It is 1946. Wearing a dress with a plunging neckline, Norma Jean Baker enters a studio reception room and trips, falling forward on all fours. The camera moves in for a leering close-up, transferring our eyes to her panoramic breasts while she speaks at length with the young man who has rushed to her aid. Did it really happen? Did any of Marilyn and Me (airing 9 p.m. Sunday, Chs. 10, 40) really happen as it is told?
This flat, uninvolving and above all somewhat dubious ABC movie asks us to believe that a relatively obscure writer named Robert F. Slatzer was Monroe's secret husband for five days, that he got her pregnant and was with her in Tijuana, Mexico, when she got an abortion on a kitchen table.
It asks us to believe that Slatzer had a run-in with Joe DiMaggio over Monroe, that he was present when she posed for her famous nude calendar portrait, that his presence on the set of Niagara in 1952 settled her down so that she could finish the movie that would zoom her to stardom.
It asks us to believe that Slatzer, a man whose presence beside Monroe amazingly few people seem to have noticed, was her close friend and confidant throughout her Hollywood years.
Wil Fowler says he doesn't believe it. Slatzer's story is "filled with lies," charges Fowler, who claims he was the ghost writer for the first two drafts of Slatzer's 1974 book, The Life & Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe, on which much of the ABC movie is based. He says he withdrew as writer after becoming convinced that Slatzer's account was "baloney."
Slatzer says it's Fowler who's full of baloney. Moreover, he and Andrew Ettinger, former editorial director at Pinnacle Books, publisher of Slatzer's account, maintain that Fowler is exaggerating his role, that he was involved only in editing and rewriting and that he was dropped from the project for failure to produce.
More about Marilyn and them shortly.
Although Susan Griffiths (a veteran of the Monroe lookalike circuit) captures a certain dreamy elusiveness that syncs with Monroe's public personality, Marilyn and Me is devoid of insights, the "me" taking precedence over the Marilyn in producer Robert Boris' teleplay.
Slatzer (Jesse Dabson) is depicted as earnest and loyal. In Hollywood at 19 to scrounge interviews for an Ohio paper, he meets 20-year-old, then-brunette Norma Jean in that studio reception room and is immediately infatuated. She asks him for a date, and that night she strips on a public beach, where, we're given the impression, she seduces him.
There are some sequences here that seem phony on the surface. One of them has Monroe and Slatzer breaking into the old Rudolf Valentino mansion, where a guard discovers them and, instead of kicking them out, puts on a tango record so they can dance.
At the heart of the debate over Marilyn and Me, however, is its portrayal of Slatzer's undocumented, alleged secret-quickie marriage to Monroe in Mexico in 1952. In the movie, Monroe proposes to Slatzer after Joe DiMaggio, the man she'll later marry, proposes to her. Then Monroe's boss, 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, somehow finds out about her marriage to Slatzer, and they obey his order to dissolve it.
No marriage certificate exists today. Slatzer says that Monroe's certificate has disappeared and that another certificate was destroyed on their instructions by a lawyer in Mexico when they were there getting their marriage dissolved. The only person still alive who could verify the marriage, he said, is actress Terry Moore (who has a small part in the ABC movie). Moore did not return calls made to her this week.
Actress Susan Strasberg and others who were close to Monroe say the fact that they had no knowledge of the alleged Slatzer-Monroe relationship doesn't necessarily mean it didn't exist. "She kind of compartmentalized her friends," Strasberg said.
Fowler, whose long writing career in Los Angeles has included stints as a newspaperman, publicist and novelist, is a much harsher critic. He contends that when Slatzer approached him about writing a book about Monroe in 1972, the subject was to be the mystery surrounding her 1962 death, which was ruled a suicide. Fowler recalls: "I said in the beginning, "If you were married to Marilyn, you'd really have a book here.' Then a few days later he came to me and said, "I didn't want to say anything, but I was married to her, but it was only for a weekend.'
According to Fowler, he ended his association with the book after becoming suspicious when Slatzer's story "kept changing."
Nonetheless, Fowler said, he had always regarded Slatzer as being harmless until hearing that ABC was going to make a movie drawn largely from The Life & Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe that would depict not only the alleged marriage but also mention an abortion that Slatzer claims Monroe had. "That made me so sick and so mad," he said.
Fowler says he is convinced that Slatzer never even met Monroe until getting himself photographed with her on the set of Niagara.
"I deny every allegation he has ever made," Slatzer said of Fowler. "He is a mean and jealous man." Slatzer offered as "evidence" a copy of a letter to him dated Aug. 15, 1982, purportedly signed by Fowler and appearing to accept Slatzer's account of the marriage.
Fowler said he never wrote such a letter.
Slatzer is listed as a "consultant" on Marilyn and Me, a production of Samuels Film Co. Christine Hikawa, vice president for ABC broadcast standards and practices, said that her office interviewed Slatzer and found him "credible." She said network researchers also consulted "independent sources" about Slatzer and found material in three books that "supported his claims."
However, none of the books she cited provides documentation of the alleged marriage, and none mentions the alleged abortion.
Hikawa said that ABC stands behind the movie.