Sunday, February 05, 2012

TV: Smash and Smush

A few weeks ago, when we watched Smash (pilot airs Monday night on NBC during the last hour of prime time), we realized that if it were a radio musical and not a TV one, NPR would insist upon attempting to pour Ron Elving and Ari Shapiro into William Travilla's Marilyn Monroe gowns.

[Warning, all kinds of spoilers will follow.]

Smash is an excellent show, the only hour show to debut in the 2011-2012 season that stands with Revenge as the best TV has to offer. It works from the start and that's because Debra Messing (Will & Grace, Ned & Stacey, The Starter Wife) is hitting all the right notes in her welcome return to NBC Mondays (where Will & Grace started). Messing's Julia wants to adopt a baby with husband Frank (Brian d'Arcy) so she's taking time off, a year to work on that . . . except her writing partner Tom (Christian Borle) tempts her with the idea and then, later, a melody he's written for a proposed musical about Marilyn Monroe (he's come up with three actually). Julia's response is no, no, no, but . . .

Marilyn Monroe is a legend. An actress who moved from key supporting parts in films such as the Marx Brothers' Love Happy and Bette Davis' classic All About Eve to starring roles in The Seven Year Itch (BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actress), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell, Bustop (Golden Globe nomination), How to Marry a Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier (BAFTA nomination and Crystal Star Award winner) and the film classic, which won her the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress in Comedy or Musical, Some Like It Hot. Her lovers included brothers JFK and RFK, her husbands included playwright Arthur Miller and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Details of her 1962 death (at the age of 36) are still argued and disputed. Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Michelle Williams are among the actresses who've played her (Williams is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress this year for her role in My Week with Marilyn) and Madonna and Mariah Carey are among those who've paid tribute in music videos.

An entire library's worth of books on Marilyn have been published including Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde, Anthony Summers' Goddess, Tim Coates' Marilyn Monroe: The FBI Files, Lena Pepitone and William Stadiem's Marilyn Monroe Confidential (a mass paperback which landed in supermarkets across America in the 80s -- a rarity for a book that contained a fold out of Marilyn's calendar nude), Gloria Steinem's Marilyn: Norma Jean (Gloria discussed her book with Richard Heffner on Open Mind -- link is video and transcript), Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons, Barbara Leaming's Marilyn, Donald Spoto's Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, Susan Strasberg's Marilyn and Me, Colin Clark's The Prince the Showgirl and Me, Bert Stern's The Last Sitting, Peter Harry Brown and Patte B. Barham's The Last Take, Norman Mailer's Marilyn, and J. Randy Taraborrelli's wretched The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (so awful it inspired a parody of him -- a bad biographer loose with facts -- in a TV episode that aired last month on ABC). The books are so numerous, in fact, that just last March, Larry McMurtry was reviewing three new ones for The New York Review of Books (Marilyn Monroe's Fragments: Poems, Intimates Notes, Letters; Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinons of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe and Lois Banner's MM--Personal: From the Private Archives of Marilyn Monroe) while last June sparked-early-and-then-petered-out playwright David Mamet used Marilyn and Gloria Steinem to flaunt his own sexism at The National Review (the essay is adapted from an equally bad book)*. Point being, this August will be the fiftieth anniversary of her death and she's never left the American imagaination -- left, right, center, apathetic, standing off to the side, above, under, she belongs to all of America and, internationally, may be one of the best ambassadors the United States has ever had.

The idea of Marilyn infects Julia the same way it did her partner, despite the plan to take the year off. She's haunted by a remark Marilyn makes in her final interview, "Please don't make me a joke." So she ends up agreeing to do the musical with Tom. Tom and Julia get Ivy (Megan Hilty) to work on numbers as Marilyn (and are convinced she would be great in the role) including one that Tom's assistant Ellis tapes with his cell phone, sends to his mother who apparently shares it with others causing it to go viral. This leads to an acid-tongue critic blogging about it in Debra's showcase scene in the pilot where Julia starts appalled, angry and upset as her husband Frank pulls it up on the laptop and tells her it's a rave and she instantly begins hailing the "Napoleanic Nazi" as a misunderstood genius.

