Over the holiday weekend I finally had the opportunity to see “My Week With Marilyn,” a movie I had been waiting patiently to see for over a month. The film has already received rave reviews and several Golden Globe nominations, most of the accolades being deservedly for Michele Williams’s outstanding performance as Marilyn. But as I was drawn into Williams’s captivating, childlike persona as Marilyn, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Michael and Marilyn. In the past, I’ve written several articles that draw parallels between Michael and other celebrities, including Johnny Depp, Prince, and Jim Morrison. So now I’ve decided to look at the amazing parallels between Michael and Marilyn-and on the way, have made some surprising discoveries!
After seeing the film, I began researching the reviews, as I tend to do. You see, I have this weird tendency to do things in reverse. For example, waiting until after I’ve seen a film-rather than before- to see what the critics have said. Anyway, I discovered an interesting split between the reviews of professional film critics and the reviews of hardcore Marilyn fans and purists. Well, naturally, hardcore fans and puritsts are always harder to please. By nature, they’re going to be much more selective and picky about details, factual inaccuracies, etc; the sort of stuff that most casual moviegoers won’t even notice or ncessarily even care about. Film critics are more concerned with the overall quality of the film itself, and granted, “My Week With Marilyn” is a beautifully made and entertaining film. But the more I researched the life of the real Marilyn Monroe after coming away, the more I’ve come to realize why many of her fans are lambasting this film-for the same reason, I think, that no Michael Jackson biopic will ever satisfy us. Trying to capture the essence of a complex, dynamic personality and life into a two hour flick is never easy. Even if one suspends belief and is willing to accept that this film is just one young man’s fantasy of his “dream woman” (his reality of who Marilyn was) it still bears the burden of yet one more inaccurate portrayal of the legendary screen goddess. Or perhaps it would be more fair to say, just another one-sided portrayal that plays up her vulnerable weaknesses at the expense of a woman I have (since) found far more fascinating, a very smart and savvy businesswoman who had embarked on her own production company by age thirty; who managed to succesfully wage a war against her studio (Fox) to dictate her own financial terms and creative decisions; who is credited with contributing to the downfall of the crumbling studio system; who dedicated hours in acting studios perfecting her craft (even sitting in on classes she was not required to attend). But for all this, the image of the “dumb blonde”-the fragile, vulnerable, child/woman persists. It was a persona she had so carefully and thoroughly created that somewhere along the way, the “real” Marilyn became lost to it.
When Michael died, it wasn’t long before journalists were making the inevitable comparisons of him to Marilyn Monroe. Most, like this Ken Ackerman blog, played up the obvious-albeit cliched’- parallels of Michael and Marilyn as fragile and vulnerable victims of fame. And typically, in those early days and weeks following Michael’s death-when every journalist was all too eager to write about his death but without the facts from the official autopsy even confirmed-they immediatly jumped on the “drug overdose” comparison.
We don’t know the full cause of Michael Jackson’s death. Drugs and sycophants loom large, and accounts point to a lonely person exploited, pressued, finally broken by relentless over-exposed, the bubble existence of celebrity fame.
“A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night,” Marilyn Monroe said back in the 1960s when she, like Jackson, epitomized the bubble existence. “Dogs never bite me. Just humans.”
On August 5, 1962, she too died suddenly of cardiac arrest. She too was achingly young, just 36 years old, beautiful, talented, bursting with personality and vulnerability. The autopsy found eight milligram percent of chloral hydrate and 4.5 milligram percent of Nembutal in her system, and blamed her death on “acute barbiturate poisoning,” resulting from accidental overdose.
Michael’s death, of course, turned out to be much more complex than just another case of a tragic celebrity overdose. Writers and reporters were quick to lump him into the category of another Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland or Heath Ledger-to the extent that it must have been an embarrassing twist when the official coroner report came back listing the death as a “homicide.” But neverthless, they were still able to salvage a field day out of the tragic circumstances that led to that homicide. (Coincidentally, Marilyn-like Michael-had been plagued by chronic insomnia, exacerbated by stress-the very same combination that had led Michael to go to such desperate lengths). And as with Marilyn’s death, Michael’s would be subjected to similar speculations and conspiracy theories. Many of Marilyn’s fans have never been satisfied with the simple “drug overdose” ruling, and it’s easy to dismiss their theories as conspiracy theory nonsense…or was so in the past. But perhaps if Michael’s homicide has served an ultimate purpose, it’s to open the eyes of many to realize that sometimes things in the celebrity world aren’t always as simple or cut and dried as they seem.
