When Norma Jeane Mortenson (1926 – 1962) became Marilyn Monroe she was no Meryl Streep, but she sure had that certain something. Pauline Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, said:
“She could not act. She used her lack of an actor’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 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. Oddly, 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 costars 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 LGBTQ 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 queer people identified with the most.
Monroe’s fans wanted to save her. That was her shtick and it worked. We all know her sad story: the exploitive studio heads, the husbands, the Kennedys, the Strasbergs, the pills and the booze, the insecurities, the misunderstandings.
She created the first female-owned production studio, Marilyn Monroe Productions, yet she was undervalued by the film industry. In 1961, while Elizabeth Taylor was paid a million dollars to film Cleopatra for 20th Century Fox, Monroe, also with Fox, was paid just $150,000 for The Misfits.
She makes so much more money in death than she ever did at the dizzying height of her fame. When she died, her net worth was just $370,000 ($3.5 million today) after settlement costs and estate fees. Monroe’s only home she ever owed was purchased just a few months before she died for $77,500; she had to borrow money for the down payment from DiMaggio (the tiles on the front doorstep read “Cursum Perficio”, which translates to “I have completed my journey”). The home sold for $7.25 million in 2017. In 2022, Monroe made $18 million.
“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”
It has been more than 60 years since her mysterious death, yet 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 the term “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. Books written by pop culture critics and academics have been devoted to her, some lovely and filled with photographs, most lurid and badly written. Songs have been dedicated to her. Plays have been produced about her. She remains the ultimate superstar. Her rise and fall are the stuff that both dreams and nightmares are made of.
In 2015, 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 that nutty Susan Sarandon playing her mother Gladys Pearl Baker.
There have been almost as many screen portrayals of Monroe as films that she herself made. I don’t know if any of them are very good, certainly not fitting of Monroe’s legacy, but I thought that Michelle Williams came close to getting Monroe right in the charming and cheeky My Week With Marilyn (2011). Williams accomplishes the nearly 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 onscreen and off, but also her magical, unclassifiable charisma. My Weekend With Marilyn entertained and it truly touched me. I recommend this film.
Last year brought the exploitative, dehumanizing Blonde, the second unnecessary adaptation of a messy 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, where she is portrayed by the talented Ana de Armas, who was Oscar, Golden Globe, and SAG Award-nominated for her performance.
Monroe starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), Bus Stop (1956), plus 23 other films. She signed her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox in 1946 for $125 a week, and soon after, Norma Jeane dyed her brunette hair blonde and changed her name.
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.
A living contradiction, Monroe was both divine and dirty, myth and metaphor, and Hollywood’s most martyred saint. At the height of her fame, she had received 10,000 fan letters a week. Many were from men, but women wrote to her too.
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. She is like one of those lost tribes in Borneo discovered by Nation Geographic, only over and over again.
On an early morning in the summer of 1962, at the height of her fame, Monroe died in her sleep at her just purchased home in Brentwood. Suicide, accident, assassination by the CIA, we could speculate forever. Her closest friends believed she was murdered. When actor Veronica Hamel bought the house in 1972, she claimed that when she had the house renovated, she discovered an extensive system of wiretaps.
Monroe grew up in an orphanage and foster homes. She didn’t know her father, and her mother spent her adult life in and out mental institutions. In her will, Monroe had set up a trust to care for her mother until she died; left money to her half-sister, who Monroe didn’t even know existed until she was 12 years old, and to those she trusted, including her psychiatrist, Marianne Kris.
After Kris died, her portion of the estate was transferred to the Anna Freud Centre in London, which is dedicated to working with children with mental health problems. Monroe loved kids and I like to think she approved.
Monroe left the bulk of her estate to her acting coaches, Lee and Paula Strasberg, who were surrogate parents to Monroe. When Strasberg died in 1982, his second wife inherited the Monroe estate and hired a company that specializes in managing the estates of dead celebrities, to license Monroe products.
In her will, Monroe stated that she wanted her personal items to go to friends and colleagues. But in 1999, Anna Strasberg commissioned Christie’s to auction off most of those items, including the gown she wore to President John F. Kennedy‘s birthday party. The gown went for one million dollars and is still worth a fortune even if the charming Kim Kardashian ripped it at the seams at the 2022 Met Gala. Her baby grand piano was sold to Mariah Carey for more than $660,000.
Several years and a variety of lawsuits later, Strasberg sold what remained of the Monroe estate to a new company, Authentic Brands Group for $30 million. Now you can purchase a Marilyn coffee mug for $14.99 or a Dolce & Gabbana Marilyn tee for $399.
Thanks to digital technology, Monroe even came back to life. A Dior perfume commercial has her moving and smiling alongside her dead friends Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich, even though we all know that Monroe only wore Chanel No. 5. Her image and name have been licensed for hundreds of products by Max Factor, Mercedes Benz, and Absolut Vodka. Only Mickey Mouse and Elvis Presley are more recognizable American Icons.
Monroe remains a LGBTQ Icon, Fashion Icon, Hollywood Icon, and influential cultural figure. Feminists claim her. Madonna channeled her. I adore her.
“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.”