At the end of Blonde, an absorbing mini-series version of the disquieting novel in which Joyce Carol Oates channeled the pop iconography of Norma Jean to babytalk about dread, Poppy Montgomery as Marilyn Monroe doesn’t actually sing “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy. She only starts to. Then fade to black and superscript. It’s an eerie threshold moment. We finish off the song, the star, and Camelot ourselves. Compare it to Jenna Elfman’s send-up of the same scene in the new movie Town & Country. Elfman, forever Dharma, has dressed up as Marilyn for a Sun Valley Halloween party. Her vamping is exuberant, all champagne spume. She pops her own cork. Whereas Montgomery seems drugged or almost bludgeoned, summoning some semblance of energy from the rubbed-up expectations of her audience but running on the fumes of her own sexuality.
And here I had promised myself not to contribute to the literature of overwriting on this subject. From Diana Trilling and Gloria Steinem to Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer, everybody with a rescue fantasy has had his or her excessive say, as if Marilyn were a helpless text in the clenched fist of French theory. Miller, who had at least the acquaintance of wedlock, changed his mind between The Misfits and After the Fall. Mailer imagined in Marilyn that he was taking on a celebrity his own size, like the moon or Jesus or Picasso or the Pentagon, even if he also seemed to envy Miller for having had her so negligently (and for writing Death of a Salesman).
Still, Elfman and Montgomery suggest the two faces of Marilyn we remember, in oscillation: daffy and dazed; self-satirizing and self-sacrificial; cheesecake and wound; waif and slut; child-woman and baby whore; giggle and hysteria. And there’s enough of Elfman in Montgomery to keep us staring for four bewildered hours. She might as well be Elfman when she stops the show, on the set, in a rousing rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Blonde is interesting on a number of levels – part psychoanalysis and part police interrogation, punctuated with voice-over and on-camera extenuations by characters we’ve just met, here a real name (Olivier, Gable) and there an emblematic figure (“Playwright” instead of Arthur Miller, “Ex-Athlete” instead of Joe DiMaggio) – but without Poppy Montgomery, Blonde would be just plain creepy.
Instead, like the book by Oates, it’s fancy creepy. See Patricia Richardson as the crazy mother quoting Emily Dickinson. Has she hallucinated this platinum centerfold out of the bureau drawer she stashed her baby in, out of the bathtub in which she wanted to drown her? Or Ann-Margret as the dead grandmother: Do you suppose she’s rethinking her own career as a sex symbol? Or Kirstie Alley as the foster parent who hustles her teenage charge into a child-bride marriage to get rid of the competition. Or Eric Bogosian as the photographer who snapped the dirty calendar pictures, all the while talking a hip game of Marx and Schopenhauer. Not to mention Wallace Shawn as the marsupial agent, and Patrick Dempsey as Charlie Chaplin’s disowned son Cass, and Richard Roxburgh as the studio boss, Mr. R (Zanuck, one wonders?). They are all cannibals.
As DiMaggio, Titus Welliver is so perfect we want more of him. But there may not be any more to give. Joe might have been as empty inside as Marilyn, a figment of Simon and Garfunkel’s imagination, a void into which we rush with gassy meanings. As Miller, Griffin Dunne is an odder choice, not tall enough nor deep, haplessly vainglorious – “I would rewrite her story!” he tells us, after she’s buttered his crust with Chekhov – but Oates, like Mailer, seems to have it in for the playwright; he is punished for presuming. Nevertheless: To have been used, as Marilyn was, by the famous baseball player, the equally famous playwright, and the fabulously famous politician, as she had been used by the studios, is some kind of victim record in the discourse of rubbishy machismo. From Judith Campbell Exner, couldn’t she have borrowed, if not a Sinatra, at least a Mafia capo?
