It was several years ago when I rented Some Like It Hot (1960) that my mother mentioned Marilyn Monroe was her favourite actress (well, besides Maureen O'Hara anyway). This was a fact that I had not known about my mother all those years. That having been said, my mother was not alone in favouring Marilyn. Marilyn was the favourite actress of many people. Indeed, such is her status in pop culture that it must be said she went beyond being a legend long ago. Marilyn Monroe is an icon.
It was 85 years ago today that Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles, California. She was baptised Norma Jeane Baker, the name she would use for most of her life. As an adult she would become a model, and it was her modelling career that brought her to the attention of 20th Century Fox. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, christened Norma Jeane Baker, it would be at this point that she would take the name with which she would become famous. She took her stage from Marilyn Miller, the Broadway actress of the Twenties, and her mother's maiden name, Monroe. Unfortunately, Marilyn would not meet with success immediately. Her film début in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) was the first of several uncredited or extremely small roles in films. Fortunately, 1950 would bring Marilyn success at last, appearing in a small, comedic role in All About Eve and as a criminal's mistress in The Asphalt Jungle. From that point onwards Marilyn's star would continue to rise. Indeed, it can be argued that it has continued to rise ever since her untimely death on 5 August 1962.
Whether or not Marilyn's death contributed to her continuing popularity is debatable. It must be pointed out that Marilyn Monroe was still phenomenally popular at the time of her death. I rather suspect that if her career had stalled (and it is quite possible it could have), she would have still continued to be an extremely popular actress, much in the same way the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor had. I very seriously doubt, then, that Marilyn's death at such a young age is very much of a contributing factor to her continued popularity. Instead, I think the popularity of Marilyn Monroe after her death is largely due to the same things that made her popular in her death.
There can be no doubt that much of Marilyn's popularity even today was due to her obvious sex appeal. Marilyn Monroe was not necessarily the most beautiful actress to ever appear on screen (that may well have been Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly), nor did she necessarily have the best figure of any movie actress (that may well have been Ava Gardner), but she was certainly among the most sexiest women to appear on screen. Beyond a beautiful face and a fantastic figure, Marilyn knew how to use what Providence had given her. She knew how to move, how to pose, how to even glance to maximise her sexuality. When Marilyn Monroe walked, men would turn their heads.
Sex appeal alone does not account for Marilyn's popularity when she was alive and her continued popularity in death. While it may be cliché to say so, it would seem much of Marilyn's success was due to the vulnerability she projected both on screen and in her personal life. Marilyn appeared so vulnerable both on screen and off that men and even women wanted to protect her, even to save her. It was that vulnerability that not only made Marilyn non-threatening to other women in a way other sex symbols never had been, but also made her sex appeal relatively safe at a time when sex in American society was largely demonised. Marilyn was not a femme fatale who might kill one in his sleep. She was not a seductress who might lure men away from their wives. Instead Marilyn Monroe was an innocent, barely aware of her own sex appeal, whom men and women both wanted to care for and protect.
Beyond Marilyn Monroe's sex appeal and vulnerability, however, one must also take into account her sheer energy on screen. Perhaps it was her combination of sexuality and vulnerability, perhaps it was due to some other factors, but Marilyn Monroe lit up the screen with the intensity of thousands of light bulbs. She could easily dominate any scene in which she appeared, to the point that one of the greatest actors of all time, Lord Laurence Olivier, was certain she stole every scene in which they both appeared in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). When Marilyn Monroe appeared on screen, she took the lion's share of the audience's attention. Only a very few actors could actually compete with her when it came to dominating a scene (the recently deceased Jane Russell being one of them).
Even if Marilyn Monroe had lived, even if her career had entirely stalled, even if she had ceased acting, I suspect these qualities--the sexuality, the vulnerability, and the sheer energy--would have insured that her popularity would never had faded even she had not died so young. I rather suspect that regardless of what happened in her career, Marilyn Monroe would have remained a popular icon throughout her lifetime. Strangely enough, Marilyn's death could be used as evidence of such. Her passing was one of those in which years later individuals would ask, "Where were you when you learned Marilyn Monroe had died?" It is a question generally reserved for heads of state. similar political figures, and Beatle John Lennon. That this question is asked by older people of each other demonstrates Marilyn Monroe in her own lifetime had gone beyond a mere actress. In her own life she had become an icon.