Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

My Night With Marilyn

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

  My Observer column this week was about (among other things) a certain sort of person for whom international stardom is a vocation: hugely talented, deeply broken, motivated towards fame (I theorised) by a desire to “perform” as their best self yet also a desperate need to let millions see their inner suffering - and who become legends, because we respond to the vulnerability which deepens the performance. Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were such people; as were, I think, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. You might say that some or all of these people were just addicts, but I’m subscribing to the psycho-therapeutic view that most addicts are broken first and addicted later (the substances, often, taken up as a sort of glue in a misguided attempt to patch the fractured bits together.)

  Coincidentally, the day my column was published I saw My Week With Marilyn, the film about a week in the life of Monroe, for which Michelle Williams has been nominated for an Oscar. It’s a perfectly enjoyable film, and a good performance from Williams, but here’s my problem: she doesn’t look like Marilyn Monroe. I think it’s a flaw that basically destroys the movie. It’s one of those cases where it really matters - it’s not like Morgan Freeman not looking much like Nelson Mandela - because Marilyn Monroe being the most beautiful woman in history* is absolutely intrinsic to everything else about her. The scenes of her vulnerability / bipolarity / alternate desperate sobbing and euphoric flirting, were a bit meaningless without, didn’t you think? In terms of telling us anything about Marilyn Monroe, that is, not about people generally. It must be a very particular kind of loneliness when you’re fractured inside yet so astonishing on the outside that nobody can believe it; charismatic, funny and stunning enough to achieve worldwide stardom when you run towards it in the hope of curing that loneliness, but finding (when you get there) that even the love of millions can’t plug the gap in your soul.

  (*You may say she’s not the most beautiful woman in history. Wars were fought over Helen and Cleopatra. But they weren’t on film. The ready availability of real-Marilyn footage, her massive familiarity to us, is quite relevant here.)

  It reminds me of a column I wrote a few years ago, when Bryan Ferry had told a German style magazine that he was inspired by the Nazi aesthetic. He’d issued an apology (possibly in an attempt to hang on to an advertising contract with Marks & Spencer, who weren’t happy) in which he spelt out that this was purely a style question - he had no sympathy for the Nazi IDEOLOGY, he just liked the smart uniforms, clean lines and beautiful symmetry of those marvellous parades. I tried to explain in the column, which was a sort of verbal version of knocking repeatedly on Bryan Ferry’s forehead with my knuckles, that you can’t have one without the other. The “perfect” symmetry IS the ideology. (That Ferry/Nazi column’s here if you’re curious.)

  Anyway, it reminded me of that. Michelle Williams is very pretty, of course, and perhaps the sadness she’s suffered in her life helped shape that very touching performance - but the fact remains, if Marilyn Monroe had looked like her then she just wouldn’t have been Marilyn Monroe. I thought that was an insoluble flaw at the heart of the film. This is a terribly visual medium, after all. It’s like seeing a white man play Othello; he might be the greatest actor in the world, but something would always feel hollow and missing.

  Or, to put it in Twitter terms: “MEH-rilyn, more like” … 

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AndytheDealer at 9:36 am on February 21st, 2012

As John Lennon said on the roof of Apple HQ, ‘...thankyou, I hope we passed the audition.’

Film 2013 beckons!

mordantfox at 10:35 am on February 21st, 2012

Victoria, you’ve nicely lanced the truth/beauty dialogue that we’ve been getting from Plato through to Keats (and currently rests with F. Scott Fitzgerald, I believe).  Referring back to your article on the Bryan Ferry apologia, the singer badly needed to see ‘Springtime for Hitler’ before he opened his mouth; Mel Brooks is good for restoring a sense of proportion.

psychofant at 11:53 am on February 21st, 2012

victoria, your insight when writing about the singers who destroyed themselves with drugs and alcohol is sailing perilously close to psycho-babble. men and women in the entertainment industry who are talented and good looking are spoiled and fauned upon to a ridiculous degree. some can handle it, others become self indulgent and are not reined-in by those around them, many of whom are parasites. for every tortured soul, there are a dozen spoiled brats. a bit of self discipline and humility wouldn’t go amiss, sadly they are out of fashion.

