Thursday, September 14, 2017

Doped up Marilyn

The real star of Let’s Make Love isn’t Marilyn Monroe. It goes by the name of Demerol, Amytal, Nembutal or Phenobarbitone. At the start of shooting this film, Marilyn is really not well, and doctor Greenson, a Freudian, is appalled by the pharmacopia he discovers at his patient’s house. Did Fox believe that the silly-goose role was still just right for her in 1960? Did Cukor really hope to transcend the ineptitude of the script? Did Brynner, Grant, Hudson and Heston show foresight in successively turning down the masculine lead? Had Arthur Miller kidded himself about the state of the couple he and Norma Jean were in? Hadn’t the musical comedy turned into a bare sprinkling of cosy cabaret numbers, necessary intimist, given the paralysis that had overtaken the genre? 
All these questions loomed large around the TV-viewing of Let’s Make Love on Sunday night. Everything this film had been designed to cover up came back like the return of a thing long and painfully repressed. Everything which, on the big screen in 1960, might have worked as illusions, now owned up to not just wrinkles but a pretty sorry state of decomposition. The facelift hadn’t held. Confirmation, yet again, that the American films of the fifties and sixties, often only held together by a desperate show of glitter and glamour, are the ones that TV undoes the most pitilessly. Seeing Let’s Make Love on TV is like watching a documentary about Marilyn doped up, Cukor gone soft and Fox moronic. It isn’t without interest, but it’s not much fun. 
When you quote somebody or something, it’s wise to open inverted commas. What (who) ever you can’t get to hold together, you separate with inverted commas, which are yet another, almost voluntary, way of joining them. There’s a hint of that in Let’s Make Love when Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly are paraded on in succession like a little museum of quotations. Like Hawks making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Cukor must have quickly realised that Marilyn, a quotation embodied in the flesh and the tormented soul, was there for nobody, save the camera. More intuitive than all the others put together, Marilyn plays her part as it ought to be played in this studio system that’s as sick as her, and which, what’s more, won’t survive her. 
This is why this film can be kept like a good memory. Precisely because of that ‘inverted commas’ effect, which makes the first musical number in the film (Cole Porter’s ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’) linger in the mind quite apart from the film it introduces. Because of Marilyn’s blue sweater. Because of ‘Specialisation’, which is a good number. Because of the moments when the oomph returns and the grace with it. 
Shot in Cinemascope, Let’s Make Love suffers more than others from the transfer to the small screen. It doesn’t hover between the two black bands of letterboxing, it itself is the band unrolling between two big dark blocks which clasp it yet again in the manner of inverted commas, transforming its viewing into a clinical case study. Dark (not black) blocks which on Sunday night flickered ceaselessly between black, very dark green or a purplish hue. An effect due to the whim of a single television set (mine)? Or underhand colourisation, where the application of video colour abruptly tip the thin band of De Luxe colours into the almost batrachian vision of a world gone runny lengthwise? That night the TV didn’t show Cukor’s film, it provided information on the way colour films of thirty years ago couldn’t keep their make-up from smudging. 
We mustn’t, it needs to be said, compare this film with others by Cukor. Not that its subject isn’t eminently ‘Cukorian’, but because Cukor has often given a personal inflection to the ethos of the milieu (showbiz) which was his own habitat, with an additional dash of lucidity. For Cukor, the only natural elements in the world are whatever you concoct artifice with. Cukor knows something about the truth of Hollywood, and in exchange he has accepted that Hollywood should stop him from saying it too loudly. His viewpoint is expressed briefly by Jean-Marc Clément, the Frenchy millionaire in the film: ‘You can only ever give what you have’. Cukor has made some very fine films based on this kind of stoicism. Except that to make them he needed its opposite. What do you call someone who knows (like Lacan) that love is, on the contrary, making a gift of what you do not have? The star, obviously. 
First published in Libération on 13 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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