“She was the biggest star in the world; she had a lot of attention on her, a lot of pressure… there is a scene, when she comes to the door, she says, ‘It’s me, Sugar.’ It took forty-seven shots to make this scene. The film is about that moment, the crisis she had. It’s funny because it’s stupid not to be able to say ‘It’s me, Sugar’… It’s tragic too.”
Gemma Arterton first revealed that she would play Marilyn Monroe in an interview for the French movie website, Allocine. The thirty-minute film heads up the second season of Urban Myths, a comedy series for the UK satellite channel Sky Arts, depicting “true-ish stories” from recent history.
It’s Me, Sugar looks back at the filming of Some Like It Hot. The opening caption – ‘Los Angeles, 1958’ – mirrors the ‘Chicago, 1929’ subtitle at the comedy classic’s outset, although the Monroe scene was actually filmed at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. Waiting for her to arrive, a nervous Wilder (James Purefoy) tells the crew, “Time is money, and thanks to Marilyn, we’re running dangerously short on both.” As she blows take after take, we’re shown the hands of the clock ticking by, rather like the dial by the hotel’s elevator as passengers Curtis and Lemmon (in drag) fight off unwanted advances.
Wilder must also endure the unsolicited advice of Marilyn’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Felicity Montagu), whom he addresses as ‘Mrs. Iceberg’, and behind her back, ‘Dracula’s assistant.’ Then Marilyn’s husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, reprising his role in 2011’s My Week With Marilyn) pesters Wilder with revisions to the script. The director responds by saying that he enjoyed Miller’s Death of a Salesman, though it was “tragically short on laughs.”
A distressed Marilyn retreats to her dressing room, fortifying herself with “orange juice” from a flask and popping a pill. The retakes pile up, and she becomes increasingly vague (possibly inebriated.) “You’re so much bigger than this silly little line,” Arthur tells her. As Paula tries feebly to draw Marilyn out of her funk, she complains about having to play “another sexy moron.” After speaking in her familiar breathy tone, she snaps: “Nobody’s that dumb!” This echoes a similar exchange where Lemmon mocks the fake British accent Curtis adopts to woo Sugar: “Nobody talks like that!”
Wilder then sends Curtis (Alex Pettyfer) to Marilyn’s room. He lies down on a couch and promises her a romantic getaway with him in Hawaii (to practice her lines, of course) if she returns to the set. In a parody of their love scene from Some Like It Hot, Marilyn embraces him passionately. “It was like kissing Hitler,” Tony tells Wilder: the same quip he made to a reporter, and later denied. The kiss is pure fantasy, and as Marilyn later wrote, “There’s only one way he could comment on my sexuality and I’m afraid he has never had the opportunity!”
As the clapperboard flips through yet more takes, ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ plays in the background (as heard in Lemmon and Joe E. Brown’s tango scene.) Lemmon and Curtis confer in Wilder’s office, which with its framed photographs of the stars on its walls, is rather like the agent’s office where the two desperate musicians hatched their plan to join an all-girl band. After hurling a castanet out of the window in exasperation, Lemmon (an impressive Adam Brody) is next to approach Marilyn, parroting another famous line: “Us girls should stick together.” He reassures Marilyn, humiliated after seeing her line chalked on a blackboard, that “all the greats do it – even Marlon (Brando.)”
Lemmon also reveals that Curtis has bet him fifty dollars that she won’t complete the take. “That two-faced bastard!” Marilyn rages, and struts back onto the set. As Wilder approaches her with advice, she protests: “You’ll make me forget how I want to play it.” Amid the lachrymose strains of ‘What’ll I do’, she wails: “I forgot how I wanted to play it!” Wilder tells her not to worry, and she suddenly goes blank: “Worry about what?”
After Miller calls the director a “tyrant”, he takes his hapless wife back to her dressing room and promises her a vacation in Hawaii. “Not you, too!” she groans. On the set, Wilder laments ignoring his doctor’s advice (a crack he made to reporters after filming ended) and asks the crew to “shoot me” if he ever agrees to work with Marilyn again.
