A few years ago, when I first journeyed to far Hollywood, The Studio, as Joyce Carol Oates portentously calls it in Blonde, put me up at the Chateau Marmont, an antique mock-Norman castle that might have been designed by Charles Addams and whose dark reputation was out of the pages of de Sade. My suite in the hotel vibrated with sullen echoes. One could sense the overdoses, the suicides, the tragedies that in all likelihood played themselves out in those venerable rooms. After all, it was in a bungalow at the Marmont that John Belushi died, some years earlier. Perched atop Sunset Boulevard, the hotel seemed like a circus funhouse, the very symbol of the wilder, darker side of Hollywood. I had writer pals who made a mordant point of requesting the death bungalow when they stayed there.
The pure products of America go crazy, said William Carlos Williams. There was never a more pure product of Hollywood than Los Angeles–born Norma Jean Baker, known to posterity as Marilyn Monroe, the most famous movie star who ever lived, and in her fashion as important a figure in American history as noble Lincoln or stout Hemingway. In Oates’s most massively ambitious novel, the Monroe myth, like the Chateau Marmont, becomes a piece of characteristic Gothic, the pop legend retold as a dark feminist fairytale.
Far and away Oates’s most important book, Blonde is also a Dreiserian saga of the rise and fall of a sensuous and vulnerable woman of humble origins, told in all its heartbreaking human detail. At the same time, the novel is also a vast and minutely detailed panorama of America at mid century; it is a bitter gender-driven indictment of that era.
Monroe’s greatest fame coincided with the most fascinating epoch in American history, with its witch hunts, political assassinations and secret ties between organized crime, politics, sports and the exploding celebrity culture. (It sometimes seems that this time has become as popular with historical novelists as Rome at the time of Christ, and poor Monroe, merely a sex symbol while she lived, in death has come to represent the entire post-war era.)
Whether every particular is true in a literal, documentary sense is of almost no relevance. Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Diana Trilling, amongst others, have all written factual accounts of Norma Jean’s life. Oates brings the doomed Monroe alive from the inside in a way that few biographers or journalists can. The paradigmatic sex object is finally a subject. Not a few reviewers have observed that Oates has in some eerie way channelled Monroe. The spiritual effort of the task appears to have occasioned an eerie physical effect. In the author’s dramatic photo on the jacket of Blonde, Oates resembles Mary Miles Minter or some other rococo creature of the Silent Screen. This is not in itself surprising; since Fitzgerald and Hemingway, it is the rare American novelist who does not aspire to the iconic status that society habitually assigns to movie stars. After all, celebrity, not religion, is the opium of the people.
In Oates’s fictional version of this primary American myth, Norma Jeane Baker and her wacky mom, Gladys, are both creatures of The Studio, in the way that other women belong to The Church. The much-married, unstable Gladys is a lab technician; Norma Jeane’s handsome but absent father sports a pencil-thin moustache that rivals Valentino’s; he is too undisciplined to be a film actor so he toils unsuccessfully as a stand-in. In this rendition, show people are like members of some ragged tribe who are, in some iconic way, chosen. In American society, celebrities make up an aristocratic elite, but one peculiarly susceptible to sudden democratic reversal of fortune.
Oates vividly depicts Norma Jeane’s 1930s Los Angeles childhood, a virtuoso imaginative recreation of somber time and place. Gladys and Norma Jeane’s third-floor Venice apartment reeks of onions. Della, Gladys’s mother, is a formidable neighbourhood character who resembles Tugboat Annie, part of the great midwestern migration to California, a feisty Okie who would not have been out of place amongst the Joads. Little Norma Jeane is baptized by the faith healer Aimee Semple Macpherson, fatefully named after the actresses Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow, both of whom died legendary, suspicious deaths.
Gladys Baker Mortenson is, simply, a wonderful fictional creation, far outstripping the better-known figures in the novel. (People who ascribe meaning to such things should note that the unpretentious mothers of glamorous Marilyn and Elvis shared the identical first name.) Her crazy mama feeds Norma Jeane birthday cake for breakfast and reads the child the poems of Emily Dickinson. She believes in astrology and science fiction; she hears voices. A prisoner of her moods, Gladys is always “on,” always acting; naturally, she drinks, takes drugs. Her madness is sexy and seductive as long as she remains young and attractive; men will not leave her alone. As she struggles to maintain a façade of respectability, her life is like a slapstick comedy.
This is the ground zero of Norma Jeane’s ascent. Her mother is like some zany lady-in-waiting in The Studio’s royal court. Her daughter is perfectly positioned for a fairytale rise, American-style. In her humble origins, Norma Jeane is very like her midwestern cousin Carrie Meeber, Dreiser’s heroine in Sister Carrie. With one exception: Carrie lived in a highly stable society where the rules were clear to all. By comparison, Norma Jeane is lost in space.
Norma Jeane lives in a Los Angeles that is a City of Sand, built on the desert and prone to apocalyptic earthquakes and brushfires. The lab chemicals leave Gladys with red, itchy hands. Eventually, she is poisoned by those chemicals. Naturally, The Studio’s doctors lie to her about it; she is banished from the magical walled garden. Mother and daughter move to a boarding house. There, Norma Jeane grows up on the dilapidated fringes of the movie business, taking piano lessons from an actor boarder who maybe interferes with her a little. Eventually Gladys’s voices get the better of her; she is dragged off to a state hospital. Treachery and betrayal, a major leitmotif in this saga, appear once again when the actor and voice coach who live in the boarding house with the other Studio employees tell the waif-like Norma Jeane that they are taking her to visit her mom, when in fact they are removing her to the orphan home.
Los Angeles is a City of Sand in more ways than one. The Studio is a labyrinth, a funhouse, a palace of mirrors. In Oates’s hands it becomes an institution as mutable and shifting as Kafka’s castle. The troll’s regime of Studio executives is always changing, and today’s stars are tomorrow’s bums. It is easy to get lost there.
On top of everything else, Blonde is an existential meditation on the fluidity of identity in the modern world. Norma Jeane is an extreme case; she does not even know her own name. Is it Baker? Mortenson? Or Monroe? (This last is Della’s maiden name.) With its fleeting and impermanent relationships, Norma Jeane’s is to be a thoroughly modern life.
Amongst the child rejects of her society in the orphanage, alone and adrift in a cold world, Norma Jeane conceives what Oates calls “a madness of ambition to revenge herself upon the world.” However, she is a kind of freak. Yet, it is this very freakishness that will allow her to rise in the carnivalesque world of The Studio. Her body is fully mature at 13 but, her inner growth impeded by her mother’s madness, she remains a child of eight or nine with a whispery child’s voice. She embraces Christian Science. Norma Jeane’s a dreamy, pious, timid girl but, once she leaves the orphanage for a foster home, the cold world starts to warm up when it gets a glimpse of that sweet little ass.
Norma Jeane’s foster mother, jealous of her husband’s sexual interest, pushes her out of the shabby house in Van Nuys into marriage with the fictional undertaker’s assistant Bucky Glazer. Norma Jeane becomes an adoring young wife. However, she drives her husband to distraction with her headaches, disabling menstrual periods and nightmares. “If you have a husband,” a down-to-earth Oates observes, “you don’t need God so much.” Bucky awakens Norma Jeane’s sexuality, then he begins to bore her. He takes raunchy photos of his cute little wife and starts to show them around at work. When stolid Bucky enlists and is sent overseas, Norma Jeane moves out on her own and her life begins in earnest.
Discovered by a photographer in a defence factory, Norma Jeane starts to work as a model and actress. The photographer is an American Marxist; he gives Norma Jeane a social conscience. The Studio, stepping into her life as it did into her mother’s, gives her white-blond hair. “I would invent myself as the city invents itself,” she tells herself, and she goes about learning acting with the same earnestness that she approached factory work. But she has no confidence. She is a girl from nowhere, a Beggar Maid of fairytale.
If you ever forget cinema is first and foremost a commodity, work for a while at The Studio. The sight of a dark and looming water tower framed against the sky serves to remind you that, although you are toiling at a Dream Factory, the place bears a distinct resemblance to any assembly line at Ford or GM. Norma Jeane has voice lessons, acting lessons, dance lessons; the Beggar Maid is transformed into a Fair Princess. In Oates’s view, stardom under the studio system is “a species of animal manufacture, like breeding.” The Studio gives Norma Jeane the name Marilyn Monroe because MM makes that delicious mmmmm sound in your mouth. However, “The Blonde Actress” is a species of identity separate from Norma Jeane’s. High Anxiety is the result. “Every instant,” the novelist writes, “was a streetcar rattling past she needed to catch and was in terror she might miss.”
In Oates’s version, the sweet decent girl has to be turned into a tramp or slut in order to be sold. Soon, she is the victim of constant sniggers and rumours. Half the time she is shrewd in the way you would expect a tough man to be; the other half, she is in a trance. Monroe’s screen character projected the impression that she could be dominated as easily as a child. She promised easy sex in 1950s America where sex was difficult to come by outside the pedestrian confines of marriage. Yet, despite this theatrical sexuality, we can identify with the actress’s vulnerability. Monroe’s fragility is reassuring where star ego is usually threatening and inhuman.
This combination of sexuality and vulnerability is a rare one. Think of the many pretenders to Marilyn’s throne; none will remind you of the Beggar Maid. Think of Sharon Stone, think of Madonna. Hoochie coochie, sure; but precious little vulnerability. Both performers give the impression that it would definitely be a brave lad who would attempt to storm those battlements.
After a year, Monroe is dropped from her Studio contract. She is reduced to doing low-rent modelling sessions that lead up to the famous calendar nudes, which, Oates points out, earned $50 for her and millions for others. From then on, The Blonde Actress is transformed into a fertility idol that spills money. But for Norma Jeane, there is this “distance” between herself and her body. “Marilyn Monroe,” writes Oates, “was just one of her roles and not the one that most engaged her.”
Monroe, in this version, is more of a sleepwalker than an actress; she has no technique, just a raw conviction that Oates sees as a form of poetic genius; the famous voice is breathless and whispery but extremely powerful. John Huston, a.k.a. The Maverick Director, is reluctant to cast her in The Asphalt Jungle, especially when Monroe has the moxie to lecture the director about the script and everybody else’s role. Norma Jeane is an aspiring intellectual who says deep and mysterious things in the voice of a ten-year-old. Nonetheless when The Director spots her voluptuous behind moving away from him, he gives Monroe the role.
In Oates’s bitter version, Monroe’s personal relationships with men are scarcely more edifying than those of a professional nature. Sex, in this version, is best for Monroe in front of a camera. Oates does not shy away from sexual depiction but in her hands physical love remains largely unappetizing. Few readers will emerge from this novel in a state of perfervid arousal. No man, beginning with the studio executive who anally violates Monroe, escapes with much credit here. Oates smashes the male icons of sports and politics into little, despicable pieces. Joe DiMaggio, a.k.a. The Ex-Athlete, is a macho creep who reeks of hair oil and whisky. The Yankee Clipper sets up their first date through her agent, as if it were a business deal. While Monroe thinks she has finally found her lost father, the uncomprehending DiMaggio demands that the world-famous movie star behave like a traditional Italian wife. Their divorce results in her first suicide attempt.
John F. Kennedy comes off even worse. The most beloved American president of the modern era treats Monroe like a hooker. In a truly shocking scene that brings to mind Clinton and Lewinsky, a massively ruthless and insensitive Kennedy forces Monroe to go down on him in a New York hotel while he is dealing with Castro and the Cuban missile crisis over the phone. Oates, no flatterer, describes JFK’s penis as “a slug.” After the novelist is done with Kennedy, you think he deserved whatever Oswald or whoever handed out in Dallas.
In this gallery of male shits, Arthur Miller, a.k.a. The Playwright, is treated only marginally better. Dull and earnest, he is the only man who behaves decently with Monroe; she despises him for it. Miller writes The Misfits for Monroe as a love gift; she dumps him anyhow. Only Marlon Brando, a.k.a. The Dark Prince, passes muster with Oates because, royally sated with women, his relations with Monroe are nobly chaste. Similarly, her intimacy with a twin-like pair of fictional beautiful losers, Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr., outcast sons of famous Hollywood fathers, is treated sympathetically because the lads are gay lovers.
In Blonde, Oates has created a style whose complexity is equal to that of her protagonist. There is the basic foundation of psychological realism, overlaid with the pop fairytale. That would be complicated enough, but the entire mise en scene, as it were, is rendered with a kind of impressionistic minuteness of detail of this sort: “The slightly reddened skin of her bare left hand,” she writes of Gladys, “was stippled with small diamond shapes imprinted from the tight-fitting glove.” In addition, the novelist provides horrific surreal extensions of a Cronenbergian nature from time to time. For instance, after one of many abortions, Monroe thinks she sees a nightclub attendant handing her a bloody fetus.
Hallucinations of this sort bring us naturally to the subject of drugs. Oates depicts Norma Jeane as first taking codeine for menstrual cramps. Then, in fairytale mode, the outcast Gemini twins introduce her to barbiturates, a.k.a. A Magic Potion. When the doomed Monroe dies, it is not by her own hand but by injection of an emissary of authority whom Oates dubs The Sharpshooter.
But when it comes to elaborating the mysteries surrounding Monroe’s death, Oates is not in the same league as a writer like James Ellroy. She has the FBI monitoring Monroe’s promiscuity at the heights of social power. Here, J. Edgar Hoover does not approve of Monroe’s uninhibited influence on the public, the Kennedys are alarmed and some shadowy Agency ends up killing her. While Oates has a shrewd eye for the vanities of men in most other walks of life, her notion of the type of heavy who inhabits the fringes of law enforcement is vague to say the least. Nor does she provide much detail of the clandestine machinations necessary for eliminating a figure as prominent as Monroe.
Whoever was responsible, by the end, Norma Jeane was a don’t-give-a-damn Ava Gardner type. When you don’t give a damn, bad, bad things happen. As the Commie photographer responsible for the calendar nudes reflects, Norma Jeane was “a creature unprotected by society,” doomed to a squalid death from the start. Oates’s conspiracy-theory version has the virtue of making Monroe a true American martyr: Marilyn died for your sins.
During that first trip to Hollywood, I had my first experience with that arcane Studio ritual, the pitch meeting. At pitch meetings, writers and others try to sell executives on the idea of buying a movie that as yet is just a notion inside their heads. At the end of my first pitch meeting, all the Suits present were wreathed in smiles. Jesus, I thought, they love my idea. First time out and I’ve struck gold! Of course, I had done no such thing. The notion never went a step further. I had just received my first lesson in the arcane etiquette of Hollywood.
As portrayed by Kim Masters and Tom King, Michael Eisner and David Geffen, two of The Studio’s most powerful contemporary troll lords, are masters of such arts of manoeuvre. Eisner rescued Disney from corporate decrepitude and helped transform it into the juggernaut it is today. Geffen started out in the rock ‘n’roll business, discovered Jackson Browne and The Eagles, and helped make Tom Cruise a star. If Monroe was a freak, Geffen and Eisner can be definitely characterized as monsters.
All those film schools that feature courses along the lines of “The Semiotics of Ernst Lubitsch” would do well to jettison those “texts” in favour of these gossip-filled, jargon-ridden business books. In Masters’ The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else and King’s The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood, Eisner and Geffen will introduce the aspiring filmmaker to the Machiavellian concepts that allowed them to rise to the heights of monsterdom. There is first “the elastic go.” In this manoeuvre, the executive greenlights your project. Then, mysteriously, nothing seems to happen. The project dies like a dog. Then, there is the “slow no,” where after months of agonizing suspense, the project gets the thumbs down.
