“The Caliph’s loneliness persisted despite the procession of virgins who filled his bed and were sacrificed each day. And because he never had anyone with whom to share his unhappiness, he kept his disillusionments secret.”
(Voices of the desert, p. 34)
Trapped by the eye of the camera, the eyes of her viewers, and her own sensuous beauty, Marilyn. Only the eyes visible, the livelihood of her tales the most valued of her talents, Scheherazade. Two different destinies, two different paths, exquisitely recreated in Simon Curtis’ movie, My Week with Marylin (2011), and in the literary rendition of Scheherezade, Voices of the Desert (2004), by Nelida Pinon.
Reality and myth confront one another and often clash with repercussion in both directions – that of the authentic ego (that can be touched) and the one created and maintained as an alter ego by the simple act of gazing or ear lending, most often in completely different ways, the image, legend or myth assuming a more pervasive aura than the human being behind it. Human physical frailty is key, as neither image – the one enticing viewers on the screen and the one enticing the Caliph from under the veil – can give measure to the two women’s complex nature.
“People always see Marilyn Monroe. As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run.” (quoted from the movie)
“Her heart is not always bound to the tales she relates. Her desire is to one day resume life outside the palace walls, to be free of the burden of storytelling.” (Voices of the Desert, p. 24)
It is through such rifts that personal discontent and suffering well up – even though each of the women do their best to keep them hidden from the world. And yet – fortunately, or, at times, less so -, their instinctive talents prevail in spite of physical adversity. In order to keep their image alive, each woman sacrifices something. With Marilyn, it is her need to be loved and find fulfillment as a mother and wife. Scheherezade, on the other hand, for whom the “Caliph’s cruelty shines before [her] eyes” (p. 30), wants nothing more than to stop the chain of cruelties he inflicts on women at the cost of her own life and, in storytelling, at the cost of her own individuality.
“[T]o lend credibility to her task, she tries to free herself of the signs of her individuality. Her deeper being is not at issue.” (p. 30)
Throughout the shooting of “The Prince and the Showgirl”, Marilyn struggles with the character she has to play, unable to perform any lines until she herself can find them credible. She, too, has to lose herself in the character she plays, abandon human subjectivity to an icon figure. Added to the daily delays and the constant need for repetition, her desire for perfection in performing prompts Sir Lawrence Olivier to confide in Colin Clark that “directing a movie is the best job ever created, but [that] Marilyn has cured [him] of ever wanting to do it again.” As Colin Clark tells Marilyn in a previous scene, “It’s agony because he’s a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you’re a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won’t help either of you.”
On the human side, working with Marilyn did not help turn back time, either, in spite of Sir Lawrence Olivier’s hopes – and his own wife’s worst fears. However, when each return to acting – in plays and movies -, they prove to be more stunning than ever before.
In her turn, Scheherezade “felt distressed by the pressure of her talent. She didn’t care about praise[.] This did not stop her on certain occasions from swelling with pride, only to regret at once the arrogance that could poison her.” One way to alleviate this oppression and calm herself came from “the ancient practice of hiding lightly scented messages beneath the colorful pillows scattered about the house” (p. 25), notes that her sister, Dinazarda, tried to find and decipher, to no avail.
“As a whole, the notes, because of their cryptic nature, meant nothing. They were but papyrus, useful only for Scheherezade to elaborate some story ready to blossom under her wit.” (p. 26)
Telling stories hidden behind a veil and personifying female sensuality with innate talent. Could they be two sides of the same coin? And what should we call it?
My thoughts right now point to entrapment, or the burden of talent in a ungrateful world that enjoys talent in its multifarious forms, but fails to acknowledge it for its worth to society.
I’ll let you know if I find more coins in the drained fountain of our ages.
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“After his decision to sacrifice the young women of the kingdom in order to satisfy his hatred of the Sultana, the Caliph had felt safe. He had found a means of assuring the court that he was immune to woman, to that being with a body as sinuous as the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates, in whose veins he had found milk, honey, poison. But despite protecting himself, he had weakened before females and continued taking them into his bed as a necessary evil. That entity, full of meanings and ambivalence, at once beautiful and wicked, remained to him an indecipherable mystery, to which he had access only in the shadow of night, when, bewildered, he touched the smooth skin that evoked exhudations in his body.” (Voices of the Desert, p. 34)
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Recommended movies on the topic: Ten Tiny Love Stories (2002), Of Love and Other Demons (2009), Cherie (2009), My Week With Marilyn (2011), and so many others…