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Thursday, February 24, 2011


In the larger-than-life land of La La, one would expect every interaction between celebrities to be as dramatic and cataclysmic as on the big screen. Sometimes, they are, but mostly they are just downright comical. Here are a few of the most infamous and entertaining tales of movie star meetings:

Young ingenue, Marilyn Monroe.

When Marilyn Monroe was a young, hopeful starlet just starting out in Hollywood, she used to make the rounds at various cocktail parties and shindigs. Sometimes, this was merely part of the job description-- being paid to smile at executives while handing out cigarettes-- and other times it was part of her ploy to meet as many important people as possible and get her name and face out there. Well, her gorgeous face did catch the eye of many men, one of whom was so taken with her that he asked her to sit down beside him on the staircase, where he was getting sloppy drunk. After introducing himself in the distinguished and sardonic voice that she recognized, Marilyn told him her name as well. He then surprisingly asked her to marry him, to which she politely answered "No." He took the rebuff admirably, responding that he understood her hesitancy to marry an actor for "An actor is not quite a human being-- but then, who is?" Then, he passed out right next to her in an abrupt snore. Ironically, Marilyn would meet George Sanders again when they performed in All About Eve together, one of her big career-boosting films. In it, they would share another scene on a staircase.

Marilyn and George Sanders relive the old days
in a scene from All About Eve.

Marilyn's meeting with Bette Davis was not as hilarious as her interlude with the humorously snide Sanders. A huge fan of Bette's, Marilyn was nervous to meet her for the first time on Eve, but she tried to impart her deep appreciation for her work. Bette, being Bette, saw only a beautiful tart who, to her, was just one of a zillion pretty faces trying to make it in Hollywood. To a great actress like herself, Marilyn was a hack-- a little girl who just wanted to be famous and had no respect for the art of performance. For this reason, Bette shunned her, although that may too have had a lot to do with her own insecurity and the fact that she was being eclipsed by a younger, more beautiful woman. Throughout the shoot, Marilyn would overhear Bette taking out her wrath, most particularly during the theater lobby scene. Between takes, Bette could be heard saying (purposely loud enough for Marilyn to hear ),"That little blonde slut can't act her way out of a paper bag!" Such altercations depleted Marilyn's confidence and increased her terror of the infamous Bette. In the end, Marilyn had the last laugh, for although Bette churned out another flawless performance, Marilyn stole every scene she was in (as seen left). The camera loved Diva Davis, but it was in love with Monroe.

Ava Gardner (right) had a meeting with Bette that was not completely dissimilar. Ava was also agog at the movie queen's power. When she met her at a particular soiree, she told Bette that she was truly honored to meet her. Again, Bette raised the classic eyebrow, but perhaps sensing that Ava had a great deal more bite than the timid Marilyn, she offered only the crack:  "Of course you are," and walked off. (Bette is perhaps the only woman in history who can be perfectly bitchy and still perfect).

Bad, bad Bette.

Bette's meetings with men were different. A bit of a sexual tigress, Bette enjoyed the company of attractive leading men like Paul Henreid or George Brent. However, during her early film days, she often complained that she was cast opposite lackluster actors-- rising stars who had not yet reached their summit. She felt snubbed and craved an actor with whom she could go mono e mono. For this reason, she was ecstatic when she learned that she would be starring opposite the great Charles Boyer in All This and Heaven Too. Finally! A handsome talent that she could sink her teeth into. However, on the first day she was to perform opposite Charles, Bette was confused. She scanned the set, but didn't see him anywhere. When she saw a pudgy, balding Frenchman intruding on the sound stage, she tried to have him removed, only to discover that he was, in fact, Charles Boyer! Turns out that good ol' Chuck had to wear a toupee and a girdle for his film roles to appear more dashing, making his offscreen appearance almost unrecognizable. Shocked, Bette didn't think she could feign attraction to, well, a schlub! But, in a magical way that only the classy Boyer could do, he was able to transform into a heroic, charming, and handsome romantic as soon as the director called "action." Bette had no further complaints.

Ironically, Bette was to play the more matronly character
in All This and Heaven Too opposite an elegant Boyer.

Another case of mistaken identity occurred for Grace Kelly. She and Cary Grant became great chums on the set of To Catch a Thief (left). For this reason, Cary decided to invite her to a party being thrown by Aristotle Onassis on his yacht. The two arrived together, with Cary looking his usual, elegant self, but Grace looked more like a school teacher in her casual wear and thick eyeglasses. As glamorous as she was onscreen, away from the cameras she was down-to-earth and shy, becoming somewhat of a wallflower. An unaffected person, her beauty was something she merely turned on when necessary, not something she luxuriated in. For this reason, Onassis didn't even recognize the great movie goddess! When she and Cary made their exit, Onassis pulled Cary aside and thanked him for coming. He also told him to feel free to bring his charming "secretary" along again next time. That he did, for Cary and Grace remained close pals until her untimely death.

Groucho Marx (right) also had a bit of trouble recognizing a certain actress the first time they met, but for very different reasons. While in the Thalberg building, Groucho once entered the elevator to find it inhabited by a woman with a very large hat. From what he could make out of her profile, she looked familiar. Was it? Could it be? Not one to be shy, the funny man reached over, lifted the woman's hat, and took a peek. Sure enough, it was Greta Garbo. You couldn't mistake a mug like that! Of course, being the aloof and socially awkward woman that she was, Greta offered little in the way of conversation. Thus, to neutralize the situation, Groucho simply said: "I'm terribly sorry, but I thought you were a fellow I knew from Kansas City."

Greta ponders Groucho's quip.

Some of the most interesting cases of star meetings occur on the set. When paired up for the first-- and sometimes only-- time, the nature of an introduction says a lot about the relationship two actors are to have with each other. When Clark Gable finally and begrudgingly took on the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, the punctual pro was irritated that his leading lady was late to their first publicity photo shoot. Pacing back and forth, he muttered to the photographer something to the effect of, "Where the Hell is this lady? If this is the way she works, I'll walk off right now!" Suddenly, ringing out behind him as clear as bell, came a sweet, English voice saying, "I quite agree, Mr. Gable...  I'd tell that Vivien Leigh to go straight back to England and f*ck herself!" Clark turned around to see his stunningly beautiful co-star, Vivien, and offered her a big grin. All anger was forgotten, and after taking her hand, he led her to their place in front of the camera and started the romance to crush all movie romances (left). Their relationship remained contentious: one minute they were locking horns about a scene and the next they were playing Battleship together.

Katharine Hepburn had wanted to act with Spencer Tracy for some time by the time they were both cast in Woman of the Year (right). Kate had great respect for Spencer's straight-shooter acting style, and-- though a confident lady herself-- she was surprisingly nervous the first time the two were to meet. Prior to shooting the film, Kate happened to be on the backlot when she bumped into Spencer and Joseph L. Mankiewicz on the stairs. After an initial "Hello, nice to meet you," Kate, who was in heels, found herself surprisingly tougue tied, and after referencing their upcoming film together, she spit out: "I'm sorry, with these shoes I'm afraid I'll be a bit tall for you." Spencer just mulled her over, not saying a word, trying to make out the strange but intriguing woman in front of him. Finally, Joe piped in with, "Don't worry, he'll cut you down to size." Indeed he did. The confusion and butterflies initially felt turned to love once the cameras rolled.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are remembered as one of the greatest film teams of all time, portraying most infamously the madcap couple Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man series (left). Their initial meeting was just as chaotic and hilarious as any of their crime solving buffoonary. Things were moving rapidly their first day of shooting on Manhattan Melodrama. In fact, the two didn't even have time to be properly introduced by W.S. Van Dyke before they were rushed into "take one." In the scene, Myrna's character was to rush into Powell's cab, so William sat waiting in the car for her to enter. Van Dyke called "action," but instead of saying the written lines when Myrna entered, William quipped: "Miss Loy, I presume?" Myrna burst out laughing. The two became fast friends, and the wisecracks and hijinks ensued throughout their numerous films together.

A less gentlemanly handshake occurred when legendary screen siren Joan Crawford met hot new leading man John Garfield. The two were assigned to do Humoresque (right), a film about a wealthy patroness and her kept man/musician. The lusty Joan was excited to work with John, who had become the talk of the town with his bold and earthy characterizations. When introduced their first day on the film, Joan held out her hand saying, "It's very nice to meet you." John responded by reaching out and pinching her breast. A moment of silence passed. Joan then calmly looked up, met John's gaze, and responded: "You know, I think we're going to get on just fine." That they did, performing superbly and sensuously on film and off, enjoying a brief and amicable affair. Only in Hollywood...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Something's Got to Give and It Ain't Cleopatra

During the last gasps of the studio era, there were no bigger stars than Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Both talented, beautiful women and indomitable forces, these ladies were greatly valued by the studios for their box-office appeal. Their roller-coaster love lives and love/hate relationships with the tabloids also bound them together in a kind of celebrity sisterhood. Aside from this, two women never had less in common. This would become blatantly obvious during the Twentieth-Century Fox cataclysm of 1962 when the faltering studio's prayers for salvation rested on these two stars and their respective projects. While Liz drained the Nile dry in Egypt (actually Rome), Marilyn's illness infected the lot at home, and Fox could only pray that box-office receipts would recoup their almost unfathomable financial losses when Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director of Cleopatra) and George Cukor (director on Something's Got to Give) finally called "cut." This was not to be. The Fates were against the Goddesses this time, and the Moguls would pay the forfeit. In history, Liz Taylor is remembered in this debacle as the frothy shewolf who ate up Twentieth-Century for breakfast, but at the time is was Marilyn Monroe who was held up as the sacrificial lamb, publicly blamed for the collapse of yet another Hollywood empire. As in most cases, it is always the drama behind the scenes that is most riveting. Today's Movie: The Buck Stops Here. The Stars: Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Aaaaand, action!!!

Fox needed a hit. A Supreme Court decision had abolished studio-owned theater monopolies in 1948, cutting profits in half. In addition, the phenomenon of television continued to thrive and keep viewers at home. Cinema was hurting. Twentieth even had to sell the land on its backlot to real estate developers to stay afloat: thus, when you're shopping at Century City Mall, you're actually walking on the sacred ground that was once Fox Studios. The idea to re-vamp the all time vamp Theda Bara's Cleopatra (left) was not a new one in 1959. Cecil B. Demille had already done so with the help of Claudette Colbert back in 1934 and George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra was translated to film with the help of Vivien Leigh and Claude Raines in 1945. When producer Walter Wanger suggested that the time had come for yet another makeover of one of history's most notorious vixens, it seemed like a surefire success. Love, tragedy, war, sex, betrayal: it was a soap on wheels! Originally, the budget was a minimal one, with the studio hoping to produce an attractive, cheaply made B-movie to reel in major profits. Because of this, relatively unknown newcomers were suggested for the lead. Joanne Woodward's name came up, but it appeared that Joan Collins would be crowned as the chosen Egyptian deity. However, Wanger had envisioned a much more elaborate production; an epic no less. He wanted to make the movie to top all movies, one that he proposed could save Twentieth. Using set design artists to woo the money men, elaborate sketches were prepared to lure them into his dream. Surprisingly, President Spyros Skouras signed on. Thus, out of a small idea and a story as old as time itself would grow one of moviedom's greatest monstrosities.