Both Eisner and Geffen are slick and self-promoting, obsessed with power and status, always ambivalent and hard to pin down. The attack always comes from the rear; both men inevitably remind observers of Budd Schulberg’s legendary hustler, Sammy Glick. In one anecdote, Eisner enthuses about a project to a couple of producers. He loves it, it will the greatest film ever, etc., etc. The instant they are out of his office, he turns to a flunky and says, “If you make a deal with those people, I’ll fire you.”
Like Blonde, both these books are extensive catalogues of betrayal. “I admire the grace with which you lie,” Geffen, in all seriousness, tells David Begelman shortly before the latter is indicted for embezzlement. Eisner routinely uses his family and their wholesome activities as cover for his business manoeuvres. With his henchman Jeffrey Katzenberg, he became one of the greatest hardball players of all time, reaching a high point of sorts when he forced a daycare centre in Florida to paint over a wall where Disney characters had been depicted without permission.
It is a far cry from the artistic depth and brio of Joyce Carol Oates to the industry reportage of Masters and King. Instead of poetic description, you get the sales rep’s jargon of contemporary business writing with its “hard sells,” “awkward fits” and “huge stretches.” While Marilyn Monroe is distant enough in time to be the darling of the highbrows, Eisner and Geffen are still very much with us. Together with cohorts such as Barry Diller and Katzenberg, they are in large part responsible for the present state of Hollywood, known in some quarters as the Dark Suit era. Their stories are most enlightening for anybody who aspires to understand the movie business.
From an affluent background, Eisner started out in television in the 1970s. With Barry Diller, according to Masters, he helped appropriate the notion of the Movie of the Week from a helpful producer. When Eisner moved on to Paramount he brought the MOW idea with him, which then became the notorious High Concept and effectively put an end to the Golden Age of the Cinema of the 1970s. Attracted to programming with broad popular appeal and to success that Wall Street could understand, Eisner developed the pernicious notion that you should be able to state the idea for the movie in a sentence, one that could be used as a tag line in TV Guide. High Concept is to movies what the sound bite is to TV news; together they contribute mightily to the current dumbed-down cultural landscape.
While Eisner is more or less a Corporate Suit, Geffen shows a little of the Norma Jeane-style social range. A real estate investor and art collector, Geffen is known to the tabloids as “The Richest Man in Hollywood.” The first of the great gay Executives, he bonded with Bill Clinton after he got wind of the Religious Right’s anti-gay agenda in the early 199os. The last guy to be anybody’s victim, Geffen took Clinton in hand, giving advice on how to spin the press. After all, Wag the Dog is not that far from reality. As they say, politics is showbiz for ugly people and The Studio has much to teach The White House.
Geffen comes from a Brooklyn background nearly as disturbed as Norma Jeane’s, and the key to his success lies in an ability to dupe talented people into believing he is on their side for long enough to manipulate them toward his own ends. Curiously enough, the one artist foxy enough to get the better of Geffen was shrewd Bob Dylan, who took the tour album away from the diminutive hustler after Geffen put together his comeback with The Band in the early 1970s. Geffen countered by bad-mouthing the legendary troubadour to all and sundry as “cheap, ego-ridden, mean, and petty.” Joni Mitchell, another disaffected client of Geffen’s, famously characterized him in “A Free Man in Paris” as the man stoking “the star-making machinery behind the popular song.”
It is a dark, symbiotic process that goes on in the bowels of The Studio, that dark transaction between Monster and Freak, between icon and icon-maker. Novelists, no matter how humble, believe they have a shot at stardom for themselves; screenwriters eventually come to the realization that they rank slightly higher than the costume lady and the hairstyle artist, but only a little bit. In the celebrity culture, the screenwriter is a technician who creates “roles” for stars in the same way that a tailor might style a suit of clothes. No matter how great a dramatic masterpiece you might have created, it will languish in your desk until a star actor deigns to play it.
If the movies were less important in the culture, this particular little insight might have relevance only to those who wish to toil in those dark dungeons of The Studio. Since the days of Marilyn, however, the dark powers of the place have spread over the globe through mega-mergers like AOL-Time Warner. Marilyn was not its first martyr, just the most prominent. The danger is that unless we can kick the celebrity habit, we may all now follow in her footsteps.