“Other movie stars act the part of themselves, more or less convincingly,” writes John Banville for the Guardian. “Marilyn created a wholly other version of herself, meant not to convince but to seduce. She was both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, and it is our constant, subliminal awareness of this duality that makes her such a fascinating and compelling creature, even still, 50 years after her death.”
“Why are you and I both thinking about her right now, rather than Carole Lombard or Ava Gardner or Jayne Mansfield?” asks Matthew Sweet in the Telegraph. “Jean Harlow was wittier than Monroe, and died younger. Lana Turner had the same lucent blondeness, seven husbands and a real-life murder case on her CV. Rita Hayworth helped America win the war, married Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan and raised enough bourbon-fueled sturm und drang for an opera cycle. And yet it is Monroe who has secured a place in the cultural imagination from which she shows no signs of being dislodged.”
Even as the estate of Marilyn Monroe carries on doing all in its considerable power to keep that fascination alive, the past couple of years have offered ample opportunity to indulge in it without the prodding of the Authentic Brands Group and its partner, the National Entertainment Collectibles Association. On June 1 of last year, Marilyn would have turned 85, and the bloggers dutifully blogged, the tumblrs tumbled, and the tweeters were atwitter. A month later, New York’s BAMcinématek ran a series of her films that occasioned thoughtful essays from, among others, Dan Callahan and Joseph Jon Lanthier. And in the run-up to her serving as the icon of the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival this year, many of us began passing around Jacqueline Rose‘s excellent piece on Marilyn for the London Review of Books. And here we are again, 50 years to the day since Marilyn died, aged just 36, under, for some, still mysterious circumstances.
“There have been countless biographies, novels, plays (including Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, with its grotesque caricature), conspiracy-oriented chronicles of her final days, and her own ghostwritten autobiography, published posthumously,” writes Zoë Slutzky in this week’s New York Times Book Review:
There have been almost as many versions of Marilyn: she was brazenly sexual, shy and insecure, a dumb blonde and a bookworm who read Dostoyevsky; she was gentle and free-spirited, spiteful and cannily controlling; she could barely act, vamping for the camera, or she was a brilliant comedian, playing a pinup version of Shakespeare’s fool.
Nobody is one thing all the time. Yet Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner‘s new biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, which behaves a little like its subject. Weaving together exclusive interviews, material from previous books and, most significantly, the contents of Monroe’s two long-lost personal filing cabinets (made available to the public only last year, when Banner published a selection from them in MM — Personal), Banner presents a rich and often imaginative narrative of Marilyn’s life. By the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being—an almost-friend—and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.
Here’s where I want to slip in a snippet from a piece Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s just put up, one he wrote in 2005: “The difficulty some people have discerning Monroe’s intelligence as an actress seems rooted in the ideology of a repressive era, when superfeminine women weren’t supposed to be smart. They often fail to see past the sexist cliches she used as armor, satirically and otherwise, fail to notice that she was also positing a utopian view of sex, one that was relatively guilt free and blissfully pleasure oriented—something entirely new for that period.”
But back to Banner’s book, recently excerpted in the Guardian; for more on it, see Susie Boyt in the Financial Times and Adam Tschorn in the Los Angeles Times, where he also has capsule reviews of two other books Nathalie Atkinson pages through for the National Post: Christopher Nickens and George Zeno’s “exhaustive” Marilyn in Fashion, which “chronicles wardrobe choices as organized by designer—like Norman Norell, Jax and Jean Louis, who created the ‘JFK dress,’ the infamous clingy rhinestone-studded nude slip. (It cost her $5,000 and sold at Christies auction in 1999 for $1,267,500.) There are other studio costumers in the mix, too, such as Orry-Kelly, Dorothy Jeakins and William Travilla. The latter is the subject of his own new book, Dressing Marilyn. Andrew Hansford, manager of Travilla’s archives, shows sketches, rare costume test shots and patterns, including the billowing white halter dress of The Seven Year Itch immortalized thanks to a well-placed subway grate.”
“20th Century Fox, Monroe’s home studio during her most creative years, has paid her the genuine tribute of going back to five of her most important movies and spending enough time and money to restore them to a state close to what they looked like on their original release.” Dave Kehr for the NYT: “The results, available exclusively on Blu-ray, have been packaged as Forever Marilyn, a seven-disc boxed set that includes the five remastered Fox titles—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953), River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954)”—Banville, by the way, spends a few good paragraphs with this one]—”There’s No Business Like Show Business (Walter Lang, 1954) and The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)—as well as two previously released United Artists titles, Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and The Misfits (John Huston, 1961).” And the “quality of the image and sound… is simply superb.”
Above: Filmarilyn (1992), via Marc Campbell at Dangerous Minds: “Italian film maker Paolo Gioli creates a haunting short movie by animating photographs taken by Bert Stern of Marilyn Monroe shortly before she died.”
Kim Morgan revisits Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock (1952): “Knowing all we do about the troubled star, it most likely wasn’t a stretch for the then-relative newcomer to understand the pathology and despondency of her character Nell, a child/woman burned by love who can’t handle the breach between reality and fiction.”
The LAT‘s Susan King: “Don Murray, Martin Landau, Louis Gossett Jr., Mitzi Gaynor and others talk about the talented, fragile Marilyn they knew.”
LIFE has been tumbling a wide range of rarely seen photos.
Updates: It’s Lois Banner again, here in an Op-Ed in today’s LAT:
Feminists can claim her because she fought the dictatorial Hollywood moguls and won, standing in the vanguard of the few female stars who created their own production companies. She also took the extraordinary step of publicly describing the sex abuse visited on her as a child, even though in the 1950s such abuse was likely to be regarded as the fault of the female victim, even if a child.
Naming such abuse was central to 1970s feminism. Post-feminists who dislike victimization theories can point out that she participated in her own “sexual objectification”—actively presenting herself as a sex object for men in tight, low-cut dresses and no underwear. She did so, by the accounts of her friends, because she understood the power that such explicit sexuality gave her over men—a post-feminist stance. She also saw it as rebellious, as furthering the sexual revolution that would peak after her death…. [W]e make Marilyn an icon because we can also make her into whatever we want her to be. I think she would be pleased.
“Her name, face and figure popped up everywhere, including in the pages of TIME, which mentioned her in nearly a hundred stories from 1953 to May 14, 1956, when it published its 4,333-word Monroe cover story, ‘From Aristophanes and Back.'” Richard Corliss guides the tour—and then returns: “[M]ortality, loneliness and emotional abuse streak the 1956 cover story. Here is the opening paragraph: ‘Sin, sin, sin. Morning and night, that was all they talked about in the little frame house in the California poor-town where Norma Jeane Baker lived in the early years of the Depression. “You’re wicked, Norma Jeane,” the old woman used to shrill at the little girl. “You better be careful, or you know where you’ll go.” Norma Jeane was careful, especially not to talk back. If she did, she got whaled with a razor strop and told that a homeless girl should be more grateful to folks who had put a roof above her head. One night, when the child went to sleep in her cot, she had a strangely exhilarating and frightening dream: “I dreamed that I was standing up in church without any clothes on, and all the people there were lying at my feet on the floor of the church, and I walked naked, with a sense of freedom, over their prostrate forms, being careful not to step on anyone.”‘”
Update, 8/10: “The movie career is insubstantial (Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop, and Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both for Howard Hawks).” David Thomson for the New Republic: “It’s not a proper reward for the astonishing, shining desirability she projected, and the pathos that went with it. But could that fragile persona have been explored in a major film? The one area in which she hardly faltered was still photography. She loved the camera (and cameramen) and trusted its kindness. She was more at ease when being still and feeling the light flow off her face. In photographs, she could be witty, sad, erotic, wicked and intelligent, whereas live action made her tense, naïve, and likely to be laughed at. But none of that explains why, 50 years after her death, she is latent, current, mysterious yet known.”