One of the great muses of the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe continues to drive our imagination.
Did Marilyn Monroe believe in astrology? In the best-selling novel Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates decided she did. Born June 1, 1926, “The Girl” Marilyn Monroe was an ever-changing Gemini soul. Monroe’s career spanned just over a decade, and in that time she starred in some of the greatest American films of all time, became the first nude cover star for Playboy and had relationships with the most powerful men in the world. At just 36 years old, she died of a pill overdose in an apparent suicide.
Monroe’s mysterious life and the artifice of her screen persona have made her one of Hollywood’s greatest myths. Her screen persona blended raw sensuality with childlike innocence. As Norman Mailer wrote, she was “Nana and Joan of Arc exist[ing] in the same flesh.” Or, as it’s laid out in her small role in Howard Hawk’s Monkey Business (1952), she’s half child, but not the half that shows.
Marilyn Monroe was more than the characters she portrayed. Many biographers have pieced together young Norma Jeane Mortenson’s life. According to Randy Taraborrelli’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, which was adapted to screen in 2015, Norma Jeane was born to a single mother who would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia. For her first seven years, according to Taraborrelli, Norma Jeane was raised by a strict but concerned Baptist foster mother and a caring foster father, who lived across the street from Norma Jeane’s grandmother in Hawthorne, California. At seven, Norma Jeane moved in with her biological mother in Los Angeles, only to be shuttled from home to home, including an orphanage. At 16, persuaded by her caregiver who was moving out of state, Norma Jeane married neighbor boy James Dougherty and dropped out of high school. While her young husband was away in military service, she began her modeling career, where she found validation and a glimpse of self-sufficiency. She soon chose her career over her husband, and she was divorced by age 20.
With a lifetime of insecurity and a drive to be accepted, Norma Jeane carefully constructed a persona that belied her intelligence. She would soon become clay in the hands of a controlling acting coach and film executives, one of whom would give her the name Marilyn Monroe. According to an aspiring actor named Jerry Eidelman, who knew her early in her career, “When she would go to cocktail parties, she would put on the act for all to see…. She had this little girl’s kind of voice, which was not very much like what I knew her to sound like in her day-to-day life. I knew she put some of that on for most of her movies, I just didn’t know she did it in real life.”
In spite of her iconic red lips and platinum hair, the almighty Gemini Queen’s defining factor is her malleability. Even after her death, artists and writers have appropriated the myth of Marilyn Monroe to their own needs. Her identity is fragmented over her films, photos and the art she inspired.
MARILYN BEFORE MONROE
Marilyn Monroe made her screen debut as a walk-on gag. With 23 minutes left in Love Happy (1949) Groucho Marx opens up the door to reveal the world’s most desirable woman. Monroe moves in slow motion as if caught in a dream, wading through the rivers of sleep. Her exaggerated hip swings make her shoulder-length hair (not yet her trademark glamour waves) bounce on her naked shoulders.
She’s Marilyn before Monroe, not yet the iconic star, but a burgeoning force of nature. She did not enter Hollywood fully formed, but spent years in these walk-ons and supporting roles. Years later, she would outshine them all.
MARILYN, THE STAR
What is the defining image of Monroe’s star? Is she in arm-length pink gloves singing about diamonds? Standing above a subway grate, her hands holding down a white dress blown up from the wind? Maybe it’s in Some Like It Hot (1959), as she confides in a new friend, “I’m tired of getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop” as she smashes ice in the sink. For some, it would be the longest walk in film history, the 116 feet of celluloid where she walks along the cobblestones at Niagara Falls — shortly after murdering her husband — in Niagara (1953).
For New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael Niagara occupied a special place in Monroe’s career. It might not be a particularly “good movie,” but it is, according to Kael, “The only movie to explore the mean, unsavory potential of Marilyn Monroe’s cuddly, infantile perversity.”
