Lifetime, the studio that’s brought back to the biopic in a way that’s both fascinating and terrifying, has set their sights on our favorite “blonde bombshell,” Marilyn Monroe. In honor of their upcoming presentation of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe this week, I sat down with Monroe biographer Carl Rollyson (whose other, equally amazing biography on Dana Andrews I reviewed a few years ago) to discuss her legacy and the art of writing about someone everyone seemingly knows.
Kristen: I know you’ve read my review of your Dana Andrews biography. He’s certainly a subject that doesn’t have the extensive critical history compared to someone like Marilyn. How do you settle on a subject in the writing process? Is there a difference when you’re writing on someone with such a broad history of criticism like Marilyn versus someone who hasn’t been written about extensively like Andrews?
Carl Rollyson: I think every biography, in a sense, has its own story or backstory. I was finishing a PhD in English…I started reading Norman Mailer, and it was through his biography of Marilyn Monroe I realized there were things I liked about it and things I didn’t think he understood about her, and that other biographers didn’t understand.
Dana Andrews was an entirely different story. I’m editor of the Hollywood Legends series for University Press of Mississippi, and the publisher, Leila Salisbury, contacted me saying someone in Andrews’ family was looking for a biographer and did I know anybody who’d want to write the book? I’d never thought of Dana Andrews as a biographical subject but it just so happens that one of my all-time favorite films is Laura, the film that made him a star. And as I say in the biography, there were connections to my own life; my father was a plain-clothes detective in the 1940s, so Dana Andrews’ character always appealed to me. I’d probably seen that film a half dozen times by the time I got this information. So when Leila asked me if I knew anybody, I said as a matter of fact I did. And she said, “Who?” And I said, “me.” It was just an instinctive, gut feeling. I think I was aware no one had done his biography, and I was vaguely aware of his other films. And the next step was calling one of his daughters and telling her about myself and my interest in the biography. And the more she told me about her father – the letters he wrote, the journal he kept – I said, “Wow, this is something I have to do.”
K: And is there a different approach to take when you have the family involved versus someone like Marilyn where most of the people are gone and there’s just so much conflicting material written down?
CR: Every book is different, in the sense that, yes, sometimes you have all kinds of letters [and] cooperation from the family. I’ve written books where, not only didn’t I have that cooperation, when I’ve done biographies on living figures they’ve even been hostile to my interests. What matters to me, fundamentally, is my interest in the subject. Is there enough there to tell the story I want to tell? It doesn’t matter if some people will talk to me or if some people are dead. I was fortunate with Marilyn because I began working on her in the 1980s, and at least some of the people I wanted to talk to like Rupert Allen, and Susan Starsberg, and Ralph Roberts were all still alive, and I was able to talk to them. So, it doesn’t matter to me, so much, how much material is out there. What’s more important to me is do I have a story to tell? Is there something there that appeals to me, that I feel I have some unique or unusual way of viewing this person’s life.
I know a lot of biographers who say, “Oh, I can’t do so-and-so because the family won’t cooperate or because there aren’t letters.” When I started Walter Brennan, that book’s coming out in September, I had absolutely no idea whether I’d get any cooperation from the family, whatsoever. I didn’t even know, when I proposed the biography, for sure whether any of his children were still alive. Then I found out two of his sons were still alive, his daughter had died, and he had lots of grandchildren. I wrote to them and I got absolutely no response. To make a long story short, I was giving a talk in Philadelphia about another biography of mine, and there happened to be a man in the audience, who, when I said the next book I was working on was Walter Brennan, he came up to me afterward and said, “I know somebody who knows the Brennan family very well.” And he gave me that person’s name…Before you know it the family had invited me to Joseph, Oregon and gave me a tour of the ranch. I got full cooperation from both sons and many of the grandchildren.
K: To switch back to Marilyn. She’s easily received the most written coverage regarding her life and career. Did you have a goal when you first started writing about her? Did you go out planning to find an angle or something no one else knew about?
CR: Absolutely! What happened was I was supposed to write an academic study of Marilyn Monroe, a study of the other books written about her, back in the early 1980s. I spent the summer of 1980 reading Fred Giles, Mailer’s biography, and Edwin Hoyt’s book, and I found valuable things in all of them because all of those biographers talked to people who knew Marilyn, and some of those people were already dead so those were really valuable books. The thing that struck me, and I think this is because I have a background in theater, when I looked at what they were writing about, they talked about her on movie sets, what other actors said about her, but when you actually got her on-screen they had almost nothing to say about her. There was no way someone reading those early books could know from the biographers’ narrative if she was a good actress? What kind of actress was she?
