Sunday, December 31, 2006

Let's Make Bad Film: Destroying Marilyn

Janet, a longtime reader, often offers suggestions in her e-mails for features. One thing she enjoyed the most in 2005 was the reviews of Jane Fonda's comedy films and she wishes we'd review films more. Last week, there was a strong chance that C.I. was going to review two films that were about to open but, at the last minute, C.I. thought the edition was already "light enough." We'd told Janet, ahead of time, to look for that possibility. When it didn't come to pass, she had a request, Marilyn Monroe's Let's Make Love.

Janet noted that we've been doing illustrations for the site since September to give it a visual look and offered that there's no stronger visual than Monroe. Janet also noted that the film was on TV often, easily available for purchase or rental and one of the least discussed of Monroe's films.

She offered other reasons for reviewing the film (in all she had 30 reasons) but she didn't need to hard sell us because this is one we've all seen and, in fact, one that's a frequent for the core six (Jim, Dona, Ty, Jess, Ava and C.I.) when we complete the edition and are ready to fall out. Ty figures we've watched that film about six times since June and notes we watch it and not Some Like It Hot (which we all love) because it's easy to fall asleep on Let's Make Love.

If we're in a chatty mood, we'll stay up snacking and discussing what's wrong with the film or how to improve it. Ava and C.I. will always stress that it should have been remade with Vanessa Williams and Ben Affleck in the leads.

One thing the film demonstartes, to us, is that if Something's Got To Give had been filmed and edited by Cukor (Monroe died before it was completed -- and before some idiot e-mails to say she was fired, she was also rehired before she died), it would have finished Monroe's film career.

George Cukor's often termed a "woman's director" which is both because he made many films starring women and also code for the fact that he was gay. Monroe wasn't Cukor's type of woman and that's obvious throughout the film. In some sections of the film (early and middle especially), she's sporting hideous hairstyles that Billy Wilder would never have approved in test shots. But Cukor liked a certain type of woman and the film is largely the story of Monroe's struggle to be Monroe (she wins in the end) while Cukor tries to remake her into his ideal woman (sophisticate).

Monroe's big moment from the film, the thing that gets featured in specials on her, is her performing "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" and if you've only seen clips, you're probably only familiar with her face. There's a reason for that. The scene is badly lit and badly shot. Monroe had been heavier onscreen before but most directors didn't settle for lighting that emphasized her belly, Cukor did. Even the close ups are marred by a disaster of a hair style which is far too fussed over to pull off what's supposed to be a light moment -- where Monroe blows a lock out of her eyes. The footage was so appalling (shot over two days) that Cukor was told to reshoot which he never did.

The only scene that plays worse is when Frankie Vaughn and Monroe are doing a seductive song and Cukor has the cameras too high and Monroe comes off looking obesely fat as she waves her arms.

Who did Cukor love? Yves Montand. Montand's carefully lit throughtout and shot so that the bump on his nose is actually appealing. Setting those shots up, choosing those angles took a lot of care -- the attention Cukor refused to give to Monroe -- the star of the film.

Much is made of the fact that it was a difficult shoot but that usually focuses on the affair between Montand and Monroe. The biggest conflict came from Cukor's having a star he didn't like whose talent he didn't respect.

Before the film began shooting, when the studio saw the test shots, they insisted (Buddy Adler insisted) on changes -- make her look like the Monroe of Some Like It Hot or Bus Stop. That wasn't done. Not only was that not done, no changes were made at all and Monroe's saddled with a ridiculous fussy hairstyle for the early part of the film that will remind many moviegoers of Vivian Leigh's hairstyle when she played the faded beauty Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Though Leigh was Cukor's idea of the epitome of class, the fussy hairstyle only made Monroe's face look long and tight.

Leaving the look of the film for a moment, the worst problem with Let's Make Love is the script. Originally called The Billionaire and to be filmed starring Gregory Peck, Monroe was added at the last minute by 20th Century Fox. When the studio decided to add Monroe, work began on the script to beef up the female lead. (The last writer to work on it would be Arthur Miller.) That was a big problem, casting one of the few bankable female stars at that time in a part that wasn't a lead. Though Peck would leave the project as the female lead got built up, it never became about Monroe's character. Consider the song and dance numbers her waving the scarf for the race to begin and the role to be as much an aside as Natalie Wood's in Rebel Without A Cause. Wood was establishing herself as an adult actress in that film, Monroe was coming off the biggest film of her career (Some Like It Hot). Adding Monroe to a pre-packaged film wasn't the way to create a Monroe film.

