“I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else,” writes Marilyn Monroe in her unfinished autobiography (Steinem 9). Indeed, her short, tumultuous life was not her own. She belonged to her audiences and to the studios, perhaps the last of the larger-than-life movie-movie stars whose images depended on, were shaped and shattered by the public. A fiction of the fifties, she became the ghost of the sixties, and, in her death and the poignancy of her incompleteness, secured her enduring power. She was a myth, a fantasy, a hypothesis, a radiating image of the American Dream, and the image had little to do with reality. The shy little girl who was never allowed to mature into a woman, Norma Jeane, was what set her apart from all the other sex goddesses. She was not a goddess, but an angel of sex. Her wistfulness, yearning, innocence, and childish naiveté lent a soft edge of sadness to her performances. The true auteur of her films, she infused every corner of them and invested sex with sweetness; she was a vulnerable, virgin-like vamp. Her best films, among them Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop (1956) and John Huston’s The Misfits(1961), suggest the discrepancy between the reality of the woman (and little girl) represented by Norma Jeane and the illusion of the sexpot represented by Marilyn Monroe.
While she was still playing inconsequential roles in studio factory products and vehicles for other stars, she was noticed in part due to two small performances: Angela Phinlay in Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, where she played the young mistress of an aging criminal to strong reviews, and the unforgettable Miss Caswell in Joseph Mankiewicz’ All About Eve (both released in 1950). In these two roles, and countless others, we notice the dichotomy between Norma Jeane and Marilyn, between the serious, vulnerable woman of Huston’s film and the ditzy sexpot of Mankiewicz’, “a graduate of the Copacabana school of dramatic arts.” As Miss Caswell, Monroe glows. Dressed in white, in contrast to the rest of the darkly-cladded characters, she draws the light and the viewer’s eye with such force that we all but forget about Bette Davis or George Sanders in what might be their best respective parts. Her voice is so fragile, so soft and childish it comes off as a surprising incongruity to her sexualized appearance—one expects the low and sexy drawl of the femme fatale. “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits,” she asks about a theater producer before proceeding to make him happy. And just as Sanders’ sardonic theater critic Addison DeWitt can see her “career rising in the East like the sun,” every viewer could anticipate Monroe’s career rising in the West.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is Marilyn’s ultimate Technicolor extravaganza, and a film whose look underlines the theme of appearance over essence, of a dazzling, gleaming façade as a cover for emptiness. With reds and pinks clashing so mercilessly in the cinematography, it’s hard to look away long enough to see what’s below the surface. In the hands of any other actress the film and Lorelei Lee would both be nothing more than empty vessels, but her performance makes both transcend their most obvious natures. She sets the tone of the film so fully as to preempt the director and cinematographer, and “the movie rises above its pretext, its story, its existence as a musical, even its music, and becomes at its best a magic work” (Mailer 104).
On the surface, Lorelei is only interested in money, “the only girl who can stand on a stage with a spotlight in her eyes and still see a diamond inside a man’s pocket.” She is not the brightest girl either, asking the way to Europe, France, worrying about her friend and saying she “needs someone like I to educate her,” or trying to figure out how to put a tiara around her neck. When told it goes on her head, she says, “You must think I was born yesterday.” “Sometimes there’s just no other possible explanation,” Jane Russell’s Dorothy explains. Others are less than kind in their descriptions of Lorelei, calling her a “blonde man-trap” or a “mercenary dimwit.” But even though she wears leopard print on her way to the boat and seems ready to pounce at the first sparkle of a stone, she is far from a predator. When she first gets on the boat she immediately jumps up and down on the bed like a child, and the whole trouble with the picture evolves from a very innocent game of role-play: “Piggy was being the python, and I was the goat,” she insists. The only male she is open to is a young boy who helps her get out of a tight spot—literally—when she gets stuck in the window. There is exuberance, energy, and the innocence of youth in this performance, not the least in her single-minded determination to get what she wants. The men she meets along the way seem more likely to want to protect her than take advantage of her.
There is a marked difference between Lorelei and Dorothy, Jane Russell’s character taking on a protective, almost motherly role while chaperoning her friend. The differences between the two are reflected in their costuming and singing styles as well. While Lorelei dresses in bright, youthful colors, Dorothy is mostly seen in black and muted greys. The only scene Lorelei wears a dark color in is after they have been kicked out of their hotel and they have to rally and look for a job, singing “When Love Goes Wrong.” Marilyn’s voice stands in sharp contrast to her co-star’s as well. While Russell is strong and assertive in her musical numbers, Monroe caresses every word of the lyrics, her mellow, moody crooning lasciviously underlining her sexiness and vulnerability. Again, there is a sadness and poignancy in many of her remarks that helps the movie transcend its existence as a comedy. When Lorelei says, “A girl like I almost never gets to meet really interesting men; sometimes my brain gets real starved,” it’s funny, but the rest of her statement is decidedly sadder and more truthful: “It’s a terrible thing to be lonesome, especially in the middle of a crowd.”
