The Godless

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I sort-of disliked THE GODDESS, even though it’s maybe John Cromwell’s last major film — his last in Hollywood — and scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky.

(Cromwell directed two more movies, a mediocre B-thriller in Hong Kong & the Philippines, THE SCAVENGERS, and a drama in Sweden, A MATTER OF MORALS starring the versatile Patrick O’Neal and shot by the mighty Sven Nykvist — I have been unable to locate a copy.)

THE GODDESS is a roman a clef about Marilyn Monroe and how she’s doomed by the loveless emptiness of her existence — made while Monroe was still alive and working.

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Apparently this movie was hacked down considerably in post — some character called George Justin gets a credit as “supervisor.” For all the talent involved, nothing seems in sync. Kim Stanley is the first problem — we have to believe her, in some way, as a teenager when we first see her (Patty Duke gives a beautiful, melancholic performance as the child version of “Emily Ann Faulkner”). She then ages to 31, Stanley’s true age during filming. It’s a cruel observation, but at no point does she suggest the allure of a screen goddess or the freshness of a newcomer.

There are two ways to go wrong with casting a Monroe-like part: you could cast someone gorgeous who can’t act, or cast a strong actor who does not evoke glamour and youth and gorgeousness. Based on THE GODDESS, the second may actually be the more serious mistake, since it throws off all the other actors, removes the motivation for most of the story.

Not to pick on Stanley too long — there’s something more interestingly amiss. Chayefsy was a writer who, justifiably, fought to get his words on the screen as written. Here’s Stanley on her way to the casting couch —

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As photographed by Arthur J. Ornitz, THE GODDESS is full of powerful, expressive wides. A real hallmark of Cromwell’s style, going back to the early thirties. We know exactly what is going to be suggested in these scene — the shot speaks so clearly of patriarchy, power, sleaze. It’s as explicit as fellatio. So the fact that the scene continues into closeups and dialogue is redundant, boring, depressing. Arguably it’s Cromwell’s fault for saying everything the scene needed to say in a single image. But the old cliché about a picture vs. a thousand words applies, doesn’t it?

Some strange line flubs from Stanley late in the show. This is when her character is supposed to be disintegrating, so somebody may have decided they would seem appropriate, excusable. But humans misspeaking sound different from actors, usually — they correct themselves, or fail to, in different ways. Only very rare actors can stumble on a line and make it seem like a natural mistake in casual speech. And Chayefsky’s stuff is so precise, and in a way non-naturalistic (all that monologuing!) it really doesn’t benefit from people tripping over their tongues.

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And oh my God the trailing hand. THAT one hasn’t been seen since Barrymore’s day, and HE was spoofing it in TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Fiona has read more on Monroe than I have, and gave the film credit for acknowledging MM’s spiritual side, a real and overlooked aspect of her life. Chayefsky is the poet of emptiness, though, and religion in the end is another crutch, useless if it can’t forge a bond between the goddess and her distant mother (Monroe’s real mother, of course, suffered mental illness). Horrifyingly, Chayefsky diagnoses exactly where Monroe is going — more pictures, because it’s all she knows to do, with the likelihood of drink or pills or both getting her in the end. In an act not even as meaningful as suicide.

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12 Responses to “The Godless”

  1. Part of the reason Kim Stanley was cast in this had to do with her stage rep for being able to play women of all ages. Moreover she starred on stage in “Picnic” and “Bus Stop” which were two of Monroe’s biggest hits. Chayefsky was fighting against the widespread Actors Studio promotion of Monroe as a “Great Actress.” He knew quite well she was a flaming neurotic. Stanley captures a lot of her off-camera self. The scene where her (obviously lesbian) nurse/secretary/amenuensis puts her to bed is devastating.

    Plus “Kitty I got promoted” is one of the great camp lines of all time.

  2. Gay Jeopardy Bonus Points: The late, great and very much missed Candy Darling said her greatest inspirations were “The two Kims”

    Novak and Stanley.

  3. But wait, there’s more!

    Wen the husband arrived in New York back in the early 60’s one of the first things that happened to him was he got invited to attend a rehearsal of the (in)famed Actor’s Studio production of “The Three Sisters.” As there was an eating scene in the play the cast was queried on what they would like to eat. Kim’s reply? “Chili! Good Ol’ Texas Chili!”

    So much for “The Method”

  4. Ha!

    Of course, you can be a flaming neurotic and still be a great actor, but it probably doesn’t help us much as the neurotics think it does.

    Truman Capote wrote a late short story about hanging out with Marilyn, sort of Tiffany’s with the mask off, and it’s, as Fiona said, one of the few things written about her that suggests she could be FUN. And she must have been, some of the time, right?

  5. She was. In his very recent “Vanity Fair” interview Warren Beatty recalls meeting her at Bobby Kennedy’s place her in California and taking a walk along the seashore with her. He said she was quite nice.

    It was the night before she died.

  6. Jeez. Has anybody accused him yet? Only a matter of time!

    Kim Stanley’s ability to play different ages on stage is an incredibly dumb reason for casting her in this film. Is anything less appealing in movie close-up or in life, than someone attempting to act younger than their true age? Theatrical distance just doesn’t exist for the movie camera, unless you’re going to shoot it like the Greatest Story Ever Told.

  7. Monroe was not in PICNIC. That was Kim Novak.

  8. Who was Columbia’s answer to Monroe / replacement for Hayworth. Now, a version of The Goddess (which Columbia released) starring Novak would appeal to me a lot more.

  9. chris schneider Says:

    It sounds like an excuse, I know, but maybe the Stanley performance that we see is more about *willed* youthfulness and *willed* sensuality. As extensions, say, of her delusional thinking.

    Though I like much about the film, including the scenes with Lloyd Bridges, for me THE GODDESS has virtually no motor impulse, no propulsion. Perhaps this has something to do with the George Justin intrusions?

    Not, of course, that I don’t love that line about Stanley’s “quality of availability” …

  10. The division into chapters seems like an admission that the story lacks a motor. But certainly major cuts could have an effect on that. The fact we never see this actress doing any acting kind of robs us of the sense that she’s a self-made woman/goddess, and critiquing her thirst for fame is a slightly empty exercise if her struggles are all off-camera. It’s all motivation and no movement.

  11. James Cromwell Says:

    At the end of principal shooting, my father started the edit, beginning with the first scene of a young girl coming home from school to an empty house and reading her report card to the cat. That sequence, its vision, rhythm, pacing , the mise-en-scène, are his alone. He then started to cut Kim’s early scenes as a teenager, which, for obvious reasons, had to be handled very judiciously. At that point, Paddy, who had been on set from day one and who had badgered my father into letting him observe the edit, started to kibitz and kvetch over every cut. After a couple of weeks of this, my father quit in frustration, telling him, “If you know so much, Paddy, you do it.” About three weeks later, Paddy called my father and said he wasn’t capable of cutting the picture and would he agree to come back. My father said, ” Okay, but have you cut stock?” and Paddy confessed that he had. My father told me he thought Paddy had been worried that Kim’s performance would overshadow his script and had tried to minimize her part. Much of the original footage had gone in the wastebasket and been burned. There was no dupe. My father had to reconstruct the entire picture from out-takes. Whole sequences were missing and there were obvious flubs in the performances. “The Goddess” is not my father’s picture, as anyone who has seen his other work can easily tell. He was a craftsman, he was meticulous and he took care of his actor’s performances. As for Paddy, brilliant as he most assuredly was, “The Goddess” shows what happens to certain writer’s egos when their first picture wins “Best Picture,”” Best Actor,”and “Best Director.”

  12. Thanks for commenting, and for the info! That makes a lot of sense, and explains the odd glitches in Kim Stanley’s otherwise professional performance.

    Chayefsky was a great writer, but no director or editor (ludicrous that he would destroy negative before arriving at a locked picture!) He was lucky enough on The Hospital and Network to be in sync with his directors and have faith in their ability: which may be something he learned from his unfortunate treatment of John Cromwell.

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