It's that review and the buzz on a new musical from Julia and Tom that brings producer Eileen Rand (Angelica Huston -- returning to NBC Mondays as well -- her performace as Cynthia Keener on Medium earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress-Drama Series) to the table. It's going to be a huge smash, this Marilyn musical and she wants on board and she has been speaking to Derek Willis (Jack Davenport of TV's Coupling -- British edition -- and FlashFoward), the hot director, and he loves the project and wants to direct.

Tom's not crazy about Derek due to Derek's narcissism and mistreatment of actors, Julia's excited there's so much interest. And Eileen? She's just glad they bought it. Her assets are pretty much frozen due to the messy divorce she's in the midst of and now she just has to sell a reluctant Derek on the idea of directing.

Derek's not crazy about the arrangement but with Eileen unable to move forward on the play they'd plan to do (a revival of My Fair Lady), he agrees to give the musical a try and stages a number featuring Marilyn and baseball players. Julia and Tom love it. Derek loves everything about it but Ivy. (And he's right. She's all wrong for the part. She sort of has the look but lacks the vulnerabilty needed for the role it's like watching Carroll Baker play the lead in Harlow all over again.

Fox planned for Marilyn to star as Jean Harlow but shelved the project after Marilyn died; in 1965 Baker would star unconvincingly as Jean Harlow in Harlow while Carol Lynley would bring the part to life the same year in another film also entitled Harlow). If Ivy's Baker, the Carol Lynley in Smash is Katharine McPhee as Karen. Karen auditions for the role of Marilyn by singing Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" and not trying to be a Marilyn Monroe look alike and that helps her stand out and become Ivy's only competition for the part . . . until Uma Thurman shows up for a few episodes.

With Uma Thurman, Emmy winner Debra Messing, Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston, Tony winner Christian Borle and more in front of the camera and Theresa Rebeck, Steven Spielberg, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron and David Marshall Grant among the offscreen talent, Smash is the first NBC hour (non-reality show) worth watching in some time.

By contrast, why bother listening to NPR's special coverage of the primaries and caucuses?

We wondered that yet again on Tuesdays as Floridians voted and NPR continued its live coverage with another episode of Old Spice Jungle. The moderators were grumpy Robert Seigel and perky Audie Cornish who managed to blend together in a shade of bland. Robert had barely gotten the introductions out of the way befor he launched into, "The polls have just closed in Florida, Mitt Romney is the winner, who voted for him?" But though Robert could predict a winner, he'd declare ten minutes into the special broadcasting (9 minutes after he announced Romney the winner), "It's too early to predict a margin." They knew the winner but didn't know by how much. That's an awfully interesting way to count ballots. Shortly after, Robert Seigel would feel the need to clarify that it was the "counties" that jumped the gate -- releasing early totals -- and not the media.

To explain what happened or just eat up time, they went to Ron Elving and Ari Shapiro. Of course they did. They went to men over and over. Let's note who spoke.

1) Audie Cornish (NPR)
2) Mara Liasson (NPR)
3) US House Rep Illeana Ros-Lehtinen
4) Liz Halloran (NPR)
5) Debbie Elliott (NPR)
6) Kathy Gingrich (candidate Newt Gingrich's daughter)

1) Robert Siegel (NPR)
2) Ari Shapiro (NPR)
3) Ron Elving (NPR)
4) US House Rep Mario Diaz
5) Don Gonyea (NPR)
6) EJ Dionne (Washington Post)
7) Matthew Continetti (Weekly Standard)
8) Bill McCullen (Newt backer and former member of the US Congress)
9) Doug Weed (from Ron Paul's campaign)
10) Andrew Kohut (Pew)
11) Jim Talent (Romney backer and former US senator)
12) man who headed Mitt Romney's Florida campaign in 2008
13) Marc Racicot (Romney backer, former governor of Montana)
14) Michael Dimock (Pew)

If 20 people total seems smaller than usual, let's note that the coverage was only two hours (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina resulted in longer coverage). Let's also note that 1 hour and twenty-three minutes in, the only women that had been on was co-host Audie and Mara Liasson. Then it was boom, boom, boom women, one after the other very briefly.

