Tag Archives: Academy Awards

Dear Marilyn (Part One)

6 Mar

I just completed a screenplay yesterday for a proposed mystery series, in which the events revolve around the disappearance of a long-dead star’s body from her crypt.  She has been “collected”, you see, by a rabid fan.  Her corpse becomes, in effect, the ultimate piece of film memorabilia.  In the screenplay I call the star “Maxine Morrow”, but, as everyone will realize, it’s really Marilyn Monroe.  There’s been a long-standing rumor that Monroe’s body is not in the Westwood cemetery where she was laid to rest.  A corner of the marble door to her crypt sported a big chip for quite a while, allowing the faithful to touch her coffin if they so desired.  But some darker sources hint that the chip happened when her body had been whisked away by her acolytes, to become the centerpiece of some bizarre cult – and this is the nugget from which I drew my plot.  Who knows whether or not it’s true – it’s still a good story.  For me, the interesting thing in the writing of this screenplay was that I was forced to replay some incidents from my own past – for you see; I too have a tenuous connection to Marilyn.

The events I’m about to relate are true.  At first I thought I would turn them into a one-person play, in which a single actor plays all the parts; but with my last year’s first and only foray into the theater, I thought, “Why not just write about it for your blog?”  (The only thing that the theater did was convince me that I was much more temperamentally suited to being a novelist than a playwright.  I will always be grateful for the experience, if only because it was a clarifying one, but the theater really isn’t for me; more about that later.)

So here’s my story…

Before I became a full-time novelist, I served as a researcher on a couple of books, one of which was a best-seller.  It was called “Marilyn, the Last Take” by Peter Brown and Patte Barham (each of whom was an amazing character in their own right, and worthy of a book of their own).  The book concerned itself with Marilyn Monroe’s last (unfinished) film, the prophetically titled “Something’s Gotta Give”.  Incidentally, it also purported to at last uncover the truth about Marilyn’s so-called murder at the hands of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

I was hired mainly for my knowledge concerning the botched production of “Cleopatra”, which was the shadow story in the book; “Cleo”, if you remember, was being shot at the same time as “Something’s Gotta Give”.  It was the authors’ contention that one of the reasons 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on Marilyn’s picture, leading to her emotional meltdown and eventual death, was because of the studio’s horrendous travails with Elizabeth Taylor’s shenanigans in Rome – they simply could not afford two divas at the same moment, each with a reputation for tardiness, illness, and emotional volatility.  Clearly, with millions and millions of dollars sunk into its gargantuan production, “Cleopatra” was the more important picture.  The supposition taken by the authors was that the brunette won her battle with the studio while the blonde lost hers.

The book was an immense best-seller, mainly because of the Kennedy connection.  By this time, the late 1980s, the shocking news that the president’s mistress had been none other than Hollywood’s most famous and tragic blonde was old hat.  The truth was that Kennedy treated Monroe as just another serviceable doll, and when he was through with her he handed her off to his brother.  (This same territory had been covered as early as 1965 in Jacqueline Susann’s roman a clef, “Valley of the Dolls.”)  Monroe, however, was not just another easy bimbo and refused to endure such shabby treatment.  She was no $100 a night girl – she was a star!  Monroe pestered the President and his brother with daily calls and letters, insisting that she was going to spill the beans both to their wives and the public, and had, in fact, called a press conference for the following Monday morning.  That Sunday, however, she was found dead in her bedroom and the press conference never happened.

Well, there you have the ingredients for the perfect conspiracy theory.  You have the hysterical White House handlers, the unstable star, the pre-emptive murder made to look like a suicide, and the subsequent cover-up.  The real story was that sometime during the research phase the authors and I discovered that there was no proof whatsoever that the Kennedy’s had a connection to Monroe’s death.  Marilyn had been “sliding toward extinction” for most of her life.  She was forever getting plastered on the weekends with booze and pills, subsequently calling up her friends, members of the Rat Pack, and treating them to long, teary farewells.  “Say goodbye to the President for me,” she supposedly gurgled that last night, “and say goodbye to you, too, ‘cause you’re a pretty nice guy.”  Her friends even had a phrase for it – “Marilyn’s dangling the phone again.”

