No. 6 | January 8, 2010
Our theme this week
The celluloid heroes of “Celluloid Heroes”
But please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn
‘Cause she’s not very tough
She should have been made of iron or steel
But she was only made of flesh and blood
Screen legend, gifted actress, talented comedian, sex goddess—Marilyn Monroe was the most famous woman of the 20th century. She had legions of fans around the world, enamored with her beauty and charms, profoundly saddened when she died so young. Her many admirers included the high and famous. Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller loved her and married her. Andy Warhol put her brilliant images on canvas. Elton John sang a wistful elegy to her. Norman Mailer wrote a book about her. Marilyn Monroe likely has had more words written about her than any other star in the history of movies. There is little to add here, but I’ll quote one sentence from Owen Meany, the John Irving character, who finds a parallel between her and America: She was just like our whole country—not quite young anymore, but not old either; a little breathless, very beautiful, maybe a little stupid, looking for something—I think she wanted to be good.
A native of Los Angeles, Marilyn Monroe (then Norma Jeane Baker) grew up in foster homes during the Depression. She modeled and appeared in a few small movie roles in the ’40s. She played the young mistress with expensive tastes in John Huston’s crime classic The Asphalt Jungle (1950). It was a small part, but won good reviews, and led to another small but well-received performance in All About Eve (she’s the third “celluloid hero” of the week in that film). George Sanders introduces her as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art; in Some Like It Hot (1959), she claims to have spent three years at the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music. In contrast to her “dumb blonde” image, she did in fact attend UCLA and study at the Actors Studio. Lee Strasberg said that among the many hundreds of actors who were his students, Monroe and Marlon Brando were the “only two that [stood] out way above the rest.” Soon, her film roles got bigger as she worked with some leading directors: Monkey Business (1952, Howard Hawks), Clash by Night (1953, Fritz Lang), Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway). In 1953 she starred as gold digger Lorelei Lee in Hawks’s adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a critical and commercial success, and especially memorable for Monroe’s iconic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Then came How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). Despite difficulties on the set, The Seven-Year Itch (1955), directed by Billy Wilder, showcased Monroe’s comedic talents and contained the unforgettable shot on the subway grate, with the wind from the passing train blowing Monroe’s white dress high above her knees. She gave a memorable performance of “That Old Black Magic” as the saloon singer in Bus Stop (1956), winning raves from critics (“Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress,” said Bosley Crowther in the New York Times). In 1957 she made The Prince and the Showgirl, costarring and directed by Lawrence Olivier. Already a huge star, her next film was one for the ages. Some Like It Hot was directed by Wilder and starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in classic performances as a couple of cross-dressing musicians on the run from the mob. Monroe plays Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the beautiful, ditzy singer who always gets “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” and who falls for the faux oil baron played by Curtis. It’s a movie filled with great moments, not the least of them Monroe singing several numbers including “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” The Misfits (1961), though not a hit, is generally well-regarded by critics. It is a sad milestone of a film: Monroe’s last completed performance, the final film of her onetime idol Clark Gable, who died days after production ended, and one of the last films of Montgomery Clift. Not to mention, her marriage with Miller was breaking up while they were filming his script. Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962 in Los Angeles at the age of 36. Cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates, with circumstances (accident, suicide, murder) that have never been fully explained. Her fame did not die with her. She lives on in the memories of her fans, many of them born in the decades since she passed. As that song from the Kinks goes, “celluloid heroes never really die.”
Beyond the final credits
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych of 1962, based on a publicity still from Niagara, may be the most famous Monroe image by an artist, but it’s hardly the only one. Here are some of the other artists who’ve featured Monroe in their work: Willem de Kooning (1954), James Rosenquist (1961), Richard Hamilton (1966), Salvador Dalí (1967), Robert Rauschenberg (1967), and Barbara Kruger (1997).