Elmer at 1:22 pm on February 21st, 2012

Psychofant, saying that self-discipline and humility are “out of fashion” might be true of society generally but some of the people VC is talking about here (including Marilyn Monroe) were successful more than 50 years ago. You’re right there are probably plenty of spoiled brats with modern fame and always have been but the issue here is properly talented yet tortured people, a combination which can make a legendary star. And that’s been going on since the film/music industry began, the whole point is it’s not a new fashion or the end of an old one. I don’t personally think it’s “psycho-babble” to say that people driven to drink & drug addiction usually had emotional problems to start with.

Geoff at 2:03 pm on February 21st, 2012

I do think you’re being a little harsh.Never judge a book by its cover. The film, as you say is, “about a week in the life of Monroe”. I think the point being to share some insight into her ‘life’. I mean, let’s face it, Norma Jeane Mortenson/Baker wouldn’t have looked like that if she hadn’t become Marilyn Monroe. More likely bigger, saggier with less attractive hair had she ended up working in Wal-Mart all her adult life. Poor Bryan Ferry. I think a pomegranate is visually delightful, even slightly amusing. They taste rank though! Our own armed forces try very hard to achieve “perfect” symmetry (I know, I spent 9 years ruining it for them), but they do not hold with any Nazi IDEOLOGY. (at least I don’t think so?)

Tom Gibson at 4:17 pm on February 21st, 2012

This story is allegedly true.
Arthur Miller brought her to meet his parents. His mother cooked dinner for which the first course was Matzo Ball Soup. Marilyn is supposed to have said ” Arthur do they eat any other part of the Matzo?”

Bill Green at 5:00 pm on February 21st, 2012

I’m pretty sure you can be stylish without being a violent racist.

As for a white man playing Othello, why not? Patrick Stewart did it (the other roles, normally played by white people were all played by black actors).

MildMike at 10:20 am on February 22nd, 2012

Why was the “comment” section unavailable for your article in the Observer?

Victoria Coren at 10:55 am on February 22nd, 2012

Hi Mike. No idea - I never look at the comments, so I only noticed when people asked me that question on Twitter. I expect it was probably a mistake, they just forgot to open it for comments.

TIm W at 10:23 am on February 23rd, 2012

Exactly my thoughts on this film Vickster. Even leaving aside Marilyn’s physical beauty i think it’s impossible for any actress to recreate the radiant charisma and magic fairy dust she was sprinkled with. Throughout the film i kept thinking i don’t want to see someone pretending to be her, i just want to look at the real Marilyn (and feel as if i want to give her a cuddle and tell her she’s loved)

peter b at 6:58 pm on February 23rd, 2012

It’s a good point, I couldn’t help but spend the whole film thinking that Ms Williams has changed a lot since her Destiny’s Child days.

David Young at 9:15 am on February 24th, 2012

I have to say I don’t agree. I saw this film about five weeks ago at the Prince Charles cinema and was thoroughly enchanted by Williams’ performance.

Ken Singtone at 5:20 pm on February 24th, 2012

I think you have a point about the actress needing to look like Marilyn, although I’ve only seen clips from the film.  However, I wish you had not called her the most beautiful woman in history, that begs other questions (define beauty & history). 
Yes, unquestionably a beautiful woman, but also the archetypical dumb blonde, beauty triumphant over brains, an ideal woman for the mens’ world of the time.  Perhaps, I’m no gentleman, but I don’t prefer blondes, so that’s a slight flaw.
Sexy and flirtatious, yes, and she was perhaps, the world’s first and greatest sex symbol, but I would expect more elegance from “the most beautiful woman”. 
For me real history begins when it’s no longer in living memory.  Marilyn will only truly be in history when everyone who knew her is also dead.

King John II at 11:35 pm on February 24th, 2012

The Bryan Ferry issue seems like something of an overeaction to me. The guy’s clarified the situation and has made some good music in his time. I recall an episode of Dad’s Army where Capt.M praised the style of the Nazi’s style of dress with the comment that their uniforms ‘really does something for one’ while he was dressed in a German officers uniform. No big deal. An element of maturity is what is called for here.

Victoria Coren at 11:01 am on February 25th, 2012

!!! Dad’s Army’s a bit different. They were joking.

