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Goddess, The (DVD Review)

25 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures
$20.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Kim Stanley, Lloyd Bridges, Steven Hill.

Assuming that one under-seen Oscar-nominated achievement like Jeanne Eagels’ in The Letter deserves another, this looks like the time to bring up the not exactly brand new but still recent release of Paddy Chayefsky’s thought-to-be takeoff on Marilyn Monroe — the only time a Chayefsky script got a nomination and didn’t win (the three that did were for Marty, The Hospital and Network).

The Goddess is a most compelling project to have been mounted — then or now — because there’s no time in history when it could have been a feel-good project; it’s almost the “anti-Amelie” in that regard. What’s more, Monroe was still an active and very public figure at the time this not exactly flattering portrait was released in the late spring of 1958 — and, in fact, her myriad personal problems were about to cause Billy Wilder’s about-to-shoot Some Like It Hot the same kinds of production delays that Kim Stanley’s “Rita Shaw” character (ne Emily Ann Faulkner) does for one of her directors here. On the other hand, it has been alleged that Monroe actually considered playing this role, and by making Faulkner a product of the South, Chayefsky could rightfully ask (and did) why the character couldn’t just as well have been based on Ava Gardner. Well, Ava wasn’t a blonde, for one thing.

Making things even more compelling is the fact that The Goddess marked the big-screen debut of revered stage actress Kim Stanley, whose Broadway performance in Bus Stop was a hallmark of the day and one Monroe is thought to have pretty well aped in Joshua Logan’s movie version of that William Inge play (an acting achievement once generally regarded as the high point of MM’s career, at least until Hot attained the all-timer standing it now has). The problem with Stanley’s performance here — and host Robert Osborne brought it up the last time the picture played on Turner Classic Movies — is that at a looking-it 32, she was too old for the role, especially in early scenes that portray the character as a teenager. Stanley also didn’t have Monroe’s stop-traffic looks; she reminds me more of the Dagmar, the short-lived pioneer TV star and co-vocalist with Frank Sinatra on what is widely regarded as the worst recording of his career: 1951’s "Mama Will Bark." (I can’t resist mentioning that the solo flip side — "I’m a Fool To Want You" — is widely regarded as Sinatra’s greatest single track at Columbia Records.)

Regardless, Stanley’s performance is still great, and I actually blinked upon seeing that she didn’t get an Oscar nomination — though, yes, the actress competition that year was brutal, as Deborah Kerr, Shirley MacLaine, Rosalind Russell, Elizabeth Taylor and winner Susan Hayward all delivered career resumé standouts. Psychologically, it’s a very mature performance, even though the character Stanley plays is an in some ways a childlike basket case from her earliest days when a party-craving single mother (Betty Lou Holland — an actress who was actually a year younger than Stanley in real life) isn’t very mum about not wanting her. A scene I’ve never forgotten is the one where the young Emily (Patty Duke in her first movie role to give her screen credit) can’t find anyone who’ll talk to her about school — forcing her to chat up the pet cat.

The Goddess is split into three acts: childhood, physical maturity (which includes two bad marriages and knocking around for scraps in the film industry) and then full-fledged stardom with the requisite large house and pool. Eve-turned-Rita’s second marriage is to a former boxer (making him an ex-baseball player would have simply been too much) played by Lloyd Bridges — usually seen bare-chested and in pajama bottoms, which probably qualified as racy in those days. Late in the story, there’s a truly dead-on performance by Elizabeth Wilson (later Dustin Hoffman’s mother in The Graduate) as the familiar type of paid friend who really locks the door on access to the sometimes lonely celebrities they’ve been hired to protect. Sadly, the Eve-Marilyn connection is much more direct now than it even was in 1958 because the moviegoing public probably didn’t sense that the downward direction Eve’s life is visibly taking has eerie parallels to what happened to Monroe just four years later.

The director is the in same ways underrated John Cromwell (father of actor James), who was especially good with actresses from Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage and everyone in 1950’s Caged, which is still the greatest women’s prison movie ever made. I like his location work here, much of it in small-town Maryland, with locales that don’t look like what you see in more routine movies. Stanley, who disdained Hollywood, reportedly wouldn’t work to “sell” herself for an Oscar campaign, one whose success would have likely done Cromwell’s career some good (he only made a couple obscure pictures after this). The actress, despite a modest big-screen output, did eventually get nominated twice: for 1964’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon and (in support) as Jessica Lange’s mother in 1982’s Frances Farmer biopic Frances. She also narrated the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird — memorably.

It’s hard to bring up The Goddess without also thinking of Insignificance, recently out on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, though I haven’t seen it since the 1985 theatrical release. In that one, the Monroe character (Theresa Russell) is simply identified as “The Actress” — but there’s even less is-she-or-isn’t she? guesswork as to just which iconic screen figure she’s supposed to be.

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