Texas filmmaker Larry Buchanan has enjoyed a mild cult following for his bottom-of-the-barrel sci-fi flicks, including “The Eye Creatures” (1965), “Zontar: The Thing from Venus” (1966), and “Mars Needs Women” (1967). In 1976, Buchanan put aside his zipper-backed monsters and plastic flying saucers to present a biopic on one of the most vibrant personalities of the twentieth century, movie icon Marilyn Monroe.
Perhaps he should have stayed with the flying saucers. Critic Jake Cremins of the site Movie-Gurus.com captured the essence of the film in a single sentence: “In the annals of cinematic sleaze, ‘Goodbye, Norma Jean’ will surely earn a special place as one of the most hideously depressing pieces of trash ever to be made by Larry Buchanan or anyone else.”
Buchanan’s film is a weirdly lurid and tastelessly fictionalized account of the young Norma Jean Baker’s search for a niche in the Hollywood studio system. (Never mind that the film provides her with the mane of platinum blond hair that did not become her trademark until after she first appeared on-screen.) She barely survives living in a hostile foster home, and her initial efforts to secure a life for herself results in a brutal rape by a highway patrolman. But when Norma Jean wins something called the Miss Whammo Ammo contest, she becomes convinced that she has what it takes to become a big-screen legend.
However, the film suggests that the future Marilyn Monroe’s ascension to stardom had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with her willingness to be sexually assaulted by various producers, casting agents, photographers, and other studio fringe people. The number of attacks against Norma Jean is so frequent and Buchanan’s staging of these sex crimes is so crude that the film becomes fascinating for the diversity of its misogynistic excesses.
Buchanan hoped to generate publicity by hosting a national talent contest to locate an unknown to play the young Marilyn Monroe. The contest’s winner was a nonprofessional named Alexis Pederson, but she rejected the grand prize of the starring role after reading the script. Instead, Buchanan cast starlet Misty Rowe, who appeared as one of the decorative haystack cuties on the TV series “Hee Haw” and briefly played Maid Marian in the Mel Brooks sitcom flop “When Things Were Rotten.” Rowe seized the role as a chance of a lifetime, but delivered a truly bizarre performance that swung between the Monroe persona of the baby-voiced bombshell and a career-obsessed dynamo that openly and ferociously declared her self-worth and determination to succeed in the dirty and violent world of movies. It is a strange and often fascinating performance, but for all the wrong reasons.
Rowe would later be the focus of a Playboy photo shoot in which she re-created some of Monroe’s celebrated poses. But the would-be star glumly acknowledged that she was stuck in a crummy film. “We had no lighting, poor makeup, little or no direction,” she claimed.
Rowe’s complaints were justified: Buchanan created “Goodbye, Norma Jean” on a meager budget of $130,000. And not unlike his other cheapo endeavors, it earned back a hefty profit and enjoyed a mild cult following among fans of so-bad-they’re-good movies.
(This essay is adapted from Phil Hall’s book “The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time,” published by BearManor Media.)