“I USED to think if I could find myself as an actress, I would fulfill myself as a person. But there has been an alteration with time. Now I feel if I fulfill myself as a person, I’ll find myself as an actress. The thing is, it seems like I have a superstructure with no foundation, but I’m working on the foundation!”
So said Marilyn Monroe weeks before her death, to Redbook magazine.
57 years ago, on the evening of August 4th — a Saturday night — Marilyn Monroe died as she had lived —uncertain, ambivalent, yet ever hopeful, reaching for excellence in an industry that refused to validate her until her body was cold.
Monroe’s remark, given in the wake of her firing by 20th Century Fox from “Something’s Got To Give,” revealed that she knew more about her worth, what she had accomplished and what might be, than those who advised or reviled her.
It was the statement of an astute woman, aware that her particular career and image was endangered by age and changing times, determined — even in her conflict, worry, the periodic miasma of neurosis, her romantic conundrums — to do battle, to reach up in life.
The miracle of Monroe’s starring career — a brief decade (1952-’62) and one during which she spent long periods off-screen — was that she accomplished so much against the odds. And no, it was not simply the odds of a well-worn tale of poor Norma Jeane, the waif who became movie star Marilyn. Her sour Cinderella saga, embellished by Monroe herself until it resembled nothing so much as Oliver twist in skirts, was appealing to prosperous post-war Americans.
What startles in any Monroe career overview, is her pre-feminist era courage. Startling as it came from a woman who embodied voluptuous female passivity.
In 1954, a short two years after her initial ascension, and after a long, sometimes demeaning climb, she announced her dissatisfaction with her roles, left Hollywood, studied at the Actors Studio, and formed a production company.
Consider the extremes of her career: Between 1953-’54 Marilyn, against her will, made movies like “River of No Return” (MM in the Old West, looking to strike it rich with a gold claim — her stiffest performance) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (A corny hodge-podge of Irving Berlin chestnuts, in which MM was required to bump and grind through a violently Technicolored version of “Heat Wave” sausage-ed into a what looked to be an old Carmen Miranda outfit, thrusting the flamenco skirts into her crotch.)
But by 1956, after Monroe had won her studio battle, she arrived in London to star in her own company’s production of Terence Rattigan’s “The Prince And The Showgirl,” in which she had top billing over Laurence Olivier, the world’s premiere Shakespearean actor.
Accompanied by her new husband, Arthur Miller, this was, for all intents and purposes, the pinnacle of her life and career. She had left Hollywood as a pin-up-turned-movie star, the baseball player’s sexy wife, Darryl Zanuck’s latest blonde box-office attraction, Betty Grable’s successor.
She returned as a genuine movie goddess, a powerful deity who froze the blood of strong men with her demands. Such a reinvention today would be heralded and feted. Marilyn, however, was never feted by Hollywood. Nor was her power, her independence, her esteemed husband or her quest to be all things to all men— serious actress AND sex symbol — seen as anything more than the enthusiasms of a neurotic bimbo. A girl who could once be had (by some) and now didn’t have the good sense to accept stardom on the industry’s terms.
That day in 1954 when Marilyn boarded a TWA flight out of L.A. bound for New York, leaving it to her lawyers to explain her absence from the set of her latest Fox confection (ironically titled “How To Be Very, Very Popular”), her tenuous grasp on Hollywood acceptance vanished. Most galling to her studio bosses, this declaration of independence happened only weeks after Fox had catered a dinner to celebrate the completion of “The Seven Year Itch,” an event surprisingly attended by such major stars as Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Susan Hayward and Humphrey Bogart. How ungrateful could a girl be, wondered her boss Darryl Zanuck?)
Upon her return to filmmaking, she would tolerated and grudgingly catered to, although Hollywood’s elite power structure, the Establishment, would never accept her. She had failed to play the game. She would instead pay the price for her stated goal, “to be wonderful!” (She would also pay the price for her terrors, which resulted in maddening unprofessional behavior.)
At the end, in the spring of 1962, she was seen as used up, unreliable and half-mad. Fox would discard her, with an almost cheerful ferocity from the set of “Something’s Got To Give.”
Hollywood’s view of Monroe is demonstrated most clearly through the depressingly similar roles she was offered during the decade of her stardom. She was usually cast as an entertainer or a model. Her first starring role, in Columbia’s 1948 quickie, “Ladies Of The Chorus” set the standard; she played a sweet, young burlesque queen. And it was the only film of her career in which she had an onscreen mother.