ICONS AND IMPOSTERS
Several days after Monroe’s death (August 5, 1962), Andy Warhol would purchase a publicity still from Niagara. It would become his first celebrity silkscreen, the essential Marilyn. With the gaudy colors of advertising, Marilyn’s blackened eyes and mouth like a wound waver between icon and kitsch. It’s one of the most reproduced art images of the 20th century, and Warhol would even have flavored versions made, with Marilyns coming in mint, grape and cherry flavors. He would also do another series devoted solely to Marilyn’s mouth called Marilyn Monroe’s Lips. Fragmented and repeated, this image of Marilyn’s dissected physicality might be even more authentic than his more famous devotional portrait.
What was it like to look at Marilyn Monroe and know nothing of her death? Today her performances, her image are loaded with that tragic expectation of her demise. Art critic Michael Fried estimated that “When Marilyn is forgotten, Marilyn will lose its power.” Monroe’s appeal is as much about the mythology of her tragic life and death as it is her screen image.
After her death, Marilyn Monroe’s third husband, Arthur Miller, wrote a play about their tumultuous relationship called After the Fall. Miller denied the blonde bombshell screen actress who commits suicide in the second act was based on his ex-wife, but it was unmistakably Marilyn.
The stage production was directed by Elia Kazan, with whom Marilyn purportedly had an affair before her marriage to Miller. Kazan fought to have his current lover, Barbara Loden, cast in the role of Maggie. Loden, born six years after Monroe, was another lost blonde: she also died young, lived a tragic life and is mythologized in the French essay novella, Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger.
Loden’s Tony Award–winning performance as Maggie is lost to time. In images from the production, Loden is dressed in silk underwear, with her hair in loose white-blonde curls, resting in a messy bun on her head. If you’ve seen Loden’s film Wanda, it’s easy to imagine the grittiness and femininity she might’ve brought to the role.
In her brief chapter on After the Fall, Léger imagines a scene after the curtain has dropped. Loden is in her dressing room, surrounded by the loud theater shifting into the drone of white noise. “Deliciously numbed by the silence, she thought of what Mankiewicz had said about Marilyn: She remained alone. She was not a loner. She was just plain alone.”
That loneliness runs through another adaptation of Monroe’s life, the imagined intersection of lives in Nicholas Roeg’s Insignificance (1985). Set on a single night in New York City, four iconic lives intersect. The connecting bond? The Actress: Theresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe. For the film, British artist David Hockney created a faux-calendar featuring a nude Russell in a pose reminiscent of Monroe’s infamous nude Playboy spread but fragmented into an explosive collage.
Writing about Insignificance for The Criterion Collection, Chuck Stevens said, “Monroe was postcubism’s quintessential glittering star. Both sexually available and intellectually absent, she was every man’s fantasy of every gorgeous woman’s every gorgeous angle, all perfectly pieced together and seen prismatically all at once.”
The pieced-together image of Monroe’s body articulated the agony of living in the world’s most desirable body. The Actress’s pivotal scene is her alone in the hotel room, grappling with a miscarriage. It’s an apocalyptic sequence, where Russell mines uncharted territories in Marilyn’s audiovisual history for harrowing depths of loneliness. This physical discontinuity that Monroe embodied is also at the heart of Oates’ Blonde, which critic Laura Miller wrote about as “sometimes sloppy and sentimental [but] perhaps the most ferocious fictional treatise ever written on the uninhabitable grotesqueness of femininity.”
Was any woman in the modern era more representative of so-called femininity than Monroe? In trying to reach toward her soul, filmmakers and artists inevitably began with her physicality. While Monroe has become a kitsch symbol of exaggerated femininity, she also carries the burden of that symbology: the pain, the infertility and the pressures of belonging to everyone but oneself. In all her iterations, be it as the subject of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde or a Warhol screen print, Marilyn Monroe continues to drive our imagination, and yet we move further away from the truth of her experience. Monroe was icon and imposter all wrapped into one, the changeable and essential Hollywood star.