Sunday, August 05, 2012

marilyn, gone 50 years ago today

Here's another essay from the longer-format piece I'm working on about Marilyn Monroe.

There are so many books, movies, and documentaries about Marilyn Monroe, and I've been reading a lot of them recently. Something they all share in common: her sex life, her troubles. No one seems to want to talk about the woman as an actress, an artist. It's easy to get caught up in the sordid and tragic details of her life and death, but I would rather focus on her incandescent screen presence. She may never have been a classical actress along the lines of Eleanora Duse, one of her idols, but her movies are still highly enjoyable and watchable, and she was serious, always, about her craft. In fact, her notorious lateness and difficulty on film sets could be attributed to her stage fright, for which she experienced actual physical symptoms of nervous rashes and flushing, which caused delays in re-applying of make-up. But even more so, she always, even before encountering the Method, insisted on multiple takes, as she was obsessed with getting a scene “right.” This also extended to rigorous rehearsals of musical numbers. Marilyn, even when she was a bit player, employed acting, singing, and dancing coaches in an effort to improve herself and give the best possible performance.

As Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
When her marriage to Joe DiMaggio went bust in 1954, she decided to leave California and concentrate on honing her craft in New York City, where the acting was “serious.” Against all the advice of friends and advisers, she left Los Angeles and moved across the country. Once there, she began to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, of Method acting fame. Strasberg, like so many others who met her, was impressed with her beauty and her star power, He wasn’t just her acting guru, but like many of the men in her life he became an ersatz father figure, and he welcomed her into his family. She respected Strasberg so much she even made him the primary beneficiary in her will. Strasberg made Marilyn believe what she dreamt of — that more serious roles were in her future. This dream did come true, with dramatic roles in Bus Stop, The Prince and the Showgirl, and The Misfits. Her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller in 1956 also steered her away from the frothy musicals she had done previously.

For someone who reportedly was so full of sadness and vulnerability, Marilyn was said to be a joyful presence in many lives. But she was also always aware of death. She may have contemplated and attempted suicide many times — reports of failed attempts are non-existent or frequent, depending on which biography you are reading. Unfortunately, she finally did overdose in 1962, fifty years ago today. We'll never know how serious her intent was. She was so use to taking a lot of pills over the course of a day that she may have miscalculated. Or maybe she thought there would be someone — there was always someone, like an assistant or a doctor — waiting and able to rescue her. Unfortunately, on August 5, 1962, that wasn't how the story ended.

Marilyn in New York
Marilyn’s dependence and misuse of drugs definitely played a part in her death. The amount of barbiturates in her system was staggering. Her use of barbiturates and painkillers began at an early age, and a lot of her drug dependencies can be traced to her difficulties with menstruation. She was plagued by endometriosis, and suffered excruciatingly painful periods from her youth. Throughout her life doctors prescribed painkillers and Marilyn took them. Drug abuse was not a "thing", a social crisis, a cause, in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Maybe things would've been different for her if she had a hysterectomy as was advised by a gynecologist. But Marilyn refused. She always wanted the possibility of having a child. If Marilyn had undergone a hysterectomy in her 20s she would no longer have had to suffer the miscarriages (or purported, by some, abortions) that caused her both physical and mental anguish, hence more drugs to numb the pain. This painful irony didn’t escape the screen goddess — that a walking, talking symbol of sex was cursed with such troubles with procreation, with her own womanhood.

And Marilyn is still a goddess of sex and of womanhood. She is an extreme version of so many issues that women deal with every day. Trouble conceiving or bringing a baby to term. The difficulties in finding a man, maintaining a relationship The difficulties of being taken seriously in a man's world. How hard it is to balance a career and family. Marilyn dealt with all of these issues firsthand, before feminism, with few to guide her. She had a shaky foundation; her mother in and out of institutions, and a succession of families (where she encountered alleged child abuse at worst, or indifference) who were willing to take her on and care for her — until they couldn’t — and then she would be sent on to the next family.