Her women were avaricious — “Some Like It Hot”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (Probably her greatest, most entertaining film, period), “How To Marry A Millionaire” — looking for sugar daddies (“The Asphalt Jungle” typed her as an older man’s plaything early on). Her characters, for the most part, had no life history. Mothers, fathers, siblings, were either nonexistent or referred to only in passing. In the “Seven Year Itch” she doesn’t even have a name; she’s just “The Girl Upstairs.”
Paired in “Itch” with nerdy Tom Ewell, she is the perfect, pliable All-American fantasy female figure of the Frightened Fifties. (The dangerous empowering noir women of the mid to late 1940’s had been supplanted by a safer symbol. One that peacetime American men could “control.”)
Variations on the dizzy blonde theme were rare, but striking: In “Clash By Night” (1952) she is vigorous as a fish-cannery worker who wants out of the fish cannery. It is also one of her rare screen pairings with an attractive male — muscular Keith Andes. Playfully trading punches with her shirtless beau, Monroe is a young woman in control of her sexuality, and unwilling to be any man’s toy.
Another 1952 entry, “Don’t Bother To Knock,” provides her with startling moments as a psychotic babysitter, fixated on Richard Widmark. In fact, her final scenes — bruised, tearful, led away to the madhouse — provide a glimpse that had she lived, she might have brilliantly interpreted Tennessee Williams’ ultimate lost lady, Blanche DuBois. Given what we know of Monroe’s fragile emotional history, this film, despite some awkward performing on Monroe’s part, has a compelling power, as Nell descends into her fantasy world, attempting suicide and whispering, pathetically, “People who love each other…”
“Niagara” (1953) offered Marilyn in her only “bad girl” role. As Rose Loomis, she plots, for no apparent reason other than boredom, to kill her jealous husband, played by Joseph Cotten. Her character is hypnotically, overtly sensual. She exists only to tempt. Her underwritten character is not explored, but her physical presence stuns. She deepens her voice and toughens up. When she struts toward the camera, pelvis thrust forward, she is for the first, and almost last time in her career, erotic.
“Bus Stop” (1956) represents Monroe’s one true attempt at character. Her Ozark barfly and nightclub singer Cherie is pale, bone-weary, nervous, messy. She is luminous, but not the healthy, bumptious sex bomb of her previous roles.
She had risked a lot leaving Hollywood, and she risked even more returning in a role that tattered her glamour. “Bus Stop” is the most significant offering of Monroe’s career, the only movie in which she truly inhabits another skin; and never again would she so fully live another life onscreen. This was her first assignment after her indoctrination by Lee Strasberg and The Method, and it not only illuminates her studies under Strasberg (or, more to the point, how good she was when surrounded by those who believed in her) but “Bus Stop” trumpets the plangent cry of her life: Respect! I want respect!
There is no more tender scene in any Monroe film — indeed it ranks as one of the great love scenes of the Fifties — as when Don Murray, as Bo the crude but virginal cowboy, lays his head down beside Cherie and whispers, “I love ya the way you are, so what do I care how ya got that way.” This, after she has confessed her sordid past to him. Monroe, eye-makeup smudged, a thin string of saliva visible from her mouth to her hand, cries, “That’s the sweetest, tenderest thing anybody ever said to me!” It was close to the bone — she was about to marry Arthur Miller, who by his courtship had bestowed “respect” on her — but it was great acting, too.
“The Prince and The Showgirl,” (1957) though hampered by Olivier’s sloggy direction of a paper thin script, and his own frozen mien — an unfortunate one note performance — presents an enchanting and energetic Monroe as (what else?) showgirl Elsie Marina. The character veers from naïve to knowing, but given wittier, more sophisticated dialogue than usual, MM bites into her role with tremendous zest — Elsie is the complete opposite of the exhausted Cherie. Wearing the most unforgiving gown of her career, her only costume, she is the equal of Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert in the arena of light comedy with an arch edge. As with “Bus Stop,” the Olivier film despite its flaws, reveals gifts Monroe would never again be called upon to display — Sir Laurence might have hated her, but he directed his star brilliantly. (Watch “Bus Stop” and “The Prince and the Showgirl” back-to-back and be astonished by her versatility.)
Monroe would end the decade she had dominated with “Some Like it Hot,” her biggest hit. Despite her star billing and massive press attention on yet another Marilyn “comeback,” Sugar Kane is essentially a dazzling supporting role, a luscious backdrop to the drag-antics of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Sugar is a more world weary Lorelei Lee, still an entertainer, still looking for Mr. Rich and Right, but now abused by life and men. When she warbles, mournfully, “I’m Through With Love,” you believe it!
