4 Female Stars and the Myths of Losing a Career

Today we’re going to talk about some of those female stars who people commonly say lost their careers due to poor decision making. One thing I realized when researching this piece was the sheer magnitude of how many women get painted as “troublesome” or “difficult” simply due to their demands. Some are painted as whores, others as alcoholics, but a lot of them simply tried to handle their careers their way–often times with disastrous consequences.

Marilyn Monroe

Anyone on here knows I prefer a realistic version of Monroe over the sugar-coated victim narrative commonly ascribed to her. Monroe faced difficulties in life, more than most people can begin to imagine, but the idea that she was the most put upon gets tiring; however, writers love nothing more than theorizing about her last two years, looking for any semblance to of explanation to justify her ending. When Marilyn passed away in 1962, she was nearing the ends of her negotiations with Fox. I want to make it very clear that no signed contract has ever been presented by Fox to show rehiring. In fact, her attorney Milton Rubin made it very clear to the press that Fox had sent over a contract that he’d yet to present to Monroe for signing (meaning if she did sign, it was under his nose). Donald Spoto’s contract claims seem the most likely, with Monroe receiving a $150,000 raise for her next two pictures, bringing the grand total to $250,000/per picture versus the commonly recited $500,000, and relinquishing directorial control and script approval.

I bring up her contract dispute being people tend to repeat the narrative that Monroe would also need to admit to having a pill addiction. While Monroe’s addictions were well known in the film community, the public remained clueless until after her death. Fox wouldn’t have risked one of the few female stars they’d kept during the Cleopatra purge getting tarred with the “addict” label. While Monroe’s struggles with pills are well documented (she received over 900 pills in the last two months of her life from Dr. Engelberg), Fox was also looking for any way to remain in control of her career and projects. I can’t say her addictions and mental health issues didn’t contribute to her professional decline, but her employers also looked to exploit these issues to put her back in her place after her 1956 contract victory.

Jayne Mansfield

Mansfield was determined to conquer Hollywood her way, and she expected 20th Century Fox to support her. Whether you like or dislike her, you should admire her for attempting to break the mold of sex symbol by openly embracing her family life. People love to argue that Mansfield became passé too quickly even by Hollywood standards, and while she certainly did herself no favors by becoming the eternal starlet, Fox began to stop promoting Mansfield heavily in late-1957, focusing publicity for her last A-picture filmed at the studio on model Suzie Parker, and completing ending any serious attempts by late-1958.

According to multiple accounts, Fox executives weren’t keen on her marriage to muscleman Mickey Hargitay, with Mansfield supposedly being called into multiple meetings about her very public relationship with him. Mansfield played along for a few months in late-56 to early-57, going on public dates with the likes of Robert Wagner, but always kept Hargitay close. Fox decided to send Mansfield on a world tour to promote Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in mid-57, hoping the distance would make the couple split. If anything, it had the opposite effect, and the couple got engaged within an hour of her return to the U.S. Mansfield was determined to play the dual role of sex model and housewife, but Fox didn’t think a married (and soon pregnant) sex symbol would hold public appeal. After the birth of her son, Miklos, in December of 1958, Mansfield effectively found herself dropped, carrying on for 3.5 years with Fox as little more than a loan out the studio could use to make a quick $200,000.

Carole Landis

Carole Landis’ life overshadows her career, especially when looking at her love interests. I’ve discussed Landis’ death here for anyone looking to find more on that, for today we’ll focus on Landis’ career. In 1940, Landis found fame in Hal Roach’s One Million B.C., becoming an overnight sensation as Loana, a scantily clad cavegirl. Fox found itself in need of a blonde bombshell to replace Alice Faye and hired Landis as well as Betty Grable within a year of one another, eventually pitting them against each other in 1941’s Moon Over Miami and I Wake Up Screaming.

This is where things become complicated when discussing Landis. Reports differ on whether or not she embarked on an affair with Darryl Zanuck. Personally, I tend to believe their relationship is exaggerated, ignoring the idea of Landis as a little-talent who slept with the studio head to secure better roles. The main reason I tend to doubt it is the story goes that Landis broke off her relationship with Zanuck and her career suffered; however, it seems more likely that Fox chose to promote Grable over Landis, mainly because Grable was a better fit for the gooey fluff Fox made during the war years. Landis radiated a cooler, feline sexuality while Grable was the girl next door. If Landis had worked with a different studio, like MGM, she likely would have had a longer, more successful career. My other reason for doubting the importance of the affair and Landis being punished for ending it is there would have been no reason for the studio to promote and adapt Landis’ book, Four Jills in a Jeep, if they were concurrently punishing her. I don’t put an affair with Zanuck completely off the table, but I personally believe it’s a more nuanced situation than what is reported. Affairs with Zanuck aside, it’s important to note that Landis frequently found herself the victim of vicious gossip. Rumors persist that Landis’ time in San Francisco was primarily spent prostituting herself while in actuality she led a successful, if meager, life as a stage show entertainer and singer. Could she have gone on dates ala Monroe for a free meal in exchange for appearing on the arm of a man at an event? Possibly being it was something starlets commonly partook in, but there’s nothing to support the assertion that she worked as a prostitute.

It’s also integral for readers to realize that Carole worked hard to defend herself and have her needs met by the studio. While filming I Wake Up Screaming, Carole spent a few days protesting, refusing to appear on set under the guise of illness, until her demands for an improved dressing room were met. Demanding her value as a star set tongues wagging, but Carole knew her worth and demanded respect, something that would be celebrated by most people today but spelled career disaster for most women in the 40s.

Veronica Lake

I can’t think of another career’s ending that’s received more lines of print than Veronica Lake’s. Alcoholism, mental illness, a hair cut and just pure difficulty have all been used to explain why one of the 1940s most iconic women ended her life destitute. While it’s possible Lake suffered from bi-polar disorder, the tales of schizophrenia were concocted by her estranged mother after Lake cut her off, and nothing has come to light to support those claims. Alcoholism reports during her career are mixed, so it seems unlikely that she struggled with those issues while working as an A-lister.

Lake was reportedly a professional on set, but she also worked to be listened to. If she didn’t like something, she simply said so. Most reports of her being difficult on set stem from working with strong personalities who often times treated her with contempt for making suggestions or asking for script changes. People may not like Lake’s style of working, but she worked hard to create something she could be proud of. One of the best examples of this was making the decision to cut her hair for War Department PSAs. Not liking the peek-a-boo look, she showed no qualms to cutting her hair and reinventing her screen image to match it. This new image led to the studio casting her in mediocre films and not counteracting negative stories about her behavior (and possibly even releasing some of their own), slowly turning the public against Lake.

One thing I always find fascinating is the need to make the aforementioned stars the sole reason for their careers’ ending. Did these women contribute to it? Absolutely, but people tend to remove the studio from working against their own stars as well. Studios were experts at vilifying women who stood up for themselves, and unfortunately, these women couldn’t break the cycle. Celebrate their accomplishments, relish in them going against the grain and watch one of their films ASAP. Do you have a favorite female star whose maligned? Sound off below!

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