One of the scenes from “My Week With Marilyn” that gave me a shudder was when one of the characters commented that the people around Marilyn kept her drugged in order to keep her compliant, so that they could more easily control her. It made me shudder because I suspect Michael was being victimized in much the same way by the vultures and enablers around him. However, I learned on researching after the film that Marilyn wasn’t quite as vulnerable or unaware as these people liked to think (same as with Michael) but perhaps, like Michael, she had gained too much power and control. People feared her; they wanted to keep her “in her place.” (Sound familiar?).
But let’s put aside their deaths for a moment and look at the commanalities of their lives. After all, it is in their lives, and not their respective deaths, where they have the most lessons to teach us. And not just lessons about fame or how we regard celebrities, but in the illusions we build around them-illusions in part perpetuated by the celebrities themselves, but then magnified by the media, to the point that the illusions become accepted as truth by the public.
Marilyn wasn’t a child star, but did share with Michael a dysfunctional and abnormal childhood that scarred her into adulthood. The facts of her childhood have been well documented enough-she never knew who her father was, and her mother was committed to an insane asylum. As a child, Marilyn was shuffled from foster home to foster home. Michael, on the other hand, knew who his family was, and the Jacksons certainly provided a more stable family life or him than what Marilyn had. But in Michael’s case, the dysfunction within the family and working from age five-often in some of the most unsavory environments imaginable for a young child-did their share of damage.
Both Michael and Marilyn seemed to compensate for their childhood traumas by developing similarly childlike personas in adulthood. For Marilyn, the fragile and naive sex kitten was an easy image to fall into; it wasn’t exactly original (the blonde bombshell goes back at least as far as Jean Harlow and Mae West, but West always had a savvy adult sensibility to her act; you never doubted she was all woman!) whereas Marilyn’s image was the carefully calculated, innocent sex-child who seemed virtually unaware of the effect she had on men-and here, I could probably go into a whole psychological case study on the appeal of the duality of innocence and sexuality, but that would be far too complex a subject to get into. However, the 1950’s in particular seemed a ripe time for this combination. I’ve read a lot of interesting case studies about how the sex goddesses of the 50’s probably would never have evolved in any later era. Women like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Brigitte Bardot-ample and big-busted on the outside, but sweet, pliable and childlike within-appealed to a sexually conservative time when urges were still repressed, and women were expected to be little more than sexual children/playthings subjugate to the desires of males. But for Marilyn, I think the role represented something deeper.
Norma Jean Baker did more than just become Marilyn Monroe-she created her! The persona became a convenient shield and protector of the “real” Norma Jean. By many accounts, “Marilyn” was also a persona she was capable of putting on and taking off at will.
Though experiencing one of the peak periods of her life and career, Marilyn was plagued by insomnia to such a degree that a bottle of Seconal was always in reach. More significantly, she was apparently unable to reconcile her image as sex goddess “Marilyn Monroe” with her own identity; she regarded “Marilyn Monroe” and her true self as two different entities.
Actor Eli Wallach has remarked how she could walk through the streets of New York City and not be noticed and then, in a moment’s time, make some inner adjustment to transform herself into the beautiful, breathy, and sensual movie star that everyone recognized. Heads turned, traffic stopped, and fans came running. “I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,” she would say.
There is a scene in “My Week With Marilyn” where Marilyn, in the midst of what has been an idyllic and rare, laidback day in the country suddenly finds herself surrounded by fans who have caught on to her presence. “What do you think,” asks Williams, mimicking Marilyn’s childlike voice, “should I be ‘her?” And instantly she strikes a Monroe pose, as the predictable chaos ensues. However, what the scene fails to depict-as I’m sure was the case in real life-was just how striking the shift was when Marilyn decided to go into “Marilyn Monroe” mode. What her friends have described in real life was a woman who could shift those gears as effortlessly as changing socks-depending on whether she felt like being “Marilyn” at that moment, or not.
Michael, likewise-whether consciously or subconsciously-developed an alter ego “child persona.” I discussed the duality of Michael’s child/man personas (in addition to his other oppositions) in this post a few days ago:
Although this isn’t to say that I think Michael’s childlike persona was entirely an act; it wasn’t. I do believe, however, that “the child” was simply one facet of a very complex personality-and for whatever reason, it was the public facet he purposely chose for the protection of Michael, The Man. Like Marilyn, the sweet, playful, and innocent child was inherent to his appeal, yet at times made him a seemingly puzzling and somewhat threatening contradiction when the Adult asserted itself.
That Michael was perfectly aware of the difference between his public and private personas is evident in this story credited to Lisa Marie, who seemed quite taken aback (but in a good way) to find that Michael in real life was apparently quite the smooth talking Mack daddy who spoke in a low voice, liked his Crown Royal, and knew perfectly well how to seduce a woman, as per this exceprt from “The Magic and the Madness” quoted on the Lacienga Smiled blog:
He truly was misunderstood, he told her. “I know you think I’m gay,” he said. “But I’m not. I get tired of people thinking I am gay. But, oh well, fuck them. I know you’ve heard a lot of things about me, in fact, he continued, but most of it isn’t true. And that stuff that is true, you shouldn’t hold against me.” He winked at her.
“Hey, I’m a married woman,” Lisa said. “And you’re coming on to me.”
“Yes, but are you happy?” Michael asked.
“See?” Michael remarked. “I knew that. You look like a woman who needs to let go and have some fun. You look like a woman who needs to hook up with me.”
Lisa recalled, “I thought to myself, Wow, this is a real guy. He swears. He’s funny. I told him, ‘Dude, if people knew who the hell you really are, they would be so surprised. People wouldn’t think I was so crazy for being into you if they saw who you really are; that you sit around and you drink and you curse and you’re fucking funny, and you have a bad mouth and you don’t have that high voice all the time.’”
He said, “Well, just don’t tell them.” I thought he was normal and that everything you saw of him publically was just a mask.”
Also, just as Marilyn seemed to know instinctively when to turn “her” on and off, so Michael, likewise, seemed to have the ability to switch the public “Michael Jackson persona” on and off at will. Many of his friends have commented on the fact that, while Michael usually went out disguised (or at least semi-disguised) in public, he always wanted to make sure that he would be recognized-unless, of course, the goal really was to just blend in and not be recognized. Michael seemed to have the capability to do both. There are photos of him in complete disguise where he is totally unrecognizable from the public at large-and even a few photos where, even completely UNDISGUISED-he seems to have no problem walking amongst the crowd. In these photos snapped in Paris, France in 1999, Michael is disguised but clearly recognizable as he casually strolls the Paris streets, yet as is clearly shown, he is managing to do so completely unmolested by the crowd:
There is an amusing story I recall reading where one of Michael’s friends said Michael was donning a disguise to go out, but was insistent that his trademark “baby strand” curls be visible. The friend tried to reason with him that if he did that, he might as well not even bother with the disguise-the curls would be a dead giveaway! However, Michael was adamant. The curls remained visible…and the predicatable chaos ensued!
Perhaps, like Marilyn, there were times when Michael simply needed to “be Michael” for awhile-and times when he needed to shut him off. In the Paris photos above, it seems he’s making a conscious effort to blend in, but just like Marilyn, he could choose to give the entire game away with a simple gesture; a simple proclamation of “Here I am”-or more aptly, here is “him”-a gift to be bestowed, or taken back at will.
But the bigger question is: What purpose did the personas serve? Right now I am reading through Frank Cascio’s book, and will review it here in a few days once I am finished. But one thing Frank spends a great deal of time talking about-both in relation to himself and Mchael-is the idea of compartmentalization. He uses that term to describe his life with Michael vs. his so-called “normal” life at home with friends and school, but Michael himself also seemed adept at being able to compartmentalize different apsects of his life and persona, depending on what the moment dictated. This may explain in part some of Cascio’s confusion as he attempts at various times in the book to reconcile the “Man” Michael Jackson with the “Child” persona he remembered so well from his own childhood; as he said at one point, perhaps it was because being a child himself, that was how Michael chose to relate to him. As Cascio grew older, and was able to see more of Michael “The Man” it seemed to become difficult at times to reconcile that they were one and the same-yet different.
There are a lot of crazy theories out there as to why Michael may have developed his childlike persona. Read, for example, what a couple of posters theorized on this discussion forum (btw, the original topic of this thread was Michael’s use of the soft, high-pitched voice as opposed to his “real” voice. One poster had put forth the question of why he talked that way-the resulting discussion was predictably hilarious and ill-informed, but nevertheless, provided some interesting “theories”):
Ragman wrote:I noticed that he had a high-pitched voice.
However, it wasn’t so much about HOW he spoke but what he talked about.
He seemed very like a pollyanna or whatever the male version is.
Not quite earthly. He seemd quite out of touch, to put it mildly.
Agreed.The whole package was all pointing in the same direction,which was childlikeness. That was my impression of it, anyway.He was unique in my experience in that respect.I don ‘t remember seeing anyone like that before.I wonder whether being terrified of his father
had anything to do with it. On a talk show,he said that he was so afraid of the beatingsthat he got from his father, during the early years of his career, that before each musical performance he went in private and vomited.Possibly, that might not have been good for his mind.
While I wouldn’t give too much credence to these theories, it’s interesting that the one poster seemed to think that childhood trauma could have played a part in the development of the childlike persona as a coping mechanism. It didn’t take much googling to find that many had likewise attributed Marilyn’s childlike-yet-sexual persona as a result of childhood trauma. This excerpt is from a blog on Marilyn’s childhood sexual abuse:
Too Long a Silence: Marilyn Monroe’s History of Sexual Abuse
When I first learned that Marilyn Monroe expressed openly that she was sexually abused as a child, I was surprised because I had heard no mention of it until I was healing from my own abuse. At the same time I was not shocked because I knew of her drug and alcohol problems, emotional problems and her need for sexual attention.
