Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1, 1926.
Objectified while alive, Marilyn Monroe has become the ultimate object in death. The image has become the reality: the multitudinous icons and posters and keychains and figurines standing in for what was once a real woman. She always seemed a little bit unreal, even when alive, but it’s even harder to get close to “who she was” as the years go by, as the myth hardens. One of the ways to get close to her is not to read biographies, or salacious tell-alls by the various people who knew her, all of whom have a vested interest in keeping the myth going. The way to “get to know her” is to watch her work. End-stop. Rent her movies, and watch her work.
Her desire to be a good actress, to not just play bimbos or sex objects, is what still complicates our response to her, long after her death. She was a notorious pain in the ass on set. Compulsively late, afraid to come out of her dressing room, fumbling her lines so badly that a simple 5-word line could take over 90 takes. She was not confident. She put people through hell. Those who showed up on time, learned their lines, never were late, acted professionally, felt victimized by her behavior, and yet, at the end of the day, it was Marilyn Monroe, so people put up with it. That’s the thing with Movie Magic. Many people who are unaware of her gifts as an actress are frankly shocked by how natural she could be onscreen, when they encounter her in films. The Object may have won the war, but Marilyn Monroe the person, the actress, continues to win individual battles. Her performance in Some Like It Hot is true giggly effervescent movie MAGIC, and then to see her in Don’t Bother to Knock(my review here) is to understand that this woman had talent as a dramatic actress as well. Not just talent, but a gift.
Kim Morgan has a birthday tribute up for Monroe, and it’s killer. In it she writes:
No, there’s something more to Marilyn that makes her continually interesting. It’s all her now legendary tragic contradictions — her messy, mixed-up life, her massive consumption of pills and champagne, her continual and final mental instability juxtaposed with her peaches and cream gorgeousness, her absolute command of the big screen (in spite of her problems with lines) and her ultimate, natural talent. It’s her ability, after all these decades, to still pop off the screen with such undeniable “It” that we almost take her for granted. Of course Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women in the world, who doesn’t know how wonderful she is?
I don’t quite buy into the whole Marilyn Monroe as Ultimate Victim thing, although I do know that her demons were insistent and loud, and caused her much grief in her life. She was a chronic insomniac. She was a loner. If you trust the reports of some of her confidantes and the private notes of her psychiatrist, she was frigid sexually. But nobody wanted to hear about any of that stuff from Marilyn. That was not what we loved her for. She was famous and adored, but ultimately alone. She could not be saved. Arthur Miller tried. Many tried. She brought out a protective impulse in people. And, in my opinion, that is part of her movie magic. She was not a sassy sex symbol who “owned” her sexuality. She did not seem calculating about it. There was always the wide-eyed innocence there, in spite of the body made for lovin’ – and that somehow engendered a protective response in audiences, male AND female. She was one of those very rare movie creatures: a sex symbol men loved and desired, but also someone women respected and looked up to. I think it had something to do with that fragmented innocence peering out of her radiant face. She seemed unaware of the responses she brought up in men, and she never seemed out for sex. The Marilyn Monroe persona was all about finding love. Her gifts as an actress and comedienne are obvious, but her appeal is still rather complicated, which, I suppose, is why people still obsess over her, and talk about her, and pick her apart.
So while I can ache for Marilyn Monroe and what it had to be like, at times, to be her, with an abyss of sadness inside her that nobody – nobody – wanted to see … what I am ultimately left with, in her case, is admiration for the act of WILL it took for her to put that persona together on a daily basis, and BE that fantasy.
Marilyn Monroe was 100% aware of what she was doing when she was in front of the camera. That, I believe, is the greatest misperception about her, and also the problem when you become an Object, especially posthumously. Everything hardens, solidifies, and certain aspects of the narrative win out over others. The narrative that “won” was that she was a victim of circumstance and whim, totally used and abused and objectified, and she barely had any consciousness about what she was actually doing. That was the “story”, helped in its creation by people like Gloria Steinem and others who chose that narrative over others. Not to mention the studio execs, who had some culpability in the misery of her last years, and so they had a vested interest in painting her as an irresponsible drugged-out diva. So Marilyn the poor victimized starlet (or Marilyn the drugged-out diva) won the battle in the narrative wars for a couple of decades. Not that there wasn’t some truth to that narrative. Life is complicated, it is not “either/or”. She was rebellious at the end, she was fired from her last job, she was obsessed with the Kennedy boys, she struggled with illness and insomnia, she was always chronically late to the set. Directors tore their hair out, waiting for her to show up. It had to be infuriating.
