a born actress. According to Monroe biographer Sarah Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe), “Hecht reported to his editor during the interviews that he was sometimes sure Marilyn was fabricating. He explained, ‘When I say lying, I mean she isn’t telling the truth. I don’t think so much that she is trying to deceive me as that she is a fantasizer.'”

Norma Jean in 1946, photographed by Andre de Dienes

Marilyn may have pumped up some of the pathos in her early life and Hecht may have cleaned up the text, but of all the books on Marilyn Monroe that I have read recently (and I have been reading a lot) this is the best. Is it the most well-written? Absolutely not. But does it come closest to capturing the woman who fifty years after her death is still an icon, a movie goddess? It actually does. So many of the other books, by authors good and not-so-good, have quoted liberally from My Story, but somehow have missed Marilyn’s voice and personality in their desire to catalog her inevitable road to death. When read in full, My Story gives a far better impression of Marilyn, how she talked, how she thought, than any picked-and-chosen snippets could.

The articles were clearly originally intended as a Cinderella story, cataloging Marilyn’s “orphan” childhood to her fame and marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. With all of the emphasis on the waifdom, a palpable sadness does comes through. After readingMy Story the reader learns that Marilyn could never forget her youth, her deprived existence as Norma Jean. “My own costume never varied. It consisted of a faded blue skirt and white waist. I had two of each, but since they were exactly alike everyone thought I wore the same outfit all the time. It was one of the things that annoyed people — my wearing the same clothes.”

It may have been intended as a publicity piece, but Marilyn and Hecht don’t hesitate to touch on the seamy underbelly of trying to get ahead in Hollywood, “I’ve never heard anything about the Hollywood I knew in those first years. No hint of it is ever in the movie fan magazines. … The Hollywood I knew was the Hollywood of failure. … We ate at drugstore counters. We sat in waiting rooms. We were the prettiest tribe of panhandlers that ever overran a town.” A story about trying to cash her last paycheck, a mere $40, after her [first] firing from Twentieth-Century Fox, points to the easy availability of drugs, “After doing my shopping, I stopped in a doctor’s office. I had a cold, and I had not slept for several nights. The doctor gave me a sleeping pill. ‘I don’t usually recommend sleeping pills,’ he said, “but you been having hysterics too long. A good sleep will not only be good for your cold but cheer you up.” She shares an amusing story of her first Hollywood feud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor, apparently as a result of husband George Sanders’s love of “pneumatic” blondes. Reading My Story gives the impression that Marilyn had a lot of Hollywood stories to tell and would have been very amusing company.

Marilyn in 1954

On her changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, “When I just wrote ‘This is the end of Norma Jean,’ I blushed as if I had been caught in a lie. Because this sad, bitter child who grew up too fast is hardly ever out of my heart. With success all around me, I can still feel her frightened eyes looking out of mine. She keeps saying, ‘I never lived, I was never loved,’ and often I get confused and think it’s I who am saying it.”

Marilyn may have been one of the first well-known women to talk publicly about childhood sexual abuse. She claims her first sexual encounter happened when she was nine and was molested by a man named Mr. Kimmel, who rented a room from the foster family she was living with. The incident had ramifications on her dealing with the casting couch later in Hollywood, “Maybe it was the nickel Mr. Kimmel once gave me … But men who tried to buy me with money made me sick. There were plenty of them. The mere fact that I turned down offers ran my price up.”

The only bum note in My Story is the introduction by Andrea Dworkin, “She kept trying to hold on for dear life with a man, some man, who had his feet solidly planted in achievement. Instead, they had their feet solidly planted on her neck or other exposed flesh.” Although she tries to cast Marilyn in a good light, Dworkin regurgitates lots of unsubstantiated gossip about Marilyn in her introduction, including the rumored affairs with both Kennedy’s and 20 abortions. Disappointing.

“I didn’t think of my body as having anything to do with sex. It was more like a friend who had mysteriously appeared in my life, a sort of magic friend.”

Marilyn’s own observations about her sexuality are far more interesting and revealing. Her discovery of her own beauty and voluptuousness seems to have been as much a revelation to her as to everyone around her. “Why I was a siren, I hadn’t the faintest idea. … The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves, I was as unsensual as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.” She developed early physically, but was unprepared emotionally, “My admirers all said the same thing in different ways. It was my fault, their wanting to kiss and hug me. … I always felt they were talking about someone else, not me. … I not only had no passion in me, I didn’t even know what it meant.” An early marriage at the age of 16, to neighbor Jim Dougherty, “Was a sort of friendship with sexual privileges. I found out later that marriages are often no more than that. And that husbands are chiefly good as lovers when they are betraying their wives.”

Marilyn photographed by Philippe Halsmann

Much of My Story is written in hindsight, with Marilyn telling what she currently thinks and feels about her past, and trying to remake her future, “[When married to Dougherty] the thought of having a baby stood my hair on end. I could only see it as myself, another Norma Jean in an orphanage. … I feel different about having a child now. It’s one of the things I dream of. She won’t be any Norma Jean now. And I know how I’ll bring her up — without lies. Nobody will tell her lies about anything. And I’ll answer all her questions. If I don’t know the answer I’ll go to an encyclopedia and look them up. I’ll tell her everything she wants to know — about love, about sex, about everything!”

As much as her youth as Norma Jean haunted Marilyn, My Story is a very hopeful read. Marilyn’s dreams and her never-ending desire to improve herself come through loud and clear. Everyone knows how her story ended, which is the focus of most books about the star. My Story is how her story started, with hints of how it might have gone differently.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #44: Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, by Marilyn Monroe, edited by Bernard Comment and Stanley Buchthal

In 1982, after his death, Actor’s Studio Director Lee Strasberg’s widow, his third wife Anna, found two boxes of poems and other writings by Marilyn Monroe. Monroe had named Strasberg the primary beneficiary in her will. Strasberg, however, had not followed Marilyn’s final wishes:

With the exception of two letters, which he returned to their authors, during his lifetime Lee Strasberg never sold or gave away any of Marilyn’s personal effects — this totally contravened the instructions in Marilyn’s Will. It is clear that she did not intend for Lee Strasberg to keep her possessions, which included clothing, letters, documents, furniture, all her personal effects that she absolutely clearly stated, that she wanted distributed amongst her friends. — from Loving Marilyn

Although this action, or more accurately, inaction on Strasberg’s part would have disappointed Marilyn, it is because of his neglect that so many of her personal items remained intact, and are able to be viewed as a whole. Anna Strasberg, who had never even met Marilyn, asked family friend Stanley Buchthal to help her determine what to do with the boxes’ contents, and he soon enlisted the help of editor and essayist Bernard Comment. Together the pair sorted through the materials and created Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters a glimpse into Marilyn’s life and mind in book form.

photo

Buchtal and Comment have tried to present Marilyn’s writings in as straightforward a manner as possible, keeping things chronological. A photograph of the original item, in Marilyn’s handwriting,is presented on a left-hand page, while their transcription, sometimes joined by notes of explanation, appears opposite, on the right.

Black and white photographs of Marilyn, frequently reading, also accompany the text. Marilyn wrote poems, letters, and kept journals. While perusing Fragments it is unavoidable not to feel as if one is prying, sneaking a peek at her diary. We are. But it is undeniably fascinating. Her notebooks contain notes from classes she took on Italian art, as well as from acting class. Some of her note-taking seems to meld with her poetry and become stream-of-consciousness prose poetry, as does this fragment, c. 1955:

On the stage — I will
not be punished for it
or be whipped
or be threatened
or not be loved
or sent to hell to burn with bad people
or feeling that I am also bad
or be afraid of my genitals being
or ashamed
exposed known and seen —
so what
or ashamed of my sensitive feelings — they are reality
or colors or screaming or doing
nothing
and I do have feeling
very strongly sexed feeling
since a small child — think of all the
things I felt then

Some of her notes are like puzzles or maps. Talk about fragments. She writes a paragraph in her notebook on the left hand page, and then continues, sometimes at an odd angle, on the opposite page, and then back again, drawing arrows, linking one thought to the next. She may not have been writing continuously, and went back to add ideas at a later time, or she may have purposely wanted to keep her writing difficult to understand and more private.

photo

Especially revealing are two poems she wrote, on Parkside House stationery, during her stay in England when she was filming The Prince and the Showgirl. Marilyn, newlywed to playwright Arthur Miller, was already feeling insecure about the marriage:

I guess I have always been
deeply terrified to really be someone’s wife
since I know from life
One cannot love another,
ever, really.

where his eyes rest with pleasure — I want to still be — but time has changed
the hold of that glance.
Alas how will I cope when I am
even less youthful —

Back in the U.S., at their home in Roxbury, CT in 1958, her life with Miller hadn’t improved much:

starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that’s all I really have ever had. Roxbury — … I think I hate it here because there is no love here anymore. I regret the effort I desperately made here. … what I could endure helped both of us and in a material way which means so much more to him than me. … When one wants to stay alone as my love (Arthur) indicates the other must stay apart.

It becomes clear that many of these fragments are first drafts for notes or letters. One page in her notebook, scribbled in pencil, which she signs with multiple pet names, was confirmed by close friend Norman Rosten as a letter he received from her. Some of her notes seem to be character studies. There are also thoughtful observations about not just the character she would be playing, but other characters in a film with her, like this one about The Misfits:

I feel the camera has got
to look through Gay’s [the character played by Clark Gable]
eyes whenever he is in a
scene and even when he
is not there still has to be a sense of
him
He is the center and the
rest move around him
but I guess Houston [sic – director John Huston] will
see to that
He is both subtle and overt in his meeting them
and in his cruelty and his tenderness
(when he reaches out of himself for her – R. [R stands for Roslyn, Marilyn’s character in the film])

There is a really interesting letter to Lee Strasberg, dated December 18, 1961, where Marilyn tells him she is forming an independent production company, possibly jointly with Marlon Brando, and that she would like him to be a part of it. Marilyn definitely had some big plans for her future, and was constantly trying to get more control over her career.

Strasberg wouldn’t accept Marilyn as a student unless she agreed to undergo psychoanalysis. This led to a whole additional host of problems for the already insecure star, and doctors who may have done her more harm than good. After her break-up with Miller, her New York psychiatrist Marianne Kris had her committed to Payne Whitney’s psychiatric ward — Marilyn thought she was only going to a hospital for a rest cure. This was one of the most traumatic events of Marilyn’s life. She reached out to Kris and the Strasbergs, but only ex-husband Joe DiMaggio was able to secure her release. Once she moved to Los Angeles, her psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson crossed all the boundaries of doctor/patient relations by having Marilyn socialize with his family. He may also have been instrumental in her taking more barbiturates than were necessary on the day of her death.

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters stresses Marilyn’s love of books and her lifelong respect for writers. Writers also seem to have admired her greatly, as Buchtal and Comment take pains to point out.

In 1959 Karen Blixen asked to meet her, “… she radiates, at the same time, unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence. I have met the same in a lion-cub … I shall never forget the most overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness which she conveyed.”

Truman Capote, who met her in 1950, dedicated his short story “A Beautiful Child” to her.

Through husband Arthur Miller Marilyn befriended Carson McCullers, who wrote about her in “Illumination and Night Game.”

Norman Mailer tried to cultivate her friendship, but she demurred. He wrote the controversial “Marilyn,” which started the unsubstantiated-by-fact Kennedy/Marilyn rumor mill going on 1973.

Somerset Maugham approved of her proposed role as Sadie Thompson in a television production of “Rain,” which was never produced.

She admired British poet Edith Sitwell and met with her both in Hollywood and London, while filming “The Prince and the Showgirl.”

Marilyn met Carl Sandburg in 1959, and their appreciation of each other was very mutual. She loved his biography of Abraham Lincoln and he wrote, “She was not the usual movie idol. There was something democratic about her. She was the type who would join in and wash up the supper dishes even if you didn’t ask her.”

Buchtal and Comment also include some selected book covers from her personal library, which included:

Mme. Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Fall by Albert Camus
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Once There Was A War by John Steinbeck

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters is an interesting, even unexpected look into Marilyn’s life, with the accent not on glamor, but on her thoughts and aspirations. Marilyn was always trying to learn new things and improve herself, and many of these fragments show her progress.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #41 & 42: My Week with Marilyn & The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, by Colin Clark

“For five months, whether she turned up or not, she dominated our every waking thought.”

My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark actually contains two books, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, a diary that Clark published in 1995 based on his time on the set and detailing the  making of the film The Prince and the Showgirl, and My Week With Marilyn, from 2000, his revisionist view of the “lost week” he left out of the first volume and that he allegedly spent with the biggest star in the world at the time,Marilyn Monroe.

It’s interesting to read his intimate (fantasist?) diary first, and then read the more reporter-like journal of his days working on the film and catch clues to his possibly more intimate interactions with Marilyn. His dates don’t match up exactly, which doesn’t help with his credibility. In My Week with Marilyn he is present in her home on the night of September 18 when she suffered a miscarriage. He plays a very active, even take-charge role in getting a doctor, managing her entourage, etc. during the crisis (newlywed husband Arthur Miller was absent in New York at the time). In The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me he hears about Marilyn losing a baby while gossiping with her bodyguard, after the fact, on September 8. Does one of these scenarios sound more realistic than the other?

Olivier trying to direct Marilyn on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl
Williams as Marilyn and Branagh as Olivier in My Week with Marilyn

In a way, whether his memories are accurate or not don’t really matter. Both books capture what life on a film set was like, and how Marilyn’s erratic behavior affected all of the people around her. This factual ambivalence did not escape the makers of the film version, which adheres pretty closely to the second book. Director Simon Curtis cast My Week with Marilyn with the cream of British and American acting. The fact that none of them really resemble the people they are supposed to be portraying ultimately doesn’t matter. Michelle Williams, for me, did not look for one moment like Marilyn Monroe. Even with padding, she is not voluptuous, and lacks Monroe’s amazing hourglass silhouette. But she does, in her confusion and flickering moods, capture the behavior that we have come to believe was Marilyn’s. Likewise Kenneth Branagh does not immediately bring Laurence Olivier to mind, or Zoe Wanamaker Paula Strasberg, but they both ably convey the frustrations of their very different positions in Marilyn’s orbit.

The double-edition is structured so that one reads Clark’s lost diary first and then his more day-to-day account of the making of The Prince and the ShowgirlMy Week with Marilyn is probably as much fantasy as fact, but the reader still comes away with a sense of what Marilyn must have been going through during her time in London, such a fish out of water, endlessly pampered but also abandoned. It’s highly unlikely that Clark could remember verbatim so many conversations so long after the fact, but there is still a ring of truth in his exchanges with Marilyn. On an excursion the pair take to Windsor Great Park he has Marilyn say, “Why do I take all those pills? Why do I worry about what all those men think? Why do I let myself get pushed around? This is how I ought to feel, every day of my life. This is the real me … ” Maybe he writes her as he wishes she had been. But he somehow does manage to capture some essence of Marilyn.

Where the book is at its most observant and entertaining is in his (frequently catty) observations of the other key players. He has no use for Marilyn’s husband of a few weeks, playwright Arthur Miller, “… Arthur Miller takes it all for granted — his house, his servants, his driver, his wife’s bodyguard, and even, so it seems to me, his wife. That is what makes me so angry. How can you take Marilyn Monroe for granted?”

He is incredibly sympathetic to Marilyn, and frequently criticizes his boss (and family friend) Olivier for his callous treatment of her. “The rest of Olivier’s circle, including Olivier himself, actually welcomed reports of her deteriorating condition as evidence that their opinion of her had been right all along. It was only toward the end of his life that Olivier was able to relent.” He repeatedly describes her ill treatment on the set and wishes that Olivier and others could be more kind, patient, and understanding with her. “[Lighting cinematographer Jack Cardiff] is the only person on the set who treats Marilyn like a chum. As a result he is the one crew member to whom she can relate, and certainly the only Englishman she trusts. In return he uses all his artistry to bring out her beauty. He clearly adores her, and because he’s an artist, with no ulterior motive, she responds to him very well.”

My Week with Marilyn, ultimately, is a bit of fluffy wish-fulfillment romance, with the two unrequited lovers parting amicably, never to see one another again. Clark’s earlier book, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, is a much more straightforward account of Clark’s experience during the making of the film. Although the focus is squarely on Clark, including some accounts of youthful, fumbling, sexual encounters, it gives the reader a good sense of life on a movie set; all the drama and romance, as well as describing how shots are set up and what the crew does, including lighting, sets, and make-up.

Clark comes off as a bit of a cad as he boasts of his dealings with the “wdg,” his nickname for a nameless wardrobe girl. He is a rich kid, who got the job through his connections with the Oliviers (Laurence and actress Vivien Leigh), friends with his parents. His father was Kenneth Clark, the famous art historian. He is a snob, too, sharing all of his superior attitudes about extras and frequent name-dropping of his parents’ friends. But he does bring to life the chaos and management of all of the minute details that go into making a movie. He outlines how difficult it was to wrangle extras for the coronation scene in the film (from the pool of extras as well as a ballroom dancing club) as well as the ridiculous but long-standing power of film unions. He recounts how he wasn’t allowed to fetch or move a chair so that elderly actress Dame Sybil Thorndike (who played the Queen dowager in the film) could sit down (a scene included in the film version, with Judi Dench as Thorndike) while they waited for Marilyn to appear on the set — a prop mover insisted that only he or one of his fellow union members could do it, so everybody stood around for ten minutes while that was accomplished.

Even with all of his upper class and film world connections, Clark had to fight to get work on the film. He is quickly blown off by the head of Laurence Olivier Productions when he shows up for a job, but he perseveres, showing up every day, and tries to make himself useful. After a week or so his persistence pays off as he is tasked with finding a suitable house for Marilyn to stay in while filming. He comes up with a clever solution, by securing two houses for the company, but it is also undeniable that his family connections also came in handy, as he travels in the circles where securing an available manor house is a regular occurrence. His success leads to a job as a third assistant director, or gofer, on the film set.

In The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me Clark seems less impressed and sympathetic about Marilyn, “She has got a cute smile, but so far she only turns it on for the cameras. Her figure — and especially her bust — is fantastic but a little on the plump side. Problems — too much fakery: peroxide hair, dead white make-up, heavy lipstick, but that is her image. She looks confused too, lost, troubled.”

One interesting anecdote: for some reason they filmed tests with Marilyn first without make-up, and then after in full make-up, wig, and costume. Clark is amazed by her transformation. “The film was magical, and there’s no other way to describe it. Stuff we shot in the morning, although it resembled a police lineup mug shot, was quite heartbreaking. MM looked like a young delinquent girl, helpless and vulnerable under the harsh lights. The afternoon footage was even more extraordinary. What an incredible transformation. Now MM looks like an angel — smooth, glowing, eyes shining with joy (Jack [Cardiff]’s lights), perfect lips slightly parted, irresistible.”

He is much less understanding of her personal problems and vulnerability in this book. “It’s true that MM doesn’t notice much of what is going on around her, but the knowledge that 60 actors and technicians are waiting for you, and at enormous cost to you personally, it’s hardly one to induce calm in anyone, let alone someone with such a fragile grip on stability as MM. … MM is so difficult to work with that even hardened technicians are driven crazy. But when she doesn’t show up, we miss her! What a paradox.”

Amusingly and consistently, he hates Arthur Miller, and never hesitates to say so, in both books, “AM seems big headed, insensitive, and super selfish. I never saw him look tenderly at MM, only with what looks like a sort of boasting self-satisfaction. What bad luck on MM. Why couldn’t she have found what she really needs — someone sympathetic to support her? She doesn’t move around with those sort of people I suppose.”

He doesn’t just reserve his criticisms for the Americans. He can be just as tough on his boss, Olivier. Clark may love and respect his old family friend, but he never stints on honesty where he is concerned. “[Olivier] has made many films — some great and some mouldy. Only on stage, to a very limited audience, can he be seen as the great actor he is.”

Both books offer a kaleidoscopic view of the difficulties behind making the film. Although Marilyn most definitely added another layer of mayhem, Clark’s recounting reminds us that most film sets are chaotic worlds, and that it is a miracle that with so many disparate and opposing elements that any movie gets completed at all. One of the volumes may be more fiction than fact, but together they offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the only film produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions. As Clark frequently reminds the reader, none of the tensions, bickering, or even all-out hatred that may have been felt by the parties involved is evident on screen. Marilyn is fresh and lovely and walks away with the picture from a stiff and old-fashioned Olivier. Movie magic.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e
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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #40: Joe & Marilyn, by Roger Kahn

In Joe & Marilyn, published in 1986, author Roger Kahn, probably best known for his book The Boys of Summer, announces early on that he is convinced Marilyn had mental problems, was depressed, and killed herself. That is his opinion, and he is entitled to it, but such a sweeping, un-nuanced statement leaves out any other possible interpretations. And it also keeps his hero, Joe DiMaggio, at a safe distance.

“They were exquisite lovers, wonderful friends, but perfectly wretched as husband-and-wife.”

Maybe the simple approach, at least as applied to DiMaggio, is the correct one. Joe was and still is a national hero, but he also seems to have been a fairly uncomplicated personality. Others might use the term rigid. But he was a product of his Sicilian background and the times he lived in. His main talents were applied to a sport that is about numbers and winning and losing. The complex emotional terrain of Hollywood was something he had no true understanding of and unconcealed disdain for. So how and why was he drawn to showgirls, and especially the ultimate movie star? That is a question that Kahn and others leave unanswered. Maybe Joe was more complex than he let on, even to Marilyn. Or maybe he always needed to play the hero, on and off the field, and Marilyn was often a damsel in distress.

Joe visits Marilyn while she is filming River of No Return

Kahn’s interest and sympathy is clearly more invested in Joe, and he spends a great many chapters detailing his amazing career with the New York Yankees, up to his retirement in 1951. Joe’s first wife was showgirl and sometime actress Dorothy Arnold, who he married in 1939. But Joe wasn’t around for much of the marriage and Dorothy moved to Reno to file for divorce three years later. Like his relationship with Marilyn, it was up and down, apart and together. Joe got Dorothy to relent, and they got back together for a few more years, but she was back in Reno in 1944 and this time it was final. Even after the divorce, Joe didn’t give up on the possibility of getting back with Dorothy — that is, until he began seeing Marilyn in 1952.

“As Lady Macbeth instructs us in high school English classes, raw ambition is unattractive and somewhat frightening. So shrewd young women with their eyes on stardom learn to conceal the drive behind the smiles and charm that are part of the acting craft.”

Kahn is talking in that quote about Dorothy. It’s a fairly sexist statement, but it does shed light on the obstacles that Marilyn also faced as she tried to pursue her own dreams of stardom, which conflicted with her other dreams of marriage and motherhood.

“She played dumb-blonde roles in musicals, speaking in a breathy staccato voice that seems affected now. It projected beguiling sex in the 1950s to a country that had not yet invented the R-rated Hollywood movie.”

When Kahn does write about Marilyn, he focuses mainly on her sex life prior to Joe, claiming that she only “slept around” in Hollywood with someone she felt really valued her. If she was expected to put out, she refused. He alleges she lost her first Fox contract for refusing to submit to Darryl Zanuck’s demands, and her Columbia contract for refusing the same with boss Harry Cohn. Maybe she just wasn’t attracted to either of them. She did have a (possibly sexual) relationship with elderly Fox board chairman Joe Schenck, who helped her get the Columbia contract. “I used to go to dinner at Schenck’s house. That was important because after Fox let me go, I was not eating so good on my own. He was always nice and friendly and open and warm to me, but I was not Schenck’s girl [bedmate], not ever. He was genuinely fond of me as a person.”

A relaxed Marilyn and Joe

One of the most interesting stories Kahn tells about DiMaggio directly parallels Marilyn’s struggles with her studio, and may tell more about why they could relate to one another than their obvious animal magnetism. In 1938, during his third season with the Yankees, DiMaggio demanded a raise, from $15,000 to an unprecedented $40,000 a year, which would have made him the highest paid baseball player at that time. He was the Yankees’ biggest star (as Marilyn was later Fox’s) and believed he deserved to be compensated accordingly. But Yankee president Colonel Jacob Ruppert (like Fox chairman Zanuck) insisted that $25,000 was more than enough. The tussle lasted weeks, even into the starting season, and there was plenty of (bad) press for the slugger as a result. DiMaggio finally had to accept Ruppert’s figure, and his fans turned against him temporarily for his stubbornness and perceived greed.

The majority of Joe & Marilyn treats them each separately, as entities on their way to one another. There is precious little about their two-year romance prior to their wedding, and understandably, not too much about their short, nine-month marriage. Kahn includes an oft-told tale about their wedding night: “Although they had been lovers for many months and reporters knew it, someone interviewed the room clerk who had checked them in, probably paying for the information. Yes the clerk said, DiMaggio had asked for a double bed. Anything else? He had also wanted to know if the room came with a television set. Another impudent joke. Who in the world, on his wedding night with Marilyn Monroe, wants to watch television? Joseph Paul DiMaggio, the almost perfect knight. (She would later complain seriously and sometimes angrily that he spent much too much of their time together fixated before a television set, not enough tending to her sexual needs.)”

Checks and houndstooth, in color

Soon after they became husband and wife Marilyn went back to work and Joe entertained himself with sports, and friends. They don’t seem to have spent much time together. “They settled briefly in his San Francisco house. Marilyn insisted she was having a wonderful time learning Italian cooking. In fact, there wasn’t much for her to do. Joe’s sister Marie ran the household. She’d been running it for years. DiMaggio lapsed into his familiar routine, playing golf and spending evening hours with male friends.”

Possibly the most interesting aspect of their relationship is how their friendship endured, even deepened, after their divorce, but this is not the book for anyone interested about that aspect of their lives. Marilyn and Joe may not have been destined for marital success, but they did seem to have been meant to be in each other’s lives. But for stories about Joe’s enduring passion and Marilyn’s continued respect and dependence on the former Yankee other sources will need to be consulted.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #35: Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, by Donald Spoto

I remember taking some of Donald Spoto’s film theory classes at The New School in the late eighties. He had written a nice book on one of my favorite film directors, Alfred Hitchcock, and I enjoyed the class discussions and being exposed to some great films I might never have gone to see on my own, like The Battle of Algiers and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. He has written many celebrity biographies over the years, including books on Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich. His book on Marilyn Monroe is considered one of the most definitive biographies of the star. The facts of her life and death seem to be elusive (or even fabricated) to most who write about her, so I had high hopes for Spoto.

For the most part, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, doesn’t disappoint. If it does nothing else, Spoto’s meticulous research does seem to debunk once and for all the highly unlikely claims of Robert Slatzer, who has told anyone and everyone who would listen about his three-day “marriage” to the star. Spoto points out how other biographers, like Anthony Summers have used Slatzer as a credible source and have allowed the cult of mis-information about Marilyn to snowball. Spoto also identifies Marilyn’s “friend” Jeanne Carmen as a fraud, another person who has trumpeted her “close relationship” to the star, only after Marilyn’s death, to her own financial benefit. But the most interesting and useful of Spoto’s discoveries is that Marilyn may have had a one-time fling with President John F. Kennedy, as did many, many other Hollywood starlets, but that she never had an affair or any other sort of intimate relationship with his brother, Robert Kennedy. If the “Kennedy conspiracy” is subtracted from Marilyn’s life and death, her story is not only very different, but much more believable.

“Beginning in 1955, a formidable file on Marilyn Monroe also began to accumulate in Washington – records of which she was never aware. They comprise a ludicrous waste of paper.”

Spoto believes that if there is anyone to “blame” for Marilyn’s death it is the highly unethical behavior of her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, and her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, who Greenson had Marilyn hire shortly after she moved back to Los Angeles from New York. They do seem to have worked as a team, with Murray keeping tabs on the star and reporting back to the doctor. Marilyn was seeing Greenson almost daily at this point in her life, so the extra spying seems completely over-the-top, but Spoto makes a great case for Greenson’s desire to “possess” his most famous patient, and highlights his extremely unprofessional behavior throughout his career. While he doesn’t go so far as to accuse them of murder, he comes awfully close, suggesting that Murray (a person with no medical training) may have administered barbiturates to the already drugged-up star on Greenson’s orders, and that the dose was what put her over the edge.

I have to admit that I don’t completely buy Spoto’s reconstruction of Marilyn’s last days. He claims that she and Joe DiMaggio were planning to remarry on August 8 and she was excited and happy about it. There are receipts for a special dress and hair appointments and catering arrangements that help back up this idea. But he offers no reason for why, paradoxically, two days before her supposedly planned nuptials, she became suddenly upset enough to start the whole alcohol/pill/depression cycle again. He suggests her plummeting mood on the day of her death may be connected to her regular daily session with Greenson — he claims that she tried to fire the doctor that day. Maybe. She started drinking and popping pills and called Joe DiMaggio’s son, Joe Jr., twice that day, and did finally get through to him in the evening (he later said they had a pleasant conversation), but there are no records of her trying to contact Joe at all. Wouldn’t she have called her fiancé at least once, if she had been so disturbed, either by her meeting with Greenson or by something else?

Hollywood reporter Sidney Skolsky, a hypochondriac who worked out of the famous Schwabs drugstore (where he had easy access to sampling their products), befriended Marilyn. Once before an audition he “gave her three sleeping tablets so that the anxiety of preparing would not exhaust her before the test.”… Joe called Marilyn and Sidney Skolsky “pill-pals, not pen-pals.”

“Barbiturates to sleep, amphetamines to stay awake, narcotics to relax – in Hollywood, these were as plentiful as agents, and could easily be obtained through the studio front office.”

“[Her internist, Dr. Hyman] Engleberg visited Marilyn at home every day but six during July; except for the fourth, the sixth through the ninth and the 16th, she received injections – liver and vitamin shots, she said. But these transformed her mood and energy with alarming rapidity.”

The last few days of Marilyn’s life aside, which we are unlikely to ever fully know all the facts of, Spoto does paint a wonderful portrait of Norma Jeane and how she became Marilyn Monroe. Her great ambition, her constant struggles with health, and the huge difference between how she looked and how she felt inside, are meticulously and chronologically presented. He isn’t afraid to show her weaknesses and bad decisions, but he is also eager to show the screen goddess in a flattering light when he can, and has the facts to back up his debunking of old rumors — such as Marilyn’s family didn’t have a history of insanity as has been endlessly reported. Her grandfather died from a brain infection and her grandmother “of heart disease, which caused impaired mentation due to insufficient oxygenation of the brain.” Marilyn’s mother Gladys did fear genetic mental disease, especially after she had heard that her own grandfather committed suicide. Spoto points out that his death was related to his ongoing bad health and imminent eviction, not mental illness, Gladys was never aware of those facts. Gladys certainly suffered from anxiety and depression, but there was no Prozac for Marilyn’s mother in 1935, so she chose to opt out of life and spent most of her life in sanatoriums.

He charts her uneven childhood. She lived in many foster homes — but not as many as usually reported, and most of her foster parents were friends of Gladys, not unknown to her. She was in the Los Angeles orphange for two years. Maybe because of this bounced-around upbringing, always having to please a new set of adults, Marilyn throughout her life would seek out a patron of some sort, usually a family, like the Strasbergs, or an older man, like agent Johnny Hyde. But even with powerful people on her team she still had to work hard to get noticed, to get a decent part in a picture.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy: “This girl had something I hadn’t seen since silent pictures.… She got sex on a piece of film like Jean Harlow. Every frame of the test radiated sex.… She was creating effects visually. She was showing us she could sell emotions in pictures.”

George Sanders: “She showed an interest in intellectual subjects which was, to say the least, disconcerting. And in her presence it is hard to concentrate. … She so obviously needed to be a star …”

Marilyn, about this time in her life, “… I didn’t have any friends. I had teachers and people l could look up to — nobody I could look over at. I always felt I was a nobody, and the only way for me to be somebody was to be — well, somebody else. Which is probably why I wanted to act.”

Spoto has a very different take on Marilyn’s sexual history than most of the other lurid biographies of the star. The author claims that rumors of multiple abortions are ridiculous. She never had even one. “Later there were two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy requiring emergency termination, but no abortion.” Marilyn had lifelong struggles with endometriosis (for which she had multiple operations to try and ease the symptoms) and uterine bleeding which would cause her great pain. She, the great goddess of sex, was most likely unable to bring a pregnancy to term because of her physical problems, one of her life’s great disappointments.

Spoto uses quotes from many people in Marilyn’s life to document how she was able to turn on and off her “Marilyn” persona at will — when she had the need to feel glamorous, to be recognized. He uses these instances to support his underlying theory of her internal conflict of identity, of her never really reconciling her two (or more) selves. This Norma Jeane vs. Marilyn idea is hardly new. But what Spoto doesn’t acknowledge, probably because he has never personally experienced it, is that this sort of conflict exists in most women. Marilyn was an extreme case, surely, but most women have to deal with their public and private faces daily. Women are judged primarily visually. We are bombarded with cosmetics and media images that we are expected to at least attempt to aspire to. Men are judged by what they do, first, before how they look. For Marilyn, both how she looked and how her work was perceived, was incredibly important to her and to everyone in her orbit.

The best part of Marilyn Monroe: The Bigraphy is Spoto’s detailed recounting of just how hard Marilyn worked to become Marilyn. Once she became a star, we all know that things got even tougher for her, but Marilyn stayed strong and did things that no one would have ever expected of her — she started her own production company, married and divorced two very different American icons, worked hard to be taken seriously as an actress. Her death is tragic, and others certainly had a hand in helping her find the crutches that eventually killed her. But however she died, what really resonates from Spoto’s book was how she lived — always questing, reaching, trying to improve herself, trying to grow. That’s a new and valuable image of Marilyn.

Images from: Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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ElCicco#CBR4Review#30: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

 

 

… [T]rue quests aren’t measured in time or distance … so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant — sail for Asia and stumble on America — and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along. 

Beautiful Ruins is a story of quests. Spanning a 50 year period starting in 1962, the characters in this novel each have a quest or dream of some sort — for fame, success, love. It is a humorous and charming novel that moves back and forth between a small Italian coastal village in 1962 and the West Coast of the US today, with special focus on the movie industry.

The action starts in a small coastal Italian fishing village called Porto Vergogna — Port of Shame. Pasquale, age 20, is trying to build up a beach so that the family hotel, the Hotel Adequate View, can become a jet setters’ vacation destination. He has big dreams to build a tennis court on a cliff, attract Americans and so on. The local fishermen think he is crazy as he piles up rocks that get washed away with the tides. Then one day, a gorgeous American starlet shows up at the hotel. Within a few short days, Pasquale’s dreams and his life undergo a dramatic shift.

In modern day LA, Claire, an assistant to a once successful movie producer named Michael Deane, is growing restless over her job and her porn-addicted boyfriend. She wants to make meaningful, important films and not the dreck that Deane produces. She is ready for a change, but should she leave her boyfriend? Should she leave her job to work for a film museum that the Scientologists are building? On a fateful “wild pitch” Friday, when friends, acquaintances and people owed favors by Michael Deane are given an audience to pitch truly outlandish film and TV ideas, Claire meets a young writer and an old Italian gentleman. Within a few short days, her dreams and life undergo a dramatic shift.

From here, Walter artfully weaves the stories together, fleshing out his characters (including actor Richard Burton, filming Cleopatra in Italy in 1962) and unfolding the events that link the first two chapters together. While much in the story is sad — separated lovers, betrayal, death — there is a generous amount of humor in the writing, such as this interchange between Pasquale and his mother:

“You should push me out into the sea and drown me like that old sick cat of yours.”

Pasquale straightened. “You said my cat ran away. While I was at university.”

She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye. “It is a saying.”

“No. It’s not a saying. There’s no such saying as that. Did you and Papa drown my cat while I was in Florence?”

“I’m sick, Pasqo! Why do you torment me?”

And this description of Michael Deane:

The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

The novel ends on a bittersweet note, but I won’t tell more than that. It’s an enjoyable read and perfect for summer vacation if you are looking for a good book.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #33: Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, by Susan Strasberg

In Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, Susan Strasberg tries to tell what it was like to have Marilyn Monroe enter her life and the life of her family. Her father was Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio, and guru to many of the film and stage actors of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, James Dean, Elia Kazan, Eva Marie Saint, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, etc.) Her mother was former actress Paula Strasberg, who became Marilyn’s personal coach and factotum. For a short spell their home was a haven to Marilyn, who had fled Los Angeles after her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn was looking for a new life as an actress, and was scheming with photographer Milton Greene about starting her own film production company, which would free her from the dumb blonde roles that her studio Twentieth Century-Fox was determined to lock her into.

Written approximately 30 years after Marilyn’s untimely death at the age of 36, Strasberg is still able to write from a teenage perspective. She may have been in awe of the glamorous movie star, but she was mostly envious of the attention her father payed her. Even while in the throes of a passionate love affair with Broadway costar Richard Burton, Strasberg can’t help but complain how available her father made himself for Marilyn at all hours. Once Marilyn moved to New York and started taking private acting lessons with Lee, she used the Strasberg home as her refuge — before, during, and after her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller.

Paula became a surrogate mother, but Lee was her barometer — she constantly sought his approval. Apparently everyone in his orbit felt the same way, including his daughter, who seems to have fought a lifelong battle with resisting but desiring his help and input in her own work. Marilyn managed to get his attention more than most. That is what Strasberg is most jealous of. She idolizes her father, but she doesn’t seem to want to truly understand him. When he does offer her praise she doesn’t believe him, and becomes even more insecure. She had more in common with Marilyn than she realized.

Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe and Susan Strasberg visit backstage (Cort Theatre) in 1956.

Strasberg may be unwilling or unable to personally criticize her father, but she does allow others to share their viewpoints:

Johnny Strasberg: “He [Lee] was really fascinated by her, but that’s like saying about someone who is so fascinated by animals they put them in a cage so they can study them. In that sense you could say he loved her. He did have this great generosity in his work, although usually he never considered the needs of anyone else before himself. His gift to Marilyn, his great gift, was that he took her seriously in her work, and even personally, too, up to a point. Marilyn was there more than anyone before had been. Lee adored her; at least he seemed to do anything to please her.”

Strasberg does share a story that shows just how brainwashed and dependent everyone became on Lee. She was offered the role of Allison in Peyton Place (to be filmed at Twentieth Century-Fox, Marilyn’s studio, and the same one that once fired Lee) for $150,000. It was a great part and a great sum — Marilyn hadn’t made that much per picture yet. She asked her father if she should take it. He said no. When the family objected, he then told her to ask for more money. The studio refused to pay more, but still wanted her at the original sum. She debated about whether she should take the part anyway, without his permission (she was 19 and already her earnings were helping support the family.) Strasberg ultimately turned it down, and regretted it, but also justified her decision by saying she was avenging her father’s previous firing at Fox. Lee was using both his daughter and Marilyn to try and avenge his wounded ego. Strasberg doesn’t seem to see how her early success on stage (at age 16, in The Diary of Anne Frank) may have threatened her father. She didn’t study with him (although her mother coached her.) She never seems to consider that he may have helped her behind-the-scenes. Marilyn and Me is almost better reading between the lines.

Marilyn congratulates Susan backstage at The Diary of Anne Frank on opening night

As much as the Strasbergs offered Marilyn a second home, they may not have been the best port in the storm, as they had their own problems, including a strange way of expressing and dealing with anger. Lee would rage so much he would sometimes get a nosebleed, scaring everyone. Paula would get hysterical and threaten suicide. Susan would hide in a closet, silently screaming. But none of this would have mattered to Marilyn, who had finally met someone who showed her some respect:

Marilyn, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when your father took me seriously. I’ve always wanted for people to see me, not the actress, the real person. Your daddy does. He treats me like a human being. … I worked with this woman in California for years [her first acting coach, Natasha Lytess]. She taught me, educated me, like your father, gave me books to read, but even she thought I was a dummy. He doesn’t, and the most important thing is, with your father for the first time I feel it’s okay to be me, the whole kit and caboodle, you know, the whole mess.”

Once Marilyn gathered the courage to attend classes at the Studio and to even do scenes, her confidence increased, if only temporarily. Strasberg ran the Studio as a place where actors could experiment, be free. People may have thought she was a joke when she said she wanted to play Lady Macbeth, but they might have reconsidered if they had known Lee’s ideas for her in the part. He envisioned Lady Macbeth as “a sensitive, driven, compulsive woman, who used her sexuality and power to get her husband to do these terrible things. It was a side Marilyn possessed, but that she had never shown in her work.”

Strasberg is never able to truly focus on Marilyn without dragging herself into the picture, as she does when telling about Marilyn recounting her horror story of being locked up in a psychiatric hospital ward by her New York shrink Dr. Marianne Kris: “‘I was always afraid I was crazy like my mother or that I’d get that crazy with age. You know women sometimes to go nuts then, but when I got in there with really crazy people, I realized I had problems, but I saw I wasn’t as bad as they were.’ She made it sound as if it hadn’t been that bad. Yet I had heard that it had been worse. Was she trying to protect me from how horrible life was, or didn’t she trust me? Who was she lying to? Me or herself? Why?” It’s not all about you, Susan.

With all of Strasberg’s competitive neuroses, she still comes across as likable, and as someone, who with all the envy, did care for Marilyn. “[Marilyn] took ordinary black-and-white light and reflected it back to us in Technicolor, in epic proportions. Yet she kept it accessible. As famous as she was, she remained human.” Marilyn and Me is a very human book about the star and an entertaining read. Strasberg may have been jealous of her, loved her, but she never ceased to be amazed by Marilyn and her power. At the 1962 Golden Globes, when Marilyn attended to accept the World Film Favorite Award, “There was a room full of the biggest stars in the world, and when Marilyn walked in and made her way slowly to the table, her dress was so tight she could barely move; some people in the room stood on chairs, just to get a look at her, like kids. I’d never seen stars react to another star like that.” Strasberg’s judgements and impressions may not always be accurate, but they do offer a personal glimpse of a woman and a movie star who for most, still remains a mystery.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #10: Messy, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

The Fug Girls are back! Messy is the follow-up to last year’s Spoiled, and features the return of the Berlin clan: Molly, Brooke, and Brick, along with their friends (and frenemies) for more Hollywood fun. In the first installment, Molly learns she is the daughter of mega-superstar Brick Berlin, and must not only adjust to a new school and a new family, but also new-found fame as well.  This time around, the action focuses on Molly’s half-sister, Brooke (as it should be, no doubt!) and her attempts to become Hollywood’s newest It Girl, along with Max McCormack, Molly’s new best friend, who nearly stole the show last time around. As with Spoiled, the plot here isn’t going to surprise anyone who’s ever read a book ever, but that’s not really the point; the fresh, funny style of the Fug Girls makes everything worthwhile.

Max wants to become a writer. Specifically, she’s focusing on a program at NYU, but is A. suffering from major writer’s block, and B. lacks the necessary funds. This is why she answers a Craigslist ad to be a ghost writer for a “Hollywood It Girl’s” blog. She’s dismayed when the It Girl in question turns out to be Brooke Berlin (they’ve hated each other since grade school), but the opportunity to write and make a decent wage doing it convinces her to become Brooke’s blogger. Soon she’s following Brooke to Hollywood bashes and casting calls, and the blog is a huge success. Brooke finds herself cast as Nancy Drew, the teenaged role of the year, and everything’s looking up for everyone…until it’s not. Both girls start to realize that they want to be credited for being themselves instead of each other, and find themselves clashing over Brooke’s cute co-star Brady, who’s caught up in their multiple-personality game.

Again, it’s not a new plot, but it’s an effective one, and the characters Cocks and Morgan have created are just so much fun. Max was my favorite character from Spoiled, so it was great to see her have a moment in the sun here. The cultural references and the general snark are in full effect thanks to the focus on Max, since she is something of an outsider in a world full of spray-on tanned starlets.  Brooke gets plenty of character development as well, showing us a little more depth and intelligence, if not humility. If there’s a flaw to be mentioned, it’s that Molly gets short shrift this time around, only showing up to provide moral support to Max, or to mediate between Max and Brooke.

These books are a quick, fun read, and while you’ll have a little bit more of a clue if you read Spoiled first, I like that they’re not precisely a series; I like my reading low-commitment. It’ll be interesting to see how and if the Girls proceed with these characters, since most of them will be graduating from high school soon, and presumably going on to bigger and better things. Perhaps there will again be a focus on Max, who I think is slightly younger than the Berlin sisters. Either way, if Cocks and Morgan produce another installment, I will totally read it. And you should too!

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