June 1, 1926– Norma Jeane Mortenson
“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”
55 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains as enchanting an enigma as ever. She was once the most famous woman in the world and maybe the truest definition of “Movie Star” ever, but her true self will be forever out of reach.
Monroe is the most endlessly written about, discussed and mythologized figure in Hollywood History. She remains the ultimate superstar. Her rise and fall are the stuff that both dreams and nightmares are made of. Her estate continues to rake in millions of dollars every year. She has made so much more money in death than she ever did at the dizzying height of her fame.
Just two years ago, yet another film about her life, The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe was released. This one got the Lifetime Network treatment, with added bonus of Susan Sarandon playing her mother Gladys Pearl Baker. There have been nearly as many screen portrayals of Monroe as films that she herself made. I don’t know if any of them are to be considered to be very good, certainly not fitting of Monroe’s legacy, but I watched one for a second time yesterday to prepare myself for this post. I thought that Michele Williams came close to getting Monroe right in the charming and cheeky My Week With Marilyn (2011). Williams accomplishes the near impossible, portraying Monroe as an actual person, not just an easily caricatured icon. The film centers around the production of Laurence Olivier‘s film The Prince And The Showgirl (1957). It is based on a pair of memoirs by Colin Clark who worked as an assistant on Olivier’s film. Clark is played in the film by adorable, freckled Academy Award winning Eddie Redmayne and Olivier is well represented by Kenneth Branaugh. Williams captures not only Monroe’s fragility, both on screen and off, but also her magical, unclassifiable charisma. My Weekend With Marilyn entertained and touched me. I recommend this film.
Monroe starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), and Bus Stop (1956), plus 26 other films. But, she wasn’t always Marilyn Monroe; she was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, appropriately enough, in Los Angeles.
She signed her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox in 1946 for $125 a week. Soon after, Norma Jeane dyed her brunette hair blonde and changed her name.
A living contradiction, Monroe was both divine and profane. She became both myth and metaphor as Hollywood’s most famous martyred saint. At the height of her fame, she had received 10,000 fan letters a week. Many were from men, but women wrote too, commenting about the sadness she showed in her eyes, her vulnerability and how they identified with her.
From Monroe’s first film, Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948), to her last, The Misfits (1962), she went from a studio created blonde bimbo to a well-trained actor. She is now beyond camp, making her different than Jayne Mansfield, Sheree North, and Diana Dors who Hollywood had chosen to replace her. She turned out to be irreplaceable.
Amazingly, Monroe’s photograph can still sell magazines. I remember when the May 2012 issue of Vanity Fair arrived in my mailbox with Monroe on the cover. The issue featured even more “newly discovered” photographs of her by Lawrence Schiller. Never think you have seen the last of Monroe. Books, written by pop culture critics and academics, have been devoted to her, some lovely and filled with photographs, many lurid and badly written. Songs have been dedicated to her. Plays have been produced about her. She is even the subject of an opera. Monroe’s likeness still sells millions of posters, mugs and calendars. Her image and name have been licensed for hundreds of products by Max Factor, Chanel, Mercedes Benz, and Absolut Vodka. Only Mickey Mouse and Elvis Presley are more recognizable American Icons.
I am not certain that I would label her as a top-notch actor, but she sure had something. One of my favorite film critics Pauline Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, said:
“She could not act. She used her lack of an actress’s skills to amuse the public. She had the wit or crassness or desperation to turn cheesecake into acting – and vice versa; she did what others had the ‘good taste’ not to do.”
For me, if she doesn’t exactly have depth, her work does have soul. My own favorite Marilyn Monroe performance is in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) one of the most perfect comedies in film history. Her performance is like Champagne, bubbly and effortless. Odd, because Monroe was at her worst while making this classic: perpetually tardy, unprepared, unable to remember her lines, pregnant and sick, calming her anxieties with vodka and downers, making the shoot especially tough for pros Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. But, her role as Sugar Cane Kowalczy allowed her to play the dumb blond without giving a dumb performance.
Gay men of a certain age hold Monroe as an ultimate Gay Icon. She was a gorgeous, but tormented person, making a career out of being sexually and emotionally open in a brutal straight-male world. Monroe worked hard for her fame, but it was her suffering that gay people identified with the most.
She was undervalued by the industry. In 1961, while Elizabeth Taylor was being paid a million dollars to film Cleopatra for 20th Century Fox, Monroe, also with Fox, was being paid just $150,000 for The Misfits.
Monroe’s fans wanted to save her. That was her shtick really. It worked. We all know her sad story: battering studio heads, the husbands, the Kennedys, the Strasbergs, the acting coaches, the pills and the booze, the insecurities, the misunderstandings. We don’t need a Lifetime Network movie to tell us all about her.
On an early morning in the summer of 1962, at the height of her fame, Monroe died in her sleep at her little stucco cottage on a dead end street in Brentwood. She loved her house and she had recently installed a plaque with the Latin phrase “Cursum Perficio” which translates to “My Journey Ends Here”. Suicide, accident, assassination by the CIA, or murder? We will speculate forever.
Monroe was just 36-years-old when she left this world. Monroe remains a most important Gay Icon, Fashion Icon, Hollywood Icon, and influential cultural figure. Feminists claim her. Madonna channeled her. She remains one of the greatest popular Pop Icons of the last century. Monroe would have celebrated her 90th birthday today.
“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”