Usually one of them would race off to her house, revive her, call her shrink and have her stomach pumped out.  All would be well – for about another week.  Then it would start all over again, except that the last time everybody was tired.  No one went to help her, thinking that someone else would get it.  At worst, Marilyn’s death could only be labeled a negligent homicide – that people knew she was dying but did nothing about it.  The truth was that she had been dying every weekend for the last couple of years.  Her friends were sick of the endless drama.  (We’ve all had friends like this, haven’t we; people we’ve dropped from our lives because the emotional wear and tear is just so fierce.  Self-centered neurotics are fun theater for a short while, until you realize it’s all about them, and that you can never be more than a supporting player in their lives.)

Peter and Patte decided to contact their publisher, Random House, to tell them that they could not tie the Kennedy’s to Monroe’s death, but that they had a pretty interesting story to replace it nonetheless.  Do you know what the publisher’s reply was?  “You contracted with us to tell the story that the  Kennedy’s killed Marilyn Monroe, and by God you’d better deliver it or perhaps our lawyers will speak a tongue you comprehend.”  It was Gore Vidal’s cynical prophecy come horribly to life – that the new literature of the modern age takes real names, real places, and real events and simply makes all the rest up.

So here’s the lesson I wish to impart unto you today:  think of this story every time you read the purported “truth” in books or in magazines or in newspapers.  Remember that writing is slanted.  All writing has an agenda.  All publishing is about money.  If you want the truth, you must locate and read articles from many sources and then come to your own conclusions.  Somewhere in one of them there might be the kernel that engendered all the commentary – just don’t expect to find it in the book store, on the television or in the newsstand.  We have been so managed and maneuvered by our news sources that we don’t know what end is up anymore.

In other words:  DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING!

After the publisher’s scary dictate, the authors and I had to go back to emphasize every untruth, every veiled accusation, and every raving innuendo made by some nut case who claimed to know the real story.  But the publishers got what they wanted – a best seller.  It even engendered an episode on “Unsolved Mysteries” – which was a bonanza of publicity for the book and its subsequent release in paperback – in which Robert Stack solemnly urged the public to write the Los Angeles Supervisor’s office to “uncover the truth about Marilyn Monroe’s murder!”

That’s when it really got interesting.

Next:  “Dear Marilyn – Part Two”:  in which I read through 8,000 letters from “all those little people out there in the dark,” as Norma Desmond was fond of saying.  You might think that Hollywood people are crazy, but let me assure you – they got nothing on the public.  You might even think that the events depicted in my latest novel, “The Stand In,” (also set in Hollywood and also based on a true story) are lurid escapism –

But just wait!

Have you read The Stand In? Available on KindleNookeBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

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Oscars Blah

27 Feb

The Oscars left a bad taste in my mouth.  They were never more irrelevant than last night.  I think Billy Crystal said it best – a bunch of millionaires giving themselves golden statues.  And Chris Rock proved extremely out of synch with his TV audience when he boasted about a getting a million dollars for such easy work as voice chores in an animated film – and then complaining about playing animals.  Talk about trying to have it both ways!  Made me a little nauseous.  Glad for Jean DuJardin – I think it was an amazing performance given the fact that he was deprived of an actor’s number one asset, his voice.  But as far as “The Artist” goes, it was a pleasant little diversion, with absolutely no mystery about where the story was going next.  And the lead actress in it was a grinning gargoyle who didn’t look period at all.  I loved “The Descendants” and “Moneyball” and, particularly, “Hugo” – movies far more worthy for consideration than “The Artist.”  But, then – they didn’t have Harvey Weinstein behind them, more’s the pity.  Highlights were the Focus Panel for “The Wizard of Oz” (I sure hope GWTW has flying monkeys!) and  Cirque du Soleil.  My god, if one of those straps had broken they could have taken out the entire Columbia Studios contingent!