In some male idea of 'cute,' her character, who is both an adult and a working actress and fairly aware in matters of business, is revealed to live at home with her father. Though it provided Montadt with a close up to appear bemused in, it did nothing for Monroe's character. None of the scenes do. She's den mother to the cast of the play she's starring in and also so stupid that she can't figure out that Montand is a billionaire and not a struggling actor. As Sugar Kane, she was convincing in failing to grasp that Daphne and Josephine were actually men, but Sugar Kane was a comedic confection, no such care was taken in the writing of her character Amanda.

The film exists as a showcase for a male lead. As noted earlier, that was supposed to be Gregory Peck but when he dropped out, Miller and Cukor argued for Yves Montand who had never made a studio film in America before and had limited English skills. As lovingly as Cukor films him, the problems with the English language couldn't be overcome. He's fine when he's speaking but when he starts singing the problem's not his accent but that he slurs all syllables to the point that audiences frequently have no idea what the lyrics to the songs are. Since he's repeatedly called upon to sing, that is a huge problem.

Throughout the film, only Tony Randall and Frankie Vaughn are consistently strong (Vaughn's so strong, you find yourself wishing the studio had gone with him for the lead and not Montand after Peck backed out). Throughout filming, Monroe was late and absent which isn't surprising when she plays a character with no written moments. The thing that saved the film was the Screen Actors Guild strike.

Winning a Golden Globe (for Some Like It Hot) and leaving Los Angeles during the strike gave Monroe a fresh perspective. When she returned, the fussy hairstyles were history (and the attempts to win Cukor's approval were as well). In those later scenes, she looks like the Monroe America loved and acts like her as well -- so much so it's as though the other scenes were filmed by a Monroe impersonator. By that time, the film was overbudget and The Misfits was gearing up for filming (and Montand was due in Japan for a concert tour). It was too late at that point to reshoot but why the reshoots of "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" weren't done early on (the studio had been told the problem was with the sweater Monroe wore in the scene) and why, after being told that the makeup and hair tests were unnacceptable, Cukor insisted on that look for the early part of filming are questions worth asking.

After the debacle of Let's Make Love, 20th Century Fox's decision to finish out Monroe's contract by reteaming her with Cukor (who couldn't stand her and found her lacking in talent -- despite surving footage demonstrating Monroe was effective in Something's Got To Give, Cukor couldn't stop bad mouthing her and telling the studio she had lost it) was a huge mistake. Which is why one of her demands when 20th Century Fox wanted her back to finish filming Something's Got To Give (after firing her) was that Cukor would no longer be director (and the studio agreed with that demand).

Let's Make Love stands as Monroe's worst film because (a) there was no Monroe role in the film -- any number of B-actresses could have played the part, (b) she was saddled with a director who didn't respect her and lost all interest in her when he couldn't reshape her into what he saw as a lady, (c) Montand's slurring vocals, and (d) you don't sideline Monroe.

Sugar Kane was one of the three lead characters of Some Like It Hot, she wasn't merely "the girl." With another female character, the script doesn't work. In Let's Make Love, any woman could have fallen for the billionaire and it wouldn't have made a difference because she's only window dressing -- it's his arc of growth, his storyline.

In the fifties, a great many actresses had been sidelined (Bette Davis, etc.) and one of the few to become an actual star during that period was Marilyn Monroe. Judging by 1960's Let's Make Love, the studios had already begun their disinterest in women so the male-male buddy pictures that would come to dominate were hardly surprising.

[Notes: Betty is a huge Marilyn Monroe fan. She and C.I. mapped out the areas that we needed to cover and we interviewed the daughter of 20th Century exec, a crew member of Let's Make Love and a friend of Monroe's for this feature. Cukor friends and allies might tell a different story, we're not interested.]
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