A few days ago Tania and I saw “My Week With Marilyn,” which stars Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. In the film there is a scene in which Monroe, untouchable, unreliable, surrounded by an enabling entourage, tells the PA who has been “Ms. Monroe”-ing her up and down, to call her Marilyn. It’s supposed to be the moment we know he’s broken through (SPOILER ALERT: Eh, you can guess).
Now for many reasons that are covered later, there is no actual “breaking through” with somebody who is aware of and embracing their iconic status. Sure. Still, this simple exchange struck me as interesting.
This PA is being told, “no, we’re all friends here, call me by my first name.” Yet in reality, Marilyn’s first name did not have that type of value. It was a fake name, part of her image. A name the public owned because it was created for their consumption and tailored to their desires.
I’m sure the name change was partially intentional, that Monroe willingly swore off going by Norma Jeane Baker because it was a dumpy name associated with a depressing past that she understandably wanted to leave behind.
Still, Norma’s story is what gives all the context to what “Marilyn” became (isolated, drugged out, constantly getting married and/or having affairs, but also very committed to social equality issues). Norma Jeane’s life was depressing and common and sad and that became Marilyn Monroe’s life, which was exceptional and glamorous and sad. But Norma was the one that was a real person. To really have understood and known Marilyn, and specifically her slow unraveling, you’d have to have known Norma, but nobody really did aside from some wacky people in depressing parts of California.
The practice of taking a stage name is not as widespread as it once was. Classic movie stars almost always took them (there is a list here) but in this day and age, celebrities generally go by their real names unless they fall into one of these categories:
1. People with names that are foreign and/or hard to spell or say (Freddie Mercury = Farrokh Bulsara, Jennifer Aniston = Jennifer Anastasskis)
2. Rappers (50 Cent = Curtis Jackson)
3. Rock stars (Marilyn Manson = Brian Warner)
4. People with extremely Jewish-sounding last names (Woody Allen = Allen Konigsberg, Bob Dylan = Robert Allen Zimmerman)
5. People whose real names are ridiculous (Mel Gibson = Columcille Gibson)
6. Wrestlers (Hulk Hogan = Terry Bollea)
7. People who have the same name as somebody who is already famous or is already registered with the Screen Actor’s Guild (Nathan Lane = Joseph Lane, Michael Keaton = Michael Douglas, Katy Perry = Katheryn Hudson)
Still, the stage name thing is an interesting phenomenon in LA. Even with their diminished presence I’ve already had more than one roommate who has gone by a stage name in regular-person company. The nature of the entertainment industry requires every person must be in a constant state of selling themselves, so since everybody in LA is part of the entertainment industry it makes sense that people would try to brand themselves even among friends.
But to my non-LA sensibilities, this practice has always seemed sort of rude and weird. It is like asking the people you are close to to be friends with your megalomaniac half-self. That was, unintentionally, what Marilyn was asking that PA to do in the movie. To be friends with an empty-feeling glamourous person whose disconnection from reality was terminal and whose only obligation was to be entertaining.
Of course for mega-stars, the alternative is to brand themselves using their real name, which doesn’t always work out so well. Take my favorite mental case Brit Brit. Her image is just as contrived as Marilyn’s, but she does not have a regular person she can remember she once was. She is and always has been “Britney,” though that has meant many different things. As a child it meant being a daughter and sister, as a teenager it meant being a chaste sex symbol, as an adult it has meant being a very public nutcase. NOT having a stage name must be confusing to her sense of identity because language does not allow her to compartmentalize her various roles. They are all rolled into one word – Britney, no Spears necessary.
As far as stage names go, don’t laugh, but “Hannah Montana” is sort of the wholesome Disney-style exaggerated ideal in my mind. In life she gets to be a fully formed person and in her half-life she gets to be a rock star. That would be sweet. Marilyn probably did not ever get to spend another moment being Norma Jeane once her train began rolling, and she probably felt very lost for most of her time as Marilyn. Searching for connection is difficult when you literally aren’t yourself.
I once watched a hilarious fight break out between two of my housemates during which a regularly-named roommate began forcibly calling a stage-named roommate by her real name. That’s when she knew he wasn’t playing Mr. Nice Guy anymore. When he was willing to refer to her as a person with two regular names and parents and a family instead of an artist whose music he liked.
Once things got REAL, she read the writing on the wall and moved out, taking her regular self with her. And though I had found her sort of entertaining, there was something empowering about being reminded that the persona was just a name. I think she might have appreciated the reminder too. It’s a reminder Marilyn probably could have used.