Lorelei is not as dumb as she seems, either. She can get out of trouble as easily as she gets herself in it, through intuition, intelligence, and innovation. By the last scenes of the movie we begin to understand that Lorelei Lee is just a facade, no different than the Marilyn persona, and beneath it lies a young woman not unlike Norma Jeane. “I can be smart when it’s important,” she tells her future father-in-law, “but most men don’t like it.” She is, like Sugar Kane in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, more than a gold-digger and actually has feelings for Gus (Tommy Noonan). “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty,” she asks his father. “You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but, my goodness, doesn’t it help? And if you had a daughter, wouldn’t you rather she didn’t marry a poor man? You’d want her to have the most wonderful things in the world and to be very happy. Why is it wrong for me to want those things?” In this statement she captures one of the many reasons for Marilyn’s appeal, what Norman Mailer calls “her noble democratic longings” and Faustian ambition, in which “we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves” (17). It is this identification with her above all other “sexpots” that ensures her endurance, the way she hooked into our deepest emotions of hope or fear, and told us “more about ourselves than we would have known without her” (Haskell 258).
After stealing How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) from under Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall, and again wasting her talents on pictures like River of No Return (1953), with Robert Mitchum, what she called a “Z cowboy film in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the CinemaScope process” and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), a critical disaster, Marilyn will bring to life one of her most iconic characters. “As if she has been drilled in the metaphysical differences between two strikes and three, she will be at her best,” Mailer writes in his biography of the star (123). As The Girl in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955), Marilyn creates one last American innocent, “a pristine artifact of the mid-Eisenhower years, an American girl who believes in the products she sells in TV commercials—she is as simple and healthy as the whole middle of the country, and there to be plucked” (Mailer 123).
The actress also gets to indulge her vamp persona, in Sherman’s (Tom Ewell) intricate day-dreams and fantasies. Because these images of her as a femme fatale are presented in the context of wild, ridiculous imaginings, their artificiality and unsuitability is made even more evident. Descending the staircase—much as Barbara Stanwyck did in the director’s Double Indemnity—in a sparkling, sequined tiger-striped evening gown while holding a cigarette, Marilyn is stunning; her performance transcends artifice and becomes art. But Marilyn is no Barbara Stanwyck; her innocence and sweetness override this sexualized image, which is not nearly as appealing as the real girl who shows up in a cotton-candy pink outfit. Playing the role of the other woman, the mistress and home-wrecker, and making it look sympathetic is no easy task, but The Girl is as wholesome and pure as her lily-white dresses. She’s beautiful and sweet-natured, “a wide-eyed innocent who thinks that everything is ‘just elegant,’ recognizes classical music ‘because there’s no vocal,’ and stays cool by storing her panties in the refrigerator. ‘Marilyn Monroe doesn’t just play The Girl,’ said the play’s author. George Axelrod. ‘She is The Girl’” (Buskin 67).
From the moment she steps into the film, her natural radiance lights it up, and her personality infuses every frame with a blithe and buoyant sense of unbridled joy. A small-town girl in the big city, she knows no one and drinks “big tall” martinis with sugar, or sips champagne while munching on potato chips. Her helplessness and childlike clumsiness make us want to put our arm around her and protect her. The only reason she meets Sherman is because she has forgotten her key, and then proceeds to get her things stuck in the door as she enters the building. When he sees her at the balcony upstairs, Wilder captures her in a low angle shot, but she is not the least threatening or imposing; she is naked, covered only by the foliage of her potted plants, but this speaks more of her innocence and obliviousness than her sexuality. She’s delighted to find out Sherman is married because that means he can’t fall in love with her and ask her to marry him—“it’s all so simple and can’t possibly get drastic.” Like Lorelei and Sugar Kane, The Girl wants a man who is nice, tender, and understanding, not one who is tall, handsome and wears a striped vest and a “I’m-so-handsome-you-can’t-resist-me look” like Tom McKenzie (Sonny Tufts).
Four thousand people gathered in the street at two a.m. to watch Wilder film the iconic scene in which the rush of air from the passing subway lifts her dress. But it was not Marilyn that the film audiences got to see in this scene, but Norma Jeane, the girl who spent most of her childhood in and out of foster homes and orphanages because her mother was mentally unsuited to take care of her, the girl who never knew her father and always felt unwanted and unloved. Of course she would identify with the Monster form The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and say, “he was kind of scary looking, but he wasn’t really all bad. I think he just craved a little affection, you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”
Wilder, better than anyone, understands that Marilyn is only a mask for Norma Jeane, an illusion, and engages this in a hilariously self-conscious, almost postmodernist way when Ewell’s character jokes about having Marilyn Monroe in the kitchen. In Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Marilyn greatest performance and her greatest film, she is again more akin to the virgin than the vamp. Soft-focused and softly lit, encircled by a halo of light, she is more like The Girl than is at first apparent. Marilyn entices audiences as the sexpot in her musical numbers, but this is, even in the context of the film, only a performance. The real Sugar, Kowalczyc not Kane, is, like Norma Jeane, an innocent little girl who plays on the beach and always gets “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” It is this side of her and not the luscious Sugar Kane who bobs up and down in the spotlight in a sheer, sequined, form-fitting gown who “will take an improbable farce and somehow offer some indefinable sense of promise to every absurd logic in the dumb scheme of things until the movie becomes that rarest of modern art objects, an affirmation” (Mailer 175).
If Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch are Marilyn at her movie-movie star Technicolor, CinemaScope best, then Bus Stop and her last finished project, The Misfits, show the serious, black-and-white side of the actress that corresponds more to Norma Jeane. In Logan’s Bus Stop, Monroe plays an unsophisticated, tawdry southern saloon singer who has gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop her entire life. Dressed in ratty clothes and ripped stockings, her surroundings, makeup, and hair lacking their usual glamor, Marilyn applied what she learned studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. She inhabits the character with the assuredness and grace of a trained Method actor, and makes us forget the existence of Marilyn as a glittering movie star, allowing us to focus instead on the lost girl of Logan’s film.
The weakest parts of the movie are the ones that center on Don Murray’s character, who seems stuck in a campy cowboy comedy, while Monroe invests the comedy with dramatic weight and feeling. Her first scene captures her sitting in a window, looking out towards the street with a lost, longing look in her eyes. As she does in every scene, when her eyes roll and dart to the corners of her eye like a caged animal’s, Cherie is seeking escape. In only a few moments her manager promptly manhandles her away from the window and towards her tattered dressing room, calling her an “ignorant hillbilly.” “Well, ain’t you,” her friend asks. Indeed, she “communicates continents of basic ignorance in each gap of the vowels” of her dumb southern drawl, but she is, like Marilyn, on a quest to better herself and transcend the limitations of her condition (Mailer 153). Cherie—“it’s French; it means loved one,” she explains—is “trying to be somebody”; she plans to go to Hollywood and get discovered, screen tested, and “treated with a little respect.” She has direction. She shows her friend just how straight it is on her marked map. She’s tired of hustling for drinks and singing in saloons and wants to be a “chanteuse like Hildegard.”
Her singing and dancing are mediocre at best, and Marilyn’s makeup is chalk-white, almost clownish, to reflect that she sings until the bars close and lives on a diet of coffee and aspirin, but to Bo she’s an angel. Like the audience, he sees the sweetness and kindness in her, hidden deep below the surface. When he takes her out of the saloon after teaching every customer some respect, she is as honest and straightforward as a child, telling him she though he was a hooligan, “but then, when I realized you were doing it for me I was attracted to you… I still am. Course it’s only what you might call a physical attraction.” For all her professional ambition, Cherie’s personal life, like Marilyn’s—or Norma Jeane’s—is a mess. The character has been going out with boys since she was twelve, and almost got married at fourteen. Norma Jeane became a sex object as soon as she was old enough to be considered one and got married off at sixteen to escape the orphanage when her foster parents couldn’t care for her any longer. “The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves I was as unresponsive as a fossil,” the actress said; “I used to lie awake at night wondering why the boys came after me” (Mailer 44). Cherie, too, fails to understand what men see in her other than her looks and begins to doubt that she will ever find love.
In the touching scene on the bus after she has been “abducted—you know, kidnapped,” it is another woman she opens up to. As in her life and in most of the movies she’s made, it is women who she relates to on an intellectual and emotional basis, not men. “I want a guy I can look up to and admire,” Cherie says, “but I don’t want him to browbeat me. I want a guy who’ll be sweet with me, but I don’t want him to baby me either. I just got a feeling whoever I marry has some real regard for me, aside from all that loving stuff.” What Cherie is searching for is a man who understands and accepts her for who she is beneath the façade.
In Marilyn’s last film, Huston’s The Misfits, audiences got yet another glimpse behind Marilyn’s façade. Again, our first view of her is framed by a window, this time with a lace curtain fluttering in the foreground; the curtain will be lifted and her true self revealed in the course of the next two hours. Her character, Roslyn Taber, is an idealist and a romantic thrown into a world of disillusionment and disenchantment. “Dear girl, you gotta stop thinking you can change things,” she is told in various ways throughout the film, but her optimism, her energy and purity will not let her sit by and witness injustice. Although most of the lines in the film belong to the impressive trio of male co-stars— Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Clark Gable in his last film—her performance is superb. As the woman all three fall in love with, Roslyn becomes a quintessential Marilyn character, “the wolfbait, the eye-stopper… [who] gave satisfaction and demanded nothing in return” (Haskell 254). None of the men are worthy of her; they are weak or damaged anachronisms, unfinished just like Guido’s (Wallach) house in the country, failed fathers, husbands, and sons, modern cowboys trying to hold on to something that doesn’t exist anymore.
Roslyn has yet to be jaded or damaged; her innocence is her most appealing asset, although it, too, shows signs of wear by the end of the film. The parallels between Roslyn and Marilyn’s life are worth mentioning. Neither girl finished high school, both were married young, neither had mothers growing up, both loved animals with the gentle abandon of a child, and both, through sheer will power and irrepressible need to care for others, made their surroundings better and brighter. “How come you got such trust in your eyes, like you were just born,’ Perce (Clift) asks Roslyn in The Misfits, while Guido tells her, “Knowing things don’t matter much; you got something a lot more important—you care. Whatever happens to anybody happens to you… If it wasn’t for all the nervous people in the world we’d all still be eating each other.” She completes each of their meaningless lives in a way, much in the same manner she adds a step to Guido’s porch or reorganizes the house to let the light in. “You come in, a stranger out of nowhere,” he tells her, “and for the first time it all lights up… You have a gift for life, Roslyn. The rest of us are just looking for a place to hide and watch it all go by.”
But there is a deep sadness hidden behind Roslyn’s happy and youthful demeanor, just as there was behind Marilyn’s. The actress and the character make others happy, but not themselves. In the final, excruciating scenes of the film, when the camera crosscuts between the horses getting tied down in horrifying images of entrapment, confusion, and violence and Roslyn’s distraught face, we begin to understand it is not just the horses getting broken, but her spirit as well, because you can’t live in an environment of violence and injustice without being tainted by it. “We start out doing something meaning no harm, something that’s naturally in us to do, but somewhere along the line it gets changed around into something bad,” Gay (Gable) concludes. “Like dancing in a nightclub—you started out just wanting to dance, didn’t you? But little by little it turns out that people ain’t interested in how good you danced, they’re gawking at you with something entirely different in their minds, and they turn it sour, don’t they?”
The same can be said about Marilyn Monroe’s career in Hollywood. She started out wanting to be an actress, but somewhere along the line it turned out people weren’t interested in her talent but her looks, and they turned it sour. “Big breasts, big ass, big deal,” she complained; “can’t I be anything else?” (Steinem 76). Judging by her work and her lasting appeal, she was so much more. She is remembered for her roles as a dumb buxom blonde, but that is not why she is remembered. No one with as much enduring power could have been just that. “She belonged to the occult church of the film, and the last covens of Hollywood. She might be as modest in her voice as the girl next door, but she was nonetheless larger than life up on the screen.… Yet she was more. She was a presence. She was ambiguous. She was an angel of sex, and the angel was in her detachment” (Mailer 16). She was a contradiction in terms, an innocent sexpot, a smart ditz, a vulnerable, virgin-like vamp. There were things in her people were drawn by and identified with that went way beyond her star image as a sexy seductress—her radiance, her innocence and childlike naïveté at once so shy and so vibrant. People might be attracted by Marilyn, but it is Norma Jeane they remember; it is the little girl beneath the mask that sets Monroe apart. “The times being what they were, if she hadn’t existed we would have had to invent her, and we did, in a way” (Haskell 255).
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Haskell, Molly. Form Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2nd Ed.
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987
Mailer, Norman. Marilyn. New York: Gorsset & Dunlap, 1973.
Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986.