Marilyn Monroe

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Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 19, 2011 8:29 pm

My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark – review

By Aimee Shalan

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 15 November 2011 08.59 GMT


My Week With Marilyn: The Prince, the Showgirl and Me
by Colin Clark

In 1956, Clark (brother of Tory politician and diarist Alan) spent a summer, aged 23 and straight out of Oxford, working on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. The film united Marilyn Monroe with Sir Laurence Olivier and 40 years later Clark's diary about the experience became a bestselling book. But one week was missing. My Week with Marilyn tells the tale of those omitted days, during which Marilyn asked Colin, who died in 2002, to help her escape the stress of stardom and of balancing her honeymoon with Arthur Miller with the demanding filming schedule. This new edition of his acclaimed memoirs brings both stories together in one volume, with an introduction by Simon Curtis, director of a new film based on the book, and an interview with the screenwriter Adrian Hodges. While the world could probably do without yet another book about Marilyn, Clark is both a sharp and affectionate diarist. Having landed the job through family connections, he did everything in his power to make himself indispensible and his book has an entertaining narrative bounce.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 12:47 pm

My Week With Marilyn – review

The stand-off between Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier while making The Prince and the Showgirl is recreated wonderfully in this entertaining film

Peter Bradshaw
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 24 November 2011 14.46 GMT


My Week With Marilyn. Photograph: Laurie Sparham

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to Britain to make a movie at Pinewood Studios with Laurence Olivier. This was the tense and ill-fated light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, scripted by Terence Rattigan, a film that became a legend for the lack of chemistry between its insecure and incompatible stars. One was a sexy, feminine, sensual and mercurial diva. The other would go on to make Some Like It Hot.

My Week with Marilyn
Production year: 2011
Countries: UK, USA
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 98 mins
Directors: Simon Curtis
Cast: Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Williams, Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker
More on this film

The story is told – or part of it – in this intensely enjoyable, entirely insubstantial movie featuring glorious performances from Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Williams as Olivier and Monroe, participants in a love triangle of two stars and a nobody. The whole thing is seen from the standpoint of the film's star-struck third assistant director, Colin Clark, son of the great art historian Kenneth, and younger brother of the notorious Tory MP Alan. The movie-mad youngster had wangled a job in Olivier's production office, been hired as a dogsbody on the movie, and something in this pretty ingénu caught the eye of Marilyn herself. With her genius for enslaving dazzled men to a courtier's life of gallantry and self-abasement, she made him her confidant and helpmeet. In 1995, Clark published his diaries from that time, but then in 2000, landing a deferred dramatic punch, published a further memoir – on which this film is based – revealing an intimate, romantic week alone with Marilyn when her husband Arthur Miller had gone away. Of course, he fell hard for the bewitching star.

Was Clark on oath with all the details? And could it actually have been his closet gay streak – not mentioned in this film – which Marilyn sensed more shrewdly than Colin himself, and which made her feel safe around him? Maybe. Either way, it is a beguiling adventure. Poor Colin, out of his league and out of his depth.

Eddie Redmayne does a very good job as Colin, but the scene is utterly stolen from him in various ways by the two above-the-title players. Branagh is tremendous as Olivier: this is a part he was born to play. It's a marvel to see the corners of his mouth extend outwards, in a grimace of distaste, and his eyes become dead black discs, like the eyes of a diamondback rattlesnake preparing to digest a large mammal. The Kenny/Larry combination results in a nuclear fission of camp-theatricality. It is a complete joy to see Branagh's Olivier erupt in queeny frustration at Marilyn's lateness, space-cadet vagueness, and preposterous Method acting indulgence. He sometimes appears to be channelling the older and more sinister Olivier of Marathon Man, a movie in which the great man was again paired with a Method performer. But Branagh revives Olivier with wit, intelligence and charm.

