Well over 50 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains, as she was in life, the quintessential cinematic sex symbol. Like Elvis, she has been immortalised on everything from coasters to postage stamps. Her cultivated transformation from B-movie starlet to celluloid queen set the stage for a more tragic evolution as a sympathetic victim and revered cultural icon.
When Marilyn Monroe hit the screen, audiences were attracted to her compelling combination of magnetism and innocence. She was kind, playful, and flattering to men — rather than challenging or dangerous, as the femme fatales of the ’40s had been. Marilyn was the embodiment of sexual desire in the early ’50s — curvy and sensual, yet childlike and harmless. Even women responded to her naiveté and lack of guile. More has been written about Marilyn Monroe than any other film star, and yet the “real Marilyn,” Norma Jean Baker, still remains something of a mystery, overshadowed during her lifetime by the studio-created creature that was conceived and promoted at the expense of the fragile human being behind the public persona.
Goodbye, Norma Jean
Norma Jean Morentson was born in Los Angeles, in 1926, to a single, unmarried woman who worked as a film-cutter at R.K.O. Pictures. Norma Jean’s mother was largely absent from her daughter’s life, suffering a nervous breakdown and subsequent institutionalization when Norma Jean was just a child.
In the years before she became Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean led a difficult life, passed from foster home to foster home. She moved through a dozen households, putting up with sexual abuse and neglect until she wound up in the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home at the age of nine. She left high school when she was 16 and married a 21-year-old aircraft-plant worker. Also earning a living at the plant, she was soon spotted by an Army photographer, who thought pictures of the 16-year-old Norma Jean might give the GIs a lift. He was right. Norma Jean began her career as a model and found herself on magazine covers at the age of 20.
By this time, Norma Jean had already divorced her first husband and tried to end her life. With both suicide and mental illness in her family’s history, Marilyn Monroe’s greatest and most crippling fear was the possibility of her own insanity. It was only one of several insecurities that were eventually compounded by the stresses of life in the public eye. Though these troubles wouldn’t dampen her early career, they became more threatening as her fame increased and severely affected her peers’ opinion of her temperament and professionalism.
In 1946, 20th Century Fox got a look at Norma Jean and offered her a contract at $125 per week. Although they gave her the usual starlet treatment, changing her name to Marilyn Monroe and buffing up her skills, they dropped her after two minuscule parts in minor films. Despite a promising part in the Columbia musical Ladies of the Chorus (1948), she found herself independently seeking employment once again. Then, after bit parts in the A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950) and the Marx Brothers’ swan song Love Happy, she auditioned for the role that would make a difference. John Huston was filming The Asphalt Jungle and needed a young blonde to cast as Louis Calhern’s mistress. Marilyn got the part after just one reading. The film was a critical success, and although Monroe was not yet up to leading-lady status, her name was mentioned positively in reviews of the film.
Audiences began to notice this alluring blonde and were treated to three more appearances that year, including her delightfully vapid part as Miss Caswell in All About Eve. Fox came back with another contract, this time for $500 a week, and put her in three films in 1951. All of these parts traded on Monroe’s voluptuous appeal, and by 1952, she was getting better roles. Critical assessments of Marilyn’s work at this stage included “gorgeous,” “refreshing,” and “worthy of all that press agentry.” Moviegoers were smitten. Though she had yet to carry a film, her charms were evident in the smaller parts she played.
It was at about this time that knowledge of her now-famous calendar hit the tabloids. Between films, in 1948, Monroe had posed nude for what turned out to be a phenomenally popular photograph. GIs, mechanics, and men all across the country bought so many copies of the calendar that it was inevitable that her involvement would be discovered. In response to questions about the photograph, Monroe simply answered, “Sure, I posed. I was hungry. I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve done nothing wrong.” It was characteristic of her to reply with such unapologetic honesty, a trait that would endear her to friends and add to her popularity during the course of her lifetime. On the heels of such unplanned publicity, Marilyn appeared on the cover of Life magazine with the caption, “The Talk of Hollywood.” It was the first of 10 cover stories on Marilyn, and it presented a positive portrait of a young girl whose early life had been marked by hardship. The magazine and the public were very sympathetic to Monroe, and the “scandal” turned out to be more of help than hindrance to her career and her image.
1953: A Banner Year for Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn’s first film of 1953 was the thriller Niagara, in which she starred opposite Joseph Cotton. Billed alongside Niagara Falls as one of the “wonders of the world,” Monroe seductively slunk her way across the screen as the sort of villainess that audiences love to hate. The femme fatale role didn’t entirely suit Monroe, but it had enough drama and appeal to raise her profile. Critics gave her good reviews, but even at this stage in her career, they had already developed a skeptical tone reminiscent of earlier views on comparably blonde, stunning, and popular bombshells Jean Harlow and Lana Turner. It would be a lifelong, uphill battle for Marilyn to convince reviewers that she had worth other than the hourglass figure that brought her such attention.
