Two of the Few, A Review: Remembering Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley in Film

Frank Farley, PhD
L.H. Carnell Professor Emeritus, Temple University

Lauren R. Butler
MScMonroe County, Pennsylvania

The American media machine has given us an astounding iconography of entertainers, actors, music mavens, film fatales, artists, writers and much more all entwined into the very psychology of our lives. And against that backdrop few individuals stand out more than Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, each the subject of 2022 films to be reviewed herein. It might be argued that these two defined the meme of living fast and dying young. They both arose from average means and became famous figures in an astonishingly short time, helped by many personal and social factors and the evolving media technology that enabled the entire globe to know of them. They reflected society’s penchant for parasocial relationships in an increasingly mediated world. How we represent such stars in that mediated world impacts the types of parasocial relationships we form and the empathy and sympathy we are capable of. Sadly, their journeys on the global stage ended badly, and the two new films under review attempt to showcase each journey and tell us about these two special lives. 

ELVIS is a film with a significant focus on the darker side of the music business including the deep psychological and manipulative relationship that can occur between a media star’s agent and the star–often bolstered with drugs–that keeps the cash flowing. Elvis “The King of Rock and Roll,” beautifully acted by the relatively unknown Austin Butler (no relation…) gets caught up in such a manipulative relationship, which becomes a central theme of the film that does a wonderful job of showing the highs and lows of the fight to keep one’s self-identity and principles under both external and personal pressure. The agent here is Colonel Tom Parker, solidly played by Tom Hanks who is a controlling, self-important figure who works to diminish Elvis’s self-efficacy and ensure the status quo of drugs and control by himself is solidified. Elvis’s flamboyant on-stage gyrations are seen by some as overly sexual and should be prohibited. Elvis asserts “My own mother approves what I do! ” Someone else argues” A lot of people want to see him in jail!” This issue of alleged immoral or simply unacceptable public behavior receives some attention particularly in relation to the role here of agent Tom Parker and his dictatorial management. Racism rears its ugly head when some people connect negatively Elvis’s music and performances to ‘negro’ music and performances. But another perspective is that any such connection bespeaks the great creative contribution of black-inspired music to the Presley oeuvre. 

The movie focuses too much on the agent-star relationship and not enough on the star’s own psychology, his other personal relationships, and the role of family. There is not much insight into his primary family life except the deep love for his mother and the emotional impact when she died. We learn little of his father’s contributions and there is not much attention given to the nature of his marriage to Priscilla or his own fatherhood. Elvis played guitar and piano and the former was essential but we learn little of his journey to a state of musical skill and performance. His emotional and personality development are not much revealed except we feel that he showed what the first reviewer has labeled ‘Type T Behavior’ which is a personal pattern of thrill-seeking (T), excitement-seeking, risk-taking behavior often characteristic of explorers, adventurers, innovators, highly creative individuals. This T Behavior can be positive (T+), negative (T-) or a combination, and in Elvis’s life it might be argued the self-destructive T- features ultimately prevailed in a drug-infused, stimulation-overloaded, stressful life. 

As the movie progresses, discomfort and solemnity increase seeming to match Elvis’s state of mind. One of his final songs, where his voice is strong but his sweat-covered face and ‘dead eyes’ express exhaustion, is a masterful example of emotional artistry creating intense moods of hopelessness and pity despite the colorful show and musical performance that would otherwise make an audience happy! 

An important omission in the film is attention to some of the most negative attributes of Elvis, such as the controversial start to his and Priscilla’s relationship, when he was 24 and she was only 14! His infidelity is touched on, but not his often-mentioned sexual aversion to women who have given birth, including his own wife. With the agent presented as the villain, it is easy to ignore the agency that Elvis did have, and the responsibility he held. As touched on above, the film gives much needed acknowledgment to the black communities that inspired and contributed to his musical legacy, though falling a bit short on credit. Black voices and musical styles were widely recognized as original, and some white producers grabbed at the opportunity to have a perceived ”black voice’ from a white man! 

These types of biopics with actors may provide us with some empathy for celebrities via a greater understanding of the psychology and social phenomena that may have contributed to their public personas. But they run the risk of misrepresenting who these people truly are–no such single film can of course fully encapsulate a person the way someone who knew them personally and well, could. Any prior parasocial relationship could be enhanced or weakened, and one might speculate about such outcomes for the instant films of these two media giants! 

BLONDE is essentially a negative portrayal of a very interesting, talented person, Marilyn Monroe, who lived a foreshortened and complex life becoming the famous star we know. Words matter and the title of the film begins the disrespect, giving us her identity in an important posthumous movie about her life not by her name but by the color of her hair, evoking for many perhaps the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and robbing her of a piece of her individuality, diminishing her personhood and legacy, with no chance for her rebuttal. She herself however might have found no problem with the title given her acceptance of the starring role in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”! 

Her journey from Norma Jean, the daughter of a mother with apparently significant mental health issues and an essentially absent father, to the career-created new name Marilyn Monroe and unmatched global recognition for a Hollywood figure of her time is an intrinsically interesting journey. And the actress Ana de Armas playing her does in our view an excellent job. No one accomplishes what Marilyn Monroe did and with her background without having significant strengths and related personal qualities but the film wrongly tends to ignore those, focusing more on the influence of men over her life. She clearly had substantial strengths, was an award-winning actress, was highly intelligent, significantly involved in charity and some business ventures including co-founding a film production company (T+Behavior), which were not indicated in the film, except that her relationships or marriages to some of the most accomplished men in the land, Arthur Miller, President John F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, implied intellectual and interpersonal strengths. But men, including in the film industry, and apparently sometimes involving the casting couch, became a continuing issue in her life, and much of the agency in her behavior seemed to be tied in with men. Happiness seemed to involve a husband as well as great unhappiness, which even included violence attributed to one famous husband, baseball Hall-of-Famer Joe DiMaggio! Tragic scenes often showed how men coerced her into doing things she didn’t want to do or procedures she didn’t want done to her. The only imagery of her fighting to defend herself was in a dream sequence. Her psychological states such as depression sometimes seemed unrealistic and one wondered about the correct diagnosis at these times and where her psychological prognosis was going. The entire film is thin on specifics of her psychological states and without more specifics it is difficult to bring psychological discussion into a brief review. Much psychology that might have been of interest to professionals gets lost in the ‘aura’ of Marilyn Monroe, where for example, in scenes where she rested in a messy room supposedly in an unspecified mental state of some sort for days, she shows perfectly styled hair, fake eyelashes, etc. 

Her father was a background issue for Marilyn in this film, with very little of their relationship being clearly delineated. It would have helped to know more to see if it had any bearing, for example, on her various marriages. 

The idea for these reviews came about before the actual release of either film. The authors felt that reviewing films of media superstars as these, might provide an interesting psychosocial study of lives lived inside the global media, how the media machine represents them and any interesting psychology therein. We note that while no movie can perfectly encapsulate a person, neither can this review touch on every pertinent subject these two long movies present. Also, as reviewers, we cannot be final arbiters of truth in these two films. We have simply taken the presentations of these two lives with whatever the fact or fiction may be as presented on screen, added our evaluative judgments, and looked for any patterns and psychological features that might inhere. Both films fall short on psychological specifics and insights, but are nonetheless interesting, well-acted considerations of two leading icons in movie, music, and media history. 

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