The Heiress

10 Feb

ImageIt’s coming around again – spring semester at the college where I teach will begin on February 29.  It’s my fifth semester of teaching Screenplay Writing there.  And though I worked in entertainment for most of my professional life, where writing was basically what I did, let me tell you – you don’t know a subject well until you’ve taught it. 

“We teach what we need to know,” goes the old saying, and I don’t think there is a truer one.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about movies a lot lately.  The films I show in class are mainly the old classics.  I do this because my job, as Miss Jean Brodie says in the 1969 film, is “to put old heads on young shoulders.”  And it’s consistently surprising how many of my students – born in the early 90s, for the most part – have never seen a movie made before 1995.  Their idea of a fabulous old chestnut is “Titanic” (not the one starring Barbara Stanwyck, mind you, but the one with Leonardo and Kate!)  When I showed them “Some Like It Hot” last semester, when we were discussing comedy, I was shocked to learn that only two students out of twenty-five had ever seen a Marilyn Monroe film.   Most depressingly, they adore slasher, zombie and teenage romance movies.  (In fairness’ sake I must admit that when they ask me if I’ve seen whatever pimply romance is currently playing at the Cineplex, or the latest film displaying the latest medical pornographic effect that is currently demeaning our culture, my face becomes as blank as theirs.)    

And though they aspire to write, only a few of them read for pleasure.  Now I ask you – if they don’t read – if they don’t know literature – what are they going to steal from?  From what sources are they going to fill up their proverbial “tanks”?  When I tell them that Homer probably solved their problems three thousand years ago, they tell me they didn’t know that “The Simpsons” had run for that long.

(You can always tell who the teacher is in class these days – s/he’s the old gray haired figure quietly weeping in the corner.)

Therefore, the films I show them in class make up a pretty eclectic list, not at all drawn from the well-known classics of screen art.  Instead, I try to pick films that were based on great plays or great books, so that at least they’ll be exposed to the books or plays in some way.  I start first with “The Heiress”, which covers both books and plays; it began as Henry James’ “Washington Square”, then became a play on Broadway, and then went to the screen directed by the sublime William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland, a role for which she won a very deserved Oscar for Best Actress. 

An interesting story about “The Heiress” was that it was supposedly the film that inspired a young Martin Scorsese to become a film maker.  It seems that he went to see the companion feature at the neighborhood theater, a Western, but became so mesmerized by Wyler’s film that he stayed until its last performance of the day.  He had never seen a film so violent, he said. 

For the first couple of semesters I taught, I introduced the film with this story.  But then I had to explain who Martin Scorsese was and it ended with me weeping in the corner again.  Now I use “The Heiress” to introduce the concept of “conflict”, which is, of course, the essence of storytelling.  I tell them that you don’t need yellow explosions, or guns, or knives, or flesh-eating zombies to create conflict – that Martin Scorsese was just as enthralled by the emotional violence exhibited by the characters inhabiting “The Heiress”. 

And then I start the film.

It already has several strikes against it in my students’ eyes – the first is that it’s black-and-white and they don’t like that; the second is that it’s a costume drama, and that bores them; the third is that they know none of the actors. 

But by the end of the film they are standing up and shouting at the screen when Catherine Sloper jilts her faithless lover, played by Montgomery Clift in his very first role.  For many of them, “The Heiress” is the story of love betrayed that hooks them.  For others, it is about the derision and coldness displayed to Catherine by her cold-blooded father, who humiliates and debases her at every turn.  For the rest, it’s the revenge taken by Catherine against both her father and her lover that most excites them.

But the point is – it excites them!  

And my job is a piece of cake after that.      

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