Marilyn’s demeanor, voice, and many other characteristics emulated a sexualized little girl. Her screen persona was childlike and innocent, but she gained attention and affection through a sexual persona. This is the epitome of many sexualized and sexually abused children –gaining attention and affection from their abuser and applying that behavior to obtain favors, attention from others, and some form of ‘love.’ This pattern often follows them into adulthood.
I don’t think that Michael was sexually abused as a child in the same way that Marilyn was (though there are some who have tried to put forth that theory, for reasons and agendas of their own); however, I do agree with something Frank Cascio said, which is that Michael was a sexually abused child in the sense of simply being exposed to too much at too young of an age (i.e, forcing a five-year-old child to witness adult sex acts, which Michael himself said occurred frequently throughout his childhood, is in itself considered sexual abuse of a child). However, even without the element of child sexual abuse, the physical abuse alone, coupled with the constant fear of his father, was trauma enough for any child.
While I don’t wish to get caught up in the idea of playing Freud, it’s quite feasible that Michael and Marilyn may have subconsciously developed their personas as a means of protection and coping; in a sense, they were both children seeking protection from an adult world of dirt, abuse, and exploitation. As superstar adults, their personas enabled them to maintain control in a chaotic environment where, often, it must have seeemed, there was little else of themselves they could control.
MJ: Joseph used to beat us all the time and… (inaudible)dance… would…. He would, he would just ..get to me. And I bought into that, he was like, “Oh you put on a few pounds.” The only thing that I could control in my life, what with Motown… ’cause they tell you- in the interviews, when we used to go on Carson or Mike Douglas or whatever back then, when we used to do interviews as the Jackson Five, you know when you’re in this kind of business they kinda like, they like…ok girl…. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “No.” Do this… You know got, it’s like, they dictate to you everything. What you wear, what you sing. ‘Cause back then we weren’t allowed to sing our own stuff and do our own stuff. They dictate to you what you can wear… If you’re on an interview, if you’re going on Carson, “This is what you say, this is what don’t say.” The only control I had over my life was eating. I had no control. We had no control. *clears throat* I didn’t, I didn’t… I wasn’t like my brothers. People, they’re angry and they take it out on others. I was angry and hurt, and I took it out on myself. And being brought up with Joseph and stuff like that.. when we were rehearsing on 2300- where we used to live. It’s like, If I danced wrong, if I sang the wrong note, I’d get the hell beat out of me, I’d get thrown in the basement. So instead of taking that out on other people, I withdrew and I’d take it out on myself. There was nothing I could control in my life but my eating.-Michael Jackson, Excerpt From The Glenda Tapes
In Part Two, I will examine the flip side of their “Child” personas, and will look at how they both managed to use their very adult wiles, intelligence, and business savvy to outwit both Fox and Sony, respectively. But for both of them, there would be a heavy price to pay.
ETA: As a related footnote to this piece, I just wanted to say more about the film Mister Lonely, which we downloaded tonight and I was able to see for the first time. Admittedly-and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this as an MJ fan-but I didn’t even know about this film until I started researching for this article. I really thought, judging from the premise-a dark romance between a Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe impersonator- and the clips I saw, it was going to be some horribly cheesy flick, but then I figured, well, it couldn’t possibly be WORSE than Man In The Mirror (the movie), lol. Well, I’m happy to say I was wrong-to a point. Granted, yes, it is a bizarre little film (though no moreso than most artsy little independent films of this type) but overall, a very sweet, charming, funny, and strange little film about identity, the cult of celebrity, and finding one’s path. What’s more-considering this was made in 2007 and released in 2008, well before it had become “fashionable” to portray Michael Jackson in a positive light-this film does just that. Its very clear that this young man, in taking on Michael Jackson’s “identity” is able to impart a very positive and healing influence on everyone he touches (granted, he’s not even a particularly good MJ impersonator, but I think that’s the whole idea-and part of the movie’s charm). He seems to view the entire world with a sense of innocent sweetness, wonder and awe, and by doing so, draws you into his character and into his world; thus it’s no surpise that of all the celebs in the film, it’s “Michael Jackson” who endears himself most to the hauntingly tragic “Marilyn Monroe” and gives her one last glimpse of love and hope. I can’t help but wonder what Michael thought of this film-and also noting the irony (intentional?) of so many of his own “heroes” just happening to have their own roles in this-Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Shirley Temple, etc. If you’re one of those MJ fans who, like me, doesn’t mind indulging in a bit of whimsical fantasy now and then, I think you’ll really love this little movie! Here is the trailer I found on Youtube: