By David Raether
Whenever I think about Marilyn MonroeI think about the opening lines of that William Carlos Williams poem, To Elsie:
“The pure products of America go crazy.”
Monroe was a pure product of America. She was as big a star as Hollywood can manufacture. Her films in the 1950s generated more than $ 200 million in box office revenues, a figure that would be north of 2 billion today. And then she committed suicide by overdosing on an enormous cocktail of drugs. She was just 36. Gone.
She was, by all reports, a complicated woman but also a lovely and kind-hearted person. The ditzy blonde with the breathy voice? That was a tactic she used to deal with a stutter she had had since childhood. The sex goddess? She considered that laughable. But played it for all it was worth.
She was a great comic actress. Her “ditzy blonde” character was as uniquely hers as the Little Tramp was Charlie Chaplin‘s. Despite the enormous success she experienced for playing this character repeatedly, she detested it. And this disdain manifested itself in her reputation for being trouble on the set. She was regularly late for her call times or wouldn’t show up at all. She was also especially finicky about how she was shot. Tony Curtiswho co-starred with her in Some Like It Hot (1959), developed a real hatred of her during a scene in which they were kissing. She demanded reshoot after reshoot, enraging Curtis more and more. He said kissing her was “like kissing Hitler” and became disgusted with her behavior on the shoot.
Monroe married two of the most significant men of her time — the New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio and the playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, After the Fall, The Bridge, All My Sons). She almost certainly had an affair with President John F. Kennedy. She was the first centerfold for Playboy magazine. And she was the subject of a biography by Norman Mailer. The marriages failed, Playboy has petered out into irrelevance, and Mailer’s biography was ridiculously bad. But Marilyn remains as compelling as ever — sexy, tragic, and eminently watchable.
Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles. In 1934, when Norma was just eight years old, her mother suffered a breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Norma was placed in various foster homes in the ensuing years and was sexually abused in two of these homes.
The movies were her refuge. In an interview with The Guardian, she recalled those years. “I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim … When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be … Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit, all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone… And I loved it. “
At 16, she married for the first time to a neighbor boy, James Dougherty. Monroe’s guardian parents were moving to West Virginia, and the State of California Child Protective Services would not allow them to take her with them. Rather than facing a return to an orphanage, she got married. By all accounts, this marriage was peaceful but dull. Dougherty was shipped out to the Pacific for two years near the end of World War II. She got a job at a factory where she befriended a gallant and rough-hewn co-worker, Robert Mitchum. The two never had an affair but became and remained great friends throughout her life.
Beginning in 1944, Monroe began to pursue a career in modeling. She was deemed too zaftig for high fashion modeling, but garnered a lot of work in pin-up work. In 1946, she got her first movie contract with Paramount Pictures, which happened to be the same year she and James divorced. After the contract expired, they released her, and she auditioned at 20th Century Fox. The head of the studio, Darryl Zanuck, was unimpressed with her acting skills, but signed her to prevent a rival studio, RKO, from signing her.
In those days, the studios had departments that taught their young contract players how to sing, act, and dance. Monroe took all these classes and, although her teachers felt that she was too shy to be serious about a career in acting, she finally got a movie role in 1947. She landed a contract at Columbia, and the studio saw her as a Rita Hayworth type and dyed her hair platinum blonde (her natural color was a dark reddish-brown). She appeared in minor roles All About Eve (1950) and John Huston‘s picture, The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Her dogged determination to be an actress paid off, and in 1951, she landed a seven-year contract at 20th Century Fox on the strength of her performances in small parts in three comedies: As Young As You Feel (1951), Love Nest (1951), and Let’s Make It Legal (1951). Despite getting little screentime, Monroe’s on-screen personality (glitzy paramour) drew a lot of attention. She was getting thousands of letters a week and dated a series of film stars.
In 1952, she began a romance with retired New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio, who would later become her husband. It was also during this time that she began to receive a lot of tsk-tsking for her romantic / sexual relationships in Hollywood. Interestingly enough, none of the men who were involved with her suffered similar criticisms. She was an unmarried woman enjoying her life as she pleased. You know, the beloved actor James Stewart frequently had flings with his female co-stars and was never criticized for that. But a woman doing the same thing… well!
