The Sex Symbol (1974)
The final installment of Golden Age on the Silver Screen till November, and I really wish I had picked a better movie for this mid-season finale. The Sex Symbol is a “thinly veiled” biopic of Marilyn which is just a fancy way of saying the film changed characters’ names (you’ll see this again when I review another Marilyn biopic, Blonde). For some reason Marilyn Monroe is not translatable to film, at least with another actress playing her. So far I’ve seen nothing but bad Marilyn’s in this series, and I doubt the other two remaining films (three if I can purchase another one I discovered) will give me a film of watchable quality because The Sex Symbol certainly isn’t it.
Marilyn Monroe Kelly Williams (Connie Stevens) is dropped from her latest film and devolves into a downward spiral. In recounting her life to her therapist Kelly suffers from abandonment and the inability to find happiness with others.
There’s not a lot of information available on this film, in fact I found better information on Goodbye, Norma Jean and that was low-budget. The Sex Symbol is a 1974 television film that aired during ABC’s Tuesday Night at the Movies which was apparently an anthology of made for TV films that tried to “push the boundaries” of what was acceptable on television at that time (thanks random reviewer on IMDB). With that, I was fortunate, yeah that’s a good word, to find the overseas cut of this film which has extensive nudity from Ms. Connie Stevens. Apparently this cut is also longer at an hour and 47 minutes whereas IMDB has the U.S. runtime listed at an hour and 14 minutes.
In the pantheon of Marilyn Monroe biopics that I’ve seen so far this would definitely go above Goodbye, Norma Jean if only for its lack of exploitation of the character. Our Marilyn is raped in this film (although it’s subdued more…gotta love how every movie has this) but it’s not constant and/or used for exploitation. If anything The Sex Symbol shows a celebrity in the throes of a pity party, at least the way Connie Steven plays Marilyn, I mean Kelly.
Okay let’s get this out-of-the-way, the use of alternative names is stupid because it’s obvious whose story your telling so why hide it, unless it’s a rights issue. I could maybe understand the film’s possible desire to tell the universal story of all tragic blondes in Hollywood and I figured that maybe that was what the movie was going for as the opening credits show several Hollywood icons who met tragic ends including Veronica Lake, Jean Harlow, and Jayne Mansfield. Then they throw in Betty Grable and I was left scratching my head, I mean I don’t know anything but she died of lung cancer…not in the same league as Marilyn or the other three. So maybe the film wants to show that there’s always a new blond around the corner (à la Showgirls?). It honestly doesn’t matter as the film doesn’t tell us anything new about Marilyn or fame in general.
The only difference I saw in comparison to other films in this series is the symbiotic/parasitic relationship between Hollywood and the gossip columns with the character of Agatha Murphy (Shelley Winters…you read that right). Murphy is a thinly disguised Hedda Hopper and while Kelly and Agatha mutually hate each other they derive publicity at the same time. Had the film explored that deeper it could have elevated itself above the dreck. Unfortunately the character of Agatha Murphy disappears around the hour mark for no discernible reason, never to be seen again. Winters, who did have a strong friendship with Marilyn in real life, appears to be trying or trying to have fun at least. I do believe the character of Joy Hudson (Madlyn Rhue), Kelly’s roommate, might be based on Winters but I’m not sure. It would make sense.
The majority of the film’s runtime is a standard biopic of
Marilyn Kelly and her failed marriages and rise to the top. I’ve never seen nor heard of Connie Stevens till this film but boy is she terrible in this. It doesn’t help that we’re introduced to her in a terrible wig that constantly changes during the numerous flashbacks. The main issue is her need to either scream or sob her lines. 80% of her dialogue was completely unintelligible, covered by racking sobs and screaming. She’s far too manic in the part and after hearing her scream about the thousands of dollars she doles out to people so they should talk to her I would have hung up on her too! Mainly Stevens walks around, cries, throws objects, and screams “I’m a star,” again that’s when you can understand her at all. The film simply goes through the motions for the first hour and really only focuses on her relationships with various men, namely studio heads that she’s either sleeping with or…just talking to I guess. We do get the lecherous studio head who rapes her and disappears. Guess it wouldn’t be a Marilyn film without it.
As a means of giving Kelly some depth the film includes this element of her being unhappy and unable to make her husbands happy because she doesn’t enjoy sex. While I appreciate the irony of the title with this element, it’s not developed at all, merely tacked on by the husbands all asking her why she doesn’t like sleeping with them and that’s it. It’s never explored as to why she doesn’t like sex or even how Kelly feels about it. If anything it bothers her husbands more than her! For a woman who doesn’t like sex the film sure enjoys getting the most out of the last 30 or so minutes where Stevens is entirely nude (again, removed from the US airing). While I know Marilyn herself died nude this film uses the nudity to have Stevens rolling around on a bed and crying! I can handle gratuitous nudity (and in some films I wish it was present more often) but here it just feels like the director or screenwriter realized audiences were tuning out and wanted to spice it up.
The final ten minutes tries to give Kelly context with her daddy issues (how did I not see that coming!). The problem here is that the film is almost over so why not develop the fatherless childhood well before that, perhaps amongst all that boring “Kelly and her men” portion of the movie. And why is Stevens babbling about this whilst crying? The only way I knew her father issues were being discussed was because of the flashbacks to Kelly trying to call her father; that and Kelly screaming/crying something about “father” and “mother” (seriously you can’t understand this woman).
The film does try to analyze her various relationships but their all given about ten minutes of screen time before being dumped. The film’s big “changes” include changing Joe DiMaggio into a football player named Buck (William Smith) and changing JFK into a senator named Grant O’Neal (Don Murray). If Murray’s name sounds familiar he was the guy I absolutely despised in the Marilyn Monroe film Bus Stop! Here he plays a douchey JFK wannabe. I think him and Kelly have the same two conversations and that’s it.
So yeah The Sex Symbol is terrible. It is pretty funny to watch 1970s TV movies and look at their “special effects.” Case in point, Kelly throws a bottle at the television only to have the TV blow up a second before the bottle hits it. The film is a standard “Marilyn Monroe was lonely” film that could have gone so many places. It could have explored the relationship of Marilyn to the press which would allow Shelley Winters to be used. It could have also explored the rise of other tragic blondes as the opening credits seemed to imply. Either way it’s a terrible film but one to watch if only to see Connie Stevens nude or have a great laugh. I would put it far above Goodbye, Norma Jean but below My Week with Marilyn.
NOTE: This is the final installment until after Halloween (back November 4th). I am still interested if readers would like me to review better, theatrical versions of celeb biopics. I’ve gotten a few votes but would love more feedback. Also, I am forced to purchase some of these films so if you’d like to help offset the costs for this awesome series I’d appreciate any type of donations. You can do so by clicking on the ads on the site, purchasing a film via the Amazon links and/or donating directly to me via the PayPal button on the sidebar. Thanks!
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The excellent Brian Pinette over at Rare Film Classics has an amazing deal on several old Hollywood biopics. If your interested in watching The Sex Symbol or other hard-to-find films I can’t recommend him enough!
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.
It’s not very good, but I’ll watch anything with Connie Stevens! Plus, the nostalgic factor is high for the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK (which I watched every week).
Haha. I will say this isn’t nearly the worst Marilyn biopic out there. You could do worse.