She was a siren, a sex symbol, a creature of Hollywood sculpted from layers of pliable material -- miserable childhood marked by alleged sexual abuse, natural good looks, driving ambition, a shrewd understanding of what powerful men wanted and a bottomless need to be loved.
Marilyn Monroe's allure on screen was second to none, but the same could be said about the instability that overtook her. She died 50 years ago today, at 36, of a drug overdose.
If she were alive today, Marilyn would be 86 years old. Because she died so young, her image in popular culture -- films, photos, Warhol silk screens -- is frozen at the height of her beauty, so it's hard to imagine her as old and wrinkled.
Would she have gone the way of Elizabeth Taylor -- bloated and beset by illness? Or Rita Hayworth, who developed Alzheimer's disease? The years can be just as hard on the gorgeous as on regular folks, if not harder because they start out at such giddy heights and have so much further to fall.
What would the curvaceous Marilyn have thought about the changed standard of beauty that drives women and girls to starve themselves?
We know she had a bit of studio-ordered plastic surgery to narrow her nose (some accounts say there was a chin implant as well), but would she have gone for those repeated and lamentable face lifts that wind up making one look more embalmed than youthful?
Would there have been Botox and collagen injections? Breast lifts or implants as gravity did its work? Liposuction to pare down bulges here and there? Or would she have allowed herself a more graceful easing into middle age and beyond?
It's sad to think of the pre-eminent sex symbol of her time struggling to hold onto her looks, but it's a moot point, of course, and not nearly as sad as her early exit.
Nothing feeds a legend more than fame and dazzling beauty cut tragically short -- especially when the circumstances of death are so unclear. Was it an accident, suicide or some nefarious plot to keep her quiet? It's doubtful we'd still be as fascinated by Marilyn if she'd lived a long life and died of natural causes.
I wonder, though, given all we think we know about her, how she'd have answered this question: If early death is the price of everlasting fame, is the trade-off worth it?
During a conversation about Marilyn-as-myth, a colleague ventured that the star is better known today from her photos than her movies. I hadn't thought that would be the case, what with cable TV stations such as Turner Classic Movies showing them every so often, but anyone who hasn't seen Marilyn's movies can't really understand the full range of her appeal.
In her best films she was luminous -- not just va-va-voom sexy, but lit from within in a way that studio lighting cannot achieve. She was funny, with perfect timing and a paradoxical knowing innocence, and no one else -- certainly no "dumb blonde" -- could have pulled off the breathy voice and trembling lips that became her trademark.
For those who haven't seen her films and aren't going to search them all out, here's my short list of three not-to-be-missed Marilyn movies, in order.
1. "Some Like It Hot" with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, is my all-time favorite comedy. I can watch it any time beginning at any point and laugh out loud every time.
Curtis and Lemmon are hilarious as musicians on the run from the mob. They dress up as women to join an all-girl orchestra. Curtis falls hard for singer Sugar (Marilyn) and courts her disguised as the heir to Shell Oil, while Lemmon-in-drag is pursued by the amorous millionaire Joe E. Brown. Lemmon forgetting he's a man is pure genius, Marilyn on the bandstand in that sparkly, body-hugging dress is almost not to be believed, and the whole package is nothing short of comic perfection.
2. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" has Marilyn as Lorelei Lee and Jane Russell as Dorothy, two show girls who sail to France after Lorelei's rich fiance is ordered by his father to break it off. The father sends a private detective on board to get the goods on the gold-digging Lorelei, who has her eye on a diamond tiara owned by a fellow passenger. Watching her work her charms on "Piggy" is a sheer delight. Various production numbers ensue, notably Marilyn in a hot-pink dress delivering the unforgettable rendition of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend."
The highlight, for me, is Marilyn delivering Lorelei's defense to her fiance's father: "I don't want to marry your son for his money. I want to marry him for YOUR money." When he protests, she says "Aren't you funny. Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?" Try arguing that one.
3. "Niagara" is a noir classic, and it's a toss-up which one roils more on screen, the churning waters of the falls or Marilyn as the femme fatale with a plan for her husband (a very scary Joseph Cotton). No plot spoilers here, but in this film the actress proves she's worthy of the title.
There are others, of course, but seeing just these three films will explain more about Marilyn's enduring appeal and mystery than any photo or essay could do. She was beautiful and glamorous on the page, but on film she was pulsating with a life force that was almost preternatural. It wasn't enough to overcome the foster homes, failed marriages, bullying studio heads and clawing public, but it was unlike anything on screen before or since. I don't think we'll see its like again.sallykalson
Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1610).