Marilyn Monroe and the Photographers

Eve Arnold took some of my favorite photos of Marilyn Monroe. Like this candid one.

Eve Arnold has written a couple of books about Marilyn (mainly photo books) and there’s a lot of great insights there about the relationship between Marilyn and the camera, which even directors who found her a handful and a half to direct (like Billy Wilder) could not deny was something completely out of the ordinary. The camera turned on, and Marilyn decided to become Marilyn. And the audience, millions of miles away, and months away from the time of shooting, got her. Marilyn skipped right over the heads of the directors, the editors, the publicists, and went straight to the public, who loved her.

Here are some of Arnold’s quote about Marilyn’s magic:

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.

Story after story from photographers tell of this plain-looking rather blanched-faced woman showing up at the studio who then just transformed when the camera clicked. It was not just a matter of makeup. There are plenty of beautiful girls. It was a matter of turning a light on inside. And Monroe was not only conscious of this, this was no accident of talent, or coloring, or working hard … She knew how to be photographed better than anybody.

Eve Arnold again:

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.

Photographer Burt Glinn had this to say:

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.

Yup. That’s the actress in her. She projected herself into the dreams and fantasies of the audience, and you can see it in the photos, sure, but you can also see it in the films. Watch her. Watch how her face moves. How her eyes close slightly, open, become serious and wide, and then drowsy again. This is projection. It cannot be duplicated. She is literally in a class all her own in this regard. People try to imitate Monroe, and fail. Because, at heart, she is one of our most organic of actresses. If she didn’t feel it (like Arnold wrote above), she couldn’t do it. This is why she could be a nightmare on the set. If she didn’t feel “her” when it came time to shoot the scene (she would refer to that person who came out of her when the cameras were rolling in the third person … “So do you want to see ‘her’?”), panic would set in, and she would lock herself in her trailer, or get lost on the way to the location, or whatever. It had to come from inside, or she couldn’t do it.

Even in moments of either a pause between shots – or – sadness? – she is riveting. Arnold again:

Who knows what is going on here. She might just be resting, or thinking, and the camera, for whatever magic reason, picks up on the underlying sadness there. That was the kind of relationship Marilyn had with the camera: it was intimate. And that was Arnold’s gift, too, to be able to capture it.

Now obviously that photo is all about her body and its curves, but if you look at her face, if you look at that expression, you will see that it’s a startlingly intimate expression. We are so used to seeing images of Marilyn Monroe that it’s hard to remember how out-of-the-ordinary she was. How nobody does it like her. Her eyes are half-closed, she’s got a soft and vulnerable look on her face, and she lets the camera IN. No wonder audiences always felt protective of her. Anyone that vulnerable obviously needs protection.

Ernest Cunningham, another photographer who worked with her, said:

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.”

That’s what it is, isn’t it? She felt intimate with the camera. It was where she could project. She knew that the camera could see everything and so she LET it see everything. She was loved by that camera more than she was ever loved by any human being.

But I don’t mean to pathologize this woman. Her pathology/psychology is not what interests me about her.

What interests me, above all, is her magic.

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33 Responses to Marilyn Monroe and the Photographers

  1. Ceci says:

    I love your insights about Marilyn and the camera, Sheila. They explain with great clarity how my insane obsession with Marilyn started, although I had never thought it like that. It all begun when I was 11 years old and I came across a photo essay showing Marilyn at Jones Beach in 1949, wearing a swimsuit and dancing, at times posing with a polka-dot umbrella, her hair blowing in the wind. She wasn’t famous at that time, so those were not the typical glamour photos we are all used to see of hers.
    Those pics spoke to me like none I had ever seen before; I guess it was Marilyn projecting her own indescribable inner magic and me getting her message. It was powerful indeed, since 22 years later I still get it.

    And come to think of it, now I see why in my collection of Marilyn items I have focused completely on photo books… Interesting!!

    Oh, how I love this subject ;-)

  2. The Nightfly says:

    The Semi-Carnival of Good Reads

    …It’s about Monroe’s presence and the easy (and 100% correct) realization, from the writers, that their audience would have no trouble believing that Monroe would be known in the year 3000.

  3. Nightfly says:

    There’s a reason why Candle in the Wind was about Marilyn and not, say, Jayne Mansfield. I enjoyed this post so much I linked you, Sheila, though I hope you don’t mind being part of a roundup.

