Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

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Marilyn’s Last Day

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Marilyn Monroe is often on my mind. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of people who read the monthly Vanity Fair and people who are fans of Monroe I don’t know for sure but I think the common ground could be pretty significant. Natalie Wood’s anniversary is on my mind this weekend; so Warren Beatty is also on my mind. And his recent interview in Vanity Fair (November 2016) about his upcoming film concerning, among other things, Howard Hughes, and Hollywood, is very much on my mind. But mainly it’s the other things he mentions.  Buried in his summertime chats with Sam Kashner is a revelation that was suggested by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography Marilyn; and again by Anthony Summers in Goddess (1985) and which elicits no real surprise on the part of the interviewer here or at least in how he presents the information. Turns out that Beatty really was at Peter Lawford’s on August 4th 1962, invited over for tacos and poker. He encountered Monroe there. They went for a walk on the beach. Then he took to the piano and she sat there, wearing a clinging dress, listening to him play and chatting to him. She asked him his age. She was drinking champagne. Beatty says she was tipsy by sunset. They didn’t play poker. If he said anything to Kashner about the time she left, or whether she stayed on for dinner, or who else was actually there, including Natalie Wood, it’s been excised. I wonder what if anything was said off the record because according to Summers,  Wood told someone in 1979 at Darryl Zanuck’s funeral that she too had been at the Lawfords’ that evening and had met Marilyn there. They were friends. For 54 years the myth has grown, exacerbated by Lawford’s own claim, and repeated by every one of the biographers over the past three decades since Summers’ book [and there are a lot] that she phoned him in a slurred voice that evening sometime after eight o’clock cancelling her visit (Fred Laurence Guiles, Norma Jeane, revised in 1984:  465). She was in his house. Is Lawford’s version of events even remotely plausible given that Monroe was certainly in distress if not actually dead by ten thirty and her body found in a clearly contrived situation? Beatty’s admission rewrites the narrative yet again.  I wish more people would tell the real truth. Her death still bothers me that much. How about you?

The Goddess (1958)

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Portrait of a Young Girl:  Innocent fatherless little Patty Duke grows up in the South with a hate-filled single mother (Betty Lou Holland) to become busty Kim Stanley whose lonely life is transformed when she becomes America’s screen love goddess. Ah, Hollywood. Every actor’s story is a morality tale, ain’t it. It is widely assumed that despite its superficial origins in Ava Gardner’s life, this was about Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was already a legend in the mid 1950s when Paddy Chayefsky decided to write her up as an allegory of stardom, or perhaps a cautionary tale. She’d been mocked in George Axelrod’s long-running Broadway satire, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? where ‘she’ was played by Jayne Mansfield (she of the genius IQ – for real) there and in the screen version as ‘Rita.’  Monroe had acted in the screen adaptation of Axelrod’s play The Seven Year Itch. Then a clever dick journalist wrote a book about her, Will Acting Spoil Marilyn Monroe? because, you know, she was just a dumb blonde, not an actress playing one (in just two films, actually). The big irony was in hiring first-timer Stanley (born Patricia Reid), the renowned stage actress, who was at the Actors Studio at the same time as Monroe, to play Marilyn – here she’s called Emily Ann and her name is changed to Rita Shawn for her Hollywood career. Stanley had been the lead on stage in Bus Stop, which Marilyn produced as a film under her own banner:  not so dumb. Stanley was no beauty and wouldn’t have been able to carry the film. Monroe’s sister in law, Joan Copeland, plays Emily Ann’s aunt here. Monroe’s then husband (and Copeland’s brother), Arthur Miller, thought Monroe should sue over this production (which didn’t stop him from being quids in on several occasions himself).  Portrait of a Young Woman: She marries young to a soldier whose character seems to have been ascribed certain aspects of Monroe’s family history of mental illness. The rumour that Monroe herself occasionally spread that she’d had a baby as a teenager is dramatised but as a legitimate but unwanted product of this unwise marriage – Mom is left holding the baby for a spell before the divorce comes through and the father gets the child. Later she’s married to a boxing promoter – played by Lloyd Bridges, which yields a nice meta reference:  in This Year’s Blonde, 25 years later, the Moviola segment about her in the Garson Kanin TVM adaptation, Bridges plays Johnny Hyde, the agent with whom Marilyn lived on and off for two years while he tried to build up her screen career. Portrait of a Goddess:  Installed in Hollywood, friendless Emily Ann/Rita’s had a nervous breakdown and delayed a film and her now deranged religious fanatic mom comes to visit and her daughter wishes her dead. The film concludes in very downbeat fashion following the mother’s funeral when the loneliest star in the world only has her entourage for company and a secretary tending to her.  There is not a laugh to be had and Stanley decried the way the film was edited, draining all humour from the work in which she was in any case obviously miscast. Chayefsky’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Blacklisted John Cromwell directed this major production, his last time in Hollywood after a seven-year block on his career. One can only shudder at the creative licence so many men took in interpreting their distressing version of Hollywood’s greatest legend in her lifetime, short as it would be: her first husband describes 1957 as “this year of suicide and insanity.” They wanted to illustrate the dark side of the American dream. Those ugly men got their revenge on all the uppity women who abhorred them, didn’t they. Ironically, for all her acting skill, Stanley herself had a major mental breakdown when critics in London trashed her performance in an Actors Studio production of The Three Sisters in 1965 and retired from the stage for good. There really are no happy endings.

