A LADY RECENTLY called up Photofest, the company that licenses film stills, to ask for photos of Marilyn Monroe, and the rep asked this lady if she wanted photos of Monroe from any particular movie. “Oh?” the lady replied. “She made movies?”
The rep was shocked, but if Marilyn Monroe is better known today than classic movie stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, it’s not because everybody is revisiting her films. Still photos of Marilyn have become iconic fixtures of dorm-room walls, retro-diner displays and chintzy t-shirts. Last week I was walking by a framed-photo table on 42nd Street in Manhattan and noticed a grotesque hologram drawing of Monroe set up in such a way that her clothes magically disappeared as you passed. She posed for nude photos herself to pay the rent in the late ’40s, of course, and adoring Hugh Hefner has even bought the plot next to Monroe’s grave, but I doubt Monroe would have wanted to spend all eternity next to the founder of Playboy magazine. Wouldn’t she have preferred some sweet, bespectacled intellectual or scientific genius? Surely such geniuses might be found, for everybody seems to have a thing for Marilyn Monroe. The urge to sentimentalize her has become chronic.
According to IMDb, there are 69 print biographies available on Monroe, which sounds like a dirty Billy Wilder joke meant to test the inflexibility of her comic obliviousness. Anyone with any interest in Monroe has dipped into some of these books, which go from the most salacious gossip compendiums like Marilyn Monroe Confidential to such self-consciously literary meditations as Norman Mailer’s Marilyn and Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, and I have to say that almost every one of these bios that I’ve encountered manages to insult Monroe in a way that kindles protective urges. I’m not a particular Monroe fan, but even I wanted to take that peek-a-boo hologram on 42nd street and hide it somewhere, or get a Joe DiMaggio type to come smash it up. In her films, Monroe sometimes seems like a toddler who has grown into a lascivious dirty-drawing body, and our continuing national obsession with her says a lot about America’s vexed relationship to sex and to the idea of eternal childhood. Telling YouTube comment from “someguynamedaaron,” below a clip of Monroe from The Seven Year Itch (1955): “she seems so innocent which makes her so FUCKING HOTT.!”
Left: Marilyn makes her on-screen debut in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948)
Right: Playing opposite Groucho Marx in Love Happy (1949)
MONROE WAS BORN Norma Jeane Mortenson, raised Norma Jeane Baker, and spent most of her childhood being shuttled around foster homes, sporadically picked up for short spells by her mentally ill mother. There is no end to the rumors about Baker’s childhood and the bad things that might have happened to her, but the only thing that can be said for certain is that she was generally abused, particularly lonely, and loved to go to the movies. (Norma Jeane was especially fond of Clark Gable, whom she liked to pretend was her father.) At 16, she married James Dougherty and did some factory work while he fought in World War II, but she soon turned to modeling and dyed her dark hair platinum blonde. Ambitious for better things, Norma Jeane divorced her husband and caught the attention of 20th Century Fox exec Ben Lyon, a former actor who had starred with blond bombshell Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). Lyon felt that this young woman might be another Harlow, or at least another sex symbol to rival her. Norma chose “Monroe,” her mother’s maiden name, and Lyon picked out the alliterative “Marilyn.”
If you go to YouTube, you can see practically every bit part and small chance that the young Monroe took as she worked her way up, and a few of these bits deserve to rank with the best film work of her star years. She was first visible on screen in the 1948 comedy Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (surely the best title in the history of film exhibition), where she says “Hi,” to star June Haver and then disappears frame left. That same year, Monroe got her first lead in the Columbia B-musical Ladies of the Chorus. She seems uncomfortable in dialogue scenes in that picture, but when she sings for a burlesque audience, in a much higher voice than she used later on, her disturbingly childlike but dirty star quality is already there, especially in a number that involves her playing with baby dolls (in The Seven Year Itch, a janitor sees Monroe and cries, “Isn’t she a living doll?”). When she was lit well, nobody had more beautifully clear skin on screen than Monroe; it always looked so baby soft and porcelain pure that it seemed to invite both caresses and defilement.