Thankfully, there’s a bit more nuance out there now, in regards to how we talk about Monroe, and regular old popcorn-buying audiences, anyway, always knew the truth: Marilyn Monroe was magic and they loved her. They maybe felt protective of her, because of the wide-eyed innocence of her roles … but there is obviously something about her that made her “stand out”. When the nude calendar photos came out, and Marilyn Monroe was forced to apologize by the studio, her apology wasn’t really an apology. Just a flat out, “I was behind in my rent, I needed the money.” The studio was furious about this, but then they were bombarded by supportive fan mail, thousands and thousands of letters – from men, women, everyone, saying how much they loved her for her honesty.
Not every young starlet has that kind of massive spontaneous cross-gendered support. It is extraordinary and rare, to this day.
Marilyn Monroe did not have an accidental kind of career, where her beauty and maybe a couple of breaks made her. She was a starlet, like any other. Except that this starlet had ambition, and not just that: she had nowhere else to go, no other goals, no other dreams. No Plan B. There was no family, no one to either put the pressure on, to judge her harshly, or, conversely, to cheer her on. There was never any place for Marilyn to go home to. The ultimate orphan. Having to survive by her wits. Befriending powerful men who could help her, protect her. She thanked God for her beauty, even if it didn’t make any difference to her, in terms of battling with her demons and all that. But her beauty was eye-catching, even in her early brunette days, and she submitted to the humiliations of the starlet-life, always keeping her eye on the ball, so that when the time came, and an actual part came her way, she’d be ready.
In All About Eve she was cast as the impossibly gorgeous young actress, placed strategically beside Bette Davis to highlight the middle aged actress’ dilemma. You might as well throw in the towel if you’re a 40-something actress and THAT chick in the white dress is coming down the pike. Monroe has a couple of lines in the film, comedic lines, showing her gift at comedy, and her absolutely perfect pitch. Watch how she delivers the line: “Well, I can’t yell ‘Oh butler!’, can I? Maybe somebody’s name is Butler.” There’s a moment where true worry flickers through her eyes, and that is what makes her line-reading so hilarious. Here’s the clip.
She also was smart, and worked on her acting – with a series of coaches through her life (some helpful, some hurtful), wanting to go deeper into her craft, and improve herself. Watch her slam-dunk performance in Don’t Bother to Knock to encounter a Marilyn Monroe you might never have seen before. She’s fantastic.
One of my favorite off-screen stories involving Monroe is told by Billy Wilder, who, famously, had a very tempestuous relationship with her, because of her behavior on the set. Not coming out of her dressing room, showing up hours late, and bumbling her lines so badly that entire days of shooting were spent on Monroe trying to get the line, “Where’s the bourbon?” right. But, as Billy Wilder joked: “As I’ve said before, I’ve got an old aunt in Vienna who would say every line perfectly. But who would see such a picture.” Here’s a bit from the book-length interview between Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder, and here, Crowe asks him about filming on location on the beach in Some Like It Hot. I love it because it shows the powerful two-way current between Marilyn Monroe and her audiences.
CC: One of the reasons you’ve said that Marilyn enjoyed the Hotel del Coronado sequences in Some Like It Hot is that she had an audience there on the beach watching her. Is that true? Were there, again, a lot of people lined up, watching the filming?
BW: She had an audience. She always had thousands in New York, but at the beach there, hundreds. Yeah, she’s a show-off.
CC: So they would be cheering and screaming and yelling?
BW: Screaming and yelling. But then when I wanted it quiet I had her say “Shhhh.” They listened to her.
That’s a movie star.
Kim Morgan’s great piece about Monroe talks about Monroe as a singer:
And though people love to discuss Marilyn Monroe the underrated actress (which is true — she was a great comedienne), rarely do they argue about MM the underrated singer. As proven in Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, River of No Return, Bus Stop (oh lord…her sexy, warbled, scared, ripped fishnet version of “That Old Black Magic”…so brilliant) and the less classic Let’s Make Love (where her rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” is one of the best versions of that song ever recorded), the woman had distinct pipes.
My favorite musical number of hers is one that isn’t often mentioned in the list of great Monroe songs, but I adore it. It’s “File My Claim” from River of No Return:
Now, in honor of the lovely and complicated Norma Jean, let’s get to the quotes:
That’s a photo by Sam Shaw. I love his view of her, the photos he took are beautiful. Natural light, candid-feeling … just beautiful.