As she began to star in bigger pictures, her reputation as being difficult to work with grew. She would regularly show up late (or not at all), couldn’t remember her lines, and demanded many retakes until she was satisfied with her performance. While this could be her being “actressy” (a synonym for self-absorbed and hard to work with), what seems more likely is that she disliked the kinds of movies and parts she was being offered.
Her breakthrough year was 1953. She received critical acclaim for her performance opposite Joseph Cotten in the drama Niagara (1953) and followed that up with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). In this picture, she fully emerged as the global sex symbol that would hang around her neck for the rest of her life and career. Later that same year, she appeared in the comedy How to Marry a Millionairethen the excellent Western with her old friend from her teenage years, Robert Mitchum, River of No Return (1954).
Here she was, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Her films were all big hits, and she was box office gold. The problem was that she was still under that seven-year contract with Fox. So not only was she not paid much, she was growing to detest the movies and the roles of glitzy, ditzy blonde that she was required to play under her contract.
In 1954, Monroe married DiMaggio but went to court with Fox over her contract. It was settled by an agreement that she would be paid a ,000 100,000 bonus and she’d be required to appear in the marvelous comedy, The Seven Year Itch (1955). That bonus sounds impressive, but when you compare it to the $ 200 million in box office her movies had generated, it is downright paltry.
After shooting wrapped on The Seven Year Itch, she fled Los Angeles and co-founded a production company with the photographer Milton Greene, named Marilyn Monroe Productions. While the company did not produce any major films, her battle for independence is frequently cited as a major turning point in the bringing about the end of the studio system, in which actors were essentially indentured servants of the major studios.
Settling in Manhattan, she appeared in the critically acclaimed Bus Stop (1956). While in Manhattan, she began studying at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg. Her marriage to DiMaggio ended in divorce after less than a year. She dated several different men, including the playwright Arthur Miller, whom she married in 1956. She converted to Judaism when they married. Oddly, this move sparked Egypt to ban all her films. That’s showing her! Shut out of Cairo! She took an 18-month hiatus to focus on her home life with Miller. Sadly, she had an ectopic pregnancy in 1957 and a miscarriage a year later. Her increasingly heavy use of barbiturates may have been a factor in both of these.
In 1959, she returned to Hollywood to appear in the Billy Wilder classic comedy Some Like it Hotwhich was followed up by only two more pictures: Let’s Make Love (1960), in which she co-starred with the French actor Yves Montandand The Misfits (1961) with Clark Gable. Miller did the rewrite on The Misfits. The film marked the end of her marriage to Miller, done in by their disputes over his rewrites, her addiction to barbiturates, as well as the lingering resentment from an affair she had with Montand. They divorced in 1961.
Her health (read: drug addiction) continued to cause her life to spiral. She began production on Something’s Gotta Give, which was to be a remake of the classic 1940 comedy My Favorite Wife that starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. But the film was never completed. Monroe was simply unable to keep to any kind of shooting schedule. It was during this time she sang her infamous rendition of Happy Birthday at a birthday party for JFK at Madison Square Garden. Her gown was sheer and covered in rhinestones, so it looked like she was nude.
On the evening of Aug. 2, 1962, she died of an apparent overdose of barbiturates. It was a tragic ending to a life that had been filled with conflict and torment. The sexual abuse and abandonments that she suffered as a child haunted her all of her life.
Her funeral was a small affair at a Los Angeles cemetery. It was paid for by Joe DiMaggio. Her death, however, was front-page news around the world. Thousands of people lined up outside the cemetery gates to pay their final respects. Joshua Loganwho had directed her in Bus Stop (1956), said of her: “She was one of the most unappreciated people in the world.”
Marilyn Monroe was a pure product of America.
The movie studio-manufactured image of her as a “sex goddess” has tended to overshadow the fact that she was an excellent actress, particularly a comedian. While the cultural psychology about women and their roles in the world that show up in these films is incredibly dated, her performances are winning.
Here are five of my favorite Marilyn Monroe movies.