However, in art as in life, Olivier's spotlight is taken away by Marilyn, played terrifically well by Williams: this is a figure she recreates, not by hamming up the pouty lips and breathiness, but the scared and brimming eyes, wide with unshed tears – terrified and angered by the thought of another explosion of temper from "Sir Olivier". She is childlike and yet always aware at some unconscious, almost physiological level of how she is shaping and controlling the situation. Olivier is furious at the continued presence of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), but Marilyn's key strategic victory comes when Sybil Thorndike, played with robust wit by Judi Dench, sides with Marilyn in an argument and tells Larry not to be a bully in front of the entire crew: a betrayal that sours him permanently. And then Marilyn, to Olivier's bemusement and vague resentment, ups her game while capriciously taking up Colin as her temporary favourite.

Simon Curtis's film shows how sexual intrigue is such a compulsion on a film set that it must always find an outlet somewhere, somehow. Everyone might have expected a sexy spark between Olivier and Monroe but it was not to be because they were both so needy, both so used to adoration. So the sexiness is displaced on to the hapless Colin himself; he is the lightning conductor. The film set is the perfect place for an intense, illusory affair: the idea that a sexual fling "doesn't count on location" is now an industry truism, because it is a world where the rules of the boring outside world are suspended. I was reminded of Truffaut's Day for Night, where the business of filming is itself madly sexy.

As for Clark himself, blinded by the powerful Klieg light of Marilyn's sexy celebrity, did he misremember or misinterpret their week together, making that historically dire film? Not necessarily. But it was clearly the greatest moment of his life, which occurred at a time when stars, however surrounded by courtiers, could still have these serendipitous "morganatic" meetings with ordinary mortals. My Week With Marilyn is light fare: it doesn't pretend to offer any great insight, but it offers a great deal of pleasure and fun, and an unpretentious homage to a terrible British movie that somehow, behind the scenes, generated very tender almost-love story.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 1:02 pm

My Week with Marilyn: fact or self-serving fiction?

Did Marilyn Monroe really get close to an assistant while filming The Prince and the Showgirl? Perhaps, but we've only got his word for it


Studied not sexy … Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Entertainment grade: C+
History grade: C–

My Week with Marilyn
Production year: 2011
Countries: UK, USA
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 98 mins
Directors: Simon Curtis
Cast: Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Williams, Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker
More on this film

In 1956, aspiring film-maker Colin Clark secured his first job on the Pinewood set of The Prince and the Showgirl. During the shoot, according to two diaries he later published, he became close to Marilyn Monroe.

People


Wannabe … Clark's determined to make it in the movies

Hoping for a job on a film set, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) sits in the offices of Laurence Olivier Productions until they let him have one. He becomes third assistant director on what is then known as The Sleeping Prince. My Week With Marilyn portrays Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) as a victim of her own overwhelming sexual desirability – a problem many Guardian readers struggle with on a daily basis. Every heterosexual man in the vicinity can think of nothing but how to get into her knickers. In real life, Clark was less starstruck. "Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye," he wrote after seeing Monroe on set. "No wonder she is so insecure." Hmm. Perhaps he wasn't quite such a gentleman as this movie makes out.

Chemistry


Who's the bigger diva? … Olivier loathes Monroe

Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) worries that her husband Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), directing, will fall for Monroe's charms. Instead, from the first day, Olivier and Monroe loathe each other. Olivier can't bear her unreliability, her emotional fragility and her fussy Method acting; Monroe finds him cruel. This is true. Jack Cardiff, cinematographer on The Prince and the Showgirl, remembered Olivier's sharp verdict on Monroe even 25 years later: "She was a bitch."

Casting


Real deal … hard to portray without pastiche

Some iconic historical figures are almost impossible to play without slipping into pastiche. Along with Monroe, they include Elvis Presley and Winston Churchill; usually Adolf Hitler, too, though Bruno Ganz arguably pulls it off in Downfall. Williams is gorgeous, and creditably imitates Monroe's voice, walk and even facial expressions. Inevitably, though, it's all too studied – and studied mannerisms just aren't sexy. When you're playing Marilyn Monroe, this is a major problem. Meanwhile, Branagh looks nothing like Olivier. Still, given far more scope for invention than Williams is, he steals the show. "Trying to teach Marilyn to act," he bellows, "is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger."

Marriage


Miller time … Monroe with her playwright husband

Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is already in trouble. He flies back to New York, and she begins a flirtation with Clark. "I'm going to settle down and be a good wife to him," she tells Clark, in between snogs. "I'm going to learn to make matzo balls as good as his dad." Monroe did once help Miller's mother make a traditional Jewish meal of chicken soup with matzo balls. Alas, her famous comment on that occasion – probably apocryphal – isn't in this movie: "Is that the only part of the matzo you can eat?"

Sources


Friend or foe? … Clark gets close to Monroe

Historically, the film's main problem is that its source for the alleged Clark-Monroe liaison is Clark's diary. In the film's key sequence, Monroe takes too many pills, locks herself in her bedroom, and collapses. Clark climbs in through the window. He refuses to open the door to her worried friends, asserting that he is the best person to look after her, and says he will sleep on the sofa. Instead, he gets into bed with the woozy and incoherent woman and starts telling her he loves her. According to him, that's as far as it goes – but Monroe can't remember anything the next morning, so you've only got his word for it. Clark's diary and the movie present this as a loving and quasi-heroic attempt by Clark to "save" Monroe. In fact, it's creepy. Disquietingly, the film doesn't question Clark's version of events, though a lot of it can't be verified and sounds like self-serving fantasy. For all his talk about wanting to protect Monroe, is it protecting her to sell your story – twice – when she's dead and can't answer back?

Verdict


Kiss and tell … Clark publishes two diaries about his time on the film

Both Clark and this movie join the large but ignoble ranks of those who are drawn to Marilyn Monroe by her desperate vulnerability – but end up exploiting it.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  pinhedz on Sat Nov 26, 2011 2:25 pm

eddie wrote:
Michelle Williams needs about 10 more pounds on her. bounce

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 2:29 pm

Olivier on the death of Monroe: "The complete victim of sensation and ballyhoo".

Murdoch phone-hacking before Murdoch.


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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  pinhedz on Sat Nov 26, 2011 2:36 pm

Truman Capote said one time that Olivier was a mental lightweight.

Upon hearing Olivier interviewed on TV by Dick Cavett, I found myself thinking that Capote had a point.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 2:42 pm

pinhedz wrote:Upon hearing Olivier interviewed on TV by Dick Cavett, I found myself thinking that Capote had a point.

Olivier always did the "luvvy" number in interviews. It was the media convention of his era.

I'm more interested in the description of Olivier's stage acting in tragic roles as resembling "a series of William Blake engravings seen under a strobe light".

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  pinhedz on Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:03 pm

Capote considered Olivier a very great actor.

But he argued that it would be impossible for a highly intelligent person to be a great actor.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:14 pm

pinhedz wrote:it would be impossible for a highly intelligent person to be a great actor.

There's 'intelligence' and there's emotional intelligence.

Watch The Prince and the Showgirl today and Monroe acts Olivier off the screen.

Admittedly, Larry was carrying the whole burden of direction as well as trying to concentrate on his own role (as well as dealing with Marilyn's eccentricities), but he looks stagey compared to her


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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  pinhedz on Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:31 pm

Capote's claim was that too much thinking would always stifle emotional intelligence, so smart people would always fail as actors (he considered Richard Burton a bad actor).

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:39 pm

Olivier was a cerebral actor, I think: very "tricky". Always some 'gimmick' or other in his approach to his roles- often highly effective, but still a 'gimmick', rather than an emotional truth.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:42 pm

pinhedz wrote:he considered Richard Burton a bad actor

So did the celebrated English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. I think I've mentioned before than Tynan considered Burton too clenched, too controlled to ever "let the god of Theatre enter in".

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  pinhedz on Sat Nov 26, 2011 4:06 pm

eddie wrote:...too clenched, too controlled to ever "let the god of Theatre enter in".
Capote said "too intelligent," that he couldn't let himself go, couldn't forget himself and act with reckless abandon.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 8:19 pm


The Prince and the Showgirl- poster.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Nov 26, 2011 8:27 pm

pinhedz wrote:Capote said "too intelligent," that he couldn't let himself go, couldn't forget himself and act with reckless abandon.

I'd cite Simon Callow as one example of a highly intelligent actor (biographer of Orson Welles and Charles Laughton, for example) who COULD let himself go with reckless abandon. Have you seen Four Weddings and a Funeral? (The funeral is that of Callow's character).

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  pinhedz on Sun Nov 27, 2011 12:12 am

Yes--saw that. Capote was followed on the Cavett show by other guests who respectfully disagreed with him.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Tue Dec 06, 2011 6:58 am

Marilyn's Last Sessions by Michel Schneider – review

A novel based on the records of Monroe's analysis is grimly fascinating

John Banville

guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 23 November 2011 08.59 GMT


Marilyn Monroe in January 1954. Photograph: Baron/Getty Images

It is hard to know by what standards the author of this book can claim it to be a novel. Certainly it does not have the shape, tone or atmosphere of a crafted piece of fiction. What it most resembles is one of those immensely long Vanity Fair articles which start off with screaming headlines and lurid cross-heads, but which after a short distance one has to pursue into the ad-less wastes of the magazine's back pages. One keeps reading in the hope of finding shocking revelations, scurrilous imputations or at least good low-grade gossip, all the while suspecting that one is wasting one's time, which would probably be better spent watching Some Like It Hot on DVD.


Marilyn's Last Sessions
by Michel Schneider, translated by Will Hobson

This is not to say that Marilyn's Last Sessions is a bad book, but it is such a strange hybrid that one hardly knows what to make of it. To be fair, Michel Schneider, a Frenchman, or a man who writes in French, is cheerfully uncertain both of his aims and of what he has achieved. In a brief prologue, which he opens with a nicely acid exchange between Marilyn Monroe and her friend Truman Capote, Schneider admits that, "Like Marilyn's hair, this novel is a phoney of the bona-fide kind" – and like Capote's Holly Golightly, whom her creator describes in Breakfast at Tiffany's as a "genuine phoney". After all, the portrait of Holly, so Schneider informs us, was based partly on MM, as we shall refer to her from here on.

The book, Schneider writes, is "inspired by actual events", and all dates, locations and conversations are "the protagonists' own". However, "this is a work of fiction. The forger in me hasn't hesitated to impute to one person what another has said, seen or experienced, to ascribe to them a diary that hasn't been found, articles or notes that have been invented, and dreams and thoughts for which there is no source." One could not ask for greater candour, yet the confession is hardly helpful to us in reading the book. Nor is the writing. Lamentably, Schneider presents himself as a hard-boiled commentator who shows what an insider he is by referring to Hollywood as "Tinseltown" and delivering himself of deathless observations such as "some actors are like stars whose visibility belies the fact they've stopped shining".

The "last sessions" of the title are those that MM had in the final two years of her life with the psychiatrist Ralph Greenson. In the 1950s Greenson, who had worked with Freud in pre-war Vienna, was at the top of his profession, highly regarded both by his psychoanalytical colleagues and by the many screen celebrities among whom he moved – as well as MM, his patients included Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra, the latter one of MM's last lovers. Greenson seems to have been entirely screen-struck, and had many connections with Hollywood. His work with traumatised soldiers returning from the second world war had led the novelist Leo Rosten to cast him, in light disguise, as the hero of his novel Captain Newman, M.D., which was later turned into a successful movie starring Gregory Peck. Privately, says Schneider, Greenson "wanted to be known to posterity as 'the man who listened to images'".

The good doctor was well aware of the elements of fantasy and storytelling that the process of psychoanalysis harbours, and throughout his life he seemed to consider himself as much a scriptwriter as a doctor, in the same way that Freud thought of himself – rightly, alas – as a kind of novelist when he was writing up his case-histories. Greenson himself was as much of a self-invention as MM. He was born Romeo Greenschpoon, the son of well-to-do Jewish Russian immigrants. He had a twin sister, who was named Juliet – according to Schneider, the siblings "were taught to say, in unison, 'We're Romeo and Juliet, and we're twins'." No wonder the poor schmuck became a psychiatrist.

Greenson and MM were drawn to each other as moths to flame – oh dear, the Schneider style is catching – and their patient-doctor relations rapidly turned into a folie à deux. MM was a deeply damaged personality and depended on Greenson for the maintenance of some form of sanity in the last, tormented months of her life. As for Greenson, Schneider has him say in the aftermath of MM's death: "She had become my child, my pain, my sister, my madness." Phew. In old age Greenson came up with a calmer and altogether more acute summation of their mutual predicament: "I was crazy about acting and used psychoanalysis to satisfy my need to please, while she was an intellectual who shielded herself from the pain of thinking by talking in a little girl's voice and putting on a show of being dumb."

We know MM to have been a singular person – "phenomenon" would be a better word – but in Schneider's portrayal of her she is deeply strange, part changeling, part demon, part lost soul. Christened Norma Jeane Mortenson, she took her mother's maiden name, Baker; then Ben Lyon, an executive at 20th Century Fox, came up with the name Marilyn Monroe, which delighted her. As her career went on, however, MM became her very own inescapable Mr Hyde; as she said, "I drag Marilyn Monroe around with me like an albatross". One of the most poignant and eerie anecdotes in the book is told by Capote. After being with her while she sat for hours (adjust for Capotian exaggeration) in front of a looking-glass, "He had asked her what she was doing and she'd replied, 'I'm watching her'."

In the end, Marilyn's Last Sessions tells the story of a double tragedy. MM was self-destructive, but also she was one of those people who damage anyone who comes too close. Jean-Paul Sartre said of her, "It's not just light that comes off her, it's heat. She burns through the screen", and it was a heat that could sear the stoutest of hearts. Greenson described what he and MM shared as a loveless love, and one suspects that is all that MM could offer to anyone, even to herself. MM died, and Norma Jeane along with her; Greenson survived them both by 17 years. As he said: "She was a poor creature whom I tried to help and ended up hurting."

Marilyn's Last Sessions, for all its fallings-short, is fascinating, in an awful sort of way. Schneider's talents were just not commensurate with his material – think what Nabokov would have done with such a story! Other writers have had a go – notably Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew O'Hagan – yet MM still awaits a master novelist with the soul of a poet to do her true justice.

• John Banville's The Infinities is published by Picador.

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 11, 2011 9:18 pm

Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher: the iron ladies

Monroe and Thatcher might seem to have played opposite roles. But the biographical films My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady suggest that their similarities outweighed their differences

Sarah Churchwell

guardian.co.uk, Friday 9 December 2011 22.55 GMT


Original photographs by Sam Shaw/Rex Features; David Levenson/Getty; digital manipulation by Simon Schmitt for GNM imaging

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, impersonation is fast becoming our culture's favourite form of acting. At least since Nicole Kidman's nose won an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, famous actors have been applauded for pretending to be other famous people: Helen Mirren as the Queen, Michael Sheen as David Frost, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, the list of actors nominated for Oscars for impersonating famous people goes on and on. Now we have two more to add to the list, in star turns already accumulating predictions of Oscar nominations: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.


My Week with Marilyn
Production year: 2011
Countries: UK, USA
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 98 mins
Directors: Simon Curtis
Cast: Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Williams, Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker
More on this film

At one point in The Iron Lady, Thatcher complains: "It used to be about trying to do something. Now it's about trying to be someone." It's a nice turn of phrase, if a trifle glib. It's also a false distinction, and a rather ironic complaint to hear in the mouth of Meryl Streep as she tries to "be" Margaret Thatcher. Wanting to be someone in an age of mass media is not quite as degraded, or irrational, an ambition as this implies: we are all lost in a crowd, reminded of our anonymity even as our culture encourages us to express our individuality, to be all we can be. We are told to aspire to be someone: in a society of spectacle, we need to make ourselves noticed. Image becomes all in an age of celebrity, especially for women, who have always been judged by their appearance. Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher each did something, and became someone, by rigorously controlling how she appeared. As Thatcher famously said (although not in The Iron Lady), "being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't." This is because being powerful, like being a lady, is more about what you do than who you are. There's a reason we call them gender "roles".

