The Sad, Beautiful Story of Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe’s value will last as long as her mystique. As of now, that mystique is resurrected every year on the anniversary of her death. The answers to “what if” are only important to those who remember her films. Be prepared for a burst of nostalgia on the 50th anniversary in 2012.
One answer to “what if” is that she would be 86 if she had lived. With the exception of Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and the movie camera, life, people, and the movie industry were not kind to Marilyn.
Marilyn made a surprising number of pictures dating back to the late 1904s. Born in 1926, she appeared as an extra or walk-on in a number of films in her late teens as she paid her dues to the studio system. By the early 50s, she nailed small parts in major films, such as All About Eve and Monkey Business, always the dumb busty blond. This put her to work with the likes of Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Ginger Rogers. She had made the big time.
The mid-fifties put her into leads in Niagara, River of No Return, and Bus Stop. Despite co-stars, such as Robert Mitchum, Joseph Cotton, Rory Calhoun, and Don Murray, and directors like Josh Logan and Otto Preminger, she continued to ply to type. Perhaps she even deserves credit for perfecting the role of the earnest but clueless blond with a heart of gold. It’s even hard to imagine doing Inge’s Bus Stop on stage without Monroe. The parts were not a stretch but were shaped by the studio system that, in effect, defined her future.
The system permitted some flexibility by putting her into major musical productions. She played basically the same ditzy, childlike, busty ingénue in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, and There’s No Business Like Show Business. She did it well in these full blast studio productions with brilliant color, full orchestrations of great music, elaborate sets, and sexy costumes. She still held her own against Ethel Merman, Jane Russell, Lauren Bacall, and Mitzi Gaynor in these studio packages.
In her prime in 1957, she survived the terrible fiasco, called The Prince and the Showgirl, which put her up against Sir Laurence Olivier. Gorgeously filmed and plush with costumes and royal trappings, it was a silly story in competition that year with The Bridge on the River Kwai, Three Faces of Eve, and Funny Face. The criticism reportedly affected her badly.
But, those last years offered some great films in which she created once-in-a-lifetime portrayals. She will always and rightly be remembered for three major hits:
• In 1955, she starred in The Seven Year Itch with Tom Ewell. Ewell plays the dreadfully boring regular guy working in publishing who vows to live the straight life while his wife and son escape the city for the hot summer. A 10+ blond moves into the apartment upstairs and threatens his every good intention and resolution.
As Ewell fantasizes about Marilyn and she “inadvertently” tempts him with every move and dress, Ewell’s frustration mounts. Directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder, the film banks on its excellent script and the extraordinary chemistry Wilder finds between the these two very different actors. The dumpy, droopy, and uncharismatic Tom Ewell must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
• In 1959, Marilyn Monroe starred in the milestone comedy Some Like It Hot. Working again with Billy Wilder, she starred with an ensemble cast including Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, and Jo E. Brown. In this farce, Curtis and Lemmon witness a gangland shooting and take refuge as members of an all-girl band. Playing drag for most of the film, the two male stars score terrific performances.
Monroe plays a ditzy, buxom, blond bombshell, once again, yet there is a sense in which she is playing up to the role – instead of playing herself. She makes the role her own and plays it to the hilt. Never sexier, she is also human, womanly and independent. The performance was largely influenced by Billy Wilder’s genius.
• In 1962, they released The Misfits. Written by the renowned Arthur Miller and directed by the great John Houston in black and white, The Misfits starred Monroe - along with Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, and Eli Wallach. Poorly received at the time, it remains a unique and important film, including what is Monroe’s best dramatic performance.
Released after her marriage to Miller had ended, it follows her studies with Adler and The Actor’s Studio. Marilyn still cannot do accents, modulate her breathy voice, or hide her voluptuous body. But, there is a strong feeling that she has her head around this tragic character. There is also something fitting and magical about this acting ensemble – Gable at the end of illustrious career, and with Houston, Clift and Ritter near death.
Arthur Miller wrote the script for Marilyn Monroe, but John Houston adapted it for all these mythic film figures. It becomes its own legend about the end of potential. As three erstwhile cowboys find themselves out of joint and time, they search the western horizon for misfit horses to slaughter. Drink diminishes this failed dream for some, but Marilyn is destroyed by the idea of slaughter. For all them, this marks the end of horizons, promise, and dreams. Only her character is able to articulate this American tragedy – and Marilyn pulls it together from somewhere deep inside.
Marilyn Monroe was a tragic and flawed person who, apparently, worked at being both. Crippled by self-esteem issues, she consciously or unconsciously sought to exploit them. Promiscuous and victimized, she lived a dream and was destroyed by its underside.