People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.
That’s Monroe and photographer Eve Arnold
She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her. That, I think, was very important. And she automatically knew where the joke was. She did not discuss it. She came up for the first rehearsal, and she was absolutely perfect, when she remembered the line. She could do a 3-page dialogue scene perfectly, and then get stuck on a line like, “It’s me, Sugar”… But if she showed up, she delivered, and if it took 80 takes, I lived with 80 takes, because the 81st was very good …
She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. Fright. She was afraid of the camera, and that’s why, I think, she muffed some lines. God knows how often. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.
If an editor wanted her, he had to agree to her terms. She knew how she wanted to be seen, and if her cooperation was sought, she reserved the right of veto.
She knew she was superlative at creating still pictures and she loved doing it.
She had learned the trick of moving infinitesimally to stay in range, so that the photographer need not refocus but could easily follow movements that were endlessly changing.
At first I thought it was surface technique, but it went beyond technique. It didn’t always work, and sometimes she would tire and it was as though her radar had failed; but when it did work, it was magic. With her it was never a formula; it was her will, her improvisation.
The fact is that Marilyn was in bad trouble from the day she was born as Norma Jean Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in the city of angels and movies, a poor bastard angel child who rose to be queen of a town and a way of life that nevertheless held her in contempt. That she died a martyr to pictures at the same time as the original studio star system — through which she had risen — finally collapsed and went also to its death seems too obviously symbolic not to note. Indeed, the coincidence of the two passing together is why I chose to end this long book about movie stars with Marilyn Monroe.
What I saw so briefly in my glimpse of Marilyn at the very peak of her stardom (and the start of my career) — that fervent, still remarkably naive look of all-consuming passion for learning about her craft and art — haunts me still. She is the most touching, strangely innocent — despite all the emphasis on sex — sacrifice to the twentieth-century art of cinematic mythology, with real people as gods and goddesses. While Lillian Gish had been film’s first hearth goddess, Marilyn was the last love goddess of the screen, the final Venus or Aphrodite. The minute she was gone, we started to miss her and that sense of loss has grown, never to be replaced. In death, of course, she triumphed at last, her spirit being imperishable, and keenly to be felt in the images she left behind to mark her brief visit among us.
Relieve your mind now of the images you have of this person. When I met her, she was a simple, eager young woman who rode a bike to the classes she was taking, a decent-hearted kid whom Hollywood brought down, legs parted. She had a thin skin and a soul that hungered for acceptance by people she might look up to …
The girl had little education and no knowledge except the knowledge of her own experience; of that she had a great deal, and for an actor, that is the important kind of knowledge. For her, I found, everything was either completely meaningless or completely personal. She had no interest in abstract, formal, or impersonal concepts but was passionately devoted to her own life’s experiences. What she needed above all was to have her sense of worth confirmed. Born out of wedlock, abandoned by her parents, kicked around, scorned by the men she’d been with until Johnny, she wanted more than anything else approval from men she could respect. Comparing her with many of the wives I got to know in that community, I thought her the honest one, them the “chumps”. But there was a fatal contradiction in Marilyn. She deeply wanted reassurance of her worth, yet she respected the men who scorned her, because their estimate of her was her own.
Being a most serious actress is not something God has removed from my destiny as He chooses to destroy my chances of being a mother. Itâs therefore my perogative to make the dream of creative fulfillment come true for me. That is what I believe God is saying to me and is the answer to my prayers.
Well-behaved women rarely make history.
John Strasberg (son of Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s acting teacher):
I think I was talking about cars to Mother and Father. You know how I loved cars. I’d just come home and it was going to be my eighteenth birthday. I’d wanted to come for that.
Mother and Father hadn’t wanted me to come. “Why don’t you wait till the end of the year?” Well, i’d already been kicked out of college. They didn’t know yet.
When I’d gone off at the airport, I’d turned to Mother and said, “For two cents, I won’t go.” Nobody gave me the two cents, but I’d meant it. What I’d wanted to do was work. I’d wanted to work from the time I was fifteen, and they were always against any effort on my part to be strong or independent. I remember how much I resented it. “You don’t have to work, we’ll take care of everything,” undermining me.
So I was talking about cars, no one was listening, and Marilyn was there and out of the blue said, “Why don’t you take my car, Johnny?”
I thought I hadn’t heard her right, and I said, “What?” She had remembered the summer before, in California, I’d had that Chevy I’d rented. God, I loved that car, a ’57 Bel Air silver Chevy, and she had the Thunderbird.
She continued, “I’ve got the Ford Mustang the corporation gave me, and Arthur and I have a car. That one’s just sitting in the garage, we don’t use it.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe she meant it.
Mother and Father were horrified; they didn’t like it at all. I don’t know if it felt like too much to give me or if they were worried about my driving in my state of mind, but they objected strenuously. “He’s too young. Maybe later, Marilyn. You don’t have to. It’s impossible, he can’t afford it, it could be dangerous.”
Marilyn just said, “Well, don’t worry about any of that, it’s in the corporation’s name, so I’ll take care of the insurance.”
I’ll never forget that … There were so few, so very few people who were generous like that. Especially to me, who couldn’t do anything for her.
I think that car saved my life.
I never knew what Marilyn was going to do, how she was going to play a scene. I had to talk her out of it, or I had to underline it and say, “That’s very good” or “Do it this way.” But I never knew anybody who … except for a dress that blows up and she’s standing there … I don’t know why she became so popular. I never knew. She was really kind of … She was a star. Every time you saw her, she was something. Even when she was angry, it was just a remarkable person. A remarkable person, and in spades when she was on the screen. She was much better on the screen than not on the screen.
Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work.
It’s very difficult to talk seriously about Monroe, because she was so glitzy, you know. She escaped the seriousness somehow; she changed the subject. Except that she was very tough to work with. But what you had, by hook or crook, once you saw it on the screen, it was just amazing. Amazing, the radiation that came out. And she was, believe it or not, an excellent dialogue actress. She knew where the laugh was. She knew.
“For breakfast, I have two raw beaten eggs in a glass of hot milk. I never eat dessert. My nail polish is transparent. I never wear stockings or underclothes because I think it is important to breathe freely. I wash my hair everyday and I am always brushing it. Every morning I walk across my apartment rolling an empty soda bottle between my ankles, in order to preserve my balance.”
I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects.
It’s not true that I had nothing on. I had the radio on.
Ernest Cunningham (photographer):
I worked with Marilyn Monroe. A rather dull person. But when I said “Now!” she lit up. Suddenly, something unbelievable came across. The minute she heard the click of the camera, she was down again. It was over. I said, “What is it between you and the camera that doesn’t show at any other time?” She said, “It’s like being screwed by a thousand guys and you can’t get pregnant.”
More than forty years have passed since Marilyn’s mysterious death, but her legend and persona have survived. This is all the more remarkable because she actually made very few films, and even fewer that were any good. But there was a reality to her artifice — she believed in the characters she played, even if they were inherently unbelievable. “Everything she did,” [Arthur] Miller said to me, “she played realistically. I don’t think she knew any other way to play anything — only to tell you the truth. She was always psychologically committed to that person as a person, no matter what the hell it was, rather than a stock figure. Because the parts she got could easily have been stock figures, which had no other dimension. But she wouldn’t have known how to do that. In other words, she did not have the usual technique for doing something as a stock figure … She was even that way when [director] John Huston used her the first time [in a memorable walk-on bit] in The Asphalt Jungle .”
This went for every picture she did in her surprisingly, painfully short career as a star, barely a decade, little more than a dozen pictures. Though she managed to work with quite a number of major directors, it was not necessarily always in their best efforts; but still they were Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks (twice), Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder (twice), George Cukor (twice, if you count her last unfinished one), John Huston (twice), Laurence Olivier, Joshua Logan, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (bit part in 1950’s classic All About Eve). In my conversation with Miller, he said, “I thought she had the potential for being a great performer if she were given the right stuff to do. And if you look at the stuff she did do, it’s amazing that she created any impression at all because most of it was very primitive. And the fact that people remember these parts from these films is amazing … She was comitted to these parts as though they were real people, not cardboard cutouts. Even though the director and author and the rest might have thought they were cutouts and would deal with them that way. The way the two men [Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon] in Some Like It Hot felt with their parts, or George Raft with his part. She was real. And therefore she had the potential of being a great comedienne.” (Norman Mailer, in his book on Monroe — he never met her — wrote that starting with 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was a great comedienne.)