Now that the picture was given the green light, Director Rouben Mamoulian was tasked with giving life to the old Bara film. The script was dated, appearing nearly like parchment itself when unearthed for editing, and it needed hefty revisions. Nunnally Johnson was one of many writers who contributed to sprucing it up. In the lead roles, Peter Finch was cast as Caesar, Stephen Boyd as Antony, and after discussing Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren as Cleopatra, Wanger put in his vote for Elizabeth Taylor, recently released from her MGM contract and for the first time working as a free agent. Not everyone was in favor of this idea. Liz (right) was not only a contractual liability, being constantly ill, but she was also going through one of her fan slumps. After the death of her husband, producer Mike Todd, Liz had found comfort in the arms of friend Eddie Fisher, snatching him out from under Debbie Reynolds's unsuspecting nose. She was almost unanimously declared a homewrecker. Still, few women packed the power or punch of Liz in those days, and this alone was enough to suggest that only she,  the diva extraordinaire, could portray a woman who had once been the most powerful female in the world. Liz herself had doubts. For this reason, when 20th called with the offer, Liz told new hubby Eddie to ask for $1,000,000. No one was more surprised than she when she got it. Or was she? A savvy business woman, Liz knew her star power. Uncertain whether or not she really wanted the role, she took a gamble and won big, becoming the first performer to earn a mil' for one role. She would make further stipulations in her contract that offered her additional income: the implementation of her deceased husband's groundbreaking, wide-angle camera, the Todd-AO, for which she too got royalties. Crafty, crafty.

For the time being, this all seemed like chump change. All the money the studio was sure to make off the film would more than make up for these early, lush expenditures. Oh, naive vanity. When cameras started rolling at Pinewood Studios in London (left) in September of 1960, the film was almost immediately doomed. For starters, the weather was horrendous. London was no Egypt. The rainy weather caused the elaborate sets to peel, the transported tropical vegetation had to be replenished almost daily as it died, and the weather too was wreaking havoc on Liz's frail health. She was able to appear in some wardrobe tests but overall was absent from the entire shoot. Mamoulian was forced to shoot around her, focusing on Finch and Boyd, but there was little to be done without the central character. When Liz's illness lapsed into pneumonia and induced a coma, she lay at the brink of death at her hotel. Luckily, a doctor was attending a party in another guest's room and was found, brought to her bedside, and able to stabilize her until an ambulance was summoned. An emergency tracheotomy was performed, the scar from which can be seen in the subsequent film. It was just disaster upon disaster. Mamoulian eventually walked when Finch and Liz continued to complain about the poor nature of the almost juvenile script, leaving the film with no director. As per Liz's contract, she would approve but two replacements: George Stevens or Joseph L. Mankiewicz,  the latter of whom she had just worked on Suddenly Last Summer. It was Joe who got the job. This big coup in addition to Liz's survival after her brush with death, which brought back a wave of fan sympathy, made it seem like Cleopatra still had a shot at being a success. Joe moved the set to Rome and began re-writing the script himself. Act Two was about to begin.

More drama followed as the film was pushed into production. Hard-working pro Mankiewicz, a wizard both with the camera and with words, wasn't even halfway finished with the script when he was forced to start filming. He was therefore stuck shooting all day and writing all night, kept awake with a series of drugs that left him an overworked zombie. Forced to shoot in sequence as a result, certain actors sat around while being paid with nothing to do, and already built sets were left vacant and un-utilized. Fox was bleeding money. The cast had also changed, as the months that had lapsed between the initial call to action and the current production had taken Finch and Boyd out of the running. Joe happily called upon friend Rex Harrison to take on the role of Caesar, and Fox bought out Richard Burton's stage contract on "Camelot" to win him over as Antony. It was a steal, or so they thought. The soon shocking love affair of Liz and Dick (right) caused enough of a scandal to earn even the Pope's wrath. Liz too was enjoying the luxuries of her own house-sized dressing room, gallons of champagne, and her favorite chili delivered all the way from Chasen's in West Hollywood, all at Fox's expense. This, in addition to the exotic costuming of 1000s of extras and the intricately designed and detailed sets, led to Cleopatra costing $70,000 a day alone to produce. Spyros Skouras was sweating bulletts, Liz and Dick were drawing tabloid ire, and Mankiewicz was left nearly crippled when one of his daily injections hit a sciatic nerve. However, the film had become too expensive to just drop. Fox needed another savior. Their only other bankable star was called upon to save them with a quick, fun romantic comedy. Act Three-- Iris in, Enter: Marilyn Monroe.

Fox again went digging for a script in their vault that could quickly and efficiently be produced and rushed into theaters. The success of My Favorite Wife in 1940 suggested that a slightly modernized re-write with Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, and Cyd Charisse would fare equally well, if not better, at the box-office. However, there were the same hesitations: Marilyn was notorious for holding up productions with her lateness, which resulted from her insomnia, which resulted from her nerves, stresses, and performance jitters. Still, the studio was forced to hedge its bets, and they decided to roll the dice once more with their most famous star. They were right to worry, for almost from the beginning, things went sour. A power struggle was constantly ensuing between director and star. Initially, Nunnally Johnson was called in (yet again) to help with rewrites of the script. Marilyn approved of this, as she had enjoyed working with Nunnally on How to Marry a Millionaire. Nunnally was attentive to Marilyn's own ideas and was ably trying to tailor her character specifically for her. Cukor, however, was not happy. He wanted to maintain the charm of the original 1940 film, and effectively had Nunnally replaced by his own choice, Walter Bernstein. Marilyn took the snub admirably, but was to suffer another one. At a phenomenal wardrobe test in April (left), in which Marilyn looked fresh, beautiful, and softer than ever before, Cukor was noticeably absent. Not much later, producer Henry Weinstein, who had replaced Cukor's friend David Brown, had to suffer the shock of finding Marilyn in the throes of an accidental overdose, from which she quickly bounced back. In fact, many marveled at the seemingly unfazed way her doctors reacted to what must have been a regular occurrence. Indeed, the suffocating nature of her relationships with both her psychiatrist Dr. Greenson and her acting coach Paula Strasberg would be future matters for the production to contend with. Cukor abhorred Paula's presence and executives were a little unsettled at the way Greenson, a shrink, was handling Marilyn's business affairs. He at one point assured them during a moment of hesitation not to worry because he could "convince Marilyn to do anything." Prior to the first day of shooting, Marilyn attended a script meeting, then flew to New York for a private acting class with Lee Strasberg, from whom she sought advice for her character. Unfortunately, she returned to Los Angeles with more than Lee's counsel; she too caught his cold.