I was electrified when I realized, in spite of publishers saying then that there was too much written about Marilyn Monroe, I knew from my own preparations what it meant, in terms of shaping someone’s identity; that I could contribute something to an understanding of Marilyn Monroe as an actress and how her devotion to acting was part of what shaped her personality. I could do that in a way no previous biographer had done. I’d read, and no one can claim to have read everything written about Marilyn Monroe, and to this day I don’t think anyone’s done a better job about that aspect of her life than I have.
K: Well, and really Marilyn seems to be a subject any writer can work with and know they’ll get publication and publicity, which is why your book and Mailer’s are so vital; her name alone just gets attention no matter what, regardless of quality.
CR: Yeah, unfortunately.
K: Do you think the various reputations she’s accrued, both during her lifetime and beyond, of being a sex symbol, a drunk, being late, have colored Hollywood’s and ours appreciation of her acting talent?
CR: I think that used to be a huge problem for people who saw real merit and importance with Marilyn Monroe; the idea she was a sex symbol, that she was a victim of Hollywood, that she had problems with drinking and drugs. I still get people who, when I say I wrote about Marilyn Monroe, say “What a sad life.” And I often say to them, “Not really.” Yes, it’s true she died young, even if you believe, as I do, she was a suicide. Nevertheless, like one of my other subjects, Sylvia Plath, I feel Marilyn Monroe’s life was a triumph. She’s still with us. She’s a great figure now in world culture and that’s not by any accident, that has a lot to do with her as well as the other people who paid attention to her.
And at this point, we’re far enough away from her own period of history – she’s still a sex symbol – but so much of the culture has changed, in terms of its attitude toward sexuality, that that aspect of her, can be seen in better perspective. There’ll still be people who say [those things], but that’s getting harder and harder to maintain as an idea because there were lots of actresses who were sex symbols and they’re not remembered; they haven’t attained anything like the stature of Marilyn Monroe. Jayne Mansfield is still an important part of the period Marilyn was in, but Jayne Mansfield didn’t compare. When you talk of someone of lasting talent that people still write about, Marilyn is unique in that respect.
K: I think it’s interesting comparing her alongside James Dean, both of whom received this immortal status due to dying young. There’s also an added element of gender politics because Marilyn’s death certainly labeled her a victim of Hollywood, whereas Dean – who only made three movies – has become this fount of immortality, a dream deferred.
Also, someone wanted to know about Marilyn’s poetic influences and her correspondence with Allen Ginsberg?
CR: I’m not aware of Marilyn’s correspondence with Allen Ginsberg, but what I can say is she had a real interest in poetry, and memorized poems. She enjoyed talking about certain poets like W.B. Yeats; Emerson was someone she read and could recite by memory. Arthur Miller, in his memoir, describes early on before they were married, she went to a bookshelf and picked up a volume of e.e. Cummings, and was walking out of the bookstore reciting his very famous poem called “Spring.” And she wrote some poetry herself.
When she was married to Miller she met all sorts of writers; Saul Bellows was very enchanted by her when she came to Chicago. There was a real affinity between her and writers. Tennessee Williams absolutely adored Marilyn. If he had his wish she’d have been in one of his movie adaptations of his work. He couldn’t convince Elia Kazan to put her in a movie based on his [Williams’] work because Kazan felt that, by the mid to late 1950s, she was so established as a sex symbol and public personality that people wouldn’t accept her simply playing a character in a part. I think he was wrong about that because, for instance, in Bus Stop she’s really playing a character, a girl from Arkansas. You can certainly still see Marilyn Monroe, she has that wonderful glow to her, but she’s really in character. You can’t say she’s playing that girl as a movie star; she’s got the Arkansas accent, the gestures. It is a pity Tennessee Williams didn’t get his way.
K: Going over to the upcoming biopic Lifetime is doing that you recently were interviewed about, is that another element, like the books, where anyone can make a cash grab based on her mythos? Have we captured Marilyn on-screen through any of these movies?
CR: I’m almost always disappointed in those movies. It’s almost impossible for those movies to work for the simple reason that Marilyn Monroe is no longer with us, and she’s inimitable. Not to take anything away from some of the actresses who have portrayed her. It just doesn’t work because there’s something so magical about Marilyn. You can retell the story, even if the biopic is absolutely accurate – usually they’re not – even if they make a real attempt to be accurate it’s not really satisfying to someone deeply committed to understanding Marilyn Monroe.
There was a film with Theresa Russell called Insignificance and I rather liked that; that film doesn’t attempt to portray, blow by blow, the sequence of her life, but uses a Marilyn Monroe figure. You get some sense of the Monroe persona in films like that. I also liked the first season of Smash, the TV series, about putting on a Marilyn musical. What was so brilliant about that first season was they didn’t attempt to retell the whole story, but how you go about conveying, on-stage, the really important aspects of her life. I thought that was absolutely brilliant. The only way you can represent her on-screen is through fragments, moments of her life. As far as actresses going from A to Z, from birth to death, doesn’t work very well. I’ll be surprised, even though I did interviews for the documentary surrounding The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, I doubt I’ll be very happy with the actual docudrama.
K: Do you have a favorite Marilyn movie and is there a movie she’s made that hasn’t been appreciated?
CR: I’m not quite sure I’m willing to call it my favorite movie, but I think her performance in The Prince and the Showgirl is absolutely fabulous. I compare it to Bus Stop because they’re so different. I always say to people, if you’re only gonna see two Marilyn Monroe films and want to satisfy yourself that she was an actress, see those two movies; the range of her gestures, the way she plays those two women, is so different. There’s no question she was a good actress and she was capable of doing all kinds of things on the screen. Of course, it’s hard to overlook Some Like It Hot, those three films are fabulous, fabulous movies.
She gave a number of great performances; I think she’s quite good in The Misfits, although the film itself, over time, for me, really breaks apart. Marilyn wasn’t really happy with the movie. I don’t think it was the performance that bothered her. I think she was really disappointed in the way the script turned out and she knew it was wrong. Miller wouldn’t listen to her. I was really gratified when I found this letter from Elia Kazan where he pointed out [to Miller] what was wrong with it and what Kazan pointed out was the exact things Marilyn pointed out.
The other film of hers that I want to mention, that I never used to think much of, her first huge starring role in Niagara. Everytime I see this film there’s more and more I like. Once you take it out of its time period and look at her performance – and Joseph Cotten was a magnificent actor – here she got a chance to play against someone who was truly superb. Cotten was very respectful of her.
K: And Don’t Bother to Knock is another one people don’t immediately think of because the Holy Trinity of her films (Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire) tend to come up first.
CR: I do the same thing with Don’t Bother to Knock and Clash by Night. Want to see if she can act? Look at those two movies, look at how different those two films are and how good she is in them.
K: One question I just thought of, when I saw Let’s Make Love – her last completed film – I theorized that, had she lived, it might have been difficult for her to translate to the 1960s type of acting and aesthetics. Do you think she could have made the jump into the next decade had things been different?
CR: I think she could have, actually. There’s a film Shirley MacLaine did, Irma la Douce, Wilder would have used Marilyn for that had Marilyn lived; because he was really angry at her, there was a lot of exchange of angry telegrams and this and that, and yet he was prepared, especially after her divorce from Miller, if she had been able to restore herself and hadn’t died when she did there would have been another Billy Wilder film for her to make. And I think Wilder would have helped her make that transition.
K: The immortal question: What is it about Marilyn that, in 2015, still makes us desperate to consume her work?
CR: Part of it is her ambition; she was a quester, she was never satisfied. No matter how well she did a role or how well a film turned out to be, it was never enough for her. We identify with that, that she was never complacent. When we read about Marilyn Monroe she’s always on pins and needles, in a way, because she’s envisioning something even greater for herself.
One of the reasons I got interested in her is one word of Mailer’s, no one had ever used this word and no one would ever think to use this word about her: Napoleonic. She came to conquer the world and she did, in a way. We wouldn’t still be talking about her if she hadn’t conquered. Mailer, who was an enormously ambitious artist and it takes an artist to understand another artist, there’s an aspect of that biography where he nails her as a performing personality and I think people are still responding to that, that sense of aspiration that’s very American and she fits it so well.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.