Whatever these two new films' other liabilities, part of what makes their central performances so dazzling – Streep in particular is magnificent – is that both actors are taking on the double task of impersonating women who, notoriously, were themselves said to impersonate women. Both Monroe and Thatcher emerged from a process of "makeover", ruthlessly transforming themselves into the type of woman (they thought) their culture would recognise and reward. Both women drew attention to themselves as women at the same time as they rejected entrenched, reductive ideas about what a woman was supposed to do or be – and validated others. Thatcher could declare: "Women have plenty of roles in which they can serve with distinction: some of us even run countries. But generally we are better at wielding the handbag than the bayonet." Or as Monroe said: "I don't like the idea of playing a man in a woman's body – you know? It just doesn't seem feminine." Such statements ensured they were seen as traitors to their sex by some, as women who pushed back the cause of women generally, and yet both also had a tremendous fan-base with other women.

In obvious ways these two women were poles apart, from vastly different social, cultural and domestic backgrounds, and with vastly different abilities and interests. Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford, then became a barrister, before being elected Britain's first woman prime minister. Monroe never finished high school, and spent the rest of her life ashamed of her lack of formal education; she attained fame as a sex symbol, and then tried to be taken seriously as an actor. "First, I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm a person. Then maybe I'll convince myself that I'm an actress," she said.

They were born within a year of each other, Thatcher in 1925, Monroe in 1926. At 86, Thatcher has outlived Monroe by half a century: Marilyn was just 36 when a drug overdose – probably accidental – killed her in 1962. When Monroe died, she was the most famous woman in the world; Thatcher had just been appointed a parliamentary under-secretary.

Symbolically, Monroe and Thatcher may look like mirror opposites, representing respectively victim and bully, vulnerability and indomitability, insecurity and arrogance, failure and success, self-destruction and survival. But these dichotomies are as simplistic as they are deterministic. Insisting on her stardom, Marilyn could certainly be a bully, while calling her a failure erases the basic fact of her triumphant success – and endurance – as the American century's pre-eminent star. By the same token, Thatcher was hardly given a free ride to the top, and emerged shaped but unbowed from the battles that formed her political persona.

The affinities of "Marilyn and Maggie", it turns out, are as profound as their differences. They were both defined by emerging neo-Victorian ideas about women; and they both tactically deployed traditional ideas of femininity, so often used against them, to reach the pinnacle of male-dominated professions.

If Thatcher was the "iron lady", Marilyn was also likened to iron, which some may find surprising. We are far more accustomed to a despairing, damaged Marilyn than a tough one. Her longtime acting coach and companion, Paula Strasberg, much mocked in My Week with Marilyn, offered a memorable description of the woman she saw as a surrogate daughter: "Marilyn has the fragility of a female but the constitution of an ox. She is a beautiful hummingbird made of iron." A journalist who interviewed Marilyn said that "all actresses are made of steel," but "Monroe was cast in an even mightier mould than most of them." The writer Karen Blixen met Monroe and remarked: "I shall never forget the almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness which she conveyed. I had all the wild nature of Africa amicably gazing at me with mighty playfulness." We don't associate Marilyn with might anymore, but we should: people who knew her recognised her power. Monroe and Thatcher were both iron ladies.

Together, they personify and magnify the story of Anglo-American women across the 20th century: the struggle to achieve political and economic power (or even parity); the realpolitik of negotiating with a world that insists on judging women by their sexual attractiveness to men; efforts to balance work and domesticity; and the violent misogyny both fought, manipulated, subverted and ultimately triumphed over, at least temporarily, at least in some ways. Uniting them, recognising their similarities instead of dividing and conquering by insisting on their differences, becomes almost a subversive act in itself, an acknowledgment of Thatcher's performance and Monroe's power.

Almost exactly 22 years ago, Marion Bowman argued in these pages that Thatcher "exploited her femininity as a weapon in the political process": "Whatever the qualities of the private woman, the public image of Margaret Thatcher is almost as much a construction as Dame Edna Everage's. From the ludicrous posed photos at the kitchen sink on the day she became Tory Leader, to the famous makeover of the voice, hair and clothes, to the double acts on the international stage with Hollywood-trained Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher's femininity has been deliberately moulded and put to powerful use. She has tremendous appeal as a role model for modern women, while paradoxically emphasising their traditional roles as homemakers and mothers, and remaining indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the needs of working women."

