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Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976)


I’ve officially dubbed my look at the various celebrity biopics made-for-television and/or are less than remembered The Golden Age on the Silver Screen.  Today’s film didn’t start on television but it should have.  Actually television would be too good for this hunk of garbage, it should have bypassed all media outlets and gone straight into the trash.  Goodbye, Norma Jean is an exploitative 1970s schlockfest filled with nothing but rape and ridicule of a Hollywood icon.  I can’t recommend this film to anybody and really, fans of classic film would be doing themselves a disservice by watching this.  I wanted to take a shower after wallowing in this mess.

Purporting to tell of the early rise of Norma Jean Baker (Misty Rowe), the film looks at her beginnings being lusted after by every man she comes in contact with.  Eventually, Norma Jean starts to utilize her feminine wiles to get what she wants.

I actually filled up two whole pages on this trash and much of it consists of exclamation points, question marks, and underlining.  There’s a lot of mixed information on this movie’s history from whether it went to theaters or not and whether it’s based on source material from Marilyn “friend” Robert Slatzer whose been debunked in numerous biographies on Monroe.  A sequel to this was actually made and came out in 1989 entitled Good Night, Sweet Marilyn which supposedly borrows stock footage from this movie and honestly…if it was available I’d watch it just to see if it’s actually worse than this.  Nothing about this movie is factual right down to Norma Jean’s hair color which stays blonde throughout the entire film (fans know that Marilyn’s hair was originally a dark blonde or a light brown depending on your views).  Characters are, I’m assuming, renamed to protect the guilty but aside from a character I assumed to be Slatzer and one or two characters I thought could be agent Johnny Hyde, I couldn’t place ANY of these other characters.  For some reason they can’t even use the studio names although they’re easy to decipher (I don’t think a studio named Lion-Rampant could be anything other than MGM although Marilyn was known for working at Fox?).

There’s no better way to get through this trash than chronologically.  We open with some text that I’m pretty sure has a typo somewhere because it doesn’t read right: “This is how she happened.  Not legend, nor even the way she  told it.  This is the way it was.”  Really, because I just finished an acclaimed book on Marilyn and I can assure you this is not how it happened.  Norma Jean is introduced after a male friend of her foster-mother starts leering at her.  This is a recurring thing that becomes utterly disgusting around the twenty-minute mark.  Literally, EVERY man she meets tries to rape her at one point.  Every man, and one woman.  This movie relishes raping Marilyn Monroe and it’s depraved.  I understand the need to show Hee-Haw star Misty Rowe in the nude, that happens a lot too, but this need to have every man being a disgusting pervert is reprehensible.

Getting back to the plot, there is a pretty catchy theme song for this film.  I don’t understand why this low-grade exploitation film needs a theme song so I’m just going to say it was a 70s’ thing.   It’s obvious this film was cobbled together from multiple takes as the camera jumps like the cameraman fell asleep and in the opening scene Norma Jean is dry-eyed one minute and completely sobbing the next.  Rowe herself looks absolutely nothing like Marilyn Monroe.  I have an easier time believing Loni Anderson in the Thelma Todd story looks more like Marilyn than Rowe.  If anything Rowe would have looked like Jean Harlow as opposed to Marilyn and she has this habit of pulling down her lower lip in a grimace that looks painful as opposed to sad.  Her attempts at acting include mimicking a 10-year-old girl complete with bouncing on her heels, throwing her arms while running, and swinging her purse around.  She’s nude for a majority of the film for little reason other than men who love Hee-Haw wanted to see her naked.  Honestly, there is no rhyme or reason for her nude scenes.  One scene over an hour into the film is just her changing clothes to pad the runtime and up the nudity quotient.

