Friday, November 25, 2011

Flirting With Disaster

Throughout history, women have famously held men captive to their beauty.
From Mae West to Madonna, from Elizabeth Taylor to Katy Perry, the provocative public and private lives of pinups reflect the power of seductive sirens to titillate millions, causing many a male fantasy to erupt in ecstasy. Whether images of these beauties have been used to inspire lust or advertise products, women referred to as "sex toys," "sex kittens," and "sexpots" never fail to dominate the media.

It didn't matter if they were as buxom as Brigitte Bardot, as tempting as Tempest Storm, as vivacious as Vivien Leigh, or as gender bending as Lady Gaga, their ability to make men weak was undeniable. Sometimes blondes fared better with the public (as demonstrated in the following clip from What's My Line?).

Unfortunately, blondes don't always have more fun.
One of the most famous blondes of all time was found dead in her apartment at the age of 36 on August 5, 1962.  While some people still insist that she was murdered, the official cause of her death (as listed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office) was acute barbiturate poisoning resulting from a probable suicide. While publicists feed the masses with fantasies about sex bombs who explode on the silver screen, the sad truth is that many a sex bomb implodes in private life.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Simon Curtis, My Week With Marilyn is based on the diaries kept by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who, as a young man, was hired as third assistant to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) when the famous actor was attempting to direct and star in 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Perhaps a bit of back story is in order.

In 1949, Carol Channing rocketed to fame as a gold-digging blonde bombshell in a new musical by Jule Styne, Leo RobinJoseph Fields, and Anita Loos entitled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the following clip from 1987's Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne, Channing (a fiercely gifted musical comedy star) recreates her performance as Lorelei Lee singing "I"m Just A Little Girl From Little Rock."

While Lorelei was a brilliant caricature in Channing's hands, by 1953 (when the film adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened in theatres starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe), the character had been softened to match Monroe's softer and more feminine appeal. Here's the famous "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" production number:

During filming, although Marilyn Monroe was often in costume with her lines learned, she was so terrified of leaving her dressing room to perform that she frequently remained there until Jane Russell stopped by and asked Marilyn to come with her to the set. By that time, Marilyn was already riding atop a tsunami of superstardom. In 1952, she had appeared on the cover of LIFE Magazine. In December of 1953, she appeared on the cover of the very first issue of Playboy.

On January 14, 1954, Monroe married New York Yankees superstar Joe DiMaggio in San Francisco before joining the cast of There's No Business Like Show Business. That same year she filmed The Seven Year Itch (which yielded the iconic shot of Marilyn standing above a subway grate as a puff of air raised her skirt).

Poster art for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn's marriage to DiMaggio crashed and burned before 1954 came to an end. After filming Bus Stop, she married playwright Arthur Miller on June 29, 1956. My Week With Marilyn begins that same year as the naive young Colin Clark leaves his family's country estate and heads off to London with hopes of finding a behind-the-scenes job in the film industry. His tenacity, critical thinking, and impressive research skills help him land a spot on the crew for The Prince and the Showgirl, where Marilyn Monroe's notorious moodiness is bound to cause trouble.

Marilyn arrives in London as an international sex symbol with her new husband (Dougray Scott) in tow although, as her acting colleagues soon discover, she is a nervous wreck.  Frightfully insecure, yet hoping to be validated for her acting skills, she is easily intimidated by the presence of film legend Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) and the great English actress, Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), on the set.

Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike

Desperately trying to hold Marilyn together are her Stanislavski Method drama coach from The Actors StudioPaula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and close friend/fashion photographer Milton H. Greene (Dominic Cooper). As Miller finds himself suffocating under the burden of his wife's insecurities (in 1954 the playwright had been denied a passport by the House Un-American Activities Committee to attend the London opening of his controversial drama, The Crucible). the care and nurturing of Marilyn Monroe slowly falls into the hands of the inexperienced Colin Clark.

In the following clip from a Newsweek roundtable discussion, Michelle Williams, James Franco and Nicole Kidman discuss the challenges of portraying a cultural icon onscreen.

My Week With Marilyn is a delightful exercise in historic recreation in which Williams does her best to inhabit the body and soul of one of the most idolized women of the 20th century. What modern audiences see, however, is not just the challenges of handling a moody movie star, but the realities of substance abuse that were often kept hidden from the public in the 1950s.

Just as every person has an image of who and what Marilyn Monroe is and was, I suspect audiences will have highly individual reactions to the way Michelle Williams impersonates one of the screen's most famous sex goddesses in her private moments. Despite the film's best efforts to keep the spotlight on Marilyn, whenever Judi Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, or Toby Jones is onscreen, they steal the spotlight so easily that it almost seems criminal.

Having witnessed numerous Marilyn impersonators (male and female) over the years, it's hard for me to imagine any one performer capturing the magic or conquering the iconography of Marilyn Monroe. In one of the key scenes, Marilyn mischievously asks Colin "Shall I be her?" The results tell the audience that it was all an act and that Marilyn was in on the joke.

Test your own perspective by watching the following two trailers: The first is for 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl; the second is for My Week With Marilyn. See if you can spot the indefinable spark which made Marilyn Monroe one of a kind:

* * * * * * * * *
Long before Norma Jean Baker was baptized in 1926 and long after Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962, a promiscuous gypsy girl was burning up operatic stages around the world. With music by Georges Bizet, Carmen (which had its premiere on March 3,1875 at the Opera Comique in Paris) became the forerunner of the verismo style and went on to become one of the most performed operas of all time.

The final offering of the San Francisco Opera's fall season, Carmen returned to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in the familiar production that was originally designed and directed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle (with costumes by Werner Juerke) in 1981. The good news is that the physical production remains strong and sturdy. Both the adult and children's choruses (under the direction of Ian Robertson) seemed fine in Acts I and IV.

The performance I attended could be described as quirky, but acceptable. A graduate of La Scala's young artist program, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili has an impressive voice whose visceral effectiveness was compromised by her severe lack of charisma and the fact that her wig covered much of her face during key moments of the opera.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen
Photo by: Cory Weaver

As the toreador, Escamillo, baritone Paulo Szot was announced as being indisposed but delivered a robust performance. I was quite impressed with the work of second year Adler Fellow Sara Gartland, who made her role debut as Micaela.

Thiago Aracam (Don Jose) and Sara Gartland (Micaela)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Although Susannah Biller (Frasquita), Cybele Gouverneur (Mercédès), Daniel Montenegro (Le Remendado), and Trevor Scheunemann (Moralès) all lent sturdy support to the production, some things were notably amiss.
  • Conductor Nicola Luisotti opened Act II as if accompanying a slow-motion film sequence (I have never heard this act begin with such slow tempi).
  • Jonathan Rider's fight direction was not just lame, it was often laughable.
  • Lighting designer Christopher Maravich chose to keep Carmen in the dark for much of Act III's card scene.
Paulo Szot as the toreador, Escamillo
Photo by: Cory Weaver

These artistic choices, combined with the curious inability of stage director Jose Maria Condemi to get much spark out of his leading lady, struck me as quite bizarre. Despite some strange approaches to key notes, tenor Thiago Arancam cut a dashing, virile figure as the naive and conflicted Don José. His Act II rendition of Don José's Flower Song was beautifully shaped and I look forward to more of this artist's work.

Thiago Aracam as Don Jose
Photo by: Cory Weaver

No comments: