Thursday, June 2, 2011

Marilyn at 85

The other day I saw a news story that Marilyn Monroe's dress, the one which memorably billowed out over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch, was going up for auction and would likely fetch two million dollars. I did not know at the time that this news item was designed to coincide with what would have been Marilyn's 85th birthday, had her days not been cut short by an overdose of barbituates in 1962.

To be honest, I was never a big Marilyn Monroe fan so until three weeks ago I don't think I had actually seen a single one of her films in full. But someone at work has a Marilyn calender in her cubicle and after months of seeing various black and white images of the iconic blonde starlet, I actually decided I should go ahead and stop judging her by the bad reviews she garnered for her weaker films, failed marriages and misdeeds. And guess what? I learned something.

The two films I watched were Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The former is classic film noir, the latter a musical comedy.

In Niagara, Ms. Monroe plays the role of a scheming wife who conspires with her current lover to bump off her neurotic husband, played by Joseph Cotten. There is only one provocative scene in the film and it's early on where Monroe is lying in bed watching her husband and you can see her bare back, implying she probably does not have any clothes on. In the early fifties this was no doubt risque, even though she was with her own husband in a hotel room at Niagara Falls.

Well, the acting is generally flat throughout, and not just Marilyn, who did her best under the circumstances. There was probably a limit to how much chemistry one could show in those days, though maybe this was lacking, too. The bottom line is, in my opinion she was just another actress playing a role. What's the big deal. Hollywood is full of pretty faces.

But then I saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and understood her star power.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about a pair of showgirls who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and are working their way across the Atlantic on a ship. The pair, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, are best buds from small town America who have contrasting agendas. Russell is looking for love and Monroe, as Lorelei Lee, is a gold-digger. Directed by Howard Hawkes, both women appear to be having a great deal of fun.

The script is saturated with sexual innuendo and crisp comic witticisms throughout. Even though this has never been my style of film, one thing you can't help but notice... every time Marilyn shows up she lights up the screen. Both she and Russell must have enjoyed the opportunity to shimmy and shake with abandon. The cameras loved it, and probably their fans enjoyed it to. Some people have it listed as one of their favorite films of all time.

When I read accounts of Marilyn's short life I feel pity for her. But I also think she may have gotten lucky in some ways. Being famous and beautiful creates many difficulties and I can't picture her aging gracefully. On the contrary, it is easy to imagine her aging disgracefully.

She grew up in the glory days when bad behavior was often concealed from an adoring public. The 1950s was an age of innocence still, though Marilyn was bigger than the Hollywood PR machinery could handle, marrying a superstar ballplayer, a famed Broadway playwright and generating rumors of dalliances with a U.S. president and his brother. How well would Norma Jeane have held up over the next five decades had she lived? The Warhol images enshrine her as a pop icon. And Elton John's Candle in the Wind portrays a saintlike martyr of legendary stature. As for me, I can see from her films that she was more than just another pretty face. In the end, her story makes me sad.

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