    PS – the Princess Di rewrite NEVER HAPPENED.

  4. red says:

    I love the story of your discovery of her! I think I know the photo shoot you describe.

    Even then – as a brunette, kind of chubby really – and not famous – she stood out.

    It makes me wonder about destiny. I mean, there are so many beautiful girls in Hollywood, so many gorgeous starlets … why HER, and not someone else? Now of course there seems something foreordained about the whole thing – I think that it HAD to happen.

    But there had to be something else going on there … a sheer determination to become a star. Not just for the fame – but mainly for the love. I don’t know – it’s interesting.

    But still – I see those cheesecake pre-fame shots of her, and I still think: There’s something special there.

  5. red says:

    Oops – overlap – my last comment was to Ceci!!

  6. red says:

    Nightfly – hahahahaha, no – it never happened!!

    great point about candle in the wind … who can say why someone is magic and someone else is not? We could discuss it forever. I love that.

  7. tina says:

    Marilyn was a size 16

  8. red says:

    Tina – so?

  9. Emily says:

    I hope that was a celebration and not criticism.

    I don’t even know how to talk about Marilyn. I can’t write about her. I can’t define the quality. She had something. I LOVE when you write about her as an actress. Too many memories are strictly of her as an object or icon for a particular age.

    More, please.

  10. red says:

    emily – ohh, that is so nice! Thank you!

    I love the whole thing in Wonder Boys about marilyn Monroe’s jacket – like basically under glass in this closet. I think that that completely captures her unbelievable allure. That the OBJECTS she wore have this magical power … because of who she was. I don’t know of anybody else – except for Elvis, possibly – who had that.

  11. Emily says:

    “She had small shoulders just like you do.”

    And then the pleased look on Oola’s face. That’s acting. That’s film. That’s the kind of script I’m busting my ass off writing.

  12. red says:

    I just got goosebumps. I LOVE how he says that line.

  13. Ceci says:

    Emily: ditto about not knowing how to write about Marilyn; I become an inarticulate moron! That’s why I enjoy Sheila’s comments: she can write and she has an actor’s view, so that combination is unbeatable!

    Sheila: I was referring to this photo shoot (I don’t know how to post a link, sorry!),

    That is the exact photo that first caught my eye as a little girl. But of course I know Marilyn’s first modeling photos as a brunette teenager, and I agree that they also show that quality that you spoke about. Magic.

  14. red says:

    Ceci – I took that URL and pasted it in a new window and was able to see it. Beautiful! Her face is so alive and fresh. I can see why it captivated you.

  15. RightThinkingGirl says:

    It’s strange to me that she seems to get so much respect now when she had so little in life. And while I agree that the camera does love her, I always had the feeling that the film-makers hated her.

    I love her movies, and I like to think I would have loved her as a person. When I visited her grave in Los Angeles, I put my hand against the tomb wall and I felt like I was as close to true greatness as I’d ever been.

  16. red says:

    A great example of the contempt most directors had for her (and yet they knew she was a moneymaker, so they put up with her) is in Billy Wilder’s nasty-minded little contemptuous movie The 7 Year Itch. Now I love Billy Wilder – but I can’t stand that film. It treats her as a freak – almost like a blow-up doll – like her sexuality is somehow freakish and FUNNY (she has to keep her underwear in the freezer … yuk yuk yuk) – The whole film has such contempt for her that it’s actually hard for me to watch. Unlike Some Like It Hot – where she’s just a delightful delicious little goddess – that film has real affection for her- But 7 Year Itch is like: hahahaha, let’s all just goggle at this FREAK.

    But Marilyn somehow escapes unscathed – it’s hard to explain – 7 Year Itch takes a position on her, it objectifies her in a sexist and contemptuous way that you probably couldn’t get away with today … and yet Marilyn still plays it all completely real, with wide-eyed innocence – as though she doesn’t know everyone is laughing at her. And in the end – she has the last laugh. She’s the only reason to see that film.

  17. red says:

    Billy Wilder, by the way, admitted that 7 Year Itch was not his most successful film – and that Tom Ewell was miscast.

    Marilyn was a hard woman to be paired with, in terms of leading men – she needed to be paired with someone sweet, and strong. Not dirty-minded and lecherous like the Tom Ewell character.

