On Sunday, Monica Lewinsky was photographed by Mark Seliger wearing what appears (to my eye at least) to be a tangerine-colored dress to Vanity Fair’s annual post-Oscars shindig in Beverly Hills. It was a good look for Lewinsky, who in June penned a revealing article for the magazine about the culture of humiliation that she endured in the wake of her affair with President Clinton. “It was time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress,” she wrote.
Yeah, right. Before the week was out #TheDress, whatever color we perceive it to be, had launched a thousand-and-one Monica Lewinsky dress jokes (not just in the rough-and-tumble world of Twitter, but also in more stately arenas like Wired, once again calling to mind a certain blue Gap dress and Lewinsky’s difficult place in the popular consciousness. Some dresses, it seems, just won't die.
Now, it’s the beret’s turn to return from the dead. There it is—or at least a thick-knitted version of the iconic headwear—front and center in Monica The Miniseries, a fictional six-webisode journey back to the early spring of 2001 when Lewinsky was a single girl in New York City trying to rebuild her life in the wake of the scandal that left her a reluctant single-name celebrity. (Coincidentally, Lewinsky also attended the Vanity Fair Oscar bash that year, wearing black.)
Inspired by Monica in Black and White, the HBO documentary from the period, and based largely off of a Vanessa Grigoriadis profile in New York Magazine, the film tells the classic story of the marked woman and the seemingly simple yet Sisyphean task of putting her back together. Here, we watch the 27-year-old aspiring handbag designer as she first discovers yoga and Magnolia cupcakes (“Carrie’s favorite!”) and endures such indignities as an uncomfortable date where her reputation precedes her, and a stand-up comedian still using her name for cheap laughs.
The series—the first two episodes are currently streaming with the next four premiering on subsequent Mondays—was written and co-produced by Lily Marotta, who stars as Lewinsky, and Doron Max Hagay, who directs. Rather than milked for easy laughs, Lewinsky’s story is told in a straightforward, empathetic way. For Hagay—and yes, he is more than aware that this sounds a touch high-minded for a zero-budget webseries—Monica is in the tradition of stories told in Douglas Sirk’s 1950’s films and the Max Orphül’s cult favorite dancer-with-a-reputation saga Lola Montès.
“I want this to be an emotional experience,” Hagay, who was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah during the same period when Lewinsky was learning the ins-and-outs of New York City’s subway system, told The Daily Beast. “This was an experiment in genre filmmaking, telling the melodramatic story of the fallen woman. I hope when people see it they watch something that is compelling and fun to watch and also gets them thinking about the way we make it so difficult for people to move forward once they have been branded with a certain reputation.”
Adds Hagay, “There is a whole canon of stories about hurt woman who are trying at all costs to repair their life. It is in many ways a fool’s errand, and that is what makes it so compelling.”
There was another reason why Hagay was attracted to the story. “I immediately identified it as a story we could produce for no money,” says Hagay, who says that the entire six-part series was made for a total of $2,000.
If he can secure financing, Hagay would like to create a second series featuring Lewinsky, taking place either immediately after this one ends—an awkward period when she was a regular on the New York party scene and served as host of a short-lived Fox reality show Mr. Personality—or years later, when she escaped the limelight and completed a Masters of Science degree from the London School of Economics. Since reemerging with the Vanity Fair article, Lewinsky has worked to bring awareness to the issue of cyberbullying.
Some have wondered, with the former President’s wife the presumptive frontrunner for 2016, whether Monica The Miniseries is an attempt to remind the world of the Clinton administration’s darkest hours as a means to undermine her perceived ambitions. Vast right-wing conspiracy, anyone?
“To be totally honest, the timing is coincidental,” insists Hagay. “I realize this sounds stupid, but this story is so not about the Clintons. To me, it speaks to the public’s lack of imagination that they bring that into the experience.”
And no, Ms. Lewinsky did not approve this message. Neither she nor her reps have contacted the filmmakers concerning the project.
Which is to say, as detailed as Grigoriadis’s reporting may have been, Monica The Miniseries is a dramatic retelling of her story, rich with creative license. For starters, there is little evidence that Lewinsky walked the streets of the Village sporting the same type of beret that had so linked her to the Clinton scandal at the same time that she was desperate to put all of that behind her.
“The black beret was an affordable and easy way to identify Lily as Monica,” says Hagay. “While it appears clownish at first, we hope that Lily's characterization quickly absorbs the stereotype and it just becomes a hat.”
Did you hear that? Sometimes a dress is just a dress and a hat is just a hat.