In just over a decade, she worked with the greatest directors in Golden Age Hollywood: Huston, Wilder, Cukor, and Hawks. Moviegoers paid $200,000,000 to watch her project her trademark combination of atomic-age sexuality and childlike, vulnerable astuteness. She was born into an orphan’s chaos and lived the shadowy Los Angelean life of a Raymond Chandler character — losing her soul in a struggle for acceptance, and then her life trying to re-find it.
I did what they said and all it got me was a lot of abuse. Everyone’s just laughing at me. I hate it. Big breasts, big ass, big deal. — Marilyn Monroe
It took me a while to like her at all. It was clear, early on, that she wasn’t for or about me. She was about Men and playing the game by their rules, contorting herself into their ideal, sublimating her rage into their ultimate frustration. The inimitable Billy Wilder might be the director most connected to the celluloid Monroe image, having directed her in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot. Of working with Monroe, he said, “I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I’m too old and too rich to go through this again.”
But he was also a man who recognized the unusual gift she had, albeit in the way Hollywood usually did. “Flesh impact is rare,” Wilder said when talking about Monroe. “Three I remember who had it were Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and Rita Hayworth. Such girls have flesh which photographs like flesh. You feel you can reach out and touch it.” Reach out and touch it is right: each of these women supported violent lovers and financial parasites and all of them led tragic lives mainly due to their having been turned from poor girls into sexual commodities.
People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one. — Marilyn Monroe
Wilder doesn’t mention the fact that Monroe’s fragility makes her far more appealing than those tits, or that much-vaunted white skin. The sense of watching a trapped butterfly permeates her best performances; it’s the quality that the starlets set up to compete against her were missing. They might have had more professionalism, but they lacked Monroe’s self-lacerating perception. That Monroe was angry, there can be no doubt. All of her actions speak to it: The lateness, the passivity, the pills and the booze, the relationships. The paralyzing depressions that are the rage of those who feel they are not allowed rage. The pills just damped down the anger and became the only thing that killed it — and her. For only half a moment did fame do what she thought it would, and make her happy.
Fame is like caviar. It’s good to have caviar, but not every damned day! — Marilyn Monroe
After carefully building up her career, from a riveting cameo in The Asphalt Jungle, through bringing a needed naiveté to Miss Caswell in All About Eve, through the 1953 hat trick of How to Marry A Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe was troubled but game. She’d show up on set (albeit with a slightly creepy dramatic coach), know her lines, do her job like she wanted to keep it. It wasn’t until the smash hit of The Seven Year Itch in 1955 that Monroe felt secure enough to ask for better pay from Fox, and confident enough to study her craft like a pro. The Hollywood establishment balked, and the media had a field day with the idea of Monroe at The Actor’s Studio in New York. She stuck it out, but there was a price.
If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work. — Marilyn Monroe
The image with which she’d found acceptance was a straitjacket from which she’d never fully escape. The Hollywood big boys found her efforts absurd — didn’t she know they’d be done with her soon? A blonde’s shelf life is so short —but for now they still needed her, still could make money off of her. She stepped up her game, forming her own production company and marrying the nation’s greatest highbrow playwright (incidentally saving him from further appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee). And that’s how the tangled struggle continued — between stardom and self, pills and production schedules, Miller and Monroe and what each meant in the cultural shorthand.
"What the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers. Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe." — Marilyn Monroe
In the end, she made sure she wasn’t a joke. There was chaos on the set of The Misfits as her marriage to Arthur Miller imploded and John Huston’s implacable camera rolled. The early '60s brought increasingly skimpy output, then “Happy Birthday Mr. President” and the demeaning stories of her in thrall to one Kennedy or another.
What would have happened next — indeed, was already coming over the horizon — was the inevitable upswing of a new generation with a different female ideal. However, the month before The Beatles’ “Love Me Do” was recorded, Monroe’s tragedy was played out with terrible, and artfully symbolic, timing. Can you imagine Monroe aged? Could any of us imagine the pain this sensitive woman who contorted herself into an atomic-era burlesque of sexuality would have felt, when the caricature turned cruel?
This post originally appeared on danaburnell.com and is reprinted here with permission.
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Dana Burnell has written for The London Times Sunday Magazine, The Guardian Weekend Magazine, Harvard Review and Time Out New York, among others. She’s completed a novel, Mistaken Nonentity, about a woman obsessed with '40s icon Barbara Stanwyck who finds herself living a film noir. She's repped by Martha Millard at Sterling Lord Literacy.