Monday, April 23, 2012

NBC's Marilyn Monroe Doctrine

I'm not a regular viewer of NBC's "Smash."  I did watch the first three episodes to see how the show would present Marilyn Monroe.  If you saw the hard-driving network promotion leading up to the premiere episode, you know that two young actresses would vie for the role of the late Hollywood legend in a Broadway musical based on her life.  That's why I wanted to watch the opening episodes.  I am a Monroe fan. She was not a belter in her movie musicals.  Not like a Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli or Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway.  Marilyn Monroe was not designed for theatre.  She created herself for intimacy with a movie camera.  She cooed.  She purred.  She was a satiny jazz baby singing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  But she wasn't a belter.
In "Smash," she's a belter.  And the "Smash" Marilyn doesn't have that sexy subtlety.  Instead of pushing her dress down when the breeze from the subway blows her dress up, the NBC Marilyn assertively lifted her skirt up in a number without any breeze at all.  But they probably had to add that kind of brassiness to make the Monroe character work onstage and play to the MTV-generation folks in the balcony.  The "Smash" version of the Blonde Bombshell seems more Joey Heatherton than Marilyn Monroe.  Joey did movies and musical work on TV shows.  Joey could belt a tune. She could dance.  She hurled sexy in your face like a custard pie.  She hoped to follow in Monroe's footsteps starring in Sugar.  That was the 1972 Broadway musical version of Some Like It Hot
But Joey had back luck in her career and private life.  Marilyn Monroe was famously wed to New York Yankees legend, Joe DiMaggio.
Joey was wed to NFL Dallas Cowboys star, wide receiver Lance Rentzel.
This union didn't have same show biz cachet, class and fascinating star quality as the Monroe-DiMaggio marriage...
...but it was a talented sexy 1960s movie blonde married to a professional star athlete.  Their problems kept gossip columnists busy.  Especially in the early 1970s when he was arrested for exposing himself.
Looking back, Joey was more the "Dance: 10, Looks: 3" number from A Chorus Line compared to Marilyn's rendition of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." But I get that T&A vibe from the Marilyns in "Smash" which is why I feel it's more Heatherton than Monroe.  In the NBC series, all the stuff about the "real" Marilyn and the sadness in her life is pretty much standard Hollywood lore by now.  The networks have been called on their need to embrace diversity more.  That could be done on "Smash" by incorporating the true story of how Marilyn Monroe embraced diversity.  She used her sex symbol Hollywood star clout in the 1950s to help Ella Fitzgerald break through the wall of racism.  An internationally famous vocalist, she could not get booked into top Hollywood nightclubs because she was black.  Monroe, an ardent Fitzgerald fan, stepped in and helped knock the wall down.  The jazz vocalist never had that problem again.  Monroe made her movie studio nervous with her bold act of Civil Rights for Ella Fitzgerald.
"Smash" could have actresses auditioning to sing the Ella role coupled with a storyline about Broadway  looking at its own embrace of diversity.  I've not watched the show regularly.  If you do, have you seen any black casting directors?  Agents? Music composers? Show directors? Theatrical producers?  Theatre critics?  Publicists?  Just wondering.  If "Smash" finished with the Marilyn Monroe storyline, what about a Broadway musical based on the life of a Monroe friend?  Dorothy Dandridge was the second black woman in Hollywood history to get an Oscar nomination.  She was the first black woman to be nominated in the Best Actress Academy Award category for her incendiary performance in the 1954 musical drama Carmen Jones.  She was a Hollywood extra and featured performer in 1940s musical comedies and dramas before that breakthrough starring role.  Racism still existed in Hollywood after her historic nomination.  Sadly, it crippled her film career opportunities after Carmen Jones.
African-American star Lena Horne called the singer/actress "our Marilyn Monroe."  If Billy Wilder's classic Some Like It Hot had been made with an all-black cast, gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge would have rocked as Sugar Kane.  Her life had enough drama for an award-winning HBO bio pic starring Halle Berry.  A Dorothy Dandridge storyline on a show like "Smash" could let us see some black and black/Hispanic actresses vie for the role.  That would be some tasty diversity.

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