Female double acts are hard to come by in film. I can think of three off the top of my head; Susan Sarandon & Geena Davies (Thelma & Louise), Sandra Bullock & Melissa McCarthy (The Heat) and Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). I’m sure if I thought harder I might be able to wring out a couple more, but equal female lead billing is exceedingly rare.
I am a huge Marilyn Monroe fan and this is my favourite of all her films. I could watch it again and again, but Monroe is only 50% of the reason I love it so much. Jane Russell is the other 50%. Yet Russell does not grace the DVD cover (below) alongside Monroe as she should. It is Monroe dripping in jewellery, shimmying and sparkling her way through Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend that has endured as the iconic scene of the movie. While that scene is spectacular and I cannot take my eyes off Monroe even for a second to see what her backing dancers are doing (are there backing dancers???), Russell is equally talented, equally beautiful and equally responsible for the brilliance of the film.
I wish films like this were made now. Instead we have Mean Girls and Bridesmaids, films about female friendship falling apart over men and jealousy. They come good in the end and it’s group hugs all round, but let’s compare that to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Malone tells Dorothy (Russell) that he can’t figure out why she and Lorelei (Monroe) are friends as they are so different. Dorothy’s response? “Nobody talks about Lorelei but me. She’s quite a girl, you just don’t know her.” Dorothy and Lorelei are the original proponents of ‘sisters before misters’. They look out for and support one another; their friendship is the focus of the film. It is an unwavering force that withstands near-constant assault by the arbitrary ‘gentlemen’ of the title. They also say lovely things about the other, “Dorothy’s the best and loyalist friend a girl ever had.” No sign of a Burn Book here.
Of course, the title is ironic. Good luck finding a ‘gentleman’ anywhere in this movie. The male characters may have all the wealth and power, but they massively underestimate the women by viewing them as purely aesthetic commodities. The men are worried that each of the girls is a bad influence on the other, but it is the so-called gentlemen, in their roles of coward, spy and thief, who are the real bad influences here. The women are not only 100% more beautiful than their male counterparts (who are all ancient and toad-like), they are also 100% more intelligent. As Dorothy puts it, “if we can’t empty his pockets between us, we’re not worthy of the name woman.” They do not compete over men. There is no hint of jealousy between them, which is so refreshing. Odd, given that the film is over 60 years old.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an excellent lesson in gender politics. The double standards levelled at women are laid bare. Women’s looks are given the same value as a man’s financial wealth, the means by which they are expected to make their living (as showgirls) or to secure a rich husband. Historically, diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Lorelei makes her desire for financial security known, while Dorothy is more of a modern every-woman, looking for love and sex. Made in a time when the workforce was not fully open to women, this film manages to sum up the position of women throughout history and simultaneously stay ahead of its time. Although it is an exercise in conspicuous consumption, the shopping scene in Paris has a poignant aspect to it when Lorelei says it is the first time she has been shopping without a man. *insert obligatory precursor to Sex & the City reference here* It is not money that Lorelei really wants, it is trust – for someone to look past her beautiful exterior and value instead her loyalty and sense of fun. In a speech that might have been ripped from Monroe’s autobiography (had she written one), it is filled with such gut-wrenching foreshadowing, Lorelei tells the drip she eventually marries, “It’s men like you who have made me the way I am. And if you loved me at all, you’d feel sorry for the terrible troubles I’ve been through instead of holding them against me.”
Monroe was notoriously difficult to work with, which makes her incandescence on screen all the more incredible. Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend is the jewel in the crown of a film packed with big song and dance numbers. Bye Bye Baby is wonderfully catchy and Jane Russell gamely dunking herself in the swimming pool during Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love is one of my favourite scenes. Charles Lederer’s script is fit to bursting with razor sharp wit such as, “Nobody chaperones the chaperone” and “I like a man who can run faster than I can.” For me, the real comedic gem of the movie is Russell’s turn as Marilyn Monroe, when Dorothy steps in to help Lorelei escape a sticky situation. Russell’s imitation is flawless. She struts around a courtroom in full showgirl get-up, channelling her co-star with everything she’s got. The result is hysterical. I laugh until my sides ache every time. The French judge delivers an Alan Sugar-esque, “You’re fired!” that just sends me over the edge into full ROFL.
The best part is that despite being very different in real life – Monroe once said, “Jane tried to convert me (to religion), I tried to introduce her to Freud” – the two women supported each other. During a discussion about her sex appeal, Russell said, “Sex appeal is good—but not in bad taste. Then it’s ugly. I don’t think a star has any business posing in a vulgar way. I’ve seen plenty of pin-up pictures that have sex appeal, interest, and allure, but they’re not vulgar. They have a little art to them. Marilyn’s calendar was artistic.” Both off screen and on, modern Hollywood could learn a hell of a lot from Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.