The power of Marilyn—and the Falls: An excerpt from Buffalo Spree’s April issue

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One of the many faces on the cover of Buffalo Spree’s film issue is Marilyn Monroe, who famously starred in 1953’s Niagara. As I write in the issue (and below), it’s an odd picture, but certainly an interesting one.

“Marilyn Monroe and Niagara—a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” So screamed the poster for 1953’s Niagara, an enjoyably stodgy film that is, of course, particularly captivating to Western New Yorkers. This Technicolor thriller—dig that red satin dress!—was shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and watching it today one is touched by its aesthetic beauty, its importance in cinema history, and its sheer oddness.

This is a stodgy, rather silly little thing redeemed by Monroe’s smoldering performance. In her book The Marilyn Scandal, author Sandra Shevey refers to “the scenes with her lover (filmed in long shot) of their rendezvous in the bowels of the falls—those amazingly torrential downpourings as backdrops—are some of the most erotic scenes ever filmed. … It was in Niagara that Monroe really discovered where she was going and how to get there.”

It is downright shocking how little screentime Monroe actually has; the star of the movie is really the soon-to-be Mrs. Howard Hughes, Jean Peters. But it is Marilyn who fascinates, whether she is staring down her wet-blanket husband (Joseph Cotton) or contemplating how to cross back into the States. This era, of course, is when Niagara Falls was really Niagara Falls, “Wonder of the World.” This combination, of the Falls and Marilyn, still intrigues. Even the suite the actress stayed in, room 801 at the Crowne Plaza, draws curious visitors.

It is entirely possible that no film shot in or near Buffalo has had a greater impact. It might not be very, well, good, but there is no doubting Niagara’s significance.

Marilyn Monroe’s Swan Song Screens at the Burchfield Penney

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Another day, another very cool screening in Buffalo.

The documentary “Love, Marilyn” — which is NOT the film screening in Buffalo, as you will see — debuted at TIFF 2012, and drew raves, which might seem surprising. How much more, after all, can be said about the late screen legend? I missed the film in Toronto, but caught it recently in HBO, and I can tell you that it certainly does cover some new ground thanks to its novel use of Marilyn’s diaries and letters.

A who’s who of acting heavyweights — Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Lili Taylor, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei, and, err, Lindsay Lohan — recite her words to the camera, and it works. Director Liz Garbus succeeds in showing us a side of Marilyn that feels true, and truly bruised.

The making of John Huston’s “The Misfits” is of course part of “Love, Marilyn”; the 1961 film about two cowboys and divorced woman in the Nevada desert is the last film Monroe and Clark Gable appeared in, and one of Montgomery Clift’s final performances, too. It’s a stunning, sad drama, and worth revisiting at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this Thursday (August 22).

My friend Ed Cardoni, the executive director of Hallwalls and one of the most insightful people I know, introduces the screening, which starts at 7:30 p.m. It ties in with the current BPAC exhibition “Marilyn: The Douglas Kirkland Photoshoot,” featuring some incredible photographs shot by the then 27-year-old photographer.

This got me thinking about a flawed but compelling book I reviewed back in October 2012 for the Buffalo News. “The Empty Glass” is a uniquely told fictional account of Marilyn’s last days, and while it is a tough read, and certainly an unsettling one, there is just enough to recommend. In fact, I think I would give it a more positive review today.

The shelf in David Lynch’s basement labeled “ABORTED FILMS” is cluttered, misshapen, and odd — as might be expected. There’s “Ronnie Rocket,” a dwarf detective tale, and “One Saliva Bubble,” a wacky comedy that was rumored to star Steve Martin and Martin Short.

But perhaps the most fascinating of these is “Goddess,” written by Lynch and Mark Frost shortly before they began work on “Twin Peaks,” and based on the book by Anthony Summer. In his text, Summer made the accusation that Bobby Kennedy and Peter Lawford were intimately involved in the death of Marilyn Monroe, a claim which today does not sound particularly shocking, but made waves in 1985.

(I found this warning, from a Marilyn fan site: “The 1992 edition includes a photo of Marilyn’s body after autopsy. I have no idea why the author would do such a thing to Marilyn’s memory.”)

“Goddess,” of course, was never made, and likely never will be, at least by Lynch. But in some ways, J. I. Baker’s new novel “The Empty Glass” reminds me of what Lynch might have brought to the tale of the world’s most tragic cracked actress: a sense of doom, of outside forces too strong and warped to defeat, and of the grotesqueries of Hollywood.

Yet even with this Lynchian undercurrent (there is even a blurb on the dustjacket from “Wild at Heart” author Barry Gifford), “Glass” is a disappointment, a story that peters out and, sadly, adds little to the cult of Marilyn. Why? Because we’ve been down this grim road before. It no longer holds any surprise.

Even so, much to chew on here, including our protagonist. Los Angeles deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald is an intriguingly ruffled character, a man with a past that killed both his career and his marriage. He’s stuck in a shady apartment with hot plate and a cold cup of coffee. It’s no place for his young son, and he knows it.

Fitzgerald is called to duty at 5 a.m. on the morning after Monroe’s death to the star’s home, and everything is fishy — even the location: “No name on the mailbox. It was modest enough. The most famous woman in the world, with all the money that implies, but instead of a mansion in the Hills, she’d bought a one-floor hacienda in Brentwood.”

Everything is amiss, from the position of the body, which appears to have been “placed” (“People who overdose don’t drift happily away,” Fitzgerald says. “There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”)

There is also an empty water glass, which Fitzgerald — the novel is written in the first person – calls particular attention to: “Remember the glass. It becomes significant.”

Indeed, it does. Things get appropriately tangled, very quickly. We’re introduced to Annie Laurie, “second only to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons when it comes to chronicling the ins and outs and ups and downs of the rich and famous. OK, third to Hedda and Louella.” Laurie is an inspired character; rogue police bigwig Captain Hamilton, less so.

Just as villainous is, yes, Bobby Kennedy, and to say too much more than that would spoil the book’s second half. But the character we return to, of course, is Marilyn, whose voice is kept “alive” by diary entries. “I wish you all just leave me alone,” she wrote, as the end came near.

Baker is a debut novelist, and the executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler. He has created something very interesting here, I think, a work whose failures have more to do with the sheer number of tomes, films and stories about Marilyn Monroe, and their hold on our collective mind, than with the story itself. He’s a good writer, smart at creating a dark mood and an eve-of-destruction vibe. His next book will certainly be noteworthy, I think.

For the Marilyn completist, then, “The Empty Glass” is likely a must-read, but not a satisfying one. I think most fans would rather think of Monroe as the sweetly naïve starlet brought to life by Michelle Williams in “My Week With Marilyn” — tragic, yes, but above all else, radiant, and full of life. “The Empty Glass” presents Marilyn as full of death, if you will, and while that might be more accurate, it remains too unsettling.

 

Photo: Douglas Kirkland b. 1934, “Marilyn Monroe,” 1961; photograph, 40 x 60 inches; Courtesy of the artist; from burchfieldpenney.org