In case the decades of exhaustive scrutiny have not convinced you, being Marilyn Monroe was no easy job. Miss Golden Dreams, elegy to the former Norma Jean, makes clear that playing Marilyn Monroe is a bit of a chore as well. Marilyn was stuck in the role herself; any actor recreating her is faced with portraying a beloved icon who spent half her life portraying a beloved icon.
"I'm not an impersonator, and I'm not trying to do that," Carolyn Baeumler, who handles the part with aplomb at ACT, explains. "It's me, Carolyn, playing Norma Jean playing Marilyn in this Joyce Carol Oates play."
Baeumler has a background in such complex tasks. Aside from the lead in a staging of Mae West's Sex, she had a run as Courtney Love in a one-woman show based on the vitriolic star's Internet postings. How taxing ar such homages?
"It's very, very challenging," Baeumler acknowledges. "Of course, you're compared to [these icons], and the reason why they're icons is because they have this elusive quality to them that only they have."
Preparing for Marilyn, Baeumler threw herself into the star's films and recordings, as well as the expected literary endeavors (including Norman Mailer's typically idiosyncratic contemplation and Oates' own Blonde). She also found telling details in a Christie's auction book that described some of the handwritten asides found in Monroe's scripts, lines Marilyn circled and notated with personal remarks like "How well I know." The research gave Baeumler a larger understanding of a woman able to reveal herself "against insurmountable fear."
Miss Golden Dreams itself is too overburdened with its depiction of that fear, but it is intriguing to watch its lead try to move around and within it. The show requires 90 minutes of a Marilyn who is the victim of a relentlessly uncaring world. On opening night, Baeumler seemed as browbeaten in her curtain call as the damaged soul she was saluting.
"Sitting in the dressing room, taking my makeup off, I don't feel as euphoric as I usually feel," she admits.
But at least she gets to wear that great white dress from The Seven Year Itch, and live out the fantasy of women and drag queens everywhere as it wafts up around her waist, right?
"That is one of the most fun parts of the play," she admits. "And then, of course, I'm yanked out and punched, so it's not fun for very long."