 

 

Night People (1954)

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According to his biographer Tom Stempel, writer/producer Nunnally Johnson found himself at a loose end on the London set of The Mudlark in 1950 so he decided he needed to direct himself albeit a few years happened before it came to pass. Henry Hathaway told him he wouldn’t make a good director because he wasn’t a bastard. He co-wrote this from a story written by Jed Harris (a theatre producer) and Tom Reed (with an uncredited assist from WR Burnett) and it was developed from a science fiction property owned by Twentieth Century-Fox previously known as The Cannibals. Johnson wanted to shoot a film with Gregory Peck and as they’d worked successfully on The Gunman the star readily agreed. They shot this Cold War thriller on location in Berlin and also at the Geiselsteig Studios in Munich, utilising Cinemascope (by Charles G. Clarke) which of course bore its own compositional limitations. Peck plays Steve Van Dyke, a tough-talking Colonel who’s charged with rescuing a 19-year old conscript kidnapped by the Russians (supposedly) from the American sector. He has a shrewd team in secretary Rita Gam and sideman Buddy Ebsen (who gets some good humour to play) but can his female informant Hoffy (Anita Bjork) be trusted? And the soldier’s father (Broderick Crawford) is an axle grease magnate with attitude and influence (he plays golf!) who arrives in Berlin to sort things out (he thinks) and whose face-off with Van Dyke is one of the highlights. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about who people really are and from a dramatic point of view the major problem is that much of the double-dealing takes place in a hospital environment regarding the fate of the individuals that the other side want in exchange for Leatherby. The complexity derives from the identity of the exchangees, anti-Nazi conspirators – and who might really be after them. From a visual perspective it’s nice to see the Brandenburg Gate in colour but the film lacks a chase or something to justify the location and it would be good to see more of the day to day work of the Military Police in the divided city. The conclusion is particularly weakly executed.  Johnson’s daughter Marjorie Fowler was the editor on the picture. It got some negative reviews for its perceived propaganda purposes but Johnson had no such intention and in fact Van Dyke is scrupulously attentive to his Russian friend.  The man who wrote The Desert Fox was hardly a political tool. Johnson had written How to Marry a Millionaire the year before which created the dumb blonde persona for Marilyn Monroe with whom he’d also worked on We’re Not Married:  she of course made the persona her own and there’s a neat visual reference to her in the opening scenes when Leatherby takes his girl to her movie Niagara. Johnson would go on to write How To Be Very Very Popular for her but she refused to take the role which she believed was beneath her. Nonetheless, they remained friends.  There were rumours about a Johnson-Peck on-set feud but as Stempel explains, this was a ruse so that the philandering Darryl F. Zanuck could visit one of his mistresses in Europe and he fomented the longstanding story as an unfortunate public cover. Peck and Johnson would go on to make The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. This is a hard film to get hold of – mine is a Spanish version which thankfully had an English audio and is in the Scope ratio. Region 1 dvds are not as good and squeeze out the image. For students of Cold War cinema or fans of Gregory Peck and the late Rita Gam, it’s an interesting diversion.