Norman at 12:49 pm on February 25th, 2012

A good point about the connection between Nazi aesthetic and ideology, but is it quite so simple?  Perfect symmetry isn’t all bad, and not exclusively Nazi, as Geoff points out. 
Hitler and other Nazis were vegetarians, part of the idealised lifestyle for their ideal race.  Does that make vegetarians bad?  Certainly, extremist animal rights activists may be vegetarians and they are capable of a dubious level of morality worthy of the Nazis (e.g. poisoning baby food).  Most, however, just have a thoroughly British dislike of animal cruelty. 
Neither vegetarianism nor perfect symmetry are entirely natural.  They are human ideas. 
What distinguishes Nazis is the willingness to pursue their ideals at any cost, abandoning the checks and balances of civilised society.

Barry Tinghart at 3:48 pm on February 25th, 2012

Is it not perhaps sometimes also the lifestyle that leads to substance abuse and addiction.  I’m thinking particularly of those who spend most of the time on tour, or travelling for their careers, and are hardly ever at home.

psychofant at 11:29 pm on February 25th, 2012

we are all imbued with free will, substance abuse is a lifestyle choice, particularly in the music business. it doesnt help when journalists seek to make martyrs out of the feckless idiots who kill themselves with drugs and booze.

SloeLoris at 11:18 pm on February 26th, 2012

I’m pretty sure the very definition of “addiction” precludes it being a lifestyle choice.  Besides, the point, surely, is that these aren’t people who’ve had stardom thrust upon them; they’ve dedicated their entire lives to pursuing it.  It’s not ‘psychobabble’ at all.  It’s sometimes called “compensatory narcissism” by professionals, and it is definitely, documentedly A Thing.

Talking of neuroses…the very idea of a Westminster MP, especially of the Tory variety, urging *other people* to come out of the closet positively made me choke on my Oysters Kirkpatrick.  Thank you for being the only person (so far, that I’m aware of) to write about it without being shrill, or wrong, or shrong, a word I have just made up to describe 90% of the nation’s press.

psychofant at 2:19 pm on February 27th, 2012

sloeloris, to get addicted to heroin, you first have to take it, this involves making a choice. the same applies to any addictive product, including tobacco. poor old amy winehouse had to deal with being attractive,talented,and wildly successful at her chosen proffession. “compensatory narcissism”  or as we non-proffessionals know it, self-indulgence,sounds like psychobabble to me. being a famous junkie doesnt mean you are any better than the scumbags who rob and burgle to feed their habit,it just means you can afford to buy your poison.

Victoria Coren at 4:23 pm on February 27th, 2012

Psychofant - you have a very old-fashioned view of addicts (which is fine; some people still believe that dyslexics are “just stupid”). It’s generally recognised now that alcoholism and drug addiction are illnesses, usually with a psychological root, that are most effectively treated as such, rather than “self-indulgence” that people should simply be told to snap out of, Prince Philip style.

  No way of knowing who’s right and who’s wrong - you have a perfectly valid opinion, of course - but I sense that nothing would make you change your mind, and anyone who believes the opposite and has personal experience of sufferers isn’t going to change theirs either - so I think there’s not much value in thrashing it out further: you’ve made your point well in three separate posts, thanks for that, and I think that’s probably enough, lest the thread get repetitive!

Dr Phil Corfu ( F.R.S.P.) at 7:15 pm on February 27th, 2012

Dear Ms Coren, there are some very strange ideas being expressed on your blog. One fellow who twice spelt profession with an extra “f” each time, needs looking at, I don’t think he is dyslexic, just “effing stupid”. I find in my research at the RSP (Royal Society of Pseuds) in Edinburgh, that older people should avoid going on-line as they become confused and have a tendency to extreme views. Perhaps you should introduce an age limit for people wishing to post?

seven2off at 9:26 pm on February 27th, 2012

Drugs are just another test of character, weak character around drugs equals deep trouble, strong character and they can enrich your experience of life beautifully, creating feelings, sensations and moments that non-users could never begin to imagine.

You only live once…

Just don’t blame the drugs, It’s not fair, they can’t defend themselves, and it’s never their fault.


KlooRhee at 12:50 am on February 28th, 2012

This will sound wrong, but anyway:

Order and discipline have nothing to do with xenophobia and imperialism. And using word Nazi today is largely scaremongering and faintly smells stereotypical. Much like Satanism and in some cases Islam.

Everyone is entitled to their own evil. I know! Let’s call ourselves The Good and ban any mention of anything evil. Capital punishment for those who do. They Are The Bad. We need to exterminate them and then there will be no evil…..