    Yuk. That movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  18. Ken says:

    The one line that stands out to me from Seven-Year Itch was Marilyn’s “Happens to me all the time,” after the Rachmaninoff gag. Her delivery was completely, um, affectless (I don’t really have the right vocabulary to discuss acting, so bear with me), and I thought it was perfect.

    It’s been a long time since I saw it, but my recollection was that the Ewell character was supposed to be this big lech/cynic (the scene in which he edits the Little Women rewrite cover comes to mind), but when the “real thing” showed up (so to speak), he turned into a stumbling duffer. Maybe I’m being generous, and if Wilder says Ewell was miscast, I have to defer but there’s no way I would be able to make that judgment without help from someone who knew what she was talking about (which is why I hang around here, I suppose).

  19. red says:

    Ken – yeah, her delivery was perfect – Affectless is a great word!

    But the character itself was a freak. Being cast as women like this is one of the reasons why Marilyn went on her own personal strike, moved to NYC, started studying acting, and formed her own production company. She was sick of it. The studios punished her for having a mind of her own. She wanted to make Brothers Karamazov with herself as the seductress – would have been perfect. People laughed at her – and said to her, AT the press conference where she announced the launching of her production company: “Can you even pronounce Dostoevsky, Marilyn?” Imagine. Imagine that. If you read Brothers K, you’ll see that there is a PERFECT part for her in it. But – well. People had contempt for her. Openly. They thought she should be GRATEFUL to have a job at all. They missed the point. That sheer grit and a cunning business sense had helped her be a success and more than just another starlet.

    She had much better taste than the dirty-minded men in power who wanted to make a JOKE out of her. She wanted to actually play real people.

    Yes, Ewell was supposed to be a lech. But that still makes it a very uncomfortable match-up. It sets her up as a living blow-up doll. The movie has a dirty-minded attitude towards her, and towards sex in general.

    Think of how wonderful Tony Curtis is with her in Some Like it Hot – she is still obviously playing a woman who is pretty much universally desirable – the first shot of her is of her ass, jiggling as she hurries to catch the train – hahahaha – but somehow it’s not made to seem like she is a JOKE, and her sexuality is something freakish.

    Wilder also said that the adaptation of the 7 Year Itch script (it had been a stage play) was not very good.

    But like I said: the film 7 Year Itch strikes me as a film with a nasty attitude behind it – and Marilyn, as always, somehow wriggles free of being “blamed”. She comes out smelling like a rose.

    Same thing happened when the nude calendar came up – creating a huge scandal.

    The studios were horrified – but if you see some of the internal memos – there’s a GLEE in them as well – like: hahaha, we always knew she was a whore … They tried to force her to apologize. She refused. She made a statement: “I was hungry, and I needed to pay my rent.”

    The studio, again, was enraged – at the GALL of her brazenness – but then were shocked at the overwhelming response of support from her fans – who deluged the studios with fan mail, and saying: “We understand! We don’t care!” Men and women. Again – she had crossover appeal.

    To me – that survivalist energy – of NOT allowing herself to be tarnished – is also in existence in 7 Year Itch. She survived what they TRIED to do to her in that movie.

  20. red says:

    Of course – this is just my opinoin – and realize that I obviously feel protective of Marilyn. I feel like that film treats her hostilely. She, again, strolls thru it unscathed – as though unaware it is happening – but I believe that was a conscious act of will on her part. “Nope. I will not be sneered at. I will play innocent!”

    Orson Welles tells a story about seeing Marilyn at a party, in the mid40s – before she hit it big – and some studio executive, in front of everybody – pulled down the front of her dress, and fondled her boob. Everyone HOWLED with laughter. That was the general vibe towards her – she was up for grabs.

    And Orson said that Marilyn had laughed as well.

    Here’s a great quote about this whole thing: Peter Bogdonavich, in an essay he wrote about Marilyn, says:

    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 [Arthur] Miller this remark about her with children and animals, he said, “Well, they didn’t sneer at her.”

  21. RTG says:

    I have to ask: does anyone think MM looks fat in that underwear picture?

    I’m serious. I don’t think she does but I know if Charlize Theron looked like that, she’d be considered unemployable.

