The film Insignificance is built on the conceit, a favorite of playwrights, that a bunch of famous people find themselves fictionally thrown together for a brief spell. In this case, the main confrontation takes place between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.
That’s quite a combo – although, if memory serves, Shelley Winters once revealed that Marilyn privately named Einstein as the man she’d most like to sleep with. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s where the original idea for the play came from. Nicolas Roeg has adapted the play into an entertaining movie, although the film doesn’t have the substance it seems to think it has.
Marilyn (Theresa Russell) pays a call on Einstein (Michael Emil) one night while he’s holed up in a hotel room, in 1955 or so. (Actually, none of the characters is named, although it’s obvious whom they’re mean to represent.) He wants to get some shut-eye, but she wants to discuss the theory of relativity; which she proceeds to explain to him using a sackful of audio-visual aids just purchased at a local toy store.
Later, Marilyn proposes an entirely more fleshly consciousness-raising, which Einstein analytically considers.
It’s not just a two-person show. A bulky ex-ballplayer (Gary Busey), Marilyn’s jealous husband, intrudes on the scene. He’s only loosely based on Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio. And a vicious political thug (Tony Curtis), bearing some resemblance to Joseph McCarthy, badgers Einstein for the latest scientific paper.
The film is properly amusing at first, although it turns more predictable as it veers in to heavy-handedness in the later going. Indeed, the film would be – well, pretty insignificant – were it not for the attractive presence of the actors.
Michael Emil, who usually acts in his brother Henry Jaglom’s films (Always, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?), has a deadpan, slightly distracted delivery that makes him perfect for Einstein. Yes, the right half of his brain might well be thinking about relativity, while the left half handles the conversational chores.
Busey has some unnerving moments, and Curtis seems energized at being called upon to really act, after years of slipshod work.
And Theresa Russell, who is married to Roeg, may well be the most neglected great actress in the movies. Her films seem to be ignored (Bad Timing, The Razor’s Edge) or not released at all (Eureka), but one of these days she’s going to break through.
I doubt whether Insignificance will trigger that breakthrough; it’s too far from the mainstream, and her performance, while witty, is more of an inspired imitation than the kind of soulful acting she’s delivered in the past. But her moment will come.
First published in the Herald, January 17, 1986
I guess the moment never really came for Theresa Russell, although she had a big chance in Black Widow in ’87, and continued to do interesting work for Roeg and others. I like this kind of movie, where incongruous actors are lumped together in a weird mix. How did Roeg think of Michael Emil? Was he a secret Henry Jaglom fan? One thinks about these things.