Only 30% of the people who made it on air were women. (We're ignoring the five person snippet of 'voters' both because they each had about one sentence and because it was very similar to a report that aired on NPR earlier that day -- specifically on All Things Considered.) At one point, Ron declared, "Audie, a bit of news from our guys . . ." And that really said it all. It was "guys" over and over.

And we noticed for the first time that not only are there less women but they get less air time. It should have been obvious before but when it was noted in the Tuesday snapshot that only 1 female guest (Mara) had been heard in an hour and twenty-three minutes that really drove home that the problem isn't just that there are fewer females on the live broadcast. No, the problem is also that the hosts go to the males over and over. Ron Elving, Ari Shapiro, Don Gonyea, EJ and Matthew, they're not on once as was the case with all the female guests except Mara Liasson. They are on repeatedly. Though Robert loves to say "Let's go now to . . .," what he should be saying is, "Let's go again to . . ."

We also noticed how Robert hogged the mike and kept Audie from talking. In fact, as the broadcast wound down and Robert seemed in no hurry to stop talking ("Audie, that's it . . ."), we wondered if Audie would even get a sentence in during the last two minutes? (She did, just barely.)

But mainly we wondered why NPR women are putting up with this? What we're hearing from friends on the CPB is "great work" and "glad someone's paying attention" as well as, "We're not getting complaints from staff." Really?

NPR women better find their voice because right now the CPB is paying some attention to this. And if they're staying silent out of some fear over advancing their own careers, they should take a moment to grasp that this is about women, not any single woman, women plural. We're thrilled that US House Rep Illeana Ros-Lehtinen was on. She's a Republican, we're not. Doesn't matter. At long last, NPR seems to be getting that they need to bring on more than just male politicians.

Even so, given a plum spot, they'd still rather go with a man. Which is why, were Smash to air on NPR, they'd be fitting Ron for a blond wig and pouring him into a pink strapless gown. Public radio, it's become obvious, is not a woman's best friend.

* David Mamet is an idiot. He may honestly miss the point Gloria Steinem was making about Marilyn Monroe. To be sure others don't, Marilyn died at 36. Had Marilyn lived and gone on to do many, many other films, she would have had to have offered something other than the genius portrayal of the dumb blond because, once you can't play thirty, movie roles tend to dry up. Jane Fonda was the first actress who was both a leading actress and a star -- box office -- beyond thirty. One film doesn't count. Fonda had a string of hits starting in the year she turned 40 -- Fun With Dick and Jane, Julia, Coming Home, California Suite, The China Syndrome, The Electric Horseman, Nine to Five and On Golden Pond. Bette Davis, one of America's greatest actresses, turned 40 in 1948. She would have the occassional hit -- such as 1950's classic All About Eve -- but she would not have a string of hits. Katharine Hepburn would turn 40 in 1947. And would find herself in less and less demand. She'd be a last minute substitute for Claudette Colbert in 1948's State of the Union (Davis subbed for Colbert in All About Eve) which did okay but wasn't a hit by any means. The next year, Adam's Rib would be a hit, followed by The African Queen two years later and, a year later, Pat & Mike. Three films isn't really a string of hits -- especially for one whose last film was released when she was 87 -- and, more importantly, all three paired her with box office male stars (2 times with Spencer Tracy, once with Humphrey Bogart). Others have since followed. But in Monroe's time -- a backlash era -- she would have had to have shown an ability to play other roles in order to continue in films beyond forty. Judy Holliday was an actress who won an Academy Award for playing a dumb blond (Born Yesterday) and she was five years older than Marilyn. Her last film was Bells Are Ringing and she'd be dead five years after it was released. Though she'd do two plays after Bells Are Ringing, there were no more films. And she was 39 when Bells Are Ringing was released.

Also, Carroll Baker is a strong actress. She was just completely wrong for the part of Jean Harlow. Her voice was wrong, her manner of speaking was wrong, her body type was wrong. Whether in small parts (Ironweed) or large ones (Baby Doll), she's demonstrated tremendous talent in many other roles.
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