Tuesday, January 10, 2012

for the love of marilyn

My post yesterday about Marilyn Monroe and our enduring fascination with the woman, her weight, her life, made me realize that I hadn't really written much about her talent as an actress. Marilyn cultivated a kewpie doll persona — both deliberately and thrust upon her — of breathy voice, wide eyes, wiggling hips, and voluptuous curves. Her personal tics have been imitated ad nauseum by so many would-be starlets and drag queens that it is easy to forget how driven an actress she was, and how talented.

With Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
Marilyn was a product of her time. Her dyed blonde hair and bright red lips epitomized the '50s. She was hardly the only blonde bombshell out there. She was the most successful, because she brought that something extra, that ineffable "it" factor and smarts. Yes, Marilyn was smart. She was a troubled, even haunted woman. But she also had an insatiable curiosity and a desire to improve herself. She was also an adept comedienne, and she knew how to showcase her considerable assets.
"My illusions didn't have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!"
The facts of Marilyn's life have become the stuff of legend, and they have also provided a blueprint for many young women from difficult backgrounds who wanted to make it big in Hollywood. Her father left her mother before she was born. Her mother, who worked as a film cutter for RKO, spent her life in and out of mental institutions, leaving Norma Jeane to be raised in foster homes and even for a few years, an orphanage. She married her first husband at 16, clearly trying to escape an unstable life. The marriage only lasted four years, and Marilyn became a blonde and started her modeling career, which eventually led to a screen test with 20th Century-Fox.

She played a femme fatale in Niagara
Marilyn was far from an overnight success. She made an impression in a small part in All About Eve. Good film roles started to trickle in, including Niagara, where she played the unfaithful wife of Joseph Cotten. She may not have wanted to be typecast as the sexy girl, but she effortlessly exuded sex on camera. Her beauty and ability to poke fun at her previous "dumb blonde" roles made her a star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which led to How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch. Marilyn could have continued to play musical comedy roles forever, and become quite successful, but she wanted to delve deeper. She began studying with Lee Strasberg at the famous Actors Studio, which led to more serious roles (and her being taken more seriously) like Bus StopSome Like It Hot and The Misfits. Her career achievements were overshadowed by her dependency on drugs and alcohol and her unhappy romances with high profile men, like husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and alleged affairs with John and Robert Kennedy. Her death by barbiturate overdose has created a mythology and industry of speculation — was it a suicide, accident, or even murder?

So much gossip still surrounds Marilyn, so many questions as to why she was so troubled. She became not only dependent on drugs, but also handlers — acting coaches, psychiatrists, husbands. It is easy in hindsight to criticize her, question her, but so many people forget that she was constantly fighting for the things she wanted in her life. She was underpaid for most of her career, even once she became a star. She desperately wanted to have a child, and suffered at least two miscarriages while she was married to Arthur Miller. Just that, the inability to have a child, can do a number on a woman. She was abandoned by a mother with mental illness and a father she never knew. She was blessed and cursed with her beauty. what must it have been like to wake up, either alone or with someone and confront "Marilyn?" In the later years of her career she was chronically late and difficult to work with. A lot of that was definitely the haze from the previous night's sleeping pills, but maybe it took her that long to also become Marilyn. Our ultimate images of her are plastic. With red lacquered lips and shiny sculpted hair, bedecked in jewels, she is almost a statue of sex. Looking at her in later films and photos, she kept the trademark blonde hair, but she was trying to soften her make-up, her hairstyle, her image.

Marilyn in the 50s and 60s
The persona of Marilyn endures through all of her melodrama and in some of her best roles. When you look at her filmography, it is amazing to see how she struggled to get to the top, how many movies she made before she had her first truly memorable role as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her entire film career only spanned 15 years. As Lorelei Lee, both the camera and the audience love her antics with Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), but they are not just two pretty girls served up by director Howard Hawks as visual candy. They are two women in charge and on the loose, on the hunt for men and fabulous jewelry. It's the traditional romantic chase, inverted. Many of the male characters in the film fear that Lorelei is predatory, a gold-digger, but she cleverly counters, "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

Marilyn quipped about her own ife in a similar fashion, "Wouldn't it be nice to be like men and just get notches in your belt and sleep with the most attractive ones and not get emotionally involved?" Hawks, known for more male-centric fare like Red River, Sergeant York and To Have and Have Not, tapped into that feeling and made a girl power musical.

Lorelei, contemplating a tiara, "How do you put it around your neck?
Modern viewers might feel that Marilyn is a parody of herself in this film, but Gentleman Prefer Blondes, from 1953, was really her first starring role — it's where she became the woman we now associate with sex bomb Marilyn. The movie is loaded with sexual entendres, mostly voiced by Russell, who in an unusual twist, is the character who is doing most of the ogling. At one point she contemplates the entire Olympic swim team, who are just presented, chorus girl style, for her and the rest of the gals in the audience, to appreciate. She has a great rapport with Marilyn, who plays Lorelei, the ultimate material girl, who can be ditzy or self-aware, but has never met a diamond she doesn't like:
Lorelei, contemplating a tiara, "How do you put it around your neck?"
Dorothy, "You don't, honey, it goes on your head!"
Lorelei, "You must think I was born yesterday."
Dorothy, "Well, sometimes there's just no other possible explanation."
Lady Beekman, "It's a tiara."
Lorelei, "You DO wear it on your head. I just LOVE finding new places to wear diamonds."
Marilyn as Lorelei is fun and perplexing and sexy — a completely memorable character, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is still one of the most enjoyable movies out there. It's a shame she was never paired again with Russell, as the two are such a winning combo.

As Chérie in Bus Stop
Three years and four movies later, after working with The Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg, Marilyn appeared in Bus Stop. It was the perfect transition piece for her, from musicals to drama. She played a saloon singer, Chérie, a woman of little talent who dreams of making it big as a way to escape her current good-time girl life. It's hardly a female empowerment piece. Actually it's more of a caveman clubs woman and carries her off story. But there's no denying how lovely Marilyn is in the film, nor how heartbreaking is her rendition of "That Old Black Magic." Bus Stop taps into Marilyn's vulnerability and parallels what outsiders have come to believe as her own unhappy search for true love.

In 1959 Marilyn appeared as the ukelele-playing Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot, one of the great American movies. Marilyn, according to director Billy Wilder, was more than a little difficult to work with, but none of that shows on screen. She is at the height of her voluptuousness, as well as being sweet, funny, and of course, vulnerable. As the singer in a 1920s all-girl band, she shares some wonderful scenes with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, dressed in drag as they hide out from some Chicago mobsters led by George Raft. Marilyn plays a more world-weary version of Lorelei Lee. Sugar is someone who in love has always got "the fuzzy end of the lollipop." She is a half-hearted gold-digger, and hopes that teaming up with Daphne and Josephine might help change her luck and snag her a millionaire, "I don't care how rich he is, as long as he has a yacht, his own private railroad car, and his own toothpaste." Some Like it Hot is a hilarious sex comedy, with hints that walking a mile in someone else's heels may have had a real effect on Joe and Jerry. Womanizer Joe may have found true love with Sugar. He has at least found, for the first time in his life, it impossible to just love her and leave her. As for Jerry, well, nobody's perfect.

A color still from The Misfits - Marilyn with Clark Gable
Marilyn's last film, The Misfits, is sometimes difficult to watch, as it is so closely tied to the real life struggles of its stars. Marilyn's marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (who wrote the screenplay) was falling apart.
"Arthur did this to me. He could have written anything and he comes up with this. If that's what he thinks of me, well, then I'm not for him and he's not for me. Arthur says it's his movie. I don't think he even wants me in it."
The Misfits was Gable's last film. He died of a heart attack after filming ended. Watching Marilyn in The Misfits is watching the ultimate Method actor. It's virtually impossible to sparate Marilyn from her character, even when Miller's lines verge on the clunky. Marilyn lets it all hang out. She's an open wound. At times it's heartbreaking to watch the emotions cascade across her face. But she and Gable have undeniable chemistry. She is beautiful, sexy, at times broken, and natural in the scene where she dances first with Gable, and then Eli Wallach.
"I'm a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me, because of the image they've made of me and that I've made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much, and I can't live up to it."
Marilyn may have fought her battle with her image and lost, but she has become an enduring image of beauty and sexiness. But she is far more than the girl with the white dress over the subway grate or the bombshell in the pleated golden gown. She was also a very entertaining actress.


All Marilyn quotes are from imdb.
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