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

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Marilyn Monroe took acting very seriously and trained with several coaches throughout her career – she was nervous as a cat about performing and terrified about getting her lines right. She was dyslexic, had Meniere’s disease and and suffered stage fright to beat the band.Her capacity to remember lines was practically non-existent. It drove co-workers crazy – the more takes she did in her quest for perfection, the better she got. And they dropped from exhaustion. She fled Hollywood to take more control of her roles and set up a production company with Look photographer Milton Greene and their first film was Bus Stop – finally Marilyn can act, the critics said. She had wound up at the Actors’ Studio inadvertently following the death of Constance Collier whom she had been training with in NYC. The association caused untold complications in her life. Then a project arose with Laurence Olivier – an Edwardian comedy of manners by Terence Rattigan, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier and Vivien Leigh had played it onstage. Leigh was too old to play the chorus girl on film and Monroe wanted to be taken seriously so it became a joint production of both of their companies with Olivier starring and directing (that was inadvertent, the result of a misunderstanding that everyone was too polite to point out). Monroe rolled up for the English shoot with new husband playwright Arthur Miller, Greene, publicist Arthur Jacobs and acting coach/sycophant Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife  …  Colin Clark was the son of Olivier’s friend Kenneth Clark and as a new unemployed graduate needed a job. He got taken on as Third Assistant Director on the film that became The Prince and the Showgirl and kept a diary which he finally published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in 1995. He later wrote a memoir, My Week With Marilyn, and these two volumes are combined here by Adrian Hodges with a touch of creative licence, coyness and diplomacy:  Clark’s (and Olivier’s) views of Miller (Dougray Scott here) in particular were scathing and Clark’s real-life sexual inclinations were more worldly than those exhibited in the personage of Eddie Redmayne. Michelle Williams gets the poisoned chalice role but manages at times to exquisitely portray the plight of the most famous woman in the world trying to get along in a new marriage with a man clearly using her and a cast and crew (led by Kenneth Branagh as Olivier) who appeared to despise her (they trashed her leaving gifts, not that we see that in this British production). Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) famously said that Monroe was the only one among them who knew how to act for the camera while Olivier ranted at Clark that ‘Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.’ Seeing her luminous performance and his own overacting in rushes nearly finished him and stopped his desire for directing (he eventually made one just more feature and a TVM!). Clark stated that Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a film star while Monroe was a film star who wanted to be a great actress. According to his memoir he told her this in order to allay her fears in the hostile environment in which she found herself adrift. Who knows how much of this is true? It’s all rather unlikely. It makes for a good story though. Director Simon Curtis manages to get the balance of despair, humour and pathos into this on-set romance and it’s a testament to all the talents involved that it’s more insightful and touching than exploitative.

The Misfits (1961)

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What an air of melancholy hangs over this elegy to the western. Arthur Miller had written a story about cowboys killing mustangs for dog meat and it evolved into a screenplay, rewritten many times, for director John Huston. The character of divorcee Roslyn sitting out the legally required time in Reno was based on his wife Marilyn Monroe and the elaboration is strikingly different from the Monroe who inspired Pola for writer Nunnally Johnson in How to Marry a Millionaire. She befriends Thelma Ritter and they hang out with a couple of old cowboys, Clark Gable and Eli Wallach and Roslyn doesn’t realise they round up horses to kill them. The troubled set was not aided by the breakdown of the Miller-Monroe marriage, her on-set overdose, the deadening heat and the behind the scenes attempts to turn Monroe’s character into a prostitute at the behest of Eli Wallach, her friend – Huston and Miller were into it, Gable refused to let it happen. He was tremendously loyal to his co-star and she regarded him as a father figure. He wanted this to be his swansong before his retirement from the business and said it was the best film he’d ever been in. He was only fifty-nine but looks decades older. He is utterly convincing as the jaded alcoholic taking advantage of wounded older women. He insisted on doing his own stunts but a weak heart, a heavy smoking and drinking habit, and delays his wife said Monroe caused, meant he died right after filming ended and before the birth of his only son. Montgomery Clift’s problems were evident to all involved and he would only last a handful more years himself. This was Monroe’s last credit and it remains an epitaph not just to her and her abilities – she is tenacious and febrile as Roslyn – but to an era of stardom, a genre and to Old Hollywood. Full of hopelessness, death, gallows humour and potential greatness, but Miller was not the world’s best screenwriter and failed to capitalise on the story’s promise.Nonetheless, this remains a must-see.

