June 1st, 1926- Norma Jeane Mortenson
“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius & it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”
53 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains an enchanting enigma. She was once the most famous woman in the world & maybe the truest definition of “Movie Star” ever, but her real self will be forever out of reach. Monroe is the most endlessly talked about & mythologized figure in Hollywood history. She remains the ultimate superstar. Her rise & fall are the stuff that both dreams & nightmares are made of. Her estate continues to rake in millions. Just this weekend, yet another film about her life, The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe aired on the Lifetime network, with the great Susan Sarandon playing her mother Gladys (can someone please find Sarandon some film roles befitting her talent & stature in Hollywood so she can turn down Lifetime stuff?).
There have been nearly as many screen portrayals of Monroe as films that she herself made. I don’t any of them 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 & 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 & The Showgirl (1957). Based on a pair memoirs by Colin Clark, played in the film by adorable, freckled Eddie Redmayne, who worked as an assistant on Olivier’s film. Williams captures not only Monroe’s fragility, both on-screen & off, but also her magical, unclassifiable charisma. My Weekend With Marilyn entertained & touched me. I recommend this film.
Monroe, starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), & Bus Stop (1956), but she wasn’t always Marilyn Monroe. She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, appropriately, in LA.
She signed her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox in 1946 for $125 a week. Norma Jeane dyed her brunette hair blonde & changed her name.
A living contradiction, Monroe was divine & profane. She became both myth & 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, telling about the sadness in her eyes, her vulnerability & 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, heartbreaking actor of depth & soul. She is beyond camp, making her different than Jayne Mansfield & Mamie Van Doren, who Hollywood chose to replace her. She turned out to be irreplaceable.
Amazingly, Monroe still sells 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 have been devoted to her some lovely & filled with photographs, many lurid & badly written. Songs have been dedicated to her. Plays have been produced about her, even an opera. She still sells millions of posters & calendars.
I am not certain that I would say that she was a fine actor, but she sure had something. My own favorite Marilyn Monroe performance is in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) one of the most perfect film comedies in history. Her performance seems like Champagne, bubbly & effortless. Odd, because Monroe was at her worst making this classic: perpetually tardy, unprepared, unable to remember her lines, pregnant & sick, calming herself with vodka & downers, making the shoot tough for pros Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon. But, her role as Sugar Cane Kowalczy allowed her play the dumb blond without giving a dumb performance.
Gay men of a certain age held Monroe as an ultimate icon. She was a gorgeous, but tormented person, making a career out of being sexually & emotionally open in a brutal straight-male world. Monroe worked hard for her fame, but it was her suffering that we identified with the most. She was undervalued by the industry. In 1961, when Elizabeth Taylor was being paid a million dollars to film Cleopatra for 20th Century Fox, Monroe, also with Fox was pulling in just $150,000 for The Misfits.
We wanted to save her. That was Monroe’s shtick. It worked. We all know the sad story, with the battering studio heads, the husbands, the Kennedys, the Strasbergs, the acting coaches, the pills & the booze, the insecurities, the misunderstandings. We don’t need a Lifetime movie.
On an early morning in the summer of 1962, Monroe died in her sleep at her little stucco cottage on dead end street in Brentwood. She loved the house & had installed a plaque with the Latin phrase “Cursum Perficio” which translates to “My Journey Ends Here”. Suicide, accident or murder? We will always specultate. She was just 36 years old. Monroe remains a most important Gay Icon. She would have celebrated her 89th birthday today.