Thursday, February 7, 2013

Carl Rollyson's "American Isis"

Carl Rollyson, Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children’s biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. His latest books are Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, a biography of Dana Andrews published in September 2012, and the biography American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath, released in January 2013.

Here he shares some ideas for adapting American Isis for the big screen:
Who would I want to play Sylvia Plath? Before I answer that question let me say a few words about Sylvia, the film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. It is a sorry thing. Poor Sylvia, she could not write as fluently as her Teddy boy. She baked cakes when she should have been penning poems. She gassed herself because she could not have him to herself. Poor Sylvia. The film is such a farrago of half-fact and simplistic psychologizing - not to mention that gratuitous nude scene with Paltrow perched on a sofa, bereft because Ted has abandoned her for the pregnant Assia Wevill.

What is astounding about Plath is her relish of multiple roles. But the biographies present her as a mass of contradictions - feminist and subservient wife, high-art poetess and hack writer, the Mademoiselle who wrote a potboiler (a term the Plath character uses for The Bell Jar in Sylvia).

The filmmakers, like her biographers, are simply parroting what her contemporaries said about her. Susan Sontag, a member of the same generation, lamented in an interview that Plath felt obliged to seek popular attention so cravenly. Plath, however, viewed literature as a campaign to be fought on all fronts. The extraordinary point about her is that she was open to all forms and levels of literature. She regarded all writing as human expressiveness; she embraced it with Whitmanesque fervor.

I happen to have written a biography of Marilyn Monroe, and I was particularly struck by a Plath journal entry that reveals a rare insight into Monroe and into the role of a certain kind of literary figure in our culture, but also that reveals Plath's own unique stature, which has made her a cynosure for a holistic sensibility no other writer has been able to bring off as completely. In mid-September 1959, Plath mentions reading Arthur Miller, and about two weeks later she records:
Marilyn Monroe appeared to me last night as a kind of fairy godmother. An occasion of "chatting" with audience much as the occasion with Eliot will turn out, I suppose. I spoke, almost in tears, of how much she and Arthur Miller meant to us, although they could, of course, not know us at all. She gave me an expert manicure. I had not washed my hair, and asked her about hairdressers, saying no matter where I went, they always imposed a horrid cut on me. She invited me to visit her during the Christmas holidays, promising a new, flowering life.
Only Sylvia Plath dreams of audiences with Marilyn Monroe and T.S. Eliot, divining in her dreams that both are necessary. Like Monroe, Plath sought to fashion a persona that put her on a level with everyone - with readers of popular magazines and of literary journals.

So who should play Sylvia in my movie? To me, the answer is obvious: It has to be an actress who is auditioning for the role of Marilyn Monroe, an actress that is not obviously a Plath lookalike anymore than she is a Monroe double, an actress who nevertheless can inhabit the role, and play Plath in all of her yearning and provisionality, an actress who wins our hearts because she is not copying Plath but interpreting her. Who else but an actress who has done for Monroe in Smash what she could also do for Plath: Katharine McPhee.
View the video trailer for American Isis, and learn more about the book and author at Carl Rollyson's website, blog, and Facebook page.

The Page 99 Test: American Isis.

--Marshal Zeringue