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)

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Failed music agent Tom Ewell gets summoned by gangster Edmond O’Brien to make his talentless girlfriend Jayne Mansfield a famous recording star within six weeks. The eagle-eyed will spot this as the bones of the plot of Born Yesterday, a film that should have starred Marilyn Monroe (nobody looked at her screen test). And Monroe is all over this uncredited adaptation of a story by Garson Kanin (who wrote Born Yesterday), her sweetness, her love of home and of course her pneumatic looks – although the genius-IQ Mansfield is possibly larger in that department and unlike Marilyn she cannot hold a note, at least for the purposes of this story. There’s a score by Bobby Troup and (his real-life) wife Julie London looms large in Tom Ewell’s nightmares as his lost love – just as his wife did in the previous year’s Seven Year Itch, opposite Marilyn.  But it’s the opportunity to see some of the great rock ‘n’ roll acts of the time that still beckons (Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran) and director Frank Tashlin cleverly integrates a lot of the lyrics as commentary on the action; and the infamous sight gag of milk bottles in Mansfield’s hands, a typical comment by the auteur on Fifties consumerism, sexism and a tribute to his cartoonist colleagues at Warners. Written by Tashlin and Herbert Baker. Rock. And. Roll.

Love Nest (1951)

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June Haver and William Lundigan are the couple running a rundown apartment house she’s acquired while he’s been fighting WW2 in Paris. A variety of tenants pose problems and amusement, principally the mysterious Frank Fay who romances a widow but has an unaccountable resemblance to a Bluebeard character. Lundigan’s also promised accommodation to a colleague from Paris,who turns out to be the stunning WAC bombshell Bobby (Marilyn Monroe). Complications ensue as you might imagine, in this adaptation by IAL Diamond of a novel by Scott Corbett. Diamond would write probably the greatest Monroe film, Some Like It Hot. And this wasn’t the first time she’d encountered June Haver – her very first blink and you’ll miss her appearance was in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! Haver is terrific in this and she was being groomed to replace Betty Grable but never could and her days were already numbered when she made this. She married Fred MacMurray. And Marilyn? Well. She just draws the eye. We know what happened to her! This is lightly amusing fun, directed by Joseph Newman.

We’re Not Married (1952)

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A mild anthology romcom from screenwriter Nunnally Johnson whose main attraction these days is Marilyn Monroe:  she’s one half of a set of couples whose marriages are deemed null and void because Justice of the Peace Victor Moore conducted the ceremonies in the week prior to his appointment being formalised. The segments look at the effect the news has: Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen are the unhappy couple playing happily married for a huge radio audience. Marilyn is Mrs Mississippi and hubby David Wayne is fed up holding the baby so he’s only too glad to stop her disappearing to beauty pageants. Paul Douglas and Eve Arden barely speak to each other. Louis Calhern is too glad to dump gold-digger Zsa Zsa Gabor. And soldier Eddie Bracken (in a play on a role he did for Preston Sturges …) needs to remarry his pregnant bride before he ships out. If you want to see who among them remarries, you had better watch. But the payoff to really enjoy is Marilyn’s.

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

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Nell (Marilyn Monroe) is escorted to a hotel room by her uncle, bellhop Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr), on babysitting duty. Downstairs, pilot Jed (Richard Widmark) is dumped by his girlfriend, chanteuse Lyn (Anne Bancroft) in between songs. He retires to his room where he observes the beautiful babysitter across the courtyard. He phones her and mistakes her for a wealthy woman in need of some company. The little girl she’s looking after interrupts their conversation and bit by bit, the story comes undone and it’s clear Nell thinks he’s an old boyfriend whom we realise was killed in the war. Things get tricky and the little girl is in serious jeopardy …  Eventually the situation in the room becomes violent and all is revealed: we find out precisely where Nell has spent the last three years. Daniel Taradash adapted a novel by Charlotte Armstrong and it was directed by British man Roy (Ward) Baker in a very effective style. Monroe was lacking in confidence for this dramatic role and there are moments where her dissonant performance actually makes for a properly disturbing experience. Studio heads were not impressed. But her fan base was hugely effective in raising her profile and she got thousands of letters every week and the studio had no idea why. (Grace Kelly had a parallel situation at her studio). Co-star Widmark was not impressed by her in person but commented on her awesome impact onscreen. Anne Bancroft was a confident NYC actress making her screen debut (it was Monroe’s 18th outing) and she stated that in the scene they shared, in the hotel lobby, where Monroe had to play at being in pain and helpless, what greeted Bancroft was precisely that, and it was so powerful that it brought tears to her eyes. The women were not remotely similar but oddly, Bancroft left Hollywood to return to Broadway in 1957 (a year after Monroe also departed, deeply unhappy at the state of her career) making her screen comeback with an incredible performance in The Miracle Worker in 1962 – the year that Monroe died.