I remember the day clearly.
Fifty years ago, in the time when news still arrived in newspapers, the afternoon edition of the Toronto Telegram fell onto our small town Ontario doorstep reporting that Marilyn Monroe, age thirty-six, had been found dead at her Brentwood home.
The thirteen-year-old boy who picked up the paper that afternoon reacted with shock at the news, even though, at the time, he had yet to actually see a Marilyn Monroe movie.
The front page photo showed Marilyn in her prime, the straps of a silver lame evening gown forming a deep cleavage. The thirteen-year-old was at once sad and turned on, a reaction to Marilyn that was to endure for a lifetime.
I thought of that day last summer when I encountered Marilyn as I strolled along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. There she was in Pioneer Court, much, much larger than life, artist Seward Johnson’s sculpture capturing her in that iconic moment from The Seven Year Itch when she stands astride a subway grille, her white skirts bellowing around her–a moment no female movie star would ever tolerate today; a moment that infuriated her straight-laced husband of the time, the baseball player Joe DiMaggio; a moment infused forever in the Marilyn legend.
I could hardly believe what I was seeing: an actress who had been dead for nearly half a century, rising in creamy shades twenty-six feet high, surrounded by hundreds of excited onlookers, everyone anxious to have their picture taken with a legend.
What particularly surprised me was the number of people present who could not possibly have been alive when she was alive. Did they even know who this was? Yes, everyone certainly knew Marilyn Monroe. But when I asked several twenty-somethings to name a Marilyn Monroe picture, they looked at me blankly.
The most iconic of female movie stars is not remembered for any of her movies. She starred in only one bona fide classic, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, although The Misfits, the last finished film either she or Clark Gable made, is much more highly regarded today than it was when it was released in 1961, and contains her finest performance as an actress. Still, it’s hardly popular of even generally well-known.
Mostly Twentieth Century Fox shoved her into forgettable fluff that seen today either is terribly dated and sexist (The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire) or just plain awful (Niagara, River of No Return).
She was a product of a studio system that in the 1950s still required the Sex Symbol or The Blonde Bombshell, sexuality being one of the unspoken reasons why people attended movies . Darkened theaters provided just about the only places where a young man could see beautiful, voluptuous women in revealing clothes. There was a whole cottage industry for actresses whose job it was to turn audiences on.
Marilyn did it better than just about anyone else, exuding the sort of baby-doll sensuality that was popular in the 1950s–and soon imitated by any number of actresses, including Jane Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, and, from Britain, Diana Dors.
This was a time when sexuality was labeled “innocent” as opposed to when it was not. Much advantage was taken of Marilyn’s so-called innocence, or, as Cary Grant says in Monkey Business–one of the few movies she made where you even noticed her male co-star–she was half child, but not the half that shows.
Today, while Hollywood has hardly given up on beautiful women, no one would dare call themselves a sex symbol, never mind a Blonde Bombshell, and, in fact, women let alone sex are barely present in the sort of CGI-driven superhero movies all the rage these days.
But Marilyn lives on, more alive than ever on the fiftieth anniversary of her death–and richer than she ever was in life: last year she earned twenty-seven million dollars. The only other actress who made that kind of money was Kristen Stewart of the Twilight movies, and she is still alive.
Marilyn has helped keep all this attention going, not by making those forgettable studio films, but by allowing herself to be photographed more than just about anyone. One can only marvel at the constant unearthing of yet more Marilyn photographs–the latest being from Lawrence Schiller in Vanity Fair magazine. She must have spent every waking hour having her picture taken. As the critic David Thomson points out, she excelled in still photos, not movies.
The other factor fueling the Marilyn legend is, of course, its tragedy. She was not in fact the bubbly, sexy, good-natured, wispy-voiced siren of the movies, but an unhappy, abused, emotionally scarred woman, who used and was used by her sexuality, who longed to be taken seriously, could never find a man who could truly understand and therefore love her, who may or may not have slept with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and who may or may not have been murdered.
Nothing keeps a legend going like sex, murder, and the Kennedys.
But as Maureen Dowd pointed out in her Sunday New York Times piece about Marilyn, it is women, not men, who continue to fuel interest in her. The deluge of books, movies, a TV series, and the endless still images (including the poster for this year’s Cannes Film Festival) transcends sexual gossip or speculation about murder (officially, her death from an overdose of barbiturates was ruled a “probable suicide”).
Her third husband, after she divorced the jealous DiMaggio, was the playwright Arthur Miller. For a long time I could never understand what she saw in Miller. He looked so owlish behind those horn rimmed glasses, a dour scarecrow of a man.
Then I met him in connection with a documentary filmmaker Harry Rasky made about his life and career. In walked this tall, immensely attractive man, exuding an air of authority, and immediately you could understand why Marilyn would have been attracted. Of the lady, herself, though, Miller, in those days, remained silent.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who co-starred with her in Some Like It Hot, were much more forthcoming. It was well-known she had driven everyone crazy with her tardiness while making the movie. The memory of her behavior still angered the easily riled Curtis. However, Lemmon was more sympathetic and forgiving.
Billy Wilder who directed her in Some Like It Hot and Seven Year Itch could never quite forgive her work habits. ‘We would have three hundred extras,” he told filmmaker Cameron Crowe in Conversations With Wilder. “Miss Monroe is called for nine o’clock, and she would appear at five in the afternoon.”
In the end, she baffled him. “I don’t know,” he said. “She was just a continuous puzzle without any solution.”
Half a century after her death, that may come as close as anyone will ever get to explaining our continuing fascination with Marilyn.