Arthur Miller’s “The Misfits” (1961) was supposed to be Monroe’s big dramatic breakthrough. But all it offered was an older, plumper, patently neurotic Marilyn — showgirl turned divorcee — who at every juncture seems to be sabotaged by her writer husband and her director, John Huston. Miller’s dialogue for Roslyn and her three would-be lovers — Gable, Monty Clift and Eli Wallach, is pretentious babble, and Houston’s camera is ever up and down Monroe’s cleavage. As if we needed to be reminded of exactly who Roslyn really was — Marilyn Monroe!
She rallies poignantly here and there, mustering a great deal of conviction, but at this crossroad, she might have been better served playing a virago rather than a woman who weeps over horses corralled for dog food. Monroe needed to express emotions other than vulnerability, and sweetness. In one scene arguing with Gable, who wants to go shoot rabbits eating up his lettuce, Monroe barks, “You have no respect for my feelings. And I don’t care about the lettuce! Rough. And real. Miller should have written that Marilyn into “The Misfits” rather than save her unsavory side for his unforgivable “fiction” “After The Fall.”
This play, performed after Monroe’s death, was her ultimate violation. Whereas “The Misfits” Roslyn was ostensibly the “good” Marilyn, Maggie, the sexy singer of Miller’s confessional, was all that could kill a man.
Miller allowed director Elia Kazan — who had once been Monroe’s lover — to dress Barbara Loden in MM-like costumes and wig. It was Miller’s first success in years, and his last real money maker. Monroe herself, who knew how to use, and what it was to be used, would have smiled at that.
But Monroe’s career after the “Misfits” seemed to suddenly exhaust itself. And even before that, the best she could do between “Some Like It Hot” and the Miller film was George Cukor’s minor musical “Let’s Make Love” in which Monroe and Yves Montand were very charming, but to little effect. The film bombed, bigtime. If actors glean some emotional satisfaction from submerging themselves in a variety of roles, if playacting serves as a way to vent, Monroe was fatally constricted, starving for outlet.
Where could she take the Marilyn Monroe she had created and had been required to maintain? More than other sex symbols, her image relied on youth, bounciness, zest, unsophisticated naivete. Lana, Rita, Marlene, Ava were naturals to play older, world-weary women. And they did, maintaining their star status. But a world-weary Girl Upstairs? An older Sugar Kane? Was the very thought not an invitation to grotesquerie and sad caricature? (Had she risen to stardom at MGM or Warner Bros. she might very well have been supplied with a persona suitable for middle-age.)
In the last hectic, rumor-filled year of her life, Monroe was transformed, physically. She had whittled her oft-criticized overflowing body down to its firm teen-age pin-up girl contours. Maturity had also refined her face. In the incomplete “Something’s Got To Give” she is ravishing as she has never been before. And though “SGTG” was a tired 20th century Fox sex comedy (a remake of “My Favorite Wife”) Monroe at least was playing an adult woman with children. She looked soigné in her Jean Louis clothes. But, with two flops behind her, and almost two years off the screen, she could not resist the obvious. Required to simulate nudity in a swimming pool scene, she and director George Cukor arranged for her to be photographed briefly in the altogether as she emerged from the water. (It was not the spontaneous — or irrational — act of legend.)
In 1962, a major star posing nude was still scandalous news. And so, in a year dominated by the hi-jinks of Elizabeth Taylor’s “Cleopatra” amours, Marilyn made big news. Monroe would whip off her clothes for Bert Stern, and romp on a Malibu beach in a tangerine bikini for George Barris. She is strikingly beautiful in all these sessions. But she is also 36. (Remember again, in 1962 she was “old” for a movie star. And in those unenlightened times, even old as a woman, too.) Had all the hours with Strasberg, all her high hopes and ambition led simply to this — the exploitation of her body, just to prove the body was still there? And the rather desperate exhibitionism of these final months leads inevitably to: What would have happened to Marilyn had she survived that hot August night? Two possibilities, as I see it. One would have been an increasingly frantic attempt to hold onto her status as Hollywood’s number one blonde, to keep whispering and cooing and wiggling. Her breathless “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” with the little-seen footage of Monroe delivering special lyrics, sliding her hand up her body, cupping her breast, is a chilling glimpse into the future. And it is her terrible moment of self-abasement. Looking almost nude in her tissue thin gown, she presents herself as the President’s whore, offered up amid snickers and coarse laughter. Where was the glory in this performance? When the famous gown was sold for millions at auction, referred to as “history” I had to wonder a history of what? A misguided woman and a reckless President?