Victoria Coren at 1:08 am on February 28th, 2012

Hi Kloo. Did you click the link and read the piece I wrote about Bryan Ferry? I agree with you about using the word “Nazi” in a metaphorical kind of way, but this wasn’t scaremongering, he was talking literally about the Nazis, the German movement of the early 20th century!

And on this, “Order and discipline have nothing to do with xenophobia and imperialism”... well, that’s what the piece I wrote (back then) was about. In the case of the Nazis, I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. They were intricately connected.

Kevin Byrne at 7:15 pm on February 29th, 2012

Goodness, some incredibly unsympathetic views here, wouldn’t have thought it of your constituency Victoria… anyway,
as someone who has had (has, it never goes away) an addiction, whether or not it has a psychological root/ trigger, my belief is that once triggered it’s a genetic disposition - you find out, probably by accident, something that floats your boat, or rather sinks it - you’re addicted. The only test of character is in fighting the effects - no-one makes the choice to be addicted….
Re Marilyn-I think you are right in this case because she is all about the moving image, the ‘movie’. If you see photos, you think ‘what’s the fuss’, see her move on screen it’s astonishing.
And ‘dumb blonde’? ‘A thousand dollars for a kiss, 50 cents for your soul’ - a great quote from a ‘dumb blonde’...

mordantfox at 10:48 pm on February 29th, 2012

You need ‘order and discipline’ to complete any worthwhile task, so the connection with ‘xenophobia and imperialism’ is not inevitable.  I suppose scale comes into it somewhere.  I think B. Ferry’s preoccupation is understandable given his concern with surfaces; his art precludes the possibilties of concealment that Marilyn knew only too much of.  We all need compensatory mechanisms, whether for failure or success - or just for getting noticed - but the huge scale of Marilyn’s public success somehow meant she needed progressively bigger hits of narcissism to get her through the day.  I don’t understand it.  Can anyone?

John Rosecrop at 12:23 pm on March 1st, 2012

I’ve not seen the film yet, but saw “Marilyn, the Last Sessions”, on More4 on Saturday, about her relationship with her Freudian psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson in her final months.  The psychoanalysis proved to be useless for her (at best).
At times, she wanted to go back to being Norma Jeane but couldn’t escape being Marilyn (other than suicide).  In a (mid 50s) film clip she refers to herself as a dumb blonde. 
A problem was that whereas she felt that any camera was her friend, (she loved being photographed, feeling loved and the centre of attention), the microphone was her enemy.  She was deeply insecure about learning and speaking lines in movies.  This fear drove most of her drug taking, her way of coping with the film making process.  Maybe, she would’ve been happier in silent film.

Ken Singtone at 6:55 pm on March 1st, 2012

That’s interesting, John, I hadn’t realised that Marilyn suffered quite so much in the making of those classic films, enjoyed so much by cinema goers, and probably nowadays on TV/DVD etc.

It’s a bit like the predicament that Victoria would find herself in, if poker could only be played on aircraft.

Clive at 6:46 pm on March 3rd, 2012

It’s the same with films about The Beatles; they just never really look like the Fabs and despite all their great songs, the look was really quite integral, quite key at the beginning. So you’re on a hiding to nothing.

vikz at 11:35 am on March 4th, 2012

Dr Phil, what age would be the limit for wrinklies not posting on the internet or commenting here?  I’m 66 and have been chatting online on news groups and blogs since 1987(on Prestel) I know dyslexia is a condition as I was a learning support tutor, qualified to diagnose and help dyslexics.

I agree about Michelle Williams not looking enough like Marilyn and this jarred for me throughout the film, which we saw recently.  The friend I saw it with thinks she was fine though. 

Alan at 6:35 pm on March 5th, 2012

Even allowing for the hyperbole the Ferry article seemed a bit harsh. And it wasn’t so much of an explanation as an assertion that ‘you can’t have one without the other’.

You point out that, with regard to the Nazis, the aesthetic is a product of the ideology more so than in the general case, but does the connection run both ways? Even if that kind of fascism can only produce one kind of art it doesn’t follow that the art could only have come from fascism. For your argument to get off the ground it would have to be the case that the art can only come from an evil politics or else nothing is implied from its enjoyment.