Columbia dropped her, and she was back to bit parts in Love Happy (1949), the last Marx Brothers movie. “I want you to help me,” says Monroe, in that slow, druggy voice of hers, as she sidles up to Groucho. “Some men are following me,” she claims, then walks past the camera and looks like she’s about to crack up laughing as Groucho pursues her. This is great fun, comic immortal meeting comic immortal, however briefly. But in her next credits, Monroe is merely struggling along. In A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), she’s just one of a chorus singing behind Dan Dailey. That same year, she gets propositioned by Dick Powell in Right Cross, plays her first eye-candy secretary in Home Town Story, and glances nervously down at Mickey Rooney in The Fireball. On-screen, Monroe was getting nowhere; off-screen, she was expected to put out not just for lecherous Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck but for any executive he ordered her to service. There is also no end to the stories of Monroe’s sexual exploitation at Fox, and while not all of them can be true, it’s safe to say that she was sexually degraded in as thorough a way as possible. That might begin to explain the mixed signals she sends us on screen, her blinking combination of “Fuck me!” and “Help!”, “Buy me things!” and “Help!”
MONROE THEN LANDED two smallish but integral roles in first-class and now classic films that immediately elevated her status.
In John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) [Fri July 1], wily dirty old man Louis Calhern finds mistress Monroe asleep on a couch, and he looks both turned-on and touched by the sight of her. She’s got her knees tucked under her in sleep so that she’s in a semi-fetal position, and when she wakes up and refers to Calhern as “Uncle Lon,” he tells her to stop calling him that. “I thought you liked it,” she says, in her overly precise, infantile voice, and a flicker of anxiety passes over her face until she kicks in her first full polymorphously perverse “Marilyn Monroe!” sex-zombie effect, which here involves uncontrolled spasms of her facial muscles. There’s a strong feeling of incest in her relationship with Calhern, and it’s clear that she disturbs him but that her sex appeal obliterates the doubts he has about exploiting her. In her second and last scene, Monroe runs a gamut of quick reactions as Calhern tells her about a heist gone bad. Her eyes look quite crazy as she listens to him but she soon switches to a more calculating mode, and when the police arrive, she’s imperious at first and then “who me?” manipulative. Monroe always thanked Huston for giving her this chance; it’s as clever and varied a short star intro as she could have wished for.
Monroe’s Miss Caswell enters All About Eve (1950) [Sat July 16] on George Sanders’s arm, and she looks amazingly filthy-hot yet fresh in her fitted dress. She’s very “on” in this picture, smiling with some confidence but glancing at star Bette Davis as if she’s both scared and impressed. Davis’s theater diva Margo Channing says that she doesn’t remember Miss Caswell, who replies, “We’ve never met, maybe that’s why!” This is the first laugh Monroe gets on screen, and it displays her wholly distinctive comic timing. She understands that to get a laugh with this line she has to say it as quickly as possible and then retreat, but it isn’t as simple as that, for Monroe decides to declare the line in a “say what?” and peculiarly optimistic fashion, and so what might have just elicited a chuckle gets a roar. Miss Caswell, unlike most other Monroe characters, is just playing stupid; she’s totally in control and calculating underneath her dumb blonde act. Sanders points her toward a producer and says, “Now go and make him happy,” and she struts away from the camera like a seasoned stripper (a huge advance on her more frightened skittering away from Groucho the previous year in Love Happy).
Monroe gets her second laugh here, an even bigger one, when she calls for a waiter and Sanders tells her that she should ask for a butler. “Well I can’t yell, ‘Oh butler,’ can I?” she asks, then immediately answers, “Maybe somebody’s name is Butler!” and Monroe pushes this second line so far out vocally that it sounds un-classifiably absurd. (Could she have played Ionesco or Pinter?) When her Miss Caswell sees an expensive fur coat, however, she drops her act and exclaims, “Now there’s something a girl could make sacrifices for!” in the hardest, most calculating voice imaginable (many of her friends observed that Monroe’s real life speaking voice was much closer to the pinched, adamantine tones of a Tuesday Weld than the breathy purr she became famous for in her movies). Miss Caswell flops at her audition, and when we last see her, she exits a ladies room looking pretty woozy, but this is one Monroe character that we don’t need to worry about. She’ll get what she wants in the end.
