Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. The news media are full of, mostly, gushing commentaries about her.
Ms. Monroe’s reputation as a movie star is based upon just ten movies made between 1953 and 1961, beginning with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and ending with The Misfits, her last completed movie. At her death she entered the pantheon of “too much, too soon” actors and actresses, at whose summit is James Dean. I think there’s a notable difference between Dean and Monroe: Dean died at the pinnacle of his career; at the time of her death Monroe’s career was, arguably, in decline. She was 36 years of age, an age at which actresses who’ve achieved fame as sex symbols frequently see the offers of juicy roles becoming fewer and farther between. Of course, since they both died we have no way of knowing for sure.
Of the ten films Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic roles were in two films by Billy Wilder: The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. That alone should be enough to give us pause. IMO Wilder had only one overriding theme: sexual transgression. That wasn’t unique in the 1950s and 60s. In France it was personified by Brigitte Bardot; in Italy by Sophia Loren.
There is a notable difference, however. Bardot and Loren were symbols of female sexual power, joyful and exhilarating. Contrariwise, Marilyn Monroe, particularly in her two iconic Billy Wilder roles, was too depersonalized. She had no names. In The Seven Year Itch she was “The Girl”; in Some Like It Hot she had only a stage name.
I have never cared much for Marilyn Monroe’s pictures. They are too leering, too, as I say, depersonalized. One factor behind my dislike may be what might be deemed a flaw of mine: the personalities of actors and actresses invariably come across the proscenium at me. I always see the underlying person in any performance. To my eye Marilyn Monroe was not vulnerable, the term usually applied, but damaged. She’s too sad for me to watch.
My favorite performance by Marilyn Monroe was in Bus Stop. In Bus Stop that damaged quality is front and center. In Bus Stop it works. Similarly, the damaged quality is central to her character in The Misfits. The Misfits is just too dark for me to take much pleasure in watching it.
I think there’s one thing was should be concerned about in the popular image of Marilyn Monroe: the romanticization. Today’s young women, most of whom have never seen any of her pictures, know her only from stills or short clips. They see the beauty, the voluptuousness, the evening gown, and that she never gets old. What they don’t see is the damage from mental illness, sexual abuse, a string of failed marriages, and the hard, grueling slog climbing the ladder in the movies under what we can only imagine what circumstances, never to receive much respect as an actress during her lifetime.