Sunday, 5 August 2012

The 50th Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's Death

When it comes to movie stars, they do not come much bigger than Marilyn Monroe. Fifty years after her death she still has one of the most recognisable names in the motion picture business. The sheer number of Marilyn Monroe merchandise is staggering, everything from posters to t-shirts to coffee cups to even purses. She is still referenced quite frequently in popular culture. Just last year a film, My Week with Marilyn (centred around the making of one of Marilyn's movies, The Prince and the Showgirl), was released to good box office and some critical buzz, particularly around Michelle Williams' portrayal of the actress. Next year another film about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, starring Naomi Watts as the troubled star, will be released. Just this year a television series, Smash, debuted. The show centred around a musical based on Marilyn Monroe's life.  Last year she appeared, alongside Grace Kelly, in a commercial for Dior's J'Adore perfume. A Revlon commercial starring Olivia Wilde from this year visually referenced Marilyn Monroe's appearance in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Even high culture is not immune to the charms of Marilyn Monroe. Last year artist Maurice Bennett recreated her image in, of all things, bread. Also last year a new opera based on the star, Anyone Can See I Love You, debuted. The sheer number of books dealing with Marilyn Monroe published each year can be staggering.

It was fifty years ago today, 5 August 1962, that Marilyn Monroe died, and yet in some ways it is as if she never left us. Her name is still recognisable today when many of her contemporaries are known only to classic film buffs. Teenagers might not recognise a picture of Eva Marie Saint when they see one, but they will most certainly recognise Marilyn Monroe. Of course, this begs the question of why Marilyn Monroe has maintained such a high profile fifty years after her death, when many of the stars of the Fifties have been forgotten by the public at large. There is probably no simple answer to this question.

The cynical amongst us might chalk Marilyn's appeal up to her rather curvaceous figure. Marilyn Monroe was certainly blessed with a shape many women might envy, with nearly perfect breasts, rounded hips, and shapely legs. Marilyn Monroe was the definition of "curvy." That having been said, it seems insufficient to explain why she retains her appeal today. Other actresses of the Fifties had equally voluptuous shapes, but have been forgotten by the public at large. Elaine Stewart, Marilyn Maxwell, Mitzi Gaynor, and other actresses had equally fabulous shapes, but one would be hard pressed to find very many under the age of fifty who would recognise their names. Too, while Marilyn Monroe is often counted as a film sex symbol (often the film sex symbol), she is not often listed alongside the great beauties of the screen. It is a rare thing to see Marilyn Monroe listed alongside Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, or Vivien Leigh as among the most beautiful women in the movies. It would seem then that one cannot simply write off Marilyn Monroe's continued appeal as due to her figure.

Indeed, crediting Marilyn Monroe's figure as the source of her fame ignores one simple fact: some of her biggest fans are heterosexual women. Indeed, it seems to me that, unlike such sex symbols as Hedy Lamarr and Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe might boast more female fans than male fans. As an example, my mother's two favourite actresses of all time were Maureen O'Hara and Marilyn Monroe. Since heterosexual women would presumably have little interest in Marilyn's figure, then it must be assumed that the source of much of Marilyn Monroe's appeal must be found elsewhere.

I rather suspect much of the appeal of Marilyn Monroe for both women and men, regardless of their sexual orientation, is that she had a vulnerability about her that is found in only a few other actresses. While Marilyn played a variety of characters on screen, nearly all of them had a vulnerable side, a sensitive part of themselves. While The Girl in The Seven Year Itch served as fuel for Richard Sherman's (Tom Ewell) fantasies, one could not help but think she was as lonely as he was. Sugar Kane, in Some Like It Hot (1959) perhaps the archetypal Marilyn Monroe character, seemed a bit naive and innocent, wholly unaware of and often surprised of her effect on men. Of course, much of the vulnerability Marilyn Monroe projected on screen may have been the result of her many vulnerabilities in life. By her own admission Marilyn was shy and we know from those who knew her that she was insecure. While making The Misfits the woman many regarded as a sex goddess worried that the film's script supervisor, Angela Allen, was having an affair with Marilyn's then husband, playwright Arthur Miller (they weren't). According to photographer and director Lawrence Schiller, author of the book Marilyn and Me, Marilyn Monroe worried that her star may be eclipsed by fellow actress Elizabeth Taylor. On the screen and in real life Marilyn Monroe had a vulnerability about her that made both women and men care about her and perhaps even care for her.