Left: Streetwalking Marilyn is mistaken for a Lady in O Henry’s Full House (1952)
Right: Marilyn’s cannery girl spouts Clifford Odets dialogue in Clash By Night (1952)
IN 1951, MONROE played her second eye-candy secretary in As Young as You Feel, then simply lounged around in a bathing suit in Love Nest and Let’s Make It Legal. In all three of these films, she’s just on screen to show off her Jessica Rabbit body, and this amounted to a serious setback for her career. The following year, Monroe had her best bit role as a period streetwalker in one of the omnibus shorts of O Henry’s Full House. Here she stumbles into Charles Laughton and tries to be tough with him until he mistakes her for “a lady,” which makes her deliriously happy. (She has real chemistry with acting giant Laughton in their small scene, and Monroe told friend Shelley Winters that he was the sexiest man she had ever met.) “Find someone to type this,” Charles Coburn tells secretary Monroe in Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business [Wed July 6], where she’s seen only as a visual dirty joke. In We’re Not Married (1952), all she does is twice walk down a runway in a bathing suit, in long shot, as if a closer camera angle would be too much for the public to handle.
For two films in 1952, Fox gave Monroe a chance to Act, and the results were mixed. In Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night, Monroe was asked to play a spirited cannery girl in blue jeans, and she’s disarmingly natural and stilted by turns in her supporting part, complaining that she feels “icky” in her laziest voice. This movie introduced another side of Monroe, untidy and vaguely discontented, but her character shares a bond with embittered Barbara Stanwyck, and this is the only film in which Monroe shows any kind of interest in some sort of feminist sisterhood. Speaking of icky, Monroe’s last 1952 release, Don’t Bother to Knock [Fri July 1], asks her to play a disturbed babysitter who almost pushes a little girl out of a window. She seems very lost and unfocused in this film; the girl she’s playing is unfocused, but as an actress Monroe has to be focused about being unfocused, and she isn’t able to do that here. To be fair, this is an uncommonly drab little picture with a sketchy script, but Monroe’s effect of total passivity and vulnerability is oppressive, almost passive aggressive.
Already, Monroe was having trouble remembering her lines and keeping people waiting on the set. “With a figure like that, you don’t have to know how to act,” said Stanwyck during Clash by Night, and other co-stars were even less flattering. “There’s a broad with her future behind her,” cracked Constance Bennett, a star of As Young as You Feel, when she saw the rushes of Monroe and her outrageous fleshiness, her suggestion that she was all torpedo breasts and curvy butt and slender legs. At an awards dinner where Monroe was honored, Joan Crawford was the least tactful of all the old-timers: “There’s nothing wrong with my tits,” Crawford told journalist Bob Thomas, “but I don’t go around throwing them in people’s faces.” In notes from Monroe’s therapist that were recently unearthed (new Monroe info and photos seem to surface every year), it was revealed that she slept with Crawford once, and just imagining that dom/sub coupling proves that the scariest sex is often the hottest, and vice versa. Such encounters also explain that dazed quality Monroe had in films, as if she’d literally been fucked senseless.
Move over, Gilda. Marilyn is a hot-pink, cold-blooded temptress in Niagara (1953) [Fri Jul 8]
AFTER SPENDING MOST of her Twenties on the casting couch, Monroe was at last given a star build-up by Fox. In 1953, the peak of her career, Monroe starred in three films that showcased all of the talents she had previously displayed and a few she might not even have known she had.
Niagara [Fri Jul 8] is maybe Monroe’s most underrated picture, the only one where she gets to play a femme fatale, a meanie, a temptress; this is her Gilda (1946), and director Henry Hathaway films her in chiaroscuro Technicolor with tactful respect and a great feel for her incandescent, almost otherworldly sex appeal. Monroe’s Rose is first seen naked in bed, covered by crumpled bed-sheets, puffing on a cigarette through obscenely glistening, lipstick-red lips and looking at her husband (Joseph Cotton) with contempt. She puts on her nylons in shadow, and when she goes outside and walks away from the camera in a tight-fitting suit, Hathaway knows that just the sight of Monroe walking across the screen is An Event on par with the natural wonders of the picture’s Niagara Falls backdrop.
