Born: June 1, 1926, Los Angeles, CA
Died: August 5, 1962, Los Angeles, CA
For the entire world she became a symbol of the eternal feminine.
While working as a parachute inspector in the Radio Plane factory in Burbank, California, a starry-eyed Norma Jean Baker began supplementing her income by modeling in bathing suits for pinups and glamour photos for just fifty dollars a session. Those photos became instantly popular, and the photographer sold over a million copies for $750,000 profit. By spring of 1945, after bleaching her hair, she had posed for pictures that graced the covers of more than thirty national magazines.
Howard Hughes saw the famous photographs and gave her a screen test for RKO, but he took too long making a decision, and talent scout Ben Lyon convinced Darryl F. Zanuck to beat Hughes to her signing. She started with Fox at $125 a week. In a meeting with Lyon on July 23, 1946, it was suggested the she change her name to Marilyn Miller, but Norma offered Monroe, her grandparents’ last name.
After appearing in non-speaking parts, she gave the first glimpses of her true talent in All About Eve (1950). But it was with the 1953 features Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire that Monroe broke through and became world famous. Her strut in a red dress in Niagara emblazoned her in the minds of moviegoers. Then nude calendar photos she had posed for years earlier appeared in the debut issue of Playboy magazine, and Monroe was the talk of the town. Soon she was the top star of the year. Marriage to baseball hero Joe DiMaggio boosted her standing as America’s favorite trophy.
She lacked the disarming power and self-confidence of the screen sirens who preceded her—Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Mae West. And yet this very lack of self-confidence was the key to her success among adolescent males of the 1950s. Her sense of innocence and natural sexuality made her seem vulnerable and nonthreatening. She was not a femme fatale who used her powers to manipulate; rather she appeared baffled by her allure, and this made her doubly attractive. Her status as a sex symbol is the gauge that all starlets are measured against, and rarely does an actress approach her radiant sexuality.
When Monroe grew tired of the dumb blonde stereotype, she took steps to take control of her own destiny. Joining the famed Actors Studio in New York, she met playwright Arthur Miller, whom she married in 1956. She formed Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1956, and produced a film version of the Broadway play Bus Stop (1957) in which she starred. She also starred in The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier that same year.
Her comedic sense won over audiences in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). Monroe proved that she possessed a serious talent, but following The Misfits (1960), her marriage to Miller ended and, depressed, she was hospitalized for psychiatric care and treatment of physical problems.
Habitual tardiness on the set of Something’s Got to Give (1962) got her fired. The movie was never completed, and one month later, on August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Brentwood, California home from an overdose of sleeping pills. Her premature death would elevate her status from superstar to goddess, and she would vault to the top of the list of stars, like James Dean, who had also died too young.
Since her suicide, Marilyn Monroe has remained in the public eye, an icon of popular culture. Her likeness has become the most widely reproduced in Hollywood history, recently surpassing the enormous popularity of Charlie Chaplin’s, and can be found on every conceivable collectible item. The U.S. Postal Service minted a commemorative thirty-two-cent Marilyn Monroe stamp in 1995; Mattel issued a Seven Year Itch (1955) Barbie doll; and ironically, her fifty-year-old photos are still among the bestselling celebrity calendars annually. Skyrocketing from pinup girl to essence of screen sexuality, she gave hope to millions of young people who dreamed of becoming superstars.
To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.