Provocative, intelligent, and remarkably endearing, this 1950′s-set drama has four of the most prolific figures of the era, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy, rotating around each other in a NYC hotel room on a particularly noteworthy night. We open with the legendary skirt-blowing scene from The Seven-Year Itch, and the film shows how the shoot was a huge media event from top to bottom, with even the lowliest P.A.s duking it out for the best view of Ms. Monroe’s undergarments. Joe DiMaggio, skulking in the corner, writhes with jealousy; while he is regretfully aware of his wife’s sex-symbol status, seeing her sexuality exploited in such a crass manner threatens his masculine sense of dominance and his attempt at morphing his bride into the traditional, conservative feminine image that dominated the time. We then see Einstein having a late-night meeting with Senator McCarthy, who needs him to speak on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission, threatening him with an indictment for communist activities (which he was complicit in) if he refuses. Once the senator leaves Einstein’s hotel room, he is visited by none other than Ms. Monroe herself, who declares that she will be leaving the following morning, and was desperate to meet the famed genius while she had the chance. What follows is a bonding session between the mind and body of a particular generation, who discover that, despite their different worlds, they have far more in common than a mere glance would suggest.
The film is based on a play, and staged accordingly, with the vast majority of the location taking place in a single location (Einstein’s hotel room), leaving the screenplay and acting to hold most of the burden, which they do, in spades. This film is a wonderful examination of not only a oft-discussed and equally idealized time and place in American culture, but also of some of of the most nefarious, infamous, and fascinating public figures of the 20th century. The portrayal of Monroe by Theresa Russell is a refreshing departure from both her oversexed, dumb blonde public image, as well as her tortured, fragile pill-popper of more contemporary interpretations; she is a woman contradictorily aging, more and more, into a superficial and overexposed sex symbol, while consistently gaining intelligence, understanding, and world-weariness that directly conflicts with that image. Her impetus to meet Einstein is not driven by some sort of thrill-seeking fame grab, but rather her genuine respect for a man who made his name known off of his own mental prowess, rather than the manipulation of, or by, others (also, undoubtedly, by his complete naivete as to the lengths and implications of her fame). Einstein is more conservatively drawn, a moral, highly practical individual unfettered by the typical befuddled trappings of a recognized genius, but is nonetheless haunted by the Nazi takeover of his native Germany, as well as his involvement with the Manhattan Project (leading to some of the film’s most powerful moments). His relationship with Monroe is simultaneously adoring, human, messy, and, ultimately, fleeting; while she provides a distinct reminder to all that is not only human, but truly, 100% American, his ignorance to the implications of her overwhelming fame makes her as excluded from him as his genius excludes him from her. DiMaggio and McCarthy are more broadly painted, as an All-American simpleton and a scheming power-monger, respectively, but are given enough human elements to recontextualize their public images into something more elusive and intangible.
The remarkable reappropriation of such well-known public figures would, even with the pitch-perfect script on hand, as well as Nicolas Roeg’s terrific direction, fall apart without a talented cast to portray it properly, which, luckily, the film has. Theresa Russell is absolutely unbeatable as Marilyn Monroe, a woman who sold her soul far too young to be famous, and only now realizes how little it was worth it. She is an image, rather than a person, to everyone except herself, or maybe Einstein, and every time she succumbs to what is expected of her, rather than what she, herself, wants, we see the pain of giving up in her face. Unknown Michael Emil plays Einstein more simply, but consistently exudes wisdom, logic, and general human decency and understanding, even at his weakest and most compromised moments. Gary Busey is, surprisingly, completely invisible as DiMaggio, absent-mindedly bragging about his baseball stats to Einstein one minute, and jealously throwing his hulking frame at anything in sight out of jealousy the next. This film is a good example as any of Busey’s genuine, undeniable acting talent, and provides another grim reminder of the personal and professional tragedies that defined the latter part of his career. But it’s Tony Curtis as Joe McCarthy that turns in the most surprisingly interesting performance. Simultaneously oozing with self-preserving menace and deep, harrowing insecurity, he represents the ultimate powerful white-male-gone-wrong, using his threats and stature to gain control over men smarter, stronger, and more capable than him, many times over. His scene with Monroe is already painful and shocking even without considering that Mr. Curtis not only worked with the REAL Monroe, but likened kissing her on-screen to “kissing Hitler.” His own tumultuous personal experiences aside, his performance as McCarthy is a huge testament to his lasting potential as an actor, decades after the peak of his fame.
Highly Recommended to those interested in reexaminations of well-documented Americana, such as Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (about Nixon vengefully recording his final day in office into a tape recorder), or of fans of Nicolas Roeg; while this does not match the surreality of The Man Who Fell To Earth or Eureka, it remains a mature, insightful, and wonderfully nuanced example of his top-tier talent.