Ever notice how patterns may appear around you?
The two films I saw this week (one on the big screen, one, seen now at least 3 times this past week at home) couldn’t be more different, at least on the surface.
Last night I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, a dramatization of the life of a rich woman who liked to sing. The performances by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg were wonderful, exploring something that’s never really been explored in film. We’ve got a society that seems to make a hierarchy of everything, evaluating, competing, judging.
A week before I turned on TVO at the right moment, catching some of Love, Marilyn, a documentary from 2012 by Liz Garbus. I hunted it down at the library, permitting me to see it another 3 times.
Because my first time I came into the doc having missed the first few minutes, I didn’t hear the key sentence concerning the film’s premise. I was bewildered to encounter a documentary that was full of performances, full of stars reading lines: lines apparently written by Marilyn Monroe!
And so later—watching the film in its entirety—I saw that premise explained in a little note at the beginning, that recently a couple of boxes of MM’s notes had been found. This is a documentary like no other. We’ve watching a study of performance, of all life as performance.
It is repeatedly explained in different sorts of illustration throughout the doc that Marilyn created Marilyn, her persona was a creation. We see Lee Strasberg speak, we also see an actor portray Strasberg. We see some of those notes projected hugely on the back, and then an actor steps before us to read those words. Glenn Close, Viola Davis and Ellen Burstyn give us very under-stated versions of MM, Uma Thurman and Marisa Tomei are much more histrionic. There’s quite a large group of performers, including some very clearly influenced by MM such as the surreal Lindsay Lohan (so weird to see someone looking exactly like Marilyn speaking Marilyn’s lines, and someone so young). We are reflected back upon the process of signification, of getting inside words and speaking them. We encounter authorities, some like Strasberg or Billy Wilder, or Jack Lemmon from the realm of acting, others like Gloria Steinem or Norman Mailer, commenting on the MM phenomenon.
And magically we are seeing not just the phantom film clips of dead people, but living actors performing those fascinating diary entries and poems.
So I guess you can see the connection. I felt that the Florence Foster Jenkins film was a profound meditation on what we do when we seek to make art. And here was Love, Marilyn probing the same interface, between the self and art. It’s hard to imagine two more different people than MM and FFJ, one the sexual icon, the other so damaged by syphilis, in a sexless marriage. Yet they both defied convention. If you accept the studio fiction that I heard as a child —that MM was sexy but talentless—it may be heresy to be presented with the evidence that she’s a key agent of the sexual revolution, a brilliant creator. I hope this isn’t news to you.
It’s a fascinating coincidence to observe ways that both MM and FFJ were exploited. FFJ’s record was the top-seller for that label. MM’s nudes, for which she was paid $50, make Hugh Hefner’s fortune, and that’s only the first in a series of times she is underpaid, unappreciated.
I see them both as powerful women, who were in other ways, victims.
And there is a huge mystery at the core of both of their lives. I alluded to the mystery of FFJ – wondering just how much she knew, whether she was afflicted with syphilitic dementia, or safely ensconced in the cocoon of a loving husband – and of course the last hours of MM are a mystery.
I think one of the things I love most about both of these films is how they honour the mystery and don’t push one simple interpretation. That makes me want to go back, see them over and over, to pursue the snake that eats its tail, to enjoy the unfolding of these lives, and for a few moments to believe they’re still alive.