  22. red says:

    Well, we are now in the phase of women’s beauty which is known as “The Lollipop Head Brigade”. Thanks Nicole Richie! Thanks Lindsay Lohan! Hilary Duff – who began as a normal looking kid – has now BECOME a Lollipop Head. You can watch the transfomration occur. Thanks, girls! Stick figures with huge heads. So so weird. I don’t know who finds that attractive – it’s such a weird look. It’s not about being skinny – it’s this weird big-headed look.

    But then there are actresses like Julianne Moore – Kate Winslet – who have curves like Marilyn’s. Winslet got a lot of shit for her weight – and always has – but she’s still around. So screw the Lollipop Heads!!

  23. RTG says:

    I think Kate Winslet is absolutely stunning. LOVE her.

    And I saw a picture of Nicole Richie the other day that made me blink. I think she looks like a 9 year old girl. Sad.

  24. red says:

    The look that is in now seems to be a sort of Jonbenet Ramsey Chic. You know? HUGE hairdos – big eyes – and tiny prepubescent bodies. It’s creepy.

  25. RTG says:

    OMG I never really connected it like that but you’re right. These women are pedophile’s dreams. Nothing wrong with that if it’s the look you’re going for, I suppose, but it does have some very creepy overtones.

  26. red says:

    It’s either Jonbenet or the aliens at the end of Close Encounters … Same look!!

  27. Nightfly says:

    RTG – GREAT point. These Olive Oyl-types (Body by Wiffle Bat) are not women – or at least, not healthy women. They have no substance to them.
    I think it’s a matter of preferring unreality. The ultra-skinny supermodel types are in effect dolls, or living pictures.

    Sheila –
    Prepubescent, hm. Hadn’t thought of it that way. My revulsion with Nicole Richie hasn’t much to do with looking nine years old as it does with behaving nine years old. To me the more creepy thing is artificially aging an actual nine-year old to appear sexual and desirable (like those glam shots of JonBenet). Holy freakin’ hell. That is simply sickening – I’d even say evil, a corruption of innocence. I’d better stop before I throw something breakable.

  28. red says:

    Woah – Let’s not get into the whole “not women” thing. There are some women who just are skinny. And to say “THIS is a real woman, and THIS is not” based on body type is just another way of telling women what they SHOULD look like. There isn’t a cookie cutter here – I have friends who are just naturally skinny. I’m sure we all do. Are they not “real” women because they aren’t voluptuous?

    Just had to say that.

    But the Lollipop Head thing is not natural skinniness. It is … unnatural and bizarre – especially when you see someone transform as Lindsay Lohan did, especially – from a girl with regular old proportions to a stick figure with a lollipop head.

  29. red says:

    And speaking of the Jonbenet thing: Nightfly, there’s an HBO documentary called Living Dolls – which is all about the sub-culture of children’s beauty pageants and it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s child abuse, as far as I’m concerned.

  30. Ken says:

    Excellent explanation. I have the Brothers K at home, and it’s next on the list when I finish Word-Hoard (the editor’s acknowledgements include Tolkien and Christopher Wren, it’s priceless) and That Every Man Be Armed. ;-) Should be well into it by Easter, I calc’late.

  31. red says:

    Ken – hahahaha A little light reading there, huh?

    Brothers K took me a long time to finish – I just read it for the first time last year – but it’s so worth it. The Grand Inquisitor scene especially.

  32. Nightfly says:

    Woah – Let’s not get into the whole “not real women” thing. There are some women who just are skinny. And to say “THIS is a real woman, and THIS is not” based on body type is just another way of telling women what they SHOULD look like.

    My mistake. I deleted a couple of sentences in the middle, along with the part where I mentioned that most of them get and stay that way only through starving themselves – hence, the “not real women” thing. Naturally skinny is one thing – naturally size four, throwing up three times a day to be size one for the camera, is entirely different. Sorry about that!

    I don’t get HBO, only basic, so I missed that documentary. I’m almost afraid to rent it based on your description. If anything would make me go all frothing Dark Side, it would be that.

  33. red says:

    Nightfly – totally. It’s horrifying. You want to kidnap these poor little girls from their parents … It’s this whole other WORLD … you just can’t believe some of what you see. These two pageant “coaches” – and the grim fear these little girls have, as they strut and pose – with their huge hair – as their parents watch and judge. Never ever good enough. These girls, at age 4, 5, know they will never ever be good enough.

    It’s really horrifying.

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