Bad Movies We Love About Marilyn Monroe

In his 1975 movie version of The Who's "rock opera" Tommy, Ken Russell answered everything you ever needed to know about our culture's cultish fascination with Marilyn Monroe. In hopes of finding a miracle cure for her autistic son, a concerned mother takes the lad to a church where the lame gather to worship the image of MM. In a hall decorated with pin-up posters, the chosen acolytes wear identical platinum blonde wigs and MM lookalike masks as they lead each tragic case forward to touch the silvered slippers of a mammoth, 25-foot-tall statue of MM in her trademark Seven Year Itch pose, with the flared skirt of that pleated dress frozen forever in mid-air.

The statue stands not over a subway grating hut on a mirrored pedestal, so that as the afflicted kneel down to kiss its feet, they needn't bother to look up in order to see her undies. When our hero approaches, things go awry: though deaf, dumb, and blind, he knows a false idol when he sees one (he ought to-his mother is played by Ann-Margret). He stumbles and knocks over the statue, and oh! how the mighty do fall: the statue shatters on the steps of its own altar, turning out to be nothing more than plaster of paris, tarted up with paint. Lest we miss Russell's point, the camera lingers on the palpable emptiness inside the cracked shell of the broken face of MM. What more, really, needed to be said, or shown, about the rise, fall, and ensuing blind worship of Marilyn Monroe? Well, in a word, nothing. But happily for fans of Bad Movies We Love, filmmakers have not recognized Ken Russell's final word on the subject.

In fact, quite the opposite: no other celebrity has ever been the subject of so many movies, TV flicks, and mini-series. Now, trashy, so-bad-they're-good movies intent on convincing audiences that they wouldn't really want to trade places with a gorgeous movie star-if only you knew what her private life was really like!-are nothing new. These star bios, which deftly combine broad strokes of "let's-avoid-lawsuits" whitewash with lurid hype promising to "tell all," have long been an enjoyable staple of Hollywood. In Monroe's category alone-The Unhappy Life and Times of Blonde Stars-we've seen Lana Turner doing Diana Barrymore, Susan Hayward doing Lana Turner, Carroll Baker as Jean Harlow on two different occasions, Carol Lynley as a third Harlow, Jessica Lange and Susan Blakely as duelling Frances Fanners, fill Clayburgh as Carole Lombard, Cheryl Ladd as Grace Kelly, Loni Anderson as both Thelma Todd and Jayne Mansfield, Ann Jillian as both Mae West and-who else could have played it?-Ann Jillian.

But only unhappy little Norma Jean Baker and her even unhappier alter ego, Marilyn Monroe, have given life to a virtual cottage industry of Bad Movies We Love, some that use her name, some that play peek-a-boo behind pseudo-nyms, even one that only calls her "The Actress." Three decades after her death, MM continues to pose beguilingly on the rocky promontory of goddessdom, singing her barbiturated siren song and luring one filmmaker after another to his doom.

Unless you have an extremely avant-garde video store near you, you'll just have to set up your VCR to trap these gems when they play at 3 a.m. Trust me, every one is worth the trouble. For those demented enough to sigh, "Are there really only six MM bioflix?" fear not: ABC's preparing a TV movie called "Marilyn and Me," the story of her secret marriage to Bob Slatzcr, and though "Twin Peaks" partners David Lynch and Mark Frost will deny it's so--insiders close to them swear the pair's still plotting to bring to the big screen their long-planned feature version of Anthony Summers's book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. In the meantime, these six should hold you.

THE GODDESS (1958). The knowledge of obscure show-biz trivia can add a crazed layer of fun to any of the Bad Movies We Love About Marilyn Monroe, but this is especially true with The Goddess, the only film about MM made while she was still alive (though even in 1958, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky made it clear he didn't expect her to last too much longer). For example, in the film's opening scene where Monroe's desperately unhappy mother tries to pawn off her little girl on in-laws (the kid overhears the whole conversation, natch), the woman playing the aunt who doesn't really want to take in MM as a member of her immediate family is-get this-Joan Copeland, the real-life sister of Arthur Miller, and hence actually MM's sister-in-law. What's more, MM as a child is played by Patty Duke, who would one day star in Valley of the Dolls, in which a bosomy blonde character resembling MM ODs on sleeping pills. Wait, there's more: the adult MM in The Goddess is played by Broadway legend Kim Stanley, who-having lost her own greatest stage role, Cherie in Bus Stop, to MM when the movie version was made in 1956--had a score to settle in playing this particularly unflattering portrait of MM. But that's not all: Lloyd Bridges, who is cast here as the has-been athlete (read: Joe DiMaggio) who marries MM, would turn up 20-odd years later in one of the MM TV minis, playing Johnny Hyde, the real-life agent who loved and launched MM, but died before she met and married DiMaggio. Cot all that? Good.

Now, all that aside, The Goddess stands on its own as a preposterously overwrought and-this is vintage Chayefsky, after all-overwritten cautionary tale about the price of fame, It's guaranteed to give you the giggles from its dialogue alone. While making out on Lover's Lane with a backwoods teen, Emily Ann (as Norma Jean is called here) says, "I'm going to Hollywood someday, I am, I am," establishing the film's penchant for never showing us anything without first telling us about it, twice if possible. "You don't know what loneliness is," her suicidally-inclined first husband says, early on. "You think it's not having a date on Saturday night. You don't know the great, ultimate ache of desolation, desolation." Oh but she will, she will, and when she does, she'll talk, and talk, and talk about it. "I can hardly get out of a taxi cab in New York but what there's hundreds of people crowding around me screaming how much they love me," she tells that particular hubby when they run into each other years later, "If you ever get out to Hollywood, you be sure and look me up." Here, we're meant to know that she's really at the end of her rope, because she doesn't repeat "look me up" twice.

Between these laugh-out-loud bookends, the movie goes gaga as Emily Ann moves to Hollywood, gets renamed Rita Shawn, marries the athlete played by Bridges, and goes bonkers. Chayefsky invents things that are even nuttier than MM's true saga. You doubt that's possible? Consider his conceit that has the couple honey-moon in a suite in a Beverly Hills hotel, and then never leave it to move anywhere else during their entire marriage, though God knows they talk about wanting to-It's sort of a Hollywood version of "No Exit," with room service. A real highpoint occurs when Bridges asks a movie producer whether MM has any real talent as an actress. "She's got something," he's told. "She's got what I call a quality of availability. She's not particularly pretty, it's a warmth some women have that makes every man in the audience think he could make her if he only knew her." Well, he's half-right, anyway: Kim Stanley's not particularly pretty. But for all her quality acting, Stanley is woefully unable to convey that "quality of availability." The best she can muster is a Dorothy Maloneish glamour, which sinks the whole enterprise.

THE SEX SYMBOL (1974). In attempting to tell MM's whole story in under two hours, this TV movie creates an unintentionally funny flip-book effect: it plays like an illustrated Cliffs Notes version of her sorry saga, racing at breakneck speed from one sordid high point to another. The overwrought opening sets the breathless pace as a Hedda Hopper-like TV gossip dishes with fake sincerity, "Such a pity! In less than 10 years, a once-great beauty has disintegrated into a neurotic, alcoholic mess," while Connie Stevens, playing the washed-up MM prototype "Kelly Williams," sneers, "Canned from one stinking movie, anybody would think I was dead!" before throwing her vodka bottle through the TV screen. "Kelly" then races to call her shrink. "My first husband complained I wasn't very good in bed," she whines, "Now I'm just a lush, I'll go with any man who asks." The doctor comforts her: "You're not a lush." Whew! You think things are going to slow down a bit when the film flashes back to her rapid rise to fame, starting with the moment she was named (I swear I'm not making this up) "Miss Blowtorch of 1945"-but in fact, the movie wants to cram so much in, it gets speedier. Before you know it, "Kelly" is having sex with her much older agent, then sex with her much, much older studio boss, then sex with a retired sports star who works with orphans ("I was an orphan," she says, and with that in common, they get married, then divorced), then sex with a married senator, and then sex with a world-famous artiste (she marries him, too).

A perky cutie-pie with spunk, Stevens could maybe have played Carroll Baker, but she's unfathomably out of her element as the kind of media bombshell who wears only a bathing suit and high heels to her hands-in-cement ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theater. To be fair, there's no actress alive who could hope to get anything but unintentional laughs with dialogue like this typical exchange: "My fans love me," "Kelly" tells her Arthur-Miller-like painter husband. He replies, "You can't love a symbol, and I can't live with one. You castrate me! I haven't painted anything worthwhile in two years, because I spend all my time wet-nursing a neurotic movie star going from analyst to analyst, pill to pill, bed to bed!" "Kelly" reminds him, "Before we were married, you didn't have any trouble painting 100 dirty pictures of me," and his I-can't-believe-I'm-hearing-this response is, "That's because you are dirty!"

Hoping against hope for a sort of authenticity-by-association, the producers cast Monroe's Bus Stop leading man Don Murray as the Kennedy-like politician, and Monroe's one-time roommate and buddy Shelley Winters as the Hopper-esque gossip columnist who tells "Kelly," "I was an actress myself, young lady." So she was, but you'd never guess it from Winters's high camp, scenery-chewing antics here. This casting demonstrates that perhaps the real Monroe (if that's not an oxymoron) was lucky to die so young-after all, Murray and Winters offer sad proof of just what there was to look forward to. Once your own starry career is over, you can always earn a fast buck by co-starring in a TV movie about someone else's career-and then try to make a career out of that. Murray went on to play Judy Garland's father in "Rainbow" and Winters moved on to portraying Elvis Presley's mother in "Elvis."

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