Cultural Cohesion, p.49Clive James
. . .
On the point of Marilyn’s putative talents, Mailer wants it both ways. He wants her to be an important natural screen presence, which she certainly was; and he wants her to be an important natural actress, which she certainly wasn’t. So long as he wants it the first way, he gets it: Marilyn is an outstandingly sympathetic analysis of what makes somebody look special on screen, and reads all the better for its periodic eruptions into incoherent lyricism. But so long as he wants it the second way, he gets nowhere. He is quite right to talk of Some Like It Hot as her best film, but drastically overestimates her strength in it. Mailer knows all about the hundreds of takes and the thousands of fluffs, and faithfully records the paroxysms of anguish she caused Billy Wilder and Tony Curtis. But he seems to assume that once a given scene was in the can it became established as a miracle of assurance. And the plain fact is that her salient weakness—the inability to read a line—was ineradicable. Every phrase came out as if it had just been memorized. Just been memorized. And that film was the high point of the short-winded, monotonous attack she had developed for getting lines across. In earlier films, all the way back to the beginning, we are assailed with varying degrees of the irrepressible panic which infected a voice that couldn’t tell where to place emphasis. As a natural silent comedian Marilyn might possibly have qualified, with the proviso that she was not to be depended upon to invent anything. But as a natural comedian in sound she had the conclusive disadvantage of not being able to speak. She was limited ineluctably to characters who rented language but could never possess it, and all her best roles fell into that category. She was good at being inarticulately abstracted for the same reason that midgets are good at being short.
To hear Mailer overpraising Marilyn’s performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is to wonder if he has any sense of humour at all. Leaving out of account an aberration like Man’s Favourite Sport (in which Paula Prentiss, a comedienne who actually knows something about being funny, was entirely wasted), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the least entertaining comedy Howard Hawks ever made. With its manic exaggeration of Hawks’s already heavy emphasis on male aggressiveness transplanted to the female, the film later became a touchstone for the Hawksian cinéastes (who also lacked a sense of humour, and tended to talk ponderously about the role-reversals in Bringing Up Baby before passing with relief to the supposed wonders of Hatari), but the awkward truth is that with this project Hawks landed himself with the kind of challenge he was least likely to find liberating—dealing with dumb sex instead of the bright kind. Hawks supplied a robust professional framework for Marilyn’s accomplishments, such as they were. Where I lived, at any rate, her performance in the film was generally regarded as mildly winning in spite of her obvious, fundamental inadequacies—the in spite of being regarded as the secret of any uniqueness her appeal might have. Mailer tells it differently:
In the best years with DiMaggio, her physical coordination is never more vigorous and athletically quick; she dances with all the grace she is ever going to need when doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, all the grace and all the bazazz—she is a musical comedy star with panache! Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend! What a surprise! And sings so well Zanuck will first believe her voice was dubbed. . . .
This is the language of critical self-deception, fine judgement suppressed in the name of a broader cause. What does it mean to dance with all the grace you are ever going to need? It doesn’t sound the same as being good at dancing. The fact was that she could handle a number like the “Running Wild” routine in the train corridor in Some Like It Hot (Wilder covered it with the marvellous cutaways of Lemmon slapping the back of the bull fiddle and Curtis making Ping-Pong-ball eyes while blowing sax), but anything harder than that was pure pack-drill. And if Zanuck really believed that her voice was dubbed, then for once in his life he must have made an intuitive leap, because to say that her singing voice didn’t sound as if it belonged to her was to characterize it with perfect accuracy. Like her speaking voice, it was full of panic.
It took more than sympathy for her horrible death and nostalgia for her atavistic cuddlesomeness to blur these judgements, which at one time all intelligent people shared. The thing that tipped the balance towards adulation was Camp—Camp’s yen for the vulnerable in women, which is just as inexorable as its hunger for the strident. When Mailer talks about Marilyn’s vulnerability, he means the inadequacy of her sense of self. Camp, however, knew that the vulnerability which mattered was centred in the inadequacy of her talent. She just wasn’t very good, and was thus eligible for membership in the ever-increasing squad of Camp heroines who make their gender seem less threatening by being so patently unaware of how they’re going over. On the strident wing of the team, Judy Garland is a perennial favourite for the same reason. If common sense weren’t enough to do it, the Camp enthusiasm for Monroe should have told Mailer—Mailer of all people—that the sexuality he was getting set to rave about was the kind that leaves the viewer uncommitted.
Mailer longs to talk of Monroe as a symbolic figure, node of a death wish and foretaste of the fog. Embroiled in such higher criticism, he doesn’t much concern himself with the twin questions of what shape Hollywood took in the 1950s and of how resonantly apposite a representative Marilyn turned out to be of the old studio system’s last gasp. As the third-string blonde at Fox (behind Betty Grable and June Haver) Marilyn was not—as Mailer would have it—in all that unpromising a spot. She was in luck, like Kim Novak at Columbia, who was groomed by Harry Cohn to follow Rita Hayworth in the characteristic 1950s transposition which substituted apprehensiveness for ability. For girls like them, the roles would eventually be there—mainly crummy roles in mainly crummy movies, but they were the movies the studios were banking on. For the real actresses, times were tougher, and didn’t ease for more than a decade. Anne Bancroft, for example, also started out at Fox, but couldn’t get the ghost of a break. Mailer isn’t careful enough about pointing out that Fox’s record as a starmaker was hopeless in all departments: Marilyn was by no means a unique case of neglect, and in comparison with Bancroft got a smooth ride. Marilyn was just another item in the endless catalogue of Zanuck’s imperviousness to box-office potential. James Robert Parish, in his useful history, The Fox Girls, sums up the vicissitudes of Marilyn’s career at Fox with admirable brevity and good sense, and if the reader would like to make up his own mind about the facts, it’s to that book he should turn.
Right across Hollywood, as the films got worse, the dummies and the sex bombs came into their own, while the actresses dropped deeper into limbo. Considering the magnitude of the luminary he is celebrating, it might seem funny to Mailer if one were to mention the names of people like, say, Patricia Neal, or (even more obscure) Lola Albright. Soon only the most fanatic of students will be aware that such actresses were available but could not be used. It’s not that history has been rewritten. Just that the studio-handout version of history has been unexpectedly confirmed—by Norman Mailer, the very stamp of writer who ought to know better. The studios created a climate for new talent that went on stifling the best of it until recent times. How, for example, does Mailer think Marilyn stacks up against an artist like Tuesday Weld? By the criteria of approval manifested in Marilyn, it would be impossible for Mailer to find Weld even mildly interesting. To that extent, the senescent dream-factories succeeded in imposing their view: first of all on the masses, which was no surprise, but now on the elite, which is.
. . .
Mailer is ready to detect all manner of bad vibes in the 1950s, but unaccountably fails to include in his read-out of portents the one omen pertinent to his immediate subject. The way that Hollywood divested itself of intelligence in that decade frightened the civilized world. And far into the 1960s this potato-blight of the intellect went on. The screen was crawling with cosmeticized androids. Not content with gnawing her knuckles through the long days of being married to a test pilot or the long nights of being married to a bandleader, June Allyson sang and dan
Marilyn came in on the 1950s tide of vulgarity, and stayed to take an exemplary part in the Kennedy era’s uproar of cultural pretension. Mailer follows her commitment to the Actors’ Studio with a credulousness that is pure New Frontier. The cruelty with which he satirizes Arthur Miller’s ponderous aspirations to greatness is transmuted instantly to mush when he deals with Mrs. Miller’s efforts to explore the possibilities hitherto dormant within her gift. That such possibilities existed was by no means taken as gospel at the time of her first forays into New York, but with the advent of the Kennedy era the quality of scepticism seemed to drain out of American cultural life. Marilyn is a latter-day Kennedy-era text, whose prose, acrid with the tang of free-floating charisma, could have been written a few weeks after Robert Kennedy’s death rounded out the period of the family’s power. Mailer’s facility for confusing the intention with the deed fits that epoch’s trust in façades to perfection. He is delicately tender when evoking the pathos of Marilyn’s anxious quest for self-fulfilment, but never doubts that the treasure of buried ability was there to be uncovered, if only she could have found the way. The true pathos—that she was simply not fitted for the kind of art she had been led to admire—eludes him. Just as he gets over the problem of Marilyn’s intellectual limitations by suggesting that a mind can be occupied with more interesting things than thoughts, so he gets over the problem of her circumscribed accomplishments by suggesting that true talent is founded not on ability but on a state of being. Nobody denies that the snorts of derision which first greeted the glamour queen’s strivings towards seriousness were inhuman, visionless. In rebuttal, it was correctly insisted that her self-exploration was the exercise of an undeniable right. But the next, fatal step was to assume that her self-exploration was an artistic activity in itself, and had a right to results.
. . .
Scattered throughout the book are hints that Mailer is aware that his loved one had limited abilities. But he doesn’t let it matter, preferring to insist that her talent—a different thing—was boundless. Having overcome so much deprivation in order to see that certain kinds of achievement were desirable, she had an automatic entitlement to them. That, at any rate, seems to be his line of reasoning. A line of reasoning which is really an act of faith. The profundity of his belief in the significance of what went on during those secret sessions at the Actors’ Studio is unplumbable. She possessed, he vows, the talent to play Cordelia. One examines this statement from front-on, from both sides, through a mirror and with rubber gloves. Is there a hint of a put-on? There is not. Doesn’t he really mean something like: she possessed enough nerve and critical awareness to see the point of trying to extend her range by playing a few fragments of a Shakespearean role out of the public eye? He does not. He means what he says, that Marilyn Monroe possessed the talent to play Cordelia. Who, let it be remembered, is required, in the first scene of the play, to deliver a speech like this:
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Leave aside the matter of how she would have managed such stuff on stage; it is doubtful she could have handled a single minute of it even on film: not with all the dialogue coaches in the world, not even if they had shot and edited in the way Joshua Logan is reputed to have put together her performance in some of the key scenes of Bus Stop—word by word, frame by frame. The capacity to apprehend and reproduce the rhythm of written language just wasn’t there. And even if we were to suppose that such an indispensable capacity could be dispensed with, there would still be the further question of whether the much-touted complexity of her character actually contained a material resembling Cordelia’s moral steel: it is not just sweetness that raises Cordelia above her sisters. We are bound to conclude (if only to preserve from reactionary scorn the qualities Marilyn really did have) that she was debarred from the wider range of classical acting not only by a paucity of ability but by a narrowness of those emotional resources Mailer would have us believe were somehow a substitute for it. Devoid of invention, she could only draw on her stock of feeling. The stock was thin. Claiming for her a fruitful complexity, Mailer has trouble conjuring it up: punctuated by occasional outbreaks of adoration for animals and men, her usual state of mind seems to have been an acute but generalized fear, unreliably counterbalanced by sedation.
Mailer finds it temptingly easy to insinuate that Marilyn’s madness knew things sanity wots not of, and he tries to make capital out of the tussle she had with Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier, we are asked to believe, was the icy technician working from the outside in, who through lack of sympathy muffed the chance to elicit from his leading lady miracles of warm intuition. It’s a virtuoso passage from Mailer, almost convincing us that an actor like Olivier is a prisoner of rationality forever barred from the inner mysteries of his profession. You have to be nuts, whispers Mailer from the depths of his subtext, to be a real actor. The derivation from Laing’s psychology is obvious.
The author does a noble, loyal, zealous job of tracing his heroine’s career as an artist, but we end by suspecting that he is less interested in her professional achievement than in her fame. The story of Norma Jean becoming Somebody is the true spine of the book, and the book is Mailer’s most concise statement to date of what he thinks being Somebody has come to mean in present-day America. On this theme, Marilyn goes beyond being merely wrong-headed and becomes quite frightening.
As evidence of the leverage Marilyn’s fame could exert, Mailer recounts a story of her impressing some friends by taking them without a reservation to the Copacabana, where Sinatra was packing the joint to the rafters every night. Marilyn being Monroe, Sinatra ordered a special table put in at his feet, and while lesser mortals were presumably being asphyxiated at the back, he sang for his unexpected guest and her friends, personally. Only for the lonely. Mailer tells such stories without adornment, but his excitement in them is ungovernable: it infects the style, giving it the tone we have come to recognize from all his previous excursions into status, charisma, psychic victory and the whole witchcraft of personal ascendancy. Marilyn seems to bring this theme in his work to a crisis.
In many ways The Naked and the Dead was the last classic novel to be written in America. The separately treated levels of the military hierarchy mirrored the American class structure, such as it was, and paralleled the class structure of the classic European novel, such as it had always been. With The Deer Park the American classes were already in a state of flux, but the society of Hollywood maintained cohesion by being aware of what conditions dictated the mutability of its hierarchy: Sergius the warrior slept with Lulu the love queen, both of them qualifying, while fortune allowed, as members of the only class, below which was the ruck—the unlovely, the unknown, the
On her way to being divorced from Arthur Miller, Marilyn stopped off in Dallas. In Dallas! Mailer can hardly contain himself. “The most electric of the nations,” he writes, “must naturally provide the boldest circuits of coincidence.” Full play is made with the rumours that Marilyn might have had affairs with either or both of the two doomed Kennedy brothers, and there is beetle-browed speculation about the possibility of her death having placed a curse on the family—and hence, of course, on the whole era. Mailer himself calls this last brainwave “endlessly facile,” thereby once again demonstrating his unfaltering dexterity at having his cake and eating it. But this wearying attempt to establish Marilyn as the muse of the artist-politicians is at one with the book’s whole tendency to weight her down with a load of meaning she is too frail to bear. Pepys could be floored by Lady Castlemaine’s beauty without ascribing to her qualities she did not possess. The Paris intellectuals quickly learned that Pompadour’s passion for china flowers and polite theatre was no indication that artistic genius was in favour at Versailles—quite the reverse. Where hierarchies were unquestioned, realism meant the ability to see what was really what. Where the hierarchy is created from day to day in the mind of one man interpreting it, realism is likely to be found a hindrance.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes