Sunday, 5 August 2012
The 50th Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's Death
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.