Marilyn burned with ambition and a desire to excel and succeed. And she had a powerful tool in her arsenal: her beauty. She continued this cycle of patronage and ersatz protection with older men in Hollywood, and even the men she married, but no one seemed able to give her the acceptance, the support that she craved.

On the set of The Misfits
Marilyn's only escape as a child from the drudgery of foster homes (and even for a few years an orphanage) was the movies. She went a lot, and her favorite screen idol was Jean Harlow. She was actively being considered for a biography of Harlow before she died. She may never have been as sassy as Harlow — she just didn't have it in her — but her performance in Some Like it Hot hints at how great that movie might have been. (Two movies, both named Harlow, were eventually filmed, both released in 1965, one starring Carrol Baker, the other Carol Lynley, and both were resounding flops.)

Marilyn is to be applauded and respected for trying to shake off the stereotype of the dumb blonde and to always challenge herself. But it is also a shame that she turned her back on some of her most engaging work. She was a born comedienne, and what makes her such a star, so unique, is that talent, paired with her beauty and sexiness. She apparently didn’t care for Some Like it Hot, one of her best films. Husband Miller had little respect for her musical numbers, and he urged her to drop her idea of having songs in The Prince and the Showgirl. Maybe after that marriage fell apart in 1960 she began to revise her opinions about appearing in musicals, as she was in talks to do a remake of The Blue Angel, Irma La Douce, Can Can, I Love Louisa (which became What A Way to Go!), and a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She was also in talks to star in Some Came Running, which leads one to ponder that Shirley MacLaine may owe a lot of her film roles to Marilyn’s being out of the picture.

To watch Marilyn on the screen is frequently pure joy. She bubbles over. Some find her exuberance, her sensuality, her uber-femininity, embarrassing. But the camera loved Marilyn and she loved it back. On this, the fiftieth anniversary of her death, she is best commemorated by her film legacy, not the ups and downs of a life that ended too soon.

Some viewing suggestions:


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1952) A Technicolor explosion of fun, with Marilyn, Jane Russell, fabulous costumes and lots of fun musical numbers, capped off by Marilyn's wonderful rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”

Seven Year Itch (1955) Not her best film, but possibly her most iconic, featuring the infamous subway grating scene and Travilla’s amazing white pleated dress.

Some Like It Hot (1959) Marilyn is amazingly beautiful and vulnerable in one of the funniest films ever. She matches Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in the comic moments too. A classic.

In Some Like It Hot


All About Eve (1950) In just a small part, as Miss Casswell, a “graduate of the Copacabana school of dramatic art,” Marilyn still impresses.

Niagara (1953) Marilyn is beyond sexy as a femme fatale in this color-saturated film noir. Husband Joseph Cotton is driven mad by his young wife’s wayward ways, against the backdrop of the Falls location shoot.

Bus Stop (1956) The first film where Marilyn was taken seriously, and she is frequently heartbreaking as saloon singer Cherie.

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) Marilyn effortlessly steals the show from director and costar Laurence Olivier. The much-reported off-screen trials and tribulations aren’t visible to the audience, but Oliver’s stiff performance highlights his classical method versus Marilyn’s fresh, modern approach to acting.

The Misfits (1961) Marilyn is raw, vulnerable, even painful to watch. With a screenplay by then-husband Arthur Miller, The Misfits is not the greatest film, but it is still fascinating. Marilyn's interactions with costars Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift are wonderful.


Looking for more interesting articles on the ultimate movie star?

Check out high50, a British-based site for "the fifty-plus generation that aims to put the AARP in the old folks' home."

high50 is featuring and article by Julie Burchill, Mrs. Morgenstern’s Morning. "One of the UK's best-known and most controversial writers, Burchill imagines how Marilyn might have turned out, had she survived the last 50 years. It's in short-story format — with a real sting in the tail."


R.I.P. Marilyn ♥

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