Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Magic of Marilyn

It is fifty years ago today that Marilyn Monroe was found dead at age 36.  There are many talented actors and actress who may have had greater range (Claude Rains and Carole Lombard, who died 70 years ago, come quickly to mind), but it's Monroe who still bewitches us.  A half-century may have passed since her passing, but Marilyn Monroe is still one of the names we think of when we think, "Star".

It's true: Marilyn was a star, one of the biggest, but when I think of Monroe, I don't just focus on her legend or her image as the 'dumb blonde'.  What I see is someone who was determined to always go beyond what was safe and easy, a person who first became a star, then was striving to become an actress.

There were hints that there was a talent for drama underneath the giggling persona.  One of her early films, Niagara, is highly instructive.  This 'dumb blonde', this comedienne, managed to hold her own against Joseph Cotten, an acting feat indeed.  She went for a dark role, that of a seductress, and one should note that she didn't have that soft, girlish voice or any hint of humor.  She was a dangerous woman, one who drove men to murder.  Monroe did a great job in Niagara.  When I saw it, I was genuinely impressed at her performance, one that held great dramatic tension (even if it also featured the longest on-screen walk in film history...wonder why).

Again, she was perfectly aware that she could have continued to play light roles and churned out a good number of entertaining, light films.  However, she now wanted to be a real actress.  I believe it was fellow actress Sherri North who thought Monroe was courageous in going to The Actor's Studio and delve into developing skills to improve her range.  In that assessment, I thoroughly agree.

In her next-to-last completed film, Some Like It Hot, we can see that her training was not wasted.  Yes, she was yet another 'dumb blonde', perhaps dumber than usual in that she could not notice that her two best girlfriends were really men in drag.  However, she wasn't just a giggling good-time girl.  We saw the vulnerable girl who yearned not just for a wealthy man, but a man to love her.  She portrayed Sugar Kane, but she also showed us the damaged Sugar Kowalczyk.

There was genuine talent within the girl with the wiggle.  She could act, and proved it again and again with pre-Actor's Studio films like Niagara and Don't Bother to Knock and post-Actor's Studio films like Some Like It Hot and Bus Stop

Still, this is how we best remember Marilyn Monroe: the woman who delighted in men and was unapologetic about it.  Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes shows what made Monroe so popular.  She was fun, she was flirty, she was bright.  Yes, I said bright.  All these men think they are going to take advantage of her, but she's the one really fleecing them out of diamonds by using their preconceptions about her against them.

Really, what makes Marilyn Monroe magical to me is not just all of the above, but the contradictions she projected.  She was both world-wise woman and innocent girl, a woman who enjoyed the company of men but who also needed protection from them.

Why is Marilyn Monroe remembered with love and affection a half-century after her death?  It is because above all else because of those conflicting emotions.  On one hand, her body inspired sexual desires where any man would want to sleep with her and let that be the end of it.  On the other, once you saw the vulnerability in her eyes, that desire to be loved, that hope that whomever was with her would return the love she so longed to pour out inspired a mad desire to protect her.

She was lost little girl and desirable woman all in one, the genuine sweetness mixed in with an easy flirtation. 

Now that fifty years have passed since she died under still-debated circumstances, Marilyn Monroe still inspires fascination.  Movies continue to be made about her.  She may have been difficult, if not impossible to work with.  She may have been late and unfamiliar with her lines (one infamous story from when she made Some Like It Hot is that one line, "Where's that bourbon?", reported took 50 takes to get right).  However, Billy Wilder (SLIH's director), was right: the proof was on the screen and the results were magical. 

He once said he had an aunt who could hit her mark and remember all her lines perfectly, but no one would pay to see his aunt.  We still pay to see Marilyn Monroe. 

Her whole life was a sad one, and her death all the more so.  However, within all that darkness that ultimately engulfed her, she left these little shining lights that will always flicker and bring to us what she never achieved for herself: happiness.

Marilyn Monroe: An Icon.

Goodbye, Norma Jean

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