A few scenes later, Rose appears in a hot pink, low cut, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination dress that might well cause puberty on sight. “She’d like to wear that dress where everybody could see her,” cries Cotton, “right in the middle of Yankee stadium!” Truer words were never spoken, and since Monroe is always being cast as a martyr, it’s worth stating that the sheer exhibitionistic triumph of looking like and being Marilyn Monroe in 1953 must have given her at least fleeting moments of joy and power. Certainly she’s at her best on screen when she’s enjoying that power (especially when she sings) and worst when she’s encouraged to feel sorry for herself. It’s no mistake that she comes fully alive not playing a needy, abused victim, as she does in Don’t Bother to Knock, but as a call-the-cops vixen who loves being looked at and doesn’t feel too many qualms about bumping off a troublesome spouse. The spare, atmospheric Niagara is smart about how to handle Monroe, and she is able to play several different levels of this character at once. We see Rose planning her husband’s murder and then we see her laughing in bed with this same husband after a night obviously spent screwing his brains out. What’s shocking here is that Monroe is able to suggest that Rose enjoys the sex but this enjoyment is kept on a totally separate level from her murder plans.
In the gob-smackingly direct opening shot of Jane Russell and Monroe that begins Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [Sun July 10], both stars emerge in skin-tight, glittery red dresses that hug their every bodacious curve. Monroe’s gold-digging Lorelei Lee is a rather sweet manipulator, an odd character conception that works because of her daring, declaratory comic timing and her willingness to push the boundaries of this dumb blonde act so that Lorelei is so sublimely “dumb” she keeps hitting mysterious, not-of-this-world notes. As she had just proved in Niagara, Monroe could play low cunning and tough calculation, but she doesn’t use any of those qualities here even for a moment. She puts together less a performance and more of a sex comedy Happening, and the dresses she was sewn into for this picture are marvels of engineering that show off Monroe’s hourglass figure in ways that defy the laws of physics. Describing the visual and sensory effect Monroe has in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a job for an oversexed scientist.
“I just adore conversation, don’t you?” asks Lorelei, and Monroe gets laughs with weird lines like that by announcing them grandly, as she did in All About Eve (she’s droll in this movie, even if “droll” might not be the first thing you think of when you think of Monroe). Because Russell’s sensible Dorothy likes Lorelei, we’re free to do so too, even when the script starts to get censorious about her toward the end, with one man calling her “a mercenary nitwit.” A comment like that can be taken in stride after we see Monroe in all her glory trilling “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” on a pink, red and black set, putting sexy little quivers into her vibrato and calling for jeweler Harry Winston to “tell me all about it!” This number is pure pleasure, and Monroe warms it up with her juicy presence even though the pragmatic message in the lyrics couldn’t be colder.
In her third hit from 1953, How to Marry a Millionaire [Thu July 7], Monroe is a bit off to the side as a near-sighted member of a trio of gold-diggers, but she scores some points for physical comedy, especially when she sashays toward a chair, trips on a step, then fully regains her open-mouthed “Marilyn!” poise as she takes her seat.
BY THIS POINT, Fox knew that they had a lucrative star property on their hands, but they were leery of Monroe, partly because she needed careful handling, partly because most of the executives still remembered her as a “service the boardroom” starlet. Consequently, her two 1954 films seem intent on spoiling her stardom right after it had been minted.
