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  Insignificance Marilyn Monroe On Fire
Year: 1985
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Tony Curtis, Will Sampson, Patrick Kilpatrick, Ian O'Connell, George Holmes, Richard M. Davidson, Mitchell Greenberg, Reynor Scheine, Jude Ciccolella, Lou Hirsch, Ray Charleson, Joel Cutrara
Genre: Comedy, Drama, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The Actress (Theresa Russell) is shooting her movie's big scene tonight on the streets of New York City, where she has been asked to stand over a subway grate so the draught will blow her skirt up. Everyone hopes it will be a celebrated scene, and under the grate with a wind machine are a pair of technicians who get quite the view when she poses over them: one says, "I saw the face of God!" But once the shoot is over, the Actress is dissatisfied, and asks her chauffeur to drive her around as she picks up various trinkets - including his wristwatch. However, she has heard The Professor (Michael Emil) is in town for a peace conference...

There have been many biopics that postulate how famous folks might have lived their lives, often inventing scenarios for stars to act out whether they are accurate or otherwise, but not many went for the option director Nicolas Roeg tried here with an adaptation of Terry Johnson's eccentric play. The conceit was that one sweltering night in New York, four icons of the mid-twentieth century found their lives intersecting, two because they were married to each other, and another two for political reasons. Basically, Marilyn Monroe wants to meet Albert Einstein, but her husband Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joseph McCarthy throw a spanner in the works.

You imagine that with CGI there are aspiring movie producers dreaming up premises to cast computer graphics of deceased but famous celebrities in their prime and getting them to interact, but Insignificance was the closest you could reach that in live action, for the nineteen-eighties at least. Also, you cannot imagine many filmmakers would want to cast Einstein and Marilyn in a film this arthouse, as most would think more along the lines of a wacky comedy like forgotten nineties romance I.Q., also a story that featured Einstein as a character. But the thing was here, Johnson avoided naming any of the quartet as the notables they were supposed to be.

You would find out why if you watched, as not only were these fictional incarnations more present for their place in American, and indeed world, history, but they got up to activities that would not have been in their biographies. McCarthy (an enthusiastic Tony Curtis) especially has been painted as a villain and rampant ego monster in the years since his very public downfall from anti-Communist crusader to criminal muckraker, but whatever else he may have done, he did not punch Marilyn in the midriff and cause her to miscarry. Though he may well have visited a prostitute in his hotel room and dissolved in tears when he couldn't get it up after grappling with her, you get the idea, this was rife with imaginative conjecture and outright fanciful invention.

Although Emil came closest to embodying the personality of Einstein as we imagined him to be, his brilliant mind always ticking over but suffering in the background from his responsibility for the nuclear bombs that loomed large at the end of World War Two and throughout the Cold War, the other three were closer to caricature. Gary Busey as DiMaggio was effectively a big lug, obsessed with either his status as a great baseball player, or the idea his wife Marilyn is cheating on him, which was doing down the real person, and though you may not lose sleep over McCarthy's careerist invasions of privacy here, Russell was evidently a little too keen to keep up her breathy Monroe voice than deliver a three-dimensional human being. That may have been the point, of course, these people belonged to the public's perception of them and anything more personal would be neglected: Marilyn the sexpot, Albert the egghead, and so on. Yet the bomb casts a shadow over them all, leading to a remarkable ending unlike anything else in cinema, worth sticking around for if all the relativity chat loses you. Music by Stanley Myers.

[Network release this as part of The British Film (as it is indeed British) with these features:

That's Insignificance: 1984 making-of featurette
Gone Roeg/Imitation of a Scene: fifty minutes of new interview material on the making of Insignificance
Alternative audio track featuring Stanley Myers' isolated musical score
Theatrical trailer
Image gallery
Limited edition booklet written by Neil Sinyard
Hard of hearing subtitles.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Nicolas Roeg  (1928 - 2018)

An acclaimed British cinematographer on sixties films such as Dr Crippen, Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, Petulia and Far From the Madding Crowd, Roeg turned co-director with Performance. The seventies were a golden age for Roeg's experimental approach, offering up Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth and Bad Timing, but by the eighties his fractured style fell out of favour with Eureka, Insignificance and Track 29. The Witches was an unexpected children's film, but the 1990s and beyond saw him working mostly in television.

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