Monday, January 09, 2012


Maryland, 1930. When Southern belle Laureen's husband kills himself, Laureen and her 4-year-old daughter Emily go to live with her brother and his wife, a stable and sober couple. Laureen, still young, wants to have fun, but is burdened by everyone around her. One night, she has a mini-breakdown, begging her brother to take her daughter, whom she loudly declares she never wanted. Sadly, little Emily hears every word. By 1942, Laureen is a pious churchgoer who spends her evenings praying out loud in the kitchen. Emily is a high school girl with a reputation, though she insists when a gawky lad takes her out that she doesn't go all the way. (She does eventually let the lad make out with her, though how far they go is up to the viewer's imagination.) One night on the town, she runs across a drunken soldier passed out on the street; when she finds out that he's the son of a famous movie star, she helps get him to his apartment. They're both rather messed up—he's tried to kill himself more than once—and they wind up married and unhappy. When he gets assigned to a combat unit, he says he hopes he gets killed, and she says she hopes so, too. She has a baby she is ill equipped to take care of and begs her mother to take the child, repeating Laureen's tirade about unwanted children word for word (she eventually palms the child off on her ex-husband). By 1947, she's changed her name to Rita and is a starlet in Hollywood; the rest of the movie chronicles her rise in the business as a sex bomb (married to and soon divorced from a former boxing champion), and her accompanying collapse into drinking, pills, nervous breakdowns, and suicide attempts. The final scene, set in 1957, shows her having yet another breakdown at her mother's funeral. We're told that the doctors have said that she'll keep making movies, but she's beyond therapy; she'll never be happy or "normal."

Though the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, denied it, this story seems clearly based on the life of Marilyn Monroe (unhappy childhood, early unhappy marriage, suicide attempts, marriage to a sports figure, sex bombness, etc., not to mention the specific years of birth, first marriage, and first movie). This could have been an interesting film, and indeed the first half up to the Hollywood years is compelling. But even though the movie is not physically stagy, it has a claustrophobic feel, in that virtually everything connected with her movie career happens offscreen, and we wind up getting a series of dialogue-heavy scenes in bedrooms and living rooms with two or three people screaming at each other. Kim Stanley, a highly acclaimed stage actress, is fine but she's way too old to be playing a teenager in the middle of the film, and she's never believable as a blonde bombshell, though she might have been if we'd seen her working in front of the camera, or even among her fans. The first part of the film, which has a strong Tennessee Williams vibe, belongs to Betty Lou Holland, who is remarkable as the mother; even near the end of the film, when she comes to L.A. to help Emily out after her breakdown, she almost steals a dramatic religious conversion scene by underplaying as Stanley is overplaying. Steven Hill, who spent many years on Law & Order, is good as her first husband, as is Lloyd Bridges as the boxer (pictured above). Patty Duke has a small role as the very young Emily, and a pre-Col. Klink Werner Klemperer plays a Hollywood producer. Burt Brinckerhoff, who became an esteemed TV director, is the gawky lad, and Louise Beavers can be glimpsed in the background of a scene as a maid—apparently, several scenes were taken out of the final cut by Chayefsky (even though it was directed by John Cromwell) and I'm guessing hers was one. Overall, I'd have to rank this an interesting failure; a different lead actress and more scenes to establish Emily/Rita's talent, or lack thereof, would have helped. [TCM]

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