Marilyn Monroe was no Meryl Streep, but she sure had 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 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. 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 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 was undervalued by the film 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. 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. In 2020, Monroe made $30 million!
Monroe would have been, should have been celebrating her 95th birthday today, sharing with some carrot cake with Betty White.