Finally, Wilder knocks on the door and asks to talk with his leading lady alone. Miller leaves, but the ever-vigilant Paula has to be nudged out by Marilyn. She is afraid of being fired (a fear that became a reality on her final, shelved movie, Something’s Got to Give.) Instead, Wilder says she is an “incredible person,” recounting her miserable childhood (“You go to a foster home and your mother to a funny farm…”) Asked if he has left out any details, a pensive Marilyn replies, “Almost everything.” And yet, Wilder responds, she overcame the odds – if her life was a script, it would be “scarcely believable.”
This gives Marilyn the ego boost she needs, and after finally completing the take, she hesitates for a moment. The crew bursts into applause, and ‘Down Among the Sheltering Palms’ (another song from the movie) begins to play. She invites her co-workers back to the dressing room for drinks, then dismisses them so she can prepare for her next take. She sits at her dressing table, silently gazing into a three-way mirror until the screen fades to grey, and a ghostly version of ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ (sung Monroe-style, and off-camera) starts up.
Wearing a platinum blonde wig, piled back in a messy chignon, Gemma Arterton dons an orange silk robe like Marilyn’s (which was designed by Orry-Kelly) over a black camisole, and totters in high heels. Arterton is thirty-two, the same age as Marilyn at the time of Some Like It Hot. Born in Gravesend, Kent, she made her name as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace (2008), and has since won further acclaim in films, including comedic roles in Tamara Drewe (2010) and Their Finest (2017), as well as playing another legendary actress, Nell Gwynn, on the London stage.
“When I read the script I loved it, but the Weinstein stuff was happening at the same time and I really had to think twice about it,” Arterton said, in the light of recent revelations about sexual harassment in the film industry. “Because this is a funny script about a woman who has been abused. She was absolutely the epitome of the casting couch. And she was aware of that. And it must’ve been absolutely horrific for her.” While Marilyn undoubtedly faced sexism in Hollywood, this is a gross simplification; and the ‘casting couch’ is a chauvinistic trope in itself.
“Marilyn used her vulnerable side to get what she wanted and to manipulate people,” Arterton said. “That was a powerful tool that she had, to make everyone feel sorry for her. But in that power she was in control … She knows what she’s doing. But she plays the childlike thing. It’s part of her act.”
As with so many events in Marilyn’s life, we have only third-party accounts to rely on; and seldom is this truer than in the case of Some Like It Hot’s troubled production. Wilder and Curtis were both prone to embellishment, but the real question is not so much whether Marilyn behaved badly, as why she did so. Monroe biographer Donald Wolfe, who was on the set, offered a very different perspective.
“What Marilyn had feared was happening: Wilder was painting Sugar with broad strokes,” Wolfe wrote in The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe (1998.) “She fought for the character with the only weapon at her disposal – attrition. If Wilder was going to call ‘cut’ on what she brought to the character, she was going to wear him down … By take twenty-nine, Marilyn’s way began looking good to the frustrated director.”
It’s Me, Sugar is painted with similarly broad strokes. The difference is that here we are dealing with real people, and real life; and by playing Marilyn’s crisis for laughs, it risks bad taste. Arterton brings a certain edginess, and a brittle quality to Marilyn; but the film never fully grasps her dilemma. “I don’t think that it was fun at times to be inside Marilyn’s head,” Gemma says, “but at other times it must’ve been great … There’s the dark, but also the light. And I hope that’s what we showed.’”
Reporting for The Times, Kevin Maher believes they got the balance right: “A perfectly formed mini-movie with a noble aim at its heart — to rescue and rehabilitate the legend of Monroe, even as it shows her at her most inept.” Andrew Collins, a Radio Times critic and self-professed Marilyn fan, judged the piece as “sweet and silly and heartfelt.”
“We might have hoped for subtlety and sophistication, but all we got was predictability and slapstick. And misogynistic slapstick at that,” Gerard O’Donovan countered in the Telegraph. “Overall the sense was of an opportunity missed. Might it not have been more amusing to see this fable through Monroe’s eyes, however bleary they were?”