For weeks, Marilyn was unable to come to work. Diagnosed with chronic sinusitis by the studio's own doctor, Lee Siegel, Fox thought it was just a case of the actress crying wolf. However, many saw her struggling-- blinded by headaches, shaking with chills, and barely able to rise to her feet. Her housekeeper Eunice Murray witnessed her waking up in cold sweats, and her own chauffeur sent her back into the house when he saw how ill she was. Head of Production Peter Levathes himself bore witness to her poor health, and tried to have the production pushed back until she was fully recovered. A resounding "No" echoed through the vacant Fox back lot. In the meantime, as during Liz's illness on Cleopatra, Cukor was forced to shoot around Marilyn. He did scenes with Dean and Cyd, scenes with the child actors, the supporting cast, whatever he could. Marilyn, who was eager to begin working, finally forced herself to come to set, though her initial attempts resulted in collapse. In later years, certain members of the cast and crew would maintain that Marilyn was not, nor did she ever appear, ill, which added to the false perception that her entire illness had been contrived. It had not. However, the studio had started administering drugs, given by Siegel, to get her going. Marilyn was giving daily injections-- "hot shots"-- of amphetamines. So, when Marilyn arrived to set, ready and glowing, people did not realize the true source. The drugs masked her symptoms and implied a picture of health. However, there were also witnesses who saw Marilyn faint on the set under the strain or witnessed her trying to psyche herself up in a corner, barely able to stand, because she was light-headed and dizzy.

The infamous kiss heard 'round the world.

It is interesting to note the strange similarities both films exhibited. Both sets were plagued by chronically ill female stars, who, as annoying as they may have been to executives, were legitimately unwell. Whether or not these ladies were able to psychosomatically induce sickness, which almost seems possible, does not deter in either event from the fact that they were indeed almost deathly ill at various stages of shooting. (Another parallel is that both Liz and Marilyn were raised with a background in Christian Science, and though Marilyn in particular did not adhere to this religion, the effects of the power of mind over body is evident in both of their lives. Suspiciously, whenever plagued by doubt, insecurity, or sometimes plain stubbornness, their health with give out in unison with their waning spirits). However, pros that they were, they both managed to muddle through the shoots, even triumph, doing impressive work-- though the use of drugs on both parts, and sometimes alcohol, helped to carry out this chore. For her part, Liz Taylor's behavior induced Fox to have an ambulance always parked nearby on "suicide watch" as her relationship with Burton grew increasingly tumultuous.

Both films were also driven by almost maniacally detailed directors. Cukor (right with Marilyn) insisted that the set be designed to mirror his own lush abode-- the same pleasure palace designed by William Haines-- and saw that every aspect, down to the exact shade of green on the trees, was the same. He too was suffering the physically debilitating effects of one of his crash diets-- aka starvation. For his part, Mankiewicz was working overtime, equally driving himself to a mental and physical breakdown, and essentially performing the duties of producer, director, and writer. The overly ornate designs of the Cleopatra sets, which he made sure appeared authentic, were diligently and expensively crafted-- some with pure gold leaf. The Roman Forum was designed to be three times its actual size, because even that wasn't deemed grand enough. Every aspect, down to the smallest walking stick had to be extravagant, and most of these details were only seen for a fraction of a second, if they remained in the final cut at all. However, despite all of Joe's stresses, he was never tyrannical on the set. Cukor on the other hand, who had not gotten along with Marilyn since their Let's Make Love days, took an uncharacteristic and almost sick pride in demeaning his lead actress and blaming her for every little thing that went wrong, though footage shows her maintaining her composure far more often than he.

Liz "arrives" in Rome.

Sex was also a common denominator. Many people recalled the day that Richard Burton marched onto set with a devilish grin and proudly announced: "Well, I finally f*cked Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!" Martin Landau, who must have missed this press release, was however present when the still married Richard strutted into wardrobe and surprisingly laid a wet one on the still married Taylor-- to which Landau internally exhaled an "Uh oh..." For some time, studio heads were fearful that Liz's star power would diminish under the swell of growing public hatred against both herself and Burton. Despite Joe Mankiewicz's feeble attempt to calm the storm with his crack that it was actually he with whom Richard was really in love-- resulting in Richard arriving to work and too laying a wet one on Joe-- the Vatican proclaimed Liz a "whore," the US Congress tried to have her dual citizenship (she was born in England) revoked, and Skouras feared that ticket sales would continue the anti-Liz onslaught. However, when Cleopatra's grand entrance to Rome was filmed-- one of the most awe-inspiring moments in cinematic history-- Liz triumphed yet again. The Italian extras were supposed to scream "Cleopatra!" But instead, they screamed "Liz! Liz! Baci Baci!" (Baci meaning "kisses"). It was at this moment too that many believe Richard Burton truly fell in love with his Queen, for in seeing her incredible hold over the public, he witnessed a force that nearly brought him to his own knees. He went from being the man that was sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor to the man who was infatuated with her. Thus, when Liz bows to Caesar and rises with a smile, her simple wink speaks volumes. Liz the tigress had prevailed.

