Matters of Performance

The panel: Sofia Ahlberg, Nicole Jenkins, Margaret Hickey & Felicity Collins

Session 2, The Cube, ACMI, 11.30am – 1pm, November 12, 2016.

This panel comprises experts from the fields of cinema, drama, literature and fashion – . Together they  explore the rich and diverse cultural legacy of Marilyn’s performance history and her imitable style.

My Week With Marilyn, Associate Professor Felicity Collins

For many historians empathy is what renders historical fiction deeply suspect: like memory, empathy corrupts historical truth and the only antidote to this corruption is fidelity to the historical record. When it comes to popular cinema and the recent wave of biopics,  the suspicion of empathy intensifies. Keeping in mind LaCapra’s proviso (2001) that hyperbolic acting out resists closure, cure and mastery of the past, I want to compare Michelle Williams’ performance of Marilyn and Kenneth Branagh’s performance of Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. The question raised by such memory films is the power of cinematic performance to make affective and ethical claims on the spectator in ways that confound both historical memory and nostalgic re-vision.

Marilyn and Broadway, Margaret Hickey

In 1951, four years before they married, Arthur Miller encouraged Marilyn Monroe to pursue a career on the stage. It was something she never forgot. I want to consider the possibility of a career in theatre rather than film for Marilyn Monroe. With her academic training in ‘the method’ and encouraged by Lee Strasburg and other luminaries in Broadway, Marilyn worked hard to improve her dramatic skills. Restricted by a Fox contract and the image that bound her, she was ultimately unable to act on her dreams. Using reviews from her contemporaries, her teachers and by comparing stage and screen methods, I ask whether, for Marilyn, a career on the stage could have garnered her the respect she so desperately craved and the image that we have come to recognize as Marilyn would have been markedly different.

Miller’s Muse, Dr Sofia Ahlberg

I read Arthur Miller’s reflections on his relationship with Marilyn as his attempt to understand twentieth-century American loss of faith. I begin with The Misfits, a film that portrays heroism undermined by rampant consumerism and loss of credibility prevalent in 1960s America. Roslyn played by Marilyn represents an innocent prelapsarian Eve. I then bring another rendition of Marilyn from Miller’s autobiography Timebends into the conversation. Miller gives the reader a Marilyn anxious in the role of the great actress. I argue that through this portrait of Marilyn, Miller offers grounds for belief in an understated heroism that struggles despite the odds. Finally, I suggest via the character Maggie in Miller’s After the Fall that the questions that remain in relation to Marilyn can be interpreted within existentialist frameworks. As such, this presentation sees perennial existential questions arising in the wake of Marilyn and confirming Miller’s faith in the literary imagination.

Marilyn’s Style, Nicole Jenkins

Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass figure defined the feminine fashions of the ’50s and was shown off to great effect in gowns by Hollywood designers including Edith Head, Billy Travilla and Orry-Kelly. Her dresses are the most iconic and valuable dresses in the world and they reveal the complex woman who wore them.

Nicole presented her first talk, on “the loneliness of Marilyn Monroe” to an appreciative English class, aged fifteen, and since then has read almost every book and film available on this fascinating and elusive woman. A costume designer by trade, Nicole is a Melbourne based fashion historian and award winning author of books “Love Vintage” and “Style is Eternal”.  Her online emporium “Circa Vintage Clothing” supplies authentic costumes for film, TV and theatre. She also presents talks and workshops and restores historical garments by hand.