Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Strange Afterlife of Marilyn Monroe

Written by Angelica Jade Bastién

How can one speak about Marilyn Monroe without mentioning Norma Jeane Mortenson? This dichotomy between the sexy bombshell with confidence and childlike vulnerability, and the pill–popping, alcohol-soaked woman yearning for more has come to define Marilyn Monroe as an actress, icon, emblem of classic Hollywood, and, as a woman. But this is a false contrast. After all, can anyone be defined in such an easy manner?

Marilyn Monroe was one of the last major stars of the studio eraa time in which film studios were almost God-like pantheons crafting and shaping stars that were brighter than those in the sky. Like James Dean and Humphrey Bogart, Monroe is one of the few classic cinema icons recognized by modern audiences. She’s emblazoned on hot pink T-shirts, coffee mugs, coasters, and lighters. She’s a curvaceous visual shorthand for the tribulations of women under the patriarchal studio system, 1950s sexuality, and most notably, the dumb blonde archetypeeven though she was anything but. Her story is fodder for countless Vanity Fair articles. How she bounced around foster homes. Her marriages. Her sex appeal. Her issues with alcohol and prescription drugs. Her difficulty on set. Her fear and understanding of the camera. These points have been rehashed, refocused, and reused through countless filters. But what about Marilyn’s own voice?

We never learn more about Monroe than what has been repeated ad naseum: She was incredibly sad and beautiful. She had difficulty connecting with others. She swilled champagne and pills with hearty abandon. She was luminescent. Basically, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl dialed up to ten.

The problem with the cultish mythmaking that has attached itself to Marilyn Monroe in the wake of her death is the casual sexism at its core. A good example of this came to me as I was recently walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where I currently live. Early in May, the twenty-six-foot-high statue of Marilyn Monroe by Seward Johnson that stands in Pioneer Court, or I should say stood, was being dismantled. It was unsettling, to say the least. Her gargantuan figure in pieces against the concrete of Magnificent Mile. Much like her legacy and Monroe herself, it was heartbreaking to see this appropriated image of her broken and strewn across the street.

The sculpture pays tribute to the most iconic Monroe image from the 1955 Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch. Monroe’s face is exuberant and joyful as her white dress blows upward. The sculpture invites viewers to peer up Marilyn’s dress. Whenever I was in the area that’s just what I would see. Tourists and locals alike taking pictures of her underwear, their arms wrapped around her curvaceous leg with wide smiles. Most of these people probably couldn’t name what film this was from, and know little of Monroe in general. The cult around her has appropriated her image and forsaken her identity. Yes, this isn’t really Monroe. Just like the countless biopics, articles, and poems aren’t really about her, but are about what she represents.

But you can’t really understand Monroe until you’ve seen her on screen. I first did so in Some Like it Hot. She’s genuinely funny, exuberant, and beautiful. Watching her later films like Bus Stop or The Misfits we can see the greatest tragedy is that her range was so rarely tested and shown in cinema. But even when you think you can understand her you really don’t. Because today’s Monroe isn’t Monroe at all. Our public consciousness has warped her into a myth of outstanding proportions. She’s been flattened onto millions of Andy Warhol prints and the T-shirts of giggling teens who couldn’t tell the difference between any of her films. She’s become a mere shade of the Monroe that catapulted through 1950s America giving a breathless voice to female sexuality and fighting against the studio system that didn’t want to give her the dramatic roles she needed to break the beguiling spell of the dumb blonde archetype she has now made infamous.

One of the best examples of the casual sexism that has shaded Monroe’s legacy and has created this dangerous mythmaking is My Week With Marilyn. The title alone tells you this story isn’t about Marilyn but what she represents to society, men, women, and everyone but herself. The film treats a woman who loathed being only seen as a sex object as a sex object. A young man obsessed with the image she has put forth tells her story. It’s the ultimate how-to guide in the male gaze, a hundred-minute or so example as to all that is wrong with how women are constrained by the media and how Monroe has been lost in the shuffle of her own myth.

We never learn more about Monroe than what has been repeated ad naseum: She was incredibly sad and beautiful. She had difficulty connecting with others. She swilled champagne and pills with hearty abandon. She was luminescent. Basically, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl dialed up to ten. My Week With Marilyn becomes a good example of how stars can be exploited by the people who supposedly care about them the most. There were so many insensitive leaches out there swarming around Monroe. They were people who didn’t understand the perils of her mental illness and chose instead to get wrapped up in the fantastical myth around her that exists to this very day. Colin Clark (whose autobiographies are the source material for the film) was taking advantage of a woman who needed an honest friend, not some lovesick fool with no regard to her problems. Where is Thelma Ritter when you need her?

There is a way to explore Monroe in a film in an interesting manneras a screenwriter I know it is possible. This film just isn’t it. It would also be more interesting to see a female writer delve into Monroe. Haven’t enough men gazed upon and through her?

In this, the most dangerous aspect of lauding this dichotomous myth isn’t just how it paints voracious sexuality as a woman’s defect, or treats mental illness in a pat Hallmark movie manner, but that it supports stripping a woman of her voice. What is more essential to feminism and to one’s identity than to speak for oneself in this life and the next? In this film and in countless articles, Monroe is painted in broad strokes. Always a victim, martyr, whore, child, or fool.

Hearing stories from her friends and fellow stars, we can get a more well-rounded picture of Marilyn Monroe. There’s the salty tongued Monroe on the set of Some Like it Hot, free of the pill-bottle rattle and martini-soaked tears that have come to define her. Or the Monroe of Truman Capote’s wondrous essay, A Beautiful Child, that is heartbreaking, humorous, and sexy. There’s writer-director extraordinaire that speaks of her “feeling for and fear of the camera,” calling out one thing that gets lost in the shuffle of the pulp biographies of Monroe: how damned funny she was.

My favorite Monroe story comes from her friend Ella Fitzgerald, which calls attention to Monroe’s support of the Civil Rights Movement. Monroe was outraged that Fitzgerald wasn’t allowed to perform at the Mocambo Nightclub in West Hollywood, the most popular dance spot at the time, and took it upon herself to make sure she did.

Fitzgerald put it this way in an interview: “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt . . . it was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman–a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

But nothing is better than letting a woman speak for herself. Last year, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters  was released. It is a refreshing and unvarnished look at Monroe herself because it contains her poems and letters without the grandstanding filter a Vanity Fair-type article would put them through. The pictures in the collection show, at times, Monroe at her most unvarnished. I’m not talking about makeup or girdles or the tight halters she was known to wear. I am talking about a sense of self shining through while she reads Ulysses or punctuates a thought with a wave of her pen.

In a small black journal around 1950 she wrote:
“actress must have no mouth
no feet
girdle hangs light
focus my thought on
the partner---
feeling in the end of my fingers”

Even though she is ultra ubiquitous she is still so mysterious, misunderstood. The characters she created overlay the reality creating a fantasy where only through the cracks we can see shimmers of the real Monroe. It’s in these contradictions that her humanity gains focus: No matter how manufactured she was, she had the ability to make her fakeness feel real, as if we could reach out and touch her through the screen. The cream-skinned goddess with the sad smile and flesh impact. The “dumb blonde” with the knowing twinkle in her eye. The woman always yearning for more. She’s all these things and then some.

In the same way you reread a great novel and come to understand it better the second time, I have come to understand Marilyn Monroe as an actress better with age. Yes, she was sexy, truly hilarious, conscientious, and wry. But above all she was achingly human; a contradiction made of flesh, blood, and celluloid. The reason why I connected with Monroe was because I understand how it is to have your body gawked at but your intelligence ignored. I have an intimate, painful knowledge of mental illness.  I know what it is to yearn for a sense of family and try to make it on your own.

We all know how Marilyn Monroe’s story ends. She buckled under the weight of the image she created and that was thrust upon her. She couldn’t wriggle herself loose of previous shackles even as she tried hard to form a new image, one that was aligned with her intelligent sensibilities. But the best people didn’t always surround Monroe. History has rewritten her as a pulpy sob story in 1950s dressing. But she was so much more than that. She challenged the status quo of female sexuality in 1950s America. She showed that a woman could be several different types of sexy and intelligent and funny. Despite the one-note, pale imitations of actresses like Michelle Williams, Monroe was more than the sum of her parts. She had a voice that deserves to be heard above the myth, especially after so many years of others speaking for her.

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