We see Norma Jean get fondled, raped, and assaulted three separate times within the first ten minutes.  You didn’t read that wrong.  She’s fondled in a movie theater and we move on.  Some strange guy outside her house grabs her and starts to assault her on the street and we move on.  The friend from the beginning watches her undress only to have Norma Jean actually start slapping him without a top (yes Norma Jean Baker fights a guy naked…put that on the box!  Oh and this film is PG-13).  None of these moments are as truly heinous as a scene where a police officer who stops Marilyn for a ticket actually comes into her house in the middle of the night.  Norma Jean actually talks to him for a minute before thinking anything’s off and then he rapes her.  The cop scene is terrible as the music used for it is akin to the old silent films “scary” music filled with clashing cymbals and the way the cop talks to her, telling her she was asking for it is beyond derogatory.  Even a flashback to her childhood starts with a guy on a park bench assaulting her!  I’ve read several books and while there’s debate on Marilyn’s talk of sexual abuse it’s generally fallen at the hands of a foster family and even then, there’s been no direct proof for or against.  The fact that every man, every single man on the planet in this film, actually rapes and assaults this woman is exploitative.  Hell, the movie goes so far as to have a group of photographers pay money to peep on Norma Jean naked and watch her be raped.  I’d go so far as to say the director Larry Buchanan and co-writer Lynn Shubert hate women.  Both Buchanan and Shubert wrote another celebrity biopic, Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell, which I tried to find and I think that’s a sign of something.

What’s sad is that it appears as if Buchanan and Shubert haven’t seen a Marilyn movie or read a book.  There’s zero basis in fact other than Marilyn Monroe once started out as Norma Jean Baker.  A scene of her working in a factory doesn’t make mention of Norma Jean’s marriage to Jim Dougherty and while her friend “Ralph” (Terence Locke) who I’m assuming is a stand-in for Robert Slatzer mentions her husband that’s it.  He literally asks “what about your husband” and that’s all we hear.  There is a bit about her mother being crazy as we see her mother talking to Norma Jean through a mirror in some drug-induced haze but another scene has Norma Jean praying to her mother like she’s dead.  In 1941 Marilyn’s mother was very much alive in a sanitarium!

The film is just a mundane rehash of “rape, dialogue, rape, dialogue” with no plot.  When those two things aren’t happening Misty Rowe is nude or engaged in some type of sexual activity making this film border on soft-core porn territory.  It’s almost laughable when some unnamed Hollywood agent mentions that Norma Jean will meet all manner of “creeps and deviants” once she goes out on auditions.  Really lady, as opposed to the creeps and deviants we’ve already met within the first twenty minutes?  The rest of the acting is fairly one-note and unremarkable.  You gotta love the gem that is Ralph though.  He sends Norma Jean out to countless auditions…alone…only to tell her after her 1,000th assault “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”  Where were you jack-wagon?!  Ralph does absolutely nothing for Norma Jean except give her pills.  In the few moments where Rowe does keep her clothes on she simply says “I’m going somewhere” or the similar “I’m going to be somebody!”  Sadly that going somewhere takes 96 minutes to happen.

Remember how I mentioned it seemed the writer and director didn’t see any of Marilyn’s work.  Sadly that becomes apparent in how they portray Marilyn.  Misty Rowe plays the icon as an idiot, openly admitting at one point “I’m dumb” which wasn’t true.  Norma Jean knew she was limited in education but she didn’t give up and say she was stupid.  She admired people like Abraham Lincoln and Carl Sandberg and read on a regular basis.  At a certain point Norma Jean in the movie vows to sleep with whoever if it means she got to be a star, going against everything we know about the actress.  Yes the casting couch was a known entity at this point but there’s never been definitive proof that Marilyn slept with any executives to get her career.  The fact that this movie proclaims that Marilyn screwed her way to the top is offensive.  The final screen-test sequence at the end of the film shows Marilyn/Rowe mugging for the camera.  In the film’s final moments all I could think was that either Misty Rowe is the worst actress ever or Marilyn Monroe was the worst actress ever and that made me sad as audiences who maybe hadn’t seen Marilyn’s work and only saw this would be inclined to go with the latter.