Monroe’s next vehicle was the double-whammy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which featured Marilyn alongside the equally pneumatic Jane Russell. The glittery, Technicolor musical featured Marilyn’s dazzling rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” as well as a show-stopping impersonation of Monroe by her man-hungry cohort, Russell. Carol Channing later remarked that Marilyn had repeatedly come to study her performance as Lorelei Lee in the Broadway rendition of Blondes, something Miss Channing was not thrilled about since she’d hoped to play the film-role herself. Monroe’s observations paid off, however, because her comic turn as the money-seeking singer demonstrated that she did have talents beyond her obvious physical attributes. As in most of her films, Marilyn did all of her own singing, in her typical breathy fashion.
Rounding out the year with a bang, Monroe co-starred in the successful comedy How to Marry a Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. Though Grable’s star was clearly being eclipsed by Monroe’s at the time, there was no sign of animosity on Betty’s part. Having ruled a decade as Fox’s glamour queen, Grable remarked to her successor, “Honey, I’ve had it. Go get yours. It’s your turn now.” Audiences appreciated Marilyn’s self-deprecating role as a nearsighted model who’s oblivious to her own charms. Monroe was also pleasantly received by critics, who were loathe to acknowledge any acting skills but conceded her comedic appeal.
All three films of 1953 were box office hits, with American film distributors voting Marilyn the top star of the year and Redbook magazine naming her “Best Young Box Office Personality.” She appeared on countless magazine covers and made her first TV appearance, on the Jack Benny Show. Also that year, Photoplay bestowed upon her their “Fastest Rising Star of 1952” award, and in 1954, they gave her a second, as “Best Actress” for her performances in Millionaire and Blondes. She was now Hollywood’s biggest draw and Fox’s hottest property, with audiences clamoring for more.
Marilyn released two films in 1954, the critically panned River of No Return, and the vaudevillian musical There’s No Business Like Show Business. Although both films were poorly received, neither did much to dampen her image as the most popular star in Hollywood. Also that year, she married all-American baseball star Joe DiMaggio.
What appeared on the surface to be a fairy-tale pairing proved to be anything but. Marilyn quickly tired of being “Mrs. Joe DiMaggio,” and he couldn’t tolerate the throngs of people gawking at his wife during the shooting of The Seven Year Itch. The film’s famous, revealing subway-top scene was too much for his ego, and the pair divorced after nine months. Itch, however, was a huge hit and confirmed Marilyn’s status as a true star. It also marked a turning point in the woman’s life, a period in which her self-doubt and emotional instability would lead her to drugs, alcohol dependency, and decreasing professionalism on the job.
Breaking the stereotype
Following her popular success with The Seven Year Itch, Monroe left Fox out of a desire to pursue something greater than the stereotype that was making her famous. Refusing to appear in a film titled How to Be Very, Very Popular, she fled to the Actors Studio in New York, where she studied with Lee and Paula Strasberg and met noted playwright Arthur Miller. There she made friends and gained emotional support for her increasingly fragile psyche. Her attempts at serious theater brought cries of disbelief from the press, who insisted that her talents had little to do with acting. This was a perception that plagued Monroe, who struggled to improve her abilities and to overcome her own insecurities. Upon forming Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc. in 1955, she said, “I didn’t like a lot of my pictures. I’m tired of sex roles. I want to broaden my scope.”
Marilyn Monroe was quite critical of her own performances. At times, her low self-esteem would cripple her innate talents, manifesting itself as sickness or depression and adding to the industry perception that she was hard to work with. As Arthur Miller would say, ” … some part of her is always put to shame by the distance between what she achieves and the goal she has set out for herself.”
Miller clearly had respect and compassion for Monroe, which undoubtedly influenced her decision to marry him in 1956. To Marilyn, Miller was a combination of father figure and intellectual idol. She adored him completely, equating a portion of her self-worth with his faith in her. Again, the press was hard on Marilyn, finding the marriage unfathomable. Troubled as the union later became, it lasted until 1961.
After her study in New York, Monroe returned to Fox, having negotiated a better contract with more control. Marilyn’s first film following her return to Hollywood was the highly acclaimed Bus Stop, in which she gave a delicate funny performance, displaying tenderness and obvious talent. Critics seemed shocked, declaring this as the film that proved “the blonde can really act!” There was even talk of an Oscar nomination, but such recognition never materialized.
Her self-produced follow-up, The Prince and the Showgirl, paired Monroe with actor/director Laurence Olivier. Reviews of Marilyn’s performance acknowledge a mature style and confidence, but the two stars were a definite mismatch and the film itself was a flop. Olivier’s directing style didn’t mesh with Monroe’s newly learned Method techniques, and Marilyn allowed her insecurities about working with the world-famous actor to affect her health, resulting in illness and absence.
Later in 1957, Monroe would suffer the first of three miscarriages. After this tragedy, she would take some time off to recuperate before beginning her next picture, Some Like It Hot. Having been raised in foster homes, she was quite concerned with maintaining a solid family, and although she desperately wanted children, Marilyn never had any.
Like kissing Hitler
Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot was a tremendous critical and financial hit. This time, Marilyn got rave reviews for her comedic timing and polished dumb-blonde routine, winning a Golden Globe award for “Best Actress in a Comedy.” Working alongside the impeccable Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis team, this was no small accomplishment. Though some of her scenes had to be edited together using different takes, it was hardly apparent to film fans that Marilyn’s performance on the set had left her director and co-stars frustrated. Typically late and unable to complete her lines, Marilyn drove co-star Curtis into sniping, “Kissing her is like kissing Hitler!”
By 1960, Marilyn’s marriage was deteriorating. Rumors abounded of an affair with her Let’s Make Love co-star Yves Montand, and she had begun working on one of the most troubled productions in motion picture history, the Arthur Miller-scripted The Misfits. Monroe and Miller remained married through the completion of the film, but divorced just before its release. Throughout filming, Marilyn was again depressed, ill, and missing from the set. Increasingly dependent on pills and alcohol, she suffered an overdose at one point during production. The Misfits was not a commercial success, but almost all of the reviews recognized the peak performances of its lead actors. Marilyn’s portrayal of the empathetic Rosalyn was stunning and heartbreaking. Miller had modeled the role of Rosalyn on Marilyn herself, and she gave it a truth and rawness that came from her own experience. Unfortunately, the demanding production took its toll on her, and she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, physically and emotionally exhausted. Also weakened from the experience was co-star Clark Gable, who died of a heart attack just after The Misfits was completed.
After a period of recuperation, Marilyn returned to film Something’s Got to Give, but was continually absent and clearly unstable. Production went so far over budget and behind schedule that Fox fired Monroe and filed a lawsuit against her for $750,000. Just weeks later, on August 5, 1962, she was found dead in her bed, overdosed on barbiturates. While Monroe’s death may have been an accident and has been explored as a conspiracy in connection to widely rumored liaisons with both John and Robert Kennedy, it is widely accepted that it was a suicide, resulting from her constant depression and lack of self-esteem.
As soon as Marilyn Monroe hit it big, Hollywood spawned numerous imitators. Jayne Mansfield, Mamie van Doren, and Diana Dors were the most successful, but none of the Marilyn wannabes came close to having her level of on-screen charisma.
How did one woman become the most ubiquitous female image in American pop culture? The most immediate factor to influence our remembrance of Marilyn Monroe was her early death. Like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and James Dean, her image was fixed forever while she still appeared young and glamorous, if somewhat exhausted by her emotional difficulties. As with any truncated life, we can only imagine what she might have accomplished had she emerged from the shadows of her tempestuous existence. Films like The Misfits demonstrate a talent that might have become, as Lee Strasberg predicted, “one of the really great actresses of the stage.” Marilyn’s unrealized future is certainly the cornerstone of our cultural adoration for the star.
Another consideration is Marilyn Monroe’s troubled life and her ongoing battle with pills and alcohol. She was a celebrity who appeared to be dangerously close to collapse and unable to cope with the weight of superstardom. Of her existence during the filming of The Misfits, John Huston said, “She took so many pills to help her sleep at night that she had to take other pills to get her going in the morning. And that ravaged the girl.” Though this aspect of Marilyn’s life in the spotlight wasn’t apparent until late in her career, it engendered sympathy for the vulnerable woman behind the glamorous façade.
Intrigue surrounding Monroe’s apparent suicide and the resultant, sensationalized coverage seemed to snowball over subsequent years. Was it related to rumored affairs with the Kennedys? Was it a mob hit? Was it a terrible accident? These tabloid inquiries were periodically spurred by factual revelation and more speculation. The Kennedy connection continues to be revisited as time lends more objectivity to our perspective on JFK. And whatever the truth, merely being suspected of sexually invading Camelot added spice to Monroe’s legend.
Though curiosity about her intimate life certainly has perpetuated the Marilyn mystique over the years, the underlying current of that interest is a more subtle recognition of the public’s role in her death. As a culture, America built up the goddess that was Marilyn Monroe. We lauded her portrayal of the buxom blonde, but we were less willing to accept her repeated insistence that she could be more than just our sex symbol. Although critics finally admitted that she did have some talent, the press was largely unforgiving and openly condescending toward Marilyn. In building up such an insecure person, we collectively encouraged her to continually seek our approval. And she was devastated when she didn’t get it. Marilyn probably shouldn’t have been a movie star, compelled to perform for others when she could barely keep herself together.
In idolizing Marilyn Monroe and attempting to understand the woman behind the magnetic smile, we continue to empathize with someone that we now know was troubled beyond the public’s perception. As Gay Langland in The Misfits, Clark Gable would say to Monroe’s character, Rosalyn, “I think you’re the saddest girl I ever saw.” In retrospect, Marilyn was our saddest star, and for that we will always feel guilt and regret.