The (Sex) Symbol: Marilyn, Prime Time, and the Nielsens

Article excerpt

In 1947 Alvah Bessie was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer whether he was a member of the Communist Party and the Screenwriters Guild. Along with nine others (the group known as "The Hollywood Ten"), he stood on the first amendment and refused to answer the committee's questions. All ten were sentenced to prison terms; Bessie served his (one year) in a jail in Texarkana, Texas.

The HUAC investigation, which resulted in a blacklist, effectively ended Bessie's career as a screenwriter. (Ironically, his last film before his subpoena, Objective Burma (1945), had earned him an Academy Award nomination.) His only real contact with the industry since the blacklist was occasioned by the made-for-television film (released theatrically in Europe in a longer, more sexually explicit version) of his novel The Symbol (1966), which appeared on television in 1974 as The Sex Symbol.

Both novel and film were surrounded by controversy, which has been Bessie's constant companion throughout most of his career. Upon its publication, the book was unfairly attacked by most critics as a cheap rehash of the life of Marilyn Monroe, an exploitation of her personal suffering and of her sexual history. Only a few critics, notably Martha Gelhorn of the Kansas City Star and Wirt Williams of the New York Times Book Review, were perceptive enough to judge the novel on its own merits, which are considerable, instead of playing who's who games with its characters and then castigating Bessie for fictionalizing some real-life figures (a common enough novelistic device). Probably because of the unnecessary abusive criticism, the hardcover edition of the book, published by Random House, did not sell well. However, the paperback, issued in 1968 and again in 1973, has sold nearly a million copies, which makes The Symbol the best known of Bessie's novels.

The television movie made from the novel also became a Hollywood cause célèbre. The project was announced amid great fanfare, its controversial subject matter and the explicit nature of some of its scenes making it quite a daring project for television. The casting, too, generated considerable publicity: all the roles were described in various trade magazines, and Connie Stevens was finally chosen for the lead after Dyan Cannon and Ann-Margret had turned it down. The film was scheduled to air on March 5, as an "ABC Movie of the Week", but then was suddenly canceled. ABC claimed that it needed more work, but this did not prevent much gossipy speculation: some suggested that the Kennedy family had forced the network to cancel (the producers had spiced up Bessie's story by adding the character of a prominent senator who has an affair with the actress), while there were also rumors of lawsuits by Joe DiMaggio and by Arthur Miller (whose 1964 play After the Fall was also being prepared for televison release in 1974); perhaps, after all, the whole incident was merely a publicity stunt, calculated to excite further interest in the show. Finally, 77ié· Sex Symbol was broadcast on September 14, and although it won sixth place in the Nielsen ratings for the week, it was damned by TV critics from coast to coast.

Bessie's own part in the adaptation of his novel for the home screen was accompanied by some bitter, if less public, contention as well. Faced with the problem of turning his 300-page recreation of a woman's life into a workable TV script, he repeatedly asked his executive producer, Douglas Cramer, to persuade the network to allow him a two-hour format, but this request was rejected, and he found himself restricted to 74 minutes' running time (to fill the standard 90-minute time-slot). Still, Bessie strove to preserve the depth and complexity of his narrative technique, alternating between scenes from Wanda Oliver's life, occasional monologues, and her dialogues with a psychiatrist. The version he submitted, though a strong and potentially powerful drama for television, was inexplicably scrapped, and the script substantially revised by Bud Baumes, an assistant producer. …