Let’s look at some other things this movie does terribly.  I mentioned already no real actors names are used and the only characters I could attempt to connect to real-life people were the aforementioned Ralph=Robert Slatzer and possibly a character named Irving (Marty Zagon) being a stand-in for Johnny Hyde.  I say possibly because another character Hal James (Preston Hanson) takes up a great deal of screen time and is supposed to be a focal point for the story’s third act.  We meet Hal after Norma Jean has been raped (see how tiring it gets) by an actor.  What’s hilarious (and I say that dripping with sarcasm) is that Norma announces to Hal she’s just been raped and when the guy doesn’t do anything she gets reasonably angry.  Irving soon arrives and mentions Hal’s name and I can’t for the life of me remember why Hal is important (I’m assuming studio head) and Norma Jean STARTS APOLOGIZING!  Yes, Norma, please apologize for offending the studio head because he didn’t do anything about you being raped!!!  Now keep in mind Hal is supposedly a “good” studio head, unlike the one who introduced himself to Norma by dropping his pants.  Yeah that happened.  I kept asking throughout the film why Hal is important and no one could explain to me who he is.  I kept trying to place him opposite characters in Marilyn’s life and I don’t recall any studio heads who took her and transformed her.  Suggestions?

By the third act the film forgets all logic and just starts contradicting itself.  Marilyn’s mother shows up in some psychedelic haze of Norma Jean’s mind telling her not to trust men because all they do is pretend to be sweet and promise her stuff.  Lady, have you been watching the same movie as me?  These men aren’t even nice enough to promise her anything, they literally drop their pants and expect her to sleep with them!  Norma Jean does a stag film she makes of point of saying won’t show her face only to have the film cut to her completely nude with her face in full view!  We then cut to Hal James’ place (why I have no clue) where all these supposed Hollywood power players are watching the Norma Jean stag film and having some type of orgy.  For zero reason whatsoever, in a film filled without reason, one of the people in the room decide “let’s what a snuff film!”  Yes, they decide to watch young women beating up a bum.  Marilyn isn’t in this tape or in this entire sequence.  What does the snuff film have to do with Marilyn’s life?  Why are we watching it in the third act?  Who the hell are these people?  No one knows!  There’s even a scene with Marilyn and a sweet old lady talking about Hollywood.  Who is this old lady?  Why is she important?  Do I give a damn!

When you have movie that includes a woman beating on Marilyn Monroe and then raping her there’s no good reason why this movie choose to exist let alone warrant a DVD release.  I can’t find the 2004 Natalie Wood miniseries but this shit gets a DVD release on Netflix!  And for being set in 1940 these people all talk and dress like it’s 1976!  I HATED, HATED, HATED this movie as Roger Ebert would say.  It has ZERO redeeming qualities.  The production value is garbage and the story might as well be called Goodbye, That Girl Who Gets Raped All the Time but Grows Up to Be Marilyn Monroe.  I understand that probably wouldn’t fit on a DVD box but at least it’s honest!  I feel disgusted I rented and wasted time on this crap!  Don’t watch it.  Watch anything else.  I honestly can’t believe I’ll watch anything worse during my made-for-TV series worse than Goodbye, Norma Jean!  I’m not even going to put an Amazon link at the bottom, you people deserve better!  Go watch White Hot, the Thelma Todd movie.  Loni Anderson is a far better Marilyn impersonator AND it has Robert Davi in it!

Grade: F-


Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

4 thoughts on “Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976) Leave a comment

  1. “And for being set in 1940 these people all talk and dress like it’s 1976!”

    Including, apparently, the anachronistic use of the phrase “snuff film,” which wasn’t coined until the early 1970s.

    Really, what else did you expect from writer-director Larry Buchanan? This is the notorious schlockmeister who gave us several color remakes of AIP drive-in fare (shot on 16mm and released directly to TV syndication) as well as “Mars Needs Women” and “Curse of the Swamp Creature.”


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