That was 1989, and the comparison to Edna Everage was revealing: Thatcher was repeatedly likened to a female impersonator, a man in blue dresses. The reason for this is simple, and apparently shatterproof: we have so firmly linked power and masculinity that we think a powerful woman is a category error. Instead of changing our ideas about power, we change the sex of a powerful woman. If the lady's not for turning, then try turning her into a man.

The idea that Marilyn also impersonated femininity, suggesting that it was a role one could play and play with, is equally a truism in discussions of Monroe. In 2002, a book of photographs called Becoming Marilyn emphasised the moment of transition from "Norma Jeane" to "Marilyn", the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. A review in Newsweek noted: "We still have versions of the Marilyn syndrome – women living up to, even parodying, men's bizarre and contradictory perceptions of them – but nowhere in a form so pure and naive." You might think being knowing, rather than naive, was a precondition of parody: and you'd be right. When Monroe announced that she intended to form her own production company and control her own films – which is the back story of My Week with Marilyn – a reporter asked her, "Is this the new Marilyn?" "No, I'm the same person," she replied. "But it's a new suit."

Both of these films emphasise the roles that women play, the importance of costume, hair and performance. In a scene at Windsor Castle in My Week with Marilyn, Williams's Monroe, faced suddenly with an adoring crowd, asks: "Shall I be her?", and plays "Marilyn" (a trick that many who knew Monroe reported). Similarly, Streep's Thatcher puts US secretary of state Alexander Haig in his place by offering to "play mother" and pour his tea for him. (And of course Marilyn was famous for singing "Every Baby Needs a da-da-Daddy".) They are underscoring the degree to which femininity is always, in a sense, an act, even a masquerade: get the right clothes, hair, make-up, voice, adjust the stockings, and sail out into the world. If both Monroe and Thatcher performed femininity strategically, to deflect or disarm criticism, this is also consistent with conventional femininity: women were always encouraged to be self-deprecating, to apologise, to undermine their own power. This is something else that Thatcher and Monroe shared: they were out to prove themselves, and they were prepared to use any weapons they could find. If that meant handbags at dawn, so be it.

Thatcher was treated with respect, Monroe with far less respect, in part for legitimate reasons: Thatcher was prime minister, Monroe an actor, a comedian. But although Monroe is still not often taken seriously as a person or as an actor, she is taken very seriously as an image. She would not have considered this much of an achievement, but it is instructive.

Image, impersonation, celebrity, performance: all are questions in a sense of our imaginary identification with other people. When we identify with people, we imagine we are like them, or aspire to be like them, or with them. This can be the imaginative colonisation of other people's lives or identities; when it goes wrong it is stalking, obsession, appropriation. But in its more benign forms it is an act of community. In the case of celebrity and "iconic" people whose images have a collective, imaginative life in our society, they inspire a kind of mass fantasy about themselves. Some may find their image repellant, some attractive, but they exercise a magnetic force. Monroe once said: "I've never fooled anyone. I've let people fool themselves. They didn't bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn't argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn't.".

If icons are fixed ideas about individuals, stereotypes are fixed ideas about groups. Monroe and Thatcher each sought to transcend stereotype but found herself equally locked in the rigid grip of their own image, or self-image. Thatcher wielded real power which eventually diffused into an imaginary, symbolic force: the iconic "iron lady", the return of the mummy, Britain's castrating mother. Marilyn Monroe wielded imaginary, symbolic power – she was, above all, viewed as a sex symbol – which then turned into real power to an extent, although she never had the economic and professional power she sought. Thatcher was seen as authoritarian, dominant, aggressive. Monroe, by contrast, was often passive aggressive. One of the famous quotations that My Week with Marilyn doesn't use (because it is a decorous film that flatters both Monroe and Olivier) comes from a conversation Monroe had with the Guardian's WJ Weatherby. She told him that, during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, Sir Laurence Olivier "came on like someone slumming. He upset me a lot by telling me to" – and here she imitated his voice – "Look sexy, Marilyn." It sounded condescending to me […] I started being bad with him, being late, and he hated it. But if you don't respect your artists, they can't work well. Respect is what you have to fight for." She recognised that her lateness was punitive – she was getting even with Olivier, in the ways women have traditionally found successful. If you're a woman, smile, persuade, cajole, or you'll be called a ball-breaker, a castrator, a bunny-boiler, a witch, a bitch, a nagging wife and a whore. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

"One is not born, but becomes a woman," Simone de Beauvoir observed – but it was her lover, Jean-Paul Sartre, who said "we are all impersonating an identity". What "Marilyn and Maggie" together suggest is that the two propositions are joined: one is not born a woman, but impersonates one. (One doubtless impersonates a man, too, but the role is very different.) In a real sense, imitation is how we all learn to become whoever we are, and role models are an important aspect of such imitation. They show us ideals, and give us ideas. We use words such as "inspirational" for a reason: when we feel isolated, confused, frustrated – or when we are adolescent and thus in a perpetual state of all of the above – inspirations can profoundly affect how we evolve, who we become.

Nor is the pursuit of celebrity necessarily as vacuous as our conversations about it, such as they are, tend to assume. We have always looked up to exemplary figures, first gods, then monarchs, and now celebrities. It is no accident that the rise of celebrity culture coincided with the decline of monarchies in the west. Celebrity reflects not just the impulse to worship, but the need for ideals against which and through which we define ourselves. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them – and many impersonate the great.

Growing up during the 1980s in a desert of American popular culture featuring embarrassing or psychotic women and narcissistic or violent men, the miraculous possibility of the kind of woman I might seek to be appeared without warning when I discovered the old black and white films of the 1930s and 1940s, films made before Marilyn became a star in the infantile, regressive 1950s. These films starred women I could admire, and imagine wanting to be. The first time I saw Katharine Hepburn in Holiday, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, I was Robinson Crusoe seeing a footprint in the sand. They became my role models not for what they did, but for how they appeared – to me. They didn't seem famous, they seemed powerful, unapologetic, self-possessed, confident, glamorous, sharp-tongued, quick-witted, and soignée, and I wanted to be like them. So far I've only achieved unapologetic, but I'm working on the rest.

Meanwhile, our films have continued to regress – and as parables about powerful women, there are serious objections to both My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady. The latter often seems more interested in Thatcher's dementia than her career, and keeps putting her daughter Carol in the frame to suggest the moral of today's favourite sexist cautionary tale: career women ruin their children's lives. My Week with Marilyn falls back on the cliché that Marilyn's career ruined her own life, that her stardom destroyed her. But Marilyn's stardom also made her, and it was her life's triumph, meant to be the ultimate validation of her worth. Just as Thatcher would be appalled at the idea of her dementia becoming a spectacle for audiences to pity, so Monroe would have been furious at a film treating as fact a third assistant director's highly dubious claims, decades after everyone involved had died, to have had a fling with her during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. Colin Clark claims she found him appealing because he was the only one not seeking to capitalise on her star power – in two books indubitably seeking to capitalise on her star power. Both films take as gospel F Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that personality might be a successful series of unbroken gestures. What makes them worth seeing, despite their blinkered visions and limited ideas, is their recognition of the power of these women's performances – even if they can't or won't show the performance of these women's power.

• The Iron Lady is released on January 6.

• Sarah Churchwell is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Granta).

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Re: Marilyn Monroe

Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 7:34 am

Marilyn Monroe at the Getty Images gallery

A new exhibition at London's Getty Images gallery charts Marilyn Monroe's rise from aspiring actress to Hollywood icon. Drawing on a range of largely unseen archive photos, the show – which marks the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death, and runs until 23 May – includes rare video footage and a selection of memorabilia

guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 March 2012 15.05 GMT

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Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 7:36 am


Marilyn Monroe on the balcony of the Ambassador hotel in New York, March 1955. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 7:39 am


Sporting a two-piece polka dot bathing suit and heels, January 1951. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 8:42 am


Monroe photographed by Ted Baron at her home in Palm Springs, January 1954. Photograph: Baron/Getty Images

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Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 8:47 am


Monroe in Hollywood agent Johnny Hyde's backyard in Beverly Hills, 1950. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 8:54 am


At the Ambassador hotel, preparing to see the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, March 1955. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Post  eddie on Sat Mar 17, 2012 8:58 am


Monroe posing on a rooftop about three years before her rise to international stardom. Photograph: Getty Images

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