Of course, Marilyn Monroe's vulnerability is probably only part of her appeal. Much of her appeal may be found in what could be her most famous character, Sugar Kane from Some Like It Hot. As noted above, Sugar seems wholly unaware of her sex appeal to men. This seemed to be true of many other of Marilyn Monroe's characters, and perhaps of Marilyn herself as well. The Girl in The Seven Year Itch seems wholly unaware that she is the object of Richard Sherman's fantasies. Beyond thinking (quite erroneously, I might add) that "Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses," Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) seems equally oblivious to her affect on men. It would seem that many of Marilyn Monroe's characters exhibited a sort of innocent sexuality, whereby they were not purposefully seductive and simply attracted men by the sheer power of their appearance and personality. While Marilyn Monroe might appear very sexy to men, then, at the same time she might not be threatening to other women in the way that actresses whose characters exhibited a more open or more aggressive sexuality (such as Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, and Rita Hayworth) might be. Quite simply, Marilyn Monroe was sexy without being a threat to other women.

In keeping with her innocent sexuality, it must also be noted that many of Marilyn Monroe's characters had a playful side to them. It is little wonder that she was primarily a star of comedies. Marilyn had a gift for comedy and her characters often exhibited a child-like playfulness that many of us might well envy. It is a little wonder that the scene of The Girl standing on the subway grate, her skirt blowing in the air, in The Seven Year Itch remains one of Marilyn Monroe's most iconic images. It seems something that a child might do regardless of gender, something fun and uninhibited. Marilyn Monroe's characters often had a sense of fun and playfulness that those of us in the real world, burdened with the concerns of workaday life, can only envy. It is something with which both women and men can find to like in Marilyn's characters.

Of course, while Marilyn's combination of vulnerability and innocent sexuality might explain much of her lasting appeal, her untimely death has probably played a role in it as well. It is notable that many of the icons from the past whose popularity have persisted to this day died young. The most notable of these iconic figures may be James Dean, who was only 24 when he died, but there are many others. Jim Morrison of The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin have also continued to be popular despite or perhaps because of early deaths. While all of these figures, from James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, had achieved a good deal in their short lifetimes, one has to wonder that their fame would be quite so great had they not died young. In dying young they also remain etched in our mind as forever young. They will never grow old, never see their careers diminish.

Marilyn Monroe was only 36 years old when she died. We never had the chance to see her grow and her beauty possibly diminish. It is impossible to know what path her career might have taken had she lived, but, regardless, we never had the chance to see her career fade the way some of her contemporaries' careers did. Marilyn Monroe not only died young, but she died at a point when her career was still going fairly strong. She was still one of the most popular actresses of the day, one whose celebrity at the time may have only been matched by Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn (both icons in their own right). For us Marilyn Monroe then remains forever 36 years old and forever at the height of her career. Like James Dean before her and Jimi Hendrix after her, she remains at the peak of her vitality.

There are probably other factors that figure into Marilyn Monroe's lasting popularity. In fact, it may be impossible to fully assess her continued fame fifty years after her death. Certainly her combination of vulnerability, innocent sexuality, and playfulness, combined with her untimely death, have played a role in her continued status as an icon. Regardless, it seems that there will be no end to Marilyn Monroe's popularity. On social media sites from Twitter to Google+ "Marilyn Monroe" has trended today. There have literally been thousands of articles in newspapers, blogs, websites, and on television about the actress today. Yesterday Turner Classic Movies had a marathon of her movies as part of their month long "Summer Under the Stars" event, and I rather suspect TV stations around the United States and elsewhere will show at least one of her movies. Marilyn Monroe may have died at age 36 fifty years ago, but it would seem that her fame is effectively immortal.

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