But, had Monroe miraculously awoken on August 5th, with some fresh insight, she might have finished “Something’s Got To Give” and finished off Hollywood, too. She wasn’t wanted in her hometown. But in Europe, she would have been deified. Avant garde film and la dolce vita might have served her well.
And there was always New York. It is seductive to think of a living Monroe heralding Warhol and Pop Art, rather than becoming a Warholian icon in death.
Civil rights, women’s rights and animal rights would have attracted her. (The fur-loving Miss Monroe would have joined PETA eventually.) She might even have become something of an odd character — Sylvia Miles with credentials.
Today, MM’s fans like to say she was the “ultimate” sex symbol — although most have never even seen her films. (Turner Classic Movies continues to behave as if she literally never existed!)
Yet her roles, in fact, were basically sexless. In her most famous films she was a cartoon, a parody of femininity unburdened by true sexuality. The wonder is that she was able to imbue these shallow characters with such humor and vulnerability. Paired with sexless leading men — or, as in the case of “Some Like It Hot,” men who were in drag and/or pretending to be impotent —Monroe looked sexy, with her lush lips, undulating hips and her insolently Rubenesque body. But she didn’t do anything especially sexual. Her onscreen relations with men were mostly infantile, tentative. Unlike heroines portrayed by Rita, Ava, Lana or Liz, this sex-symbol had very little sex!
Her overblown body, with its jutting bottom, and careless bulging belly, was catnip to men, but offensive to women in an era of strict, confining foundation garments. She did little, if anything to offend in her screen behavior (or even in her off screen behavior, she was pristine compared to the scandals of Lana and Liz).
But her mere presence, the wet, open-mouthed, flamboyance of her photographic image, particularly between 1952 and ‘55 — was unsettling to female moviegoers, as was the schizophrenia of her persona. She offered herself in pin-ups brazenly, no major star had ever incorporated such an array of overtly down-to-the-bone-sexual poses and expressions. Her perpetually red, glossy lips, puckered or wide open, were blatant, even vulgar in the suggestion of fellatio. This was in stark contrast to the essential softness of her screen self, her girlish voice and graceful, ultra-feminine manner. A primal innocent occupying the body of a voluptuous sybarite.
Later, as Monroe refined her image onscreen and in her vast, never-ending array of photo sessions, as miscarriages, divorce and emotional trauma chipped away at the happy-girl image, women relented. At the end, it would probably be safe to say Monroe had more “fans” among women than men — they had moved on to other blondes — blondes who still looked happy all the time.
The myth of Monroe as the greatest sex-symbol truly is a myth. Her endurance, her dominance after death has little to do with her essential qualities, genuine as they were.
She died in 1962, on the cusp of a great social change in this country and at the very end of the studio system that had nurtured— and ultimately abandoned — her. She is the “greatest” only because she is the last sex symbol.
Theda Bara gave way to Clara Bow, Bow to Harlow, Harlow to Lana, Rita, Ava, Betty Grable and finally Marilyn.
Mae West bloomed briefly and luxuriantly during Harlow’s reign, but she was never a serious object of desire — though she believed she was (that was the part of the joke Mae didn’t get).
During MM’s era, Jayne Mansfield and Brigitte Bardot cavorted. But Mansfield never got off the ground, careerwise, and Bardot belonged to France.
Kim Novak also emerged in the wake of Monroe’s rebellion against Hollywood. She was a big-boned beauty with a deep voice and an odd, quirky style — fascinating, to watch, even when she wasn’t particularly good. She had a compelling presence. Femme fatale-ish and adult, she enjoyed a far more varied career than Monroe, but by the mid-sixties, Novak, perhaps an even more fragile personality than Monroe, had essentially thrown in the towel. Survival as a woman was more important than fighting the inevitable career tides.
Audiences of the ’60s no longer needed a screen embodiment of desire. Every city street had its own sex symbol, braless, mini-skirted, sexually free. Onscreen, all was revealed; bosoms and buttocks were no longer tightly sheathed in satin — they were right there, in all the imperfection of their flesh. As Marilyn died still young and lovely, under tragic/mysterious circumstances, her image was instantly frozen, built upon, suddenly cherished. Time magazine wrote, Monroe’s death left us “thrilled with guilt.” Hollywood’s oft-pitied, oft-despised, sometimes pampered orphan child, was now ripe for canonization, ready to be re-defined. The crocodile tears flowed and Monroe laughed soundlessly from thousands of photos.
As a sex symbol, Monroe, in fact, was far more potent in her still photos.
Indeed, it is that vast brilliant legacy upon which much of Marilyn’s legend today rests. Free of the silly plots of so many of her films, her light voice silenced, she seems more multi-faceted. A siren, a sophisticate, tough and tender, vulgar or demure. Everyman’s fantasy.
In her photos we search endlessly for the woman. Each new “previously unpublished” cache holds the promise of finding her “secret.” In the very next pose, she will reveal herself to us! This ability to seduce any camera lens was her greatest gift, some inner life-spring. It was something quite apart from acting, which she labored over, and suffered for.
Olivier said she had “a basic resistance” to being an actress, but was “as happy as a child” when being photographed. Richard Avedon remarked that Monroe approached her still sessions with the same intensity — more, perhaps — as she did for her movies. And found greater satisfaction in the result.
Even in the unprotected candid imagery of newsreels, Monroe projects. The force of her personality, her presentation of herself, is as spectacular in grainy footage of her performing for troops in Korea, as it is belting out “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” in full Technicolor regalia onscreen.
Marilyn Monroe had extraordinary screen presence and was, in many ways, an extraordinary woman. A free spirit in a clenched era. Her fight for acceptance has become a cliché — the bombshell looking for respect. Yes, that mere handful of superior films are the bedrock of the legend, but it is the essence, the myth of Marilyn — the many myths of Marilyn! — that resonate, the woman herself has escaped, inevitably, though we try so terribly hard to resurrect, to “understand” her.
And often in our attempts to understand we reveal ourselves to be as confused as the star herself often was. Gloria Steinem confessed to be “embarrassed” by Marilyn onscreen, yet she wrote a book illustrated with photos of MM posing provocatively in her final days!
The best of Marilyn’s work stands as her testament, as does the course she chose in life. That course was to reach up. (As opposed, say, to Elizabeth Taylor, gifted in all ways from birth, who reached sideways, even down, as there was nothing else for her to do!)
Marilyn wanted excellence, she wanted to know the best people — not the cognoscenti of the Riviera, she wanted to know, poets, artists, great writers. She yearned to improve her mind. In the end she was weak, and in despair Los Angeles, the Rat Pack, and philandering politicians seemed a refuge from her failure.
The popular notion, the one most satisfying to the mythmakers is to portray Marilyn as a woman constantly in the grip of her devils, careening from one unhappy episode to the next. And surely she was bedeviled. But, as Joyce Carol Oates once remarked: “Marilyn was a working woman from the age of 16. A housewife, a factory worker, a model and then an actress. Nobody really remembers that.”
True — though Oates herself seemed to forget it in her fiction-melded-with-fact book, “Blonde” a massive elaborately written work that disturbs because it throws the seamy side of MM into prominence, without any clear demarcation between truth or illusion. MM as a mess in a beaded dress is still the way to go — from Arthur Miller to Joyce Carol Oates.
Monroe was not a winner, because she died young. But her death held bittersweet triumph. Only in losing did she eventually prevail.
For here we are still wondering over Marilyn, still searching that face, still analyzing every gesture, every utterance — explaining, forgiving, condemning, judging.
Reducing her to the empty, hysterical blonde cog in Byzantine murder plots.
Lifting her above and beyond even her own dreams, expectations, abilities and the realities of her accomplishment.
In life so under-appreciated. In death, so wildly over-stated. She had more than enough sense of irony to be vastly amused, if she could see us all now.
A PERSONAL note: I’m taking off the next two Fridays — I’m dealing with a suddenly dead, beloved pet (our cat, Dude) a constant pain in the neck (I got a real diagnosis, not too cheery) and a world spinning like a drug-crazed top. I’ll be back on the 30th, with news about what I’ve been binging on TV, the new Tarantino film, etc. (Apologies to the wonderful Andrew Saffir whose screenings I keep missing — this damn neck disc thing is killing what’s left of my “social life.”)
I do have two recommendations as current required reading: Mike Taibbi’s take-no-prisoners report in Rolling Stone on the train wreck that is the Democrats attempt to win back the White House, and Andrew Sullivan’s brilliant melding of antiquity and the 21st century, “Our Caesar” in New York magazine.