Marilyn's sexual shenanigans also foiled the set of Something's Got to Give, however her great "arrival" occurred on the stage of Madison Square Garden for President Kennedy's birthday gala on May 19, 1962 (left). Upsetting Cukor and the other execs by skipping out of the shoot to attend the illustrious celebration, Marilyn was assured by Bobby Kennedy himself that the problem would be solved. It was a promise the hot-headed younger brother wouldn't keep. However, the cleverly orchestrated idea to have Marilyn sing a seductive rendition of "Happy Birthday" (complete in a barely there Jean Louis dress) to JFK was not a moment to propel her to the heights of stardom, as Liz's affair with Burton seemed to. It was instead conceived to publicly ridicule her and announce her as the lusty and misogynistic Prez's sexual plaything. In a brash move, JFK had inflated his ego by having his mistress all but publicly announce their affair. He had even given Marilyn private instructions over the phone on how he wanted the song performed. Marilyn knew that she was taking a gamble, even acknowledging the fact that she was about to make a fool of herself before she walked on stage, but she was so in love with and infatuated with Jack Kennedy that she let her need to please and be loved overshadow her reason. The result has remained one of the longest running jokes in history, and it is sad that after Marilyn had worked so hard to rebuild her image as a serious actress, she had all but annihilated such a prospect by illustrating herself once again as nothing but the embodiment of sexual desire. Her absence from the film set to perform this infamous song both infuriated the studio and sent shock waves through the nation. After this, Marilyn's days on Something's Got to Give were numbered.

36 and not too shabby.

Marilyn returned to a hostile setting, drawing antipathy for yet another absence when she failed to report for work after the party. She feared that she looked too tired after her whirlwind trip. This angered Cukor, but was rational on Marilyn's part. Knowing the effect fatigue would have on her beauty, and thus her fans, she used her clout to rest up so she could return only when refreshed and beautiful. When Dean Martin came to work ill, Marilyn too refused to work with him for fear that his health would again impair her own. Irrational as her behavior may have seemed to those on the other side of the camera, all was forgiven when Marilyn bared all for her infamous nude swim, enduring four hours in the water, shivering all the while . Even George Cukor, not Marilyn's biggest fan, behaved like a kid at a candy store when this actress did what she did best: exude sex appeal, beauty, and charm. After this success, Marilyn had a mysterious weekend. She returned on Monday, May 27th, a shell of a woman. There has been much debate over what happened, why she could barely remember her lines, why she seemed completely unglued... Many assumed that it had something to do with her relationship with Jack  Kennedy, who it was theorized had finally severed their relationship. Marilyn's only answer was scrawled on her dressing room mirror in lipstick: "Frank, help me!" Frank meaning Frank Sinatra. Dean himself kicked everyone out of her dressing room and tried to get to the root of his friend's problem. She was finally sent home. Footage shot that day was destroyed by Cukor, who knew how damaging the drug-addled performance would be to his star-- nemesis though she may have been. After pulling herself together and completing a few more successful scenes, Marilyn celebrated her 36th birthday early on June 1st with a decidedly modest party on the set. Cukor refused a real party, but was finally forced to acquiesce to a cake and birthday card after all the day's shooting had completed. The card read "Happy Birthday (Suit)."

That evening, Marilyn went to a fundraiser for muscular dystrophy at Dodger Stadium. After being out in the cold weather all night, Marilyn's health collapsed once again. She relapsed and was unable to report to work the next day. This was the last straw. Marilyn Monroe was fired. Of course, the reasons behind this were more than her supposedly temperamental behavior. In retrospect, Marilyn was not causing any more trouble in LA than Liz was in Rome. Liz too was chronically late, chronically ill, and worse-- chronically arriving to set drunk as a skunk after lunch with Richard. The costs of filming Something's Got to Give were far from the exorbitant expenditures of Cleopatra. The simple fact was that Fox had mismanaged its money, had poured too much into Cleopatra, and Something's Got to Give became the easier project to dismantle. There had in fact been several failed attempts to fire Liz, but she somehow always got out if it, much to the confusion of the executives. Marilyn instead was the one to fall. If ever there was anything to snap Marilyn back into gear, it was the fear of losing her career (she fights back in a strategic George Barris photo, right). After the studio started planting false and salacious articles in the press, claiming that Marilyn was both incoherent on the set, a drug addict, and mentally unstable, Marilyn rebelled. Footage and outtakes of the remains of Something's Got to Give are enough to refute these claims. Marilyn was present and focused on set, normally moreso than Cukor himself. The press release infamously issued by the crew of Something's Got to Give, thanking Marilyn for the loss of their "livelihoods," was yet another false scheme. Horrified by the news, Marilyn issued apologies to all involved. However, no member of the crew knew anything about the statement. It was a planted ploy of Fox to turn the public against its former star. Marilyn had become their scapegoat, but it had been their own mismanagement that was primarily to blame for the film's failure. When Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak both turned down Marilyn's role out of respect and Lee Remick was announced as her replacement, Dean Martin walked off the set. Without Marilyn, there was no Dean, and no movie.

After forming her own publicity campaign to repair the damage that was being done, Marilyn won her fans back to her side as she always had. She was even able to enlist the help of Fox figurehead Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck had been increasingly angered by his studio's gross misconduct, which had impeded the completion of his own masterpiece, The Longest Day, at that time filming in Europe. Zanuck had never been Marilyn's biggest fan, but he at least was able, shrewd businessman that he was, to know the true culprit for the catastrophes of both Cleopatra and Something's Got to Give. As Cleopatra inched closer to completion, after years of hard work, and with Liz Taylor banking $7,000,000 total for her work on the film-- the extra dough resulting from overtime-- Zanuck decided to fly back to America, regain control of his studio, and get Something's Got to Give back up and running-- with Marilyn in the lead. Thus, mere weeks after she was fired, Marilyn got her job back. Unfortunately, she did not live to finish it. Her death was announced to the world on August 6, 1962.

This mural originally only showed Liz and Dick, but
Rex's contract demanded that he be painted in as well.

Cleopatra would finally conquer, wrapping on July 28, 1962. The movie, originally intended to be two separate films: Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra was cut from 6 hours to 4. Reviews were mixed, with some calling it a triumph and others calling it a "monumental mouse." Fans still came out in droves, proving that Liz and Dick's allure and the public's fascination with them had not wavered. However, theaters were only able to show the film once a night due to its length, meaning that it was only bringing in half of an average film's revenue. For this reason, Zanuck ordered more cuts, bringing the film down to somewhere around three hours. Elizabeth Taylor saw this version when it premiered in London. And threw up. Cleopatra is recalled as one of Hollywood's greatest flops, but in truth it was not. It fared well at the box office, but recouping the film's incredible costs was not something easily done. It wouldn't be until future re-releases and DVD sales that it could completely make up for Twentieth-Century's losses. It went on to win four Academy Awards, and is at least successful in that it is still notoriously recalled today. As for Fox, Zanuck was able to slowly bring it out of its slump and enjoyed another hey-day with the smash success of The Sound of Music.