I’d prefer not to analyze it [acting] … it’s subjective; rather, I want to remain subjective while I’m doing it. Rather than do much talking I’d rather act. When it’s on the screen, that’s when you’ll know who Roslyn [her character in The Misfits] is. I don’t want to water down my own feeling … Goethe says a career is developed in public but talent is developed in private, or silence. It’s true for the actor. To really say what’s in my heart, I’d rather show than to say. Even though I want people to understand, I’d much rather they understand on the screen. If I don’t do that, I’m on the wrong track, or in the wrong profession…. Nobody would have heard of me if it hadn’t been for John Huston. When we started Asphalt Jungle, my first picture, I was very nervous, but John said, ‘Look at Calhern [the late Louis Calhern, a veteran actor], see how he’s shaking. If you’re not nervous, you might as well give up.’ John has meant a great deal in my life. It’s sort of a coincidence to be with him ten years later.
The first time I met her I remember she came out of the living room and Pop said, “This is my son,” and my first impression of her was that she was different from most of the people who came to the house. I’d watch all these people trading their most human qualities, betraying themselves for success at all costs, to become rich and famous, and afterward, when it was too late, they’d realize they had lost the best part of themselves along the way, but she, she was like me. When I looked into her eyes, it was like looking into my own, they were like a child’s eyes. I was still a child. You know how children just look at you. My feeling was she had less ego or was less narcissistic than most of the actors who never really bothered with me. She was just another person to me, another one from that world I felt cut off, excluded, from. She was nicer, real simple, no makeup, and she really looked at me as if she saw me. It wasn’t that I wanted people to look at me, but I knew the difference when she did. I knew everyone said she was the sexiest, most sensual woman in the world. Not to me. I thought there was something wrong with me for not feeling that from her. I’d felt it from other women who came to the house. I was pretty sexually frustrated then. She was so open, so loose, and her sensuality as such was so totally innocent, nothing dirty in it at all, and the first time it was just like talking to an ordinary person, only realer than most who came into the house in those days. She was quiet, too, I remember, like an animal is quiet, and I was like that too, survival tactics. She seemed smart, but not in an educated way, instinctively smart, nobody’s fool.
“I am a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me because of the image they have made of me and that I have made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much and I can’t live up to it. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy’s the same as any other woman’s. I can’t live up to it.”
My illusions didn’t have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!
She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence. Sometimes she seemed to see all men as boys, children with immeidate needs that it was her place in nature to fulfill; meanwhile her adult self stood aside observingt he game. Men were their need, imperious and somehow sacred. She might tell about being held down at a party by two of the guests in a rape attempt from which she said she had escaped, but the truth of the account was far less important than its strange remoteness from her personally. And ultimately something nearly godlike would emerge from this depersonalization. She was at this point incapable of condemning or even of judging people who had damaged her, and to be with her was to be accepted, like moving out into a kind of sanctifying light from a life where suspicions was common sense. She had no common sense, but what she did have was something holier, a long-reaching vision of which she herself was only fitfully aware: humans were all need, all wound. What she wanted most was not to be judged but to win recognition from a sentimentally cruel profession, and from men blinded to her humanity by her perfect beauty. She was part queen, part waif, sometimes on her knees before her own body and sometimes despairing because of it — “Oh, there’s lots of beautiful girls,” she would say to some expression of awed amazement, as though her beauty betrayed her quest for a more enduring acceptance.
The year before her much-speculated-over death at thirty-six (rumors of presidential involvement, etc.), playwright Clifford Odets told me that she used to come over to his house and talk, but that the only times she seemed to him really comfortable were when she was with his two young children and their large poodle. She relaxed with them, felt no threat. With everyone else, Odets said, she seemed nervous, intimidated, frightened. When I repeated to Miller this remark about her with children and animals, he said, “Well, they didn’t sneer at her.”
Burt Glinn (photographer):
She had no bone structure — the face was a Polish flat plate. Not photogenic in the accepted sense, the features were not memorable or special; what she had was the ability to project.
Marilyn was not interested in costumes. She was not a clotheshose. You could put anything on her you wanted. If it showed something, then she accepted it. As long as it showed a little something.
Henri Cartier Bresson (photographer):
She’s American and it’s very clear that she is – she’s very good that way – one has to be very local to be universal.
Here’s the mega-post I wrote about the making of The Misfits
Frank Taylor (producer of The Misfits):
Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They were on the same wavelength. They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.
Acting isn’t something you do. Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you’re going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.
To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.
I’m not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.
Marilyn Monroe (this is what she pleaded at the end of the last interview she gave):
What I really want to say: That what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers.
Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe.