Friday, September 07, 2012

norma jean and marilyn

It may have sounded like a good idea on paper. Filmed for HBO in 1996, Norma Jean and Marilyn attempts to tell Marilyn Monroe's story, using two actresses, Ashely Judd and Mira Sorvino, to play her at different times in her career and life. At least that's how it starts out, with Judd as a very ambitious Norma Jean, who will stop at nothing to become a star in Hollywood. The movie hits on some oft-heard stories from Marilyn's past, including her recurring dream of being naked in church, which gave HBO an opportunity to include a nude scene (there must be some percentage of nudity required in any HBO production.)

Norma Jean is soon transformed into a blonde, with a painful plucking and raising of her hairline. Agent Johnny Hyde helps her get some "necessary" plastic surgery on her nose and chin to please Twentieth Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck. When we see her again she has a new name, Marilyn Monroe, and is played by a new actress, Sorvino.

But we haven't seen the last of Judd, who starts turning up as the angel/devil on Marilyn's shoulder, edging her on, to success and madness. It's a conceit that only sort of works, as in a scene where Norma Jean comforts Marilyn after she has a miscarriage (while married to Arthur Miller), or while she is fighting with newlywed husband Joe DiMaggio, while they are living in San Francisco —Norma Jean says all the things Marilyn is thinking but dare not say.

The movie was based on a book by Ted Jordan, Norma Jean: My Secret Life with Marilyn Monroe — yet another person (like Robert Slatzer) who has claimed more than twenty years after Marilyn died to have been a life-long intimate of the star. Jordan is played by Josh Charles in the film. His character keeps turning up, much like Judd's, but he is supposed to be real, not fantasy. The makers of Norma Jean and Marilyn want the viewer to believe that Marilyn was just nuts, and would inevitably end up just like her mad mother Gladys and grandmother Della, who she visited as a child in sanatoriums. But Marilyn hardly knew her grandmother, who died the year after she was born, and not from mental illness, but from died from cardiac disease.

Not surprisingly, Norma Jean and Marilyn gets the facts of Marilyn's early childhood completely mixed up. She is portrayed as living with her mother as a child, but Gladys placed her infant baby with a foster family, the highly religious Bolenders, where she lived from babyhood until she was about seven years old. Gladys would visit her occasionally on weekends. When Norma Jean was seven Gladys lived with her briefly, for a few months, before she had a nervous breakdown. Norma Jean is also shown as being the victim of sexual abuse, which may very well be true, but not while she was living with the Bolenders, as depicted in the film. None of this matters really, except if Jordan claims to have known the "real" Marilyn, he certainly doesn't have his facts straight.

Ashley Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn
Both Judd's Norma Jean and Sorvino's Marilyn are haunted by memories of abuse and abandonment. Marilyn is shown popping pills, but that is shown as a byproduct of her mental problems rather than vice/versa. Both actresses do as good a job as they can with the poor material. Sorvino gets Marilyn's on screen voice pitch-perfect, but she didn't do the Gentleman Prefer Blondes delivery in her private life. Sorvino doesn't open her eyes wide enough to truly capture Marilyn. Judd manages to show her flirtatious and vivacious side.

For an actress who brought so much joy and humor to her roles, Norma Jean and Marilyn is a bit of a drag. We all know where her story is headed, but she must have had some fun times, too. The one exception is a funny scene, set when Marilyn was filming Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She twists her ankle and doesn't want to work (this actually happened during the filming of River of No Return). Producer Zanuck and Director Howard Hawks don't want her to miss any time on the set, so they have the studio doctor shoot her up with a potent painkiller. The result is an amusing, hallucinatory scene where she imagines Zanuck and Hawks doing the "Two Little Girls from Little Rock" number, in the same red sequined costumes she and Jane Russell wore in the film.

Norma Jean and Marilyn also perpetuates the Kennedy hand-off, with Jack having Bobby blow off Marilyn for him and then decide he'd like a crack at her. In 1996 it must have seemed a cutting edge, risky scene, but more recent writings about Marilyn have noted her contact was with John F. Kennedy only, and probably very limited, to just a few brief encounters. The only interesting thing that I came away with from watching this film was the reminder that Marilyn's vulnerability went two ways. It's frequently stressed that Marilyn was always searching for a surrogate family in her life, which may have been true, or just habit, from her many youthful years being shuttled about. But conversely, so many people and families who met her also wanted to take her in. Marilyn was not meant for a conventional life.
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