All About Marilyn: 50 years after her death, the screen siren remains an enigma
A publicity photo for "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), in which she enjoyed a blast of steam from a subway on Lexington Avenue at 52nd Street in Manhattan.
Marilyn played Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959), voted the funniest American movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with Tony Curtis.
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Why her, now?
Why is Marilyn Monroe, that most sublime of American archetypes -- a luminous screen sex goddess who died young -- still attracting so much attention today, the 50th anniversary of her death?
In the past year alone, there have been:
• A big-screen movie ("My Week With Marilyn," with an Oscar-nominated performance by Michelle Williams).
• The NBC musical drama "Smash," about the creation of a Broadway musical based on her life.
• A controversial 26-foot statue erected in Chicago.
• A brand makeover -- her estate was recently purchased by a company seeking to upgrade her image -- and she's now the third top-earning dead celebrity.
Then there are the truckloads of books, academic and critical studies and museum retrospectives that have appeared since she died in 1962, and, always, it seems, more pictures. In June, for the third time in four years, Marilyn graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, which touted "The Lost Nudes" -- newly unearthed photographs by George Barris -- as breathlessly as if a new Rembrandt had been discovered.
It's possible that future generations, so inured to sex, violence and depravity in popular culture, will yawn and look away, but for now, we can project any story we want onto her, and we do.
Viewed through the lens of the 1950s, Marilyn was the "bad" girl -- sexy, talented but oh, so naughty, culturally suspect in an era of wholesome wives, mothers and homemakers (those nude calendar photos in 1949 were done only because "I was hungry," Marilyn insisted).
There were other sex goddesses besides Marilyn: Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. They could do melodrama and film noir better than she could -- it's hard to imagine Marilyn in Turner's role in "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
But Liz, Lana, Ava and Rita didn't die at age 36 -- under mysterious circumstances, of an overdose of barbiturates just weeks after being fired by 20th Century Fox. Was Marilyn's death suicide, murder or an accident? We will probably never know, and that ambiguity means we will never have closure, no final chapter, just a story that continues to play itself out, in art and commerce.
But what a story: Surely no other mid-20th-century female movie star's life intersects with so many greats in American sports, politics and the arts. She married baseball legend Joe DiMaggio in 1954, then left him a few months later and moved to New York, where she married Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. She co-starred with Sir Laurence Olivier in "The Prince and the Showgirl," and sang a sexy "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden.
Today, in 2012, we look at her through a different lens, armed with information we didn't have then, which only compounds our fascination: She reportedly had an affair with JFK, who ended it after the night she sang that song -- she'd become too needy and unpredictable and inconvenient. She drove Olivier to distraction with her chronic lateness and moodiness. As a child, she'd moved through a series of foster homes and, according to biographers, was repeatedly sexually abused.
Today, we can read her any way we choose: We can adopt the post-feminist view that Marilyn's sexual exhibitionism was an expression of female power that she wielded skillfully, knowing how to navigate and transcend a culture that valued women based on their bodies.
Her move to New York to improve herself as an actress seemed, initially, an audacious bid for independence from the studios, but it ultimately left her dependent on a new crowd, intellectuals and theater types who eagerly signed up to be her enablers.
During her troubled marriage to Miller, she was photographed on a children's playground reading James Joyce's "Ulysses." Was the bookishness an act, or did she really long to play Grushenka in a film adaptation of "The Brothers Karamazov"? Norman Mailer, in his 1973 book on Marilyn, wrote that "she was a lover of books who could not read."
For some, the timing of her death seems fitting -- 1962 is the last year, social critic Terry Teachout argued recently in the Wall Street Journal, before the careful construct of postwar American innocence began to crack and crumble. It's hard to imagine Marilyn in the years after Dallas, after Vietnam, after Woodstock and into the 1970s, when women's liberation took hold. In one stern feminist critique, Temple University professor Joan Mellen wrote that Marilyn's image was "a means of enslaving others to an impoverished and demeaning conception of what it meant to be a woman."
On the other hand, Marilyn is exhibit A for the women's rights movement, Gloria Steinem said, a victim of male studio executives exploiting her for profit, feeding into American society's dual nature: prurience and prudery, always in conflict, always a moneymaker.
Miller, that great American playwright, wrote of their courtship in a memoir with the star-struck wonder of the geek ensnared by the temptress: She was "a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence."
Then again, he wrote, Marilyn was "almost ludicrously provocative, a strange bird in the aviary if only because her dress was so blatantly tight, declaring rather than insinuating that she had brought her body along and it was the best one in the room."
So who was using whom?
There are no ready answers, just questions, and 50 years from today we may be still asking them, about the woman, the icon, the sex object, the brand and the mystery called Marilyn Monroe.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am