“Where do you go when you disappear?” Norma Jean wondered in a poem she wrote in the orphanage. Scriptwriter Joyce Eliason and director Joyce Chopra are basically faithful to the gothic production values of novelist Oates. Thus, the torn blonde hair and bright-red dress on the white sand of a lonely beach in the bleeding dawn; a symbolic crow, a symbolic fish, a symbolic fox; mirrors, cameras, and dolls; dead-baby dreams. Much is made of Marilyn Monroe’s failed ambition to have a child. But she had one. She had Norma Jean.
It’s a rich week for public television in spite of Kingsley Amis (see “TV Notes”). First up, on Tuesday night, in a sort of multiculti pluralistic sweepstakes, is Islam: Empire of Faith, Rob Gardner’s sumptuous two-and-a-half-hour ramble through a thousand years of the religion to which a quarter of the world subscribes. Part 1, “The Messenger,” introduces the Prophet Muhammad, the Koran, the first mosque, the first battle, and the conquest of Persia and Byzantium. Part 2, “The Awakening,” covers the flowering of a civilization that preserved the antique wisdom of the West while introducing its own high achievements in art, science, architecture, medicine, and poetry, with time out for Saladin, Crusades, and Mongols. Part 3, “The Ottomans,” gives us Suleiman the Magnificent as he strikes at the heart of Europe (Vienna and Venice!). The art and architecture dazzle, of course. And while I usually disdain re-creations, Gardner somehow got Iran to let him film there, using 150 actors and extras, more than 300 period costumes, and who-knows-how-many horses, all to make sure we know what it looked like from the seventh century on.
Conquistadors is more familiar, if not from our own provincial history books, then from the Carlos Fuentes series a few years ago, also on PBS. But Michael Wood, fresh from tracking Alexander the Great, can always be counted on to hit the trail in person, getting tired and wet but never cranky. Here he goes first to Mexico for the fall of the Aztecs and the story of Hernán Cortés. Then to Peru, for the conquest of the Incas and the story of Francisco Pizarro. Then to Ecuador and the Amazon, where Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana, looking for El Dorado, left behind disease. And finally to Florida, from which Cabeza de Vaca had to walk all the way to Mexico to escape the heat, the mosquitoes, and the hostile “Indians.” But equal time all the way is also accorded Montezuma and Atahualpa, the Karankwas and Coahuiltecans.
Wingspan (may 11; 9 to 11 p.m.; abc) spends two hours listening to Mary McCartney interview her father, Paul, about what he and her mother, Linda, did to launch their rock-and-roll band, Wings, after the breakup of the Beatles, with home movies, family photos, and film footage of the emphatically unglamorous road life (and pot busts) of these upstarts before they hit it big again. I like Paul, but maybe it’s time to give it a rest.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Heart Within (May 12; 8 to 10 p.m.; CBS) reunites the cast of the series so that Jane Seymour can go back to Boston for the graduation of her daughter from medical school, just in time to save her mother from Brahmin malpractice. It’s not that Jane is looking old – never! – but she certainly seems very, very tired.
My Louisiana Sky (May 13; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; Showtime) asks young Kelsey Keel to decide, after the death of her protective grandmother Shirley Knight, whether she will move to Baton Rouge with her aunt, Juliette Lewis, or stick around in rural swampy Saitter with her parents, Amelia Campbell and Chris Owens, who is not quite right in the head. If you don’t already know what she decides, you’ve never watched television. I will say that Adam Arkin is nicer behind the camera than in front of it. He directs nice; he acts mean.
Take a Girl Like You (May 13, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; May 20, 9 to 10 p.m.; PBS) assembles a nice cast – Rupert Graves, Robert Daws, Ian Driver, Hugh Bonneville, and, especially, Sienna Guillory as the virgin sacrifice – to do its Masterpiece Theatre damnedest to make Kingsley Amis’s novel about four men trying to bed the same young woman (who might be willing but wants a ring, because, don’t you know, it’s the fifties) seem a little less puerile than it really is.
May 13 and 16; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS.
Islam: Empire of Faith
May 8; 8 to 10:30 p.m.; PBS.
May 9 and 16; 8 to 10 p.m.; PBS.