There’s an interesting conversation to be had but it’s hard for either side to make their case in a short column or comments box.

Thanks for prompting some thinking.

stocky jock at 9:28 pm on March 18th, 2012

almost as bad as the hitman movie, olyphant looks nothing like agent 47 from the game.

bish at 10:22 pm on March 18th, 2012

Victoria, thank you for another interesting read. Keep up the good work. I always look forward to your column in the Observer each week and I usually find your view very interesting and thought-provoking. Just thought that I should drop you a note to say well done and keep up the good work.

Oliver at 6:06 am on March 19th, 2012

from a man’s point of view, we can learn much from her conduct, the destructess of men, they didn’t know how to deal with her. i had a girlfriend, beautiful and i suspected bipolar, it’s impossible to handle them. miss monroe was most beautiful woman ever in my eyes, still. even scarlett j. can’t be an even match.

eightiesdisco at 1:15 pm on March 19th, 2012

It’s weird how the very perfect and the very flawed co-exist and find themselves getting detached from reality. Perhaps it’s being treated the same wherever they go. Maybe this leads to a feeling of motionlessness which is missing the 3D quality of experience that the human condition requires to stop itself from unraveling. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

Clive at 2:11 pm on March 19th, 2012

I seem to remember La Coren took a similar dim view when Richard Herring turned up with his comedy ‘Nazi’ moustache on one of the panel shows.

Laura at 9:48 am on March 23rd, 2012

I’m struggling to understand why just because something could not have existed without the evil of something else, we can not appreciate it… For (extreme) example, should a mother not appreciate a child born of rape? Of course, the child would not exist without the evil of the rape, but we can still appreciate the child, can we not? In Bryan Ferry’s case; sure, the style would not have existed without the ideology, but that is not to say that an appreciation of the style is an appreciation of the evil. You say in your article, “The general question of whether one can enjoy aesthetic beauty divorced from its political content is so vexed”, yet surely we have to divorce it; so MUCH aesthetic is steeped in / has been affected by politics, we would not be allowed to appreciate anything…

Victoria Coren at 11:29 am on March 23rd, 2012

Hi Laura. Sure of course, there’s plenty of art we can admire despite the politics of its creator (WB Yeats, for example, is one of my favourite poets, and he was a Nazi sympathiser himself.)

  But what Bryan Ferry is admiring in the Nuremberg Rally isn’t separate from the ideals of its performers. The whole Nazi agenda was about “clean lines” - carefully tidying all those grubby imperfect gays, Jews and gypsies out of the bloodline - and the “perfect symmetry” of the parades is that idea being reflected in mass rallying form as they gather to plan its rise. They’re INTRICATELY connected. It’s not comparable to appreciating a baby born of rape, which is a beautiful little new innocent life quite separate from its act of creation; it’s more like watching a rape and saying that, horror of the assault aside, you can’t deny the rapist has a rather stylish sexual technique.

  I dunno. I just can’t imagine looking at those parades and finding them beautiful, or inspiring to anything. I think they just look CHILLING.

Laura at 12:34 pm on March 23rd, 2012

Thank you for the response and for realigning my analogy in such an interesting way. Your view does make more sense to me now and even though I don’t perhaps entirely agree with the depth of disagreement you have shown; I certainly agree with your sentiment. It’s an interesting topic of discussion though and I thank you for spiking my morning with thought. As an aside… Who do you think looks enough like Marilyn to portray her, or should the film simply not exist in absence of such an actress?

Victoria Coren at 2:39 pm on March 28th, 2012

I’ll be honest: while the films of Marilyn Monroe can still be watched themselves, I don’t think there’s anyone really capable of playing her. Nobody can do it except her, and, in the immortality of film, she’s still there doing it.

Clive at 10:04 pm on April 6th, 2012

But who would play you in a movie, Vicky?

Adam at 3:39 pm on April 21st, 2012

I’d always assumed that Ferry said that as the fastest way out of the M&S contract. Probably consciously

Mark at 1:27 pm on January 15th, 2016

It took me out of the film too. On the subject of who’d play you Victoria, may I suggest it’s high time the rights to Once More With Feeling were sold to become an eccentric British romcom starring Rafe Spall as Charlie and Romola Garai as your good self! It’s got cult hit written all over it - much better than Zack and Miri Make A Porno, surely?

Victoria Coren

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