Otto Preminger’s western River of No Return [Thu July 14] has widescreen mise en scène to burn, but he views Monroe from an unsympathetic distance. On this movie, she was totally under the influence of her vocal coach, Natasha Lytess, who ordered her to enunciate every syllable of every word she spoke. Though this robotic enunciation had worked well for comic parts, for an ordinary Western like River of No Return, it makes Monroe look like a self-conscious Ed Wood amateur. She isn’t protected here with costume, script, camera or co-star (an uninterested Robert Mitchum), and so Monroe does her worst work, and she knew it. She was then third-billed in the garishly awful musical There’s No Business Like Show Business, which includes a joke about her character’s vocal coach to explain the elocution-lesson way she talks and mocks Monroe’s own off-screen aspirations to be a serious actress. Her clothes are tacky here, her musical numbers gracelessly dirty and depressing.
Monroe had agreed to be in Show Business to get the role of the dream girl upstairs who inflames the lust of a married man who’s wife is out of town in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch [Sat July 2]. The main problem with this movie is that lead Tom Ewell is a little less than competent in a role that calls for a virtuoso comic actor, but Monroe is a constant “blank-faced!” delight as a scatterbrained but nice-natured dish who enjoys washing down potato chips with champagne and cries, “I don’t know where I am or who I am or what I’m doing!” so that we wonder if she’s ditzy like a fox or just some extremely rare flavor of ditz (on the “ditzy like a fox” side, you might consider sleeping with Tom Ewell too in order to enjoy some air conditioning during a Manhattan summer). Monroe is so expert with this fantasy blonde characterization at this point, so exact with her comic timing and so much fun, that it occurred to me watching the film again that she probably could have done free spirit Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), a role she very much wanted to play.
Monroe went to New York to study at the Actors Studio, for which she was roundly mocked in the press, and she was taken in by Studio guru Lee Strasberg and his wife Paula, who became her second and even more destructive acting coach. She had worked well with Wilder’s smarmy showmanship, but in the crudely directed Bus Stop (1956) [Tue July 5], an adaptation of a hit William Inge play that signaled Monroe’s first large attempt to be taken seriously as an actress worthy of Strasberg’s tutelage, she has some trouble trying to make her deluded character believable because of the limitations of the writing. Monroe was most comfortable with comic extremes, and her “Marilyn!” camera magic doesn’t fit this small-town girl trying to be a singer (her vocal rhythms sound like she’s imitating the effeminate skunk Flower from Bambi ). Monroe is not the right kind of actress to score in a role like this, which is cartoonish yet asks to be taken as realistic, and director Joshua Logan films her so that the pallor of her skin has a morbidly corpse-like tinge.
Having married playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe next went to England to appear opposite Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) [Fri July 15]. For this self-consciously classy project with the world’s Great Actor, Monroe is inventive in her first scenes, flush with excitement, but as the laborious film goes on, it becomes clear that she is unable to think through her characterization; she’s working mainly by instinct and keeps getting distracted. But as cotton-candy band singer Sugar Kane in Billy Wilder’s beloved comedy Some Like It Hot (1959) [Sat July 2], Monroe appears to know exactly what she’s doing at all times and is at the height of her beauty as this disappointed romantic. She’s used strategically here and carefully handled, and her comic timing is still as wonky/bold as ever; watch how totally staggered she looks when she cries, “Shell oil?!” while talking to Tony Curtis’s fake millionaire. What makes Monroe distinctive as a comedienne is her vulnerability, her sense that she needs us to protect her and complete her, and that’s why she always takes precedence over her imitator Jayne Mansfield’s hard consumerism, or Judy Holliday’s intellectualized spaciness, or her idol Jean Harlow’s brassy, wisecracking confidence.
Marilyn shimmies ’round the boxcar in Some Like it Hot (1959) [Sat July 2]
Dressed in Orry-Kelly’ barely there, beyond vulgar gowns — the ultimate in boob couture — Monroe in Some Like It Hot shows off the best parts of her body as if she’s a child unwrapping Christmas presents: “Oh, here’s my ass, it’s the best! And look, here are my legs! Oh, watch out for my breasts, I forgot about them, better get out of the way!” After the grueling shoot, Wilder fumed over Monroe’s inability to say the line, “Where’s that bourbon?” without going through an almost record number of takes, but however long it took her, this one line functions as a real cry from the heart that fully reveals Sugar’s secret boozer life. “She has breasts like granite, and a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes,” Wilder said later of Monroe. On the level of plot, Some Like It Hot is also full of holes, but it’s there to be enjoyed for the ages, a perfectly made coarse entertainment that probably shouldn’t be thought about too hard, whatever its inklings about upcoming gender upheavals as expressed in the faultless drag performances of Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
“I can’t stand anyone who makes fun of me,” Monroe cries at the end of the misbegotten 1960 musical-comedy Let’s Make Love [Fri July 15], and this is a moment of real pain breaking through the gloss of a forlorn movie vehicle. Monroe was so often mocked in her films: Lauren Bacall calls her “Little Miss Bubblehead” in How to Marry a Millionaire, while Olivier refers to her as a “pretty little dummkopf” in The Prince and the Showgirl. She could afford to ignore these insults for a while but they had started to add up, and the toll on her pride was extensive. Monroe does her most disturbing musical number in Let’s Make Love, a stop-and-start version of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” where her hair keeps getting in her face. At this point, Monroe is a very strange mix of masterful show-biz calculation and almost complete helplessness, an alarming blend of JonBenét Ramsey and Anna Nicole Smith.
Increasingly dependent on liquor and pills, Monroe made her final stab at being taken seriously in the difficult-to-watch The Misfits (1961) [Sun July 16], scripted by Miller, directed by John Huston and co-starring her one-time fantasy Daddy, Clark Gable. As Roslyn, a sad-eyed divorcee, an exhausted Monroe is lost in internal traumas that we cannot share with her (always the downside of Strasberg’s dig-up-your-own-pain acting theories). With this movie, Monroe seems to want to show us just what a total wreck she is, and she looks totally exposed, not in the unformed way of Don’t Bother to Knock but in a much more liquid style that might have something to do with the drugs she was taking. She’s trying so hard to communicate with us in The Misfits, and even when she fails, mainly due to the script’s repetitions, her attempts are often touching. Huston includes some random close shots of her behind as if he wants to throw a bone to the paying customers, and he keeps her explosion of anger toward the end in extreme long shot, which limits its impact. In the last scene, she drives away with Gable toward a star on the horizon, looking bone-white and spectral, as if she were fading away.
Marilyn can’t get through to sad-sack cowboy Montgomery Clift in The Misfits (1961) [Sun July 16]
FOX FIRED MONROE for missing too many shooting days on the comedy Something’s Gotta Give (1962), but not before capturing her cavorting through a teasing nude scene in a backyard pool. She sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, and during her last interview, she pleaded, “Please don’t make me look like a joke,” in her hard Tuesday Weld voice before breaking into disconnected, mirthless laughter. Shortly thereafter, she died of a drug overdose. Some suspect foul play, and that’s possible. If you’re confiding in mob boss Sam Giancana, as she was rumored to be doing, you might just find yourself murdered one day, even if you are Marilyn Monroe.
So yes, Photofest customer, she did make some movies, and she might have made a few more had she lived. But honestly, what place would there have been for a middle-aged Monroe in the Hollywood of the 1970s?
I don’t see a star movie career continuing for much longer if she hadn’t died in 1962, but it is possible to imagine her leaving Hollywood, going to New York, maybe mixing in feminist circles (what a bra she could have burned!), maybe doing some theater (Marilyn in The Bald Soprano?), maybe teaching some acting classes herself. She might have looked around her and made a film like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), or she might have just contented herself with having once been “Marilyn Monroe” as she taught her acting students how to be open and sensitive in their work and in their lives. I can just about picture Monroe circa 1982, maybe living as Norma Jeane again, not worried about her weight, wearing glasses and a cardigan sweater, talking about acting with her Strasberg studio kids and leading a semi-reclusive but happy life in some modest East Side apartment. I’m probably just being sentimental about her. But if that’s true, I’m hardly the first to succumb to that urge, nor will I be the last.
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen. His first book, a critical study of the films of Barbara Stanwyck, will be published in February 2012.
The program “Marilyn!” is playing at BAMcinematek from Friday, July 1 through Sunday, July 17.