Thursday 1 June 2017

About Marilyn Monroe, because she lived.

Marilyn Monroe was born 91 years ago today. She died 36 years later, and for the most part, it is that which people focus on. After all, we love scandals and mysteries, and this was both. Was it suicide? Was it murder? Who did it? Much later, when the scumbag Richard Saltzar wrote a bunch of mostly-unsubstantiated 'revelations', came further questions - Were the Kennedys involved? Was she really sleeping with the President? Even the song at the head of this post, superb though it is, glorifies her death more than her life, though Elton John certainly seemed to give a lot more feeling to Goodbye Norma Jean than he ever gave to Goodbye Englands Rose.

What we forget in all the fetishization of her death, unfortunately, is the fact that she lived.

In a short career, mostly confined to stereotypical 'brainless beauty' roles, Marilyn brought to the screen a combination of vulnerability and sensuality that has been repeatedly imitated but never successfully emulated.

'Miss Cheesecake, 1951'.
Apparently, that was a thing.

She's someone we mostly know from pictures rather than movies, with the posters and publicity shots hanging on walls all over the world, whether it's the Seven-year-itch billowing white dress, or the Golden Globes Gold Gown, or the Kennedy Birthday 'stitched-on' dress, or even one of those with nothing on but 'Chanel Number 5'. Beautiful as they are, and well worthy of their ornamental use, they are still images, frozen in time, as her story would be when she died.

But the thing is, she lived.

In 'All About Eve', a role that we would call 'blink-and-you-miss-it, in a movie that features Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and Thelma Ritter, where it was still impossible to not remember the stunning blonde poppet on George Sanders arm, she lived.

In Niagara, playing a classic femme fatale, a supporting role which got her noticed, crooning the words to the song Kiss and dressed for the most part in bright pink or red, and looking like a woman men would not just die for, but kill for, and in-movie, did, she lived.

In Seven Year Itch, credited just as the girl, with the billowing skirt and mixing potato chips with champagne, she lived.

In Dont Bother to Knock, and in River of No Return, in The Misfits and The Prince and the Showgirl, she lived.

But the movies that one should watch, if for nothing else than to understand why she captured a nations imagination, are Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like it Hot.

She plays a fairly stereotypical showgirl in both movies, but the delight is in the way she brings those roles to life. The breathless whisper, the walk, the wide-eyed wonder, the laugheverything that seems terribly fake when others try, seems natural on her. Her comic timing is superb, her personality effervescent without ever being slutty, and when Joe Brown (as Osgood) says at the end of the latter to Jack Lemmon (Jerry), Nobodys Perfect, you want to shoot back, Except Marilyn.

But narratives are crafted in a different way. Tragedy and scandal sell, not nuance, so we choose to remember her either as a brainless sex-toy or a tragic figure, both of which fail to capture the essence of Norma Jean.

It was no mere brainless bimbo who could break out of a childhood with a psychotic mother, childhood sex abuse and poverty. The library of over 400 books she left behind, most with her handwritten notes inscribed on the pages (for those who doubt that she actually read), indicate a far more intellectual personality than the one she earned fame by portraying. And whats forgotten often, is that when she flat-out refused to do yet another dumb blonde role in Pink Tights, she did more to break Hollywoods pernicious Studio system than anyone else had till then.

As for tragedy, there are enough days in a year to remember the abuse, the affairs, the miscarriages, the slander she suffered even after her death, the exploitation and the mental issues. She was no epitome of innocence, and in the intersection of the greed of those who surrounded her and her own ambition, a lot happened that could have been avoided. 

Today, lets remember that she lived. In glorious technicolour and subtle black-and-white, she lived. And while she did, she was magnificent.