In the battle of Liz vs. Marilyn, there were no real winners nor losers. Both films, though one incomplete, had moments of brilliance and folly. Marilyn, who longed to be, yet never was able to become, a mother in her private life, is both vibrant and tender in her interaction with the actors playing her children in Something's Got to Give. Her new found sophistication and maturity also present an intriguing and distinguished Marilyn Monroe, one far removed from the elegant yet cheesecake Marilyn of the past. Liz, for her part, possesses both the brass and the class to portray the Queen of the Nile, and though the overly long and melodramatic scenes can lag on the viewer, by the time Cleopatra nears its end, there is a quietness and a dignity present in the defeated ruler and a palpable pain in her sacrificed love. 

It is strange how two such women, equal in stature, parallel in tragedy, and dissimilar in persona, were so closely linked for a brief time. Battling it out for survival-- not their own, but their studio's-- only one would even survive the task. Ironically, Marilyn had lobbied for the role of Cleopatra when the film was but a whisper of an idea years before it was produced, but despite her many talents, Marilyn lost out to Liz's more guttural snarl. This, among other things, is why Liz was for the most part able to triumph where Marilyn failed. Marilyn, impassioned  and shrewd as she was about her career, lacked the killer instinct that could keep her in an impenetrable position of power. Both women were able to get what they wanted, but Marilyn lacked the ability to hold onto it for an uninterrupted passage of time. This fact was evidenced by the ladies themselves at a party thrown by Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. The two gals had never gotten along too well, perhaps jealous of each other and rightly sensing the threat of an equally beautiful, equally bankable female star. At the party, Marilyn became drunk and was wobbling around unsteadily, causing much concern and annoyance from friend and sometimes lover Frank. In a statement that said more than even she knew, Elizabeth declared to an observing reporter: "Marilyn shouldn't drink if she can't hold her liquor. I know how to hold my liquor." With that, she kicked her head back and took a big swig of her martini. She partied on long after Marilyn was carried upstairs to bed.

Long live the Queen...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

PERSONAL NOTE: YouTube Killed the Movie Star

Marilyn Monroe: The last movie star and the only performer
who could inspire a 52-foot replica of herself in Time Square.

I'm calm, okay? But... has the world gone mad?!?! Too often of late, I have gone to the movies, more out of habit than out of actual inclination, only to be disappointed. Dismally. Do I care about what I'm watching? No. Am I interested in what's happening? No. Do I relate to the actors on the screen? No, no, no. There is much flash, but little substance. Much "pretty," but no gritty. Recycled stories and themes and modus operandi have left me feeling like Malcolm MaDowell in A Clockwork Orange, with wires holding my eyes open while a series of the usual images plays on a loop: fire, tits, and spaceships. Riveting. It seems ironic that in the days since we liberated ourselves from the manufacturing mania of the Studio System, our films, stories, and celebrities seem to be more contrived, convoluted, and schmaltzy than ever. How did this happen, and why God why do we keep continuing the madness instead of nipping it in the bud? Pardon me while I ruminate:

The movies are based upon one thing: communication. As an early art form, the excitement of cinema was its availability. Unlike the Mona Lisa, a piece of legendary art that sits forlornly at the Louvre in Paris-- where sadly the majority of the world will never go-- the movies are not, nor have they ever been, elusive. Every class, every color, every creed, every language in every region of the world had access to a moving piece of the human discussion. For a nickel (Man, those were the days), even the most impoverished American could afford a seat in a world that offered limitless possibilities and continuous entertainment. As a nation, as a species, we were all invited to bask in our dreams, which the movies taught us that we all shared. Cinema thus became the great unifier--a small innovation of science that slowly grew into a medium through which art could recreate man in the flickering image of himself.

Man's first Trip to the Moon in 1902.

We chose early on those few reappearing faces that we would trust with such a responsibility-- those who did it better than anyone else and spoke to us and for us with an ease we could depend on and luxuriate in. And they were real people, just like us-- most of whom were inexperienced nobodies simply looking for a job and willing to make buffoons of themselves for the latest quack invention. So, out of nameless faces were born Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, William S. Hart, and Rin Tin Tin. For a decade or so, we tinkered with the camera until we developed ways to tell compelling and cohesive stories. D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning, and King Vidor were but a few of the pioneers guiding us to an authentic and emotional world. But always, there was an underlying truth. As the studios developed and moguls started building corporations out of the little art-form-that-could, things changed. The system was manipulated but still remained grand. With the talkie revolution, we latched onto newer stars, manufactured though they may be-- less real than those with whom we began. Hollywood's world became a little more glamorous. But, while we got to lavish in the splendor of the movie musical or the beauty of Ann Sheridan (right), still there was a gravity beneath the facade. While the publicity boys cranked out fake stories about the histories and present lives of a new breed of star, we were able to forgive the inaccurate polish of the film magazine covers, because we knew, once again, that the stars were just like us. Though, perhaps a little bit bigger and a little bit better. The performances we saw on the screen too echoed our own sentiments, apprehensions, and angers. Watching Clark Gable or James Cagney elbow their way through their film scripts as tough guys, bruisers, and sometimes overgrown children, permitted a mass of trampled on and confused people to exhale in a universal catharsis.

As WWII waged on, films, particularly those coming from MGM, started to become a little too predictable-- a little too sweet, a little too perfect. While, during the war years, these films served their purpose, a post-war return to normalcy required film personalities who better resembled the normal, average American. The pristine image of the nuclear family and the whistling down the apple blossomed streets of Andy Hardy weren't going to cut it anymore. Once again, we cried out for realism. Our prayers were answered by the Method actor: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Kim Hunter, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, (both left) etc, etc, etc. The rise of the "true" actor over the "movie star" came right at the collapse of the studio system and acted as a bridge to carry us over into a new generation of cinema; a new generation of human interpretation. Suddenly, a great divide between old-Hollywood and new-Hollywood took shape. The raw ferocity of the modern actor, devoted to telling the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, had to contend with the much adored yet fading alumni of the nostalgic studio era. Those who were most beloved could make it over the hurdle, either because they were naturally ahead of their time in terms of characterization-- like Katharine Hepburn or Gary Cooper-- or because they were willing to unlearn their old tricks for the new game of authenticity, like Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe is the last great movie star. The biggest movie star. She represents both the heights of studio produced star power and the transition to the actor star. She stands too as the greatest sacrifice of such an alteration, falling into the strange and indescribable black abyss between the "movie personality" and the "true artist." Though there were large names and memorable faces to follow hers, Marilyn alone stands as our great Christ symbol: she paid the price of stardom and sacrificed herself for our love and respect. What we responded to in Marilyn was not just her beauty but her genuineness. When people describe her as being likable for her vulnerability or her innocence, what they are truly referring to is her humanity. We loved her because she was larger than life and real-- a goddess you could reach out and touch. Marilyn's sadness was somehow always palpable, always present (as seen right). Whereas I am always in awe of the way Rita Hayworth could draw the shade and hide her inner sorrow from her screen performances, Marilyn could not do the same. Initially, she made a concerted effort to mask her complex nature behind her star-making doe-eyed stares, the sensuous movements of her mouth, or her infamous walk, but despite this, little Norma Jean was always there. Later, she used her personal torments and fears, the things that she had originally fought to disguise, to deepen her acting and her performances. She became the star who could act, and our love of her only increased when the little girl she had kept masked behind her caricatured performances was let loose into more complicated and interesting roles. The full-fledged, unadulterated, massively contrived, and absolutely magnificent movie star, thus, died when she did.

And where are we now? We never truly re-embraced the movie star. The Method actor film identity pretty well carried itself through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The personified bridges of John Garfield and Marilyn led to Brando and Clift, to De Niro and Streep (in Sophie's Choice, left). Bold films, soul-searching work, and socially provocative filmmaking enjoyed a hey-day. There were always the little token candy films, but they were overshadowed by Baby Doll, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, etc. In a society undergoing such turmoil as HUAC, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Kent State shootings, there were plenty of questions to ask, plenty of statements to make, and plenty of Hell to raise. Our movies were reflections of our own rebellion, our own quest for truth, deliverance, and maybe even peace-- learning to love, or learning to fight. Then, under the overly optimistic period of the 80s and the 90s, we were at peace enough in ourselves to let go of this angst. Again, we shunned truth and started asking for, at long last, a respite: entertainment. Thus the birth of the action star-- Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford-- the comedy star-- Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts-- and the provocative star-- William Hurt, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, etc. There was a bonus, because not only were these names and faces huge, inspiring us and taking us on journeys of imagination and heart, but the majority of them could act. Win-Win, as they say.

Now, as these names and faces age and our stars become relics or shocking jokes-- ah, Mel, why'd ya do it?-- we are left in a kind of artistic limbo. Predicting the next societal trend on the tried and true taste cycle of authenticity-glamour-authenticity-glamour, it appears that we are due for another bout of authenticity. Our solution? Reality Television. Our fault as a creative society is that we have failed to find a new way to push the envelope. How much better can acting get than what it has become? Can you beat Marlon? No, but you can find him in Daniel Day-Lewis. Aesthetically we are at a stalemate as well. How many new ways can you find to blow something up? Not many. The car chase was doomed after Steve McQueen rocked our world in Bullitt. Our solution to our thumb-twiddling in conjunction with the corporate "more is more" mentality is to just make... more: more of the same things that make money and more of everything in general. More graphics, more special effects, more sex, bigger guns, thinner women, bigger boobs, etc. (I mean, don't even get me started on that topic. The mere fact that a woman's body has become little more than an apology, tits on sticks if you will, is enough to make me rant on in a blog marathon). More, more, more. Forgive me Avatar fans, but though the movie had its merits, it was in the end just a giant visual experiment. Like too many films today, art was the excuse and not the agenda. It was a mind-blowing aesthetic achievement with a green story tagged on. But what else could Cameron do? He literally had to create a new world because this one is tired. How else could he expand on old methods? We're stuck my friends. Stuck.

Avatar: box-office bonanza starring... technology.

Thus, we have no one to look up to. So many faces, so many names, and none of them stick. No one matters. There are too many venues! This isn't the silent era: one theater in town and one or two releases a week, presenting a minimal chance at seeing a familiar face on the screen. This is YouTube, and NetFlix, and reality TV, and every schmo with a camera making a movie and posting it online. "Movies" are everywhere and made by everyone. Some angst ridden teen can post a ranting monologue about their day and how much homework "sucks" and get 5 million hits. We live in a world where someone named Snookie, Snookie for Chrissakes, gets more press than rising stars like Olivia Wilde or Andrew Garfield. In effect, modern narcissism has killed the movie star. We don't want to worship anyone, because we want to be worshipped. And we can be. Got a camera on your Mac? Record yourself, upload, done. You can sit back and watch yourself all day. Lucky you. Lucky universe. And don't even get me started on Facebook. Geez. I mean, I'm as guilty as anyone, uploading pictures, updating my status, but does anyone really care where I am at this second? Am I that important? Maybe I should Twitter that I'm eating a muffin right now. That's sure to impact a lot of lives. How important can one person be? And if I see one more teenage girl holding her camera at arms length and taking a picture of herself in sexy face, I'm going to scream. Or punch her. (Again, win-win). Don't worry sweetie, you're profile pic is super hot. Now, can you put your vanity away long enough to read a book? We are sick. As a society, as an industry, we're sick. If The Social Network-- the only socially significant movie made this year-- doesn't win the Academy Award for Best Picture then, well, I don't know what. I will probably tear my eyes out like Oedipus and throw myself down the Santa Monica steps.

Of course, this modern self-absorption all stems from insecurity. In comparing ourselves with the stars we (used to) adore, we fall short. We're too short, in fact; too fat, too ordinary. We feel compelled to become the images we see; to make the two-dimensional image in the mirror reflect the two-dimensional images on the magazine rack. Newsflash: that makes you two-dimensional too. Pretty, but pretty lifeless. When did it became a crime to be a human being? Aging is criminal. Flaws are criminal. We want to be stars! And guess what, now we are. We've turned the cameras around on ourselves to capture the purest brand of realism, feeding our insatiable need for glamour by becoming our own glamour-pusses. But everyone can't be a star, for the very idea makes such a thing obsolete, which leaves us with one conclusion: there are none. Not even the ones on TV or in the movies. There is no idolatry. There are occassional adolescent crushes, (Twilight, right) but there is no life in the movies, only death-- the decay of a once proud frontier. We continue perpetuating the issue instead of diagnosing the disease and curing it. I don't even go to the movies anymore because I want to. I go out of habit. Me. The lover of all things celluloid. Things are bad, people. Bad. Movies aren't magic anymore; they're manic, because studios are too desperate to sell, and we're so desperate we'll buy anything.

I used to think that movies were things of beauty. Now they're just things. This isn't about wanting to return to the perfect illusion/delusion of the studio days, but moreso to reconnect with the integrity of the human race. Nothing is being said anymore, because we have nothing to rebel against, rally for, fight for. Perhaps we're too safe. Our economic "depression" is nothing in comparison to the depression of the '30s. The dark, tormented characters that once reflected our own paranoid and conflicted natures are not present in today's cinema. Our ongoing "war" overseas is not one that unifies the community nor is it one that anyone seems to comprehend. There is no finite goal-- stop Hitler and his madness!-- and a call to arms is likewise vacant in movie theaters. In essence, it seems that nothing is really going on, and what is going on no one understands. So the questions is, is there too much chaos to sift through and we've given up, or are we actually sitting pretty and have no need to communicate the same angst as our forefathers and mothers? The suffragist movement, segregation, and genocide are at least hypothetically problems of the past. We're more concerned with waistlines, cup sizes, and the accumulation of stuff. If cinema is a reflection of its current society, it is no wonder that today projects a mish mash of blah blah blah. We're brain dead. We're in serious need of a wake-up call. It's literally raining dead birds on us, but meh... whatevs. The result of this is our need to invent cataclysmic conflicts via ad nauseum zombie movies, alien invasion movies, or the invasive 3D movies of late (barf aka please make this gimmick stop). We are desperate to be shaken up before our intellects forever pay the forfeit. Why not take this confusing and deceptively unproblematic time to push ourselves artistically? Why read US Magazine when you can read poetry? Why write smut when you can write prose? Why rehash the usual visual stimuli when you can provide an accurate description of our current world? Have we truly run out of things to say?

All I can say is, I'm sad. And I must admit that I am scared too. This Hollywood is not the same one I signed up for nearly six years ago when I made the voyage from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. Something has changed. I don't think we should have to sacrifice beauty, nor controversy, nor conversation to make a buck, particularly when the, I'm sorry, but "crap" I see being made doesn't compel me in the slightest to throw down $12 for a movie ticket. And, oh boy, trying to be an actress in this industry right now is like trying to swim in the Sahara. We're worth more than this. So, what are we afraid of? If Hollywood knew what was good for it, it would take itself apart brick by brick and start over. Return to the simplicity of the human heart, the human soul, and human nature in general. I feel like the Hollywood Wendell Berry, and it says alot when someone like me would rather churn butter than go to the damn theater. We're trying too hard. You don't have to search for intrigue; you don't have to use a lot of flash to gain attention. Today's directors are making a mistake. They aren't so much filmmakers as they are master manipulators, working out their own fantasies and obsessions on the screen, thus committing the ultimate betrayal: instead of holding a mirror up to society, they hold one up to their own egos. Insightful directors with distinct visions and voice-- the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Boyle-- are too few and far between. Self-absorption has killed unity. Has killed community. Not only are we cut off from our own humanity-- apologizing for ourselves with plastic surgery-- but we're cut off from each other-- texting and not speaking. How do we expect the movies to talk to us if we can't even talk to each other?

In Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino shows his love of film by paying tribute to and 
expanding upon multiple genres, such as Japanese Samurai films, 
Westerns, and even Anime.  

I don't know how the future generation will evolve and grow, how the industry will change in the coming years, but I pray for a renaissance. I hope to one day go to the theater and find myself so moved by what I see that I start applauding as the credits roll. Maybe I can clap myself back to life like Tinker Bell. Maybe we all can. While celebrity is a killer, it also serves a purpose. Our film and our stars didn't just give us something to look up to or aspire to, but they taught us to relate-- to look outside ourselves and find the beauty in others. I was not alive when Marilyn was. But I still miss her. And I'm angry that she's gone because, in some ways, I feel that the things that killed her are the very things currently controlling us. Excess. Politics. Desperation. Corruption. Abuse. Bull sh*t. Instead of drowning in pity for our departed martyrs, we should recognize the things that ended them. We should find a way to make an old thing new. We will never run out of stories, so let's stop telling the same ones over and over again. Let's stop selling ourselves short. Or selling ourselves period. Is this a completely outlandish concept? Am I alone? Am I the only person at the parade who notices that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes? And who the Hell do I text "STOP" to to get out of here?

A rock and a hard place: Marilyn is bookended by history's King of the Studio
 era, Clark Gable, and the Prince of the new Method, Monty Clift, in The Misfits.