If any movie star has a good grip on immortality, it’s got to be Marilyn Monroe.
Instead of moldering into oblivion as most “stars” eventually do, Monroe is more popular than ever these days. Last year, an entertaining movie, “My Week with Marilyn,” was released with a knock-out performance by Michelle Williams. This week a book with some never-before-seen photos has been released by the great Monroe photographer Lawrence Schiller. Monroe-mania is perennial, neverending.
I was 14 when Monroe died. On that hot summer day (Aug. 5, 1962), I had just come home barefoot with my soggy towel from the St. Cloud swimming pool. As soon as I entered the house, Mom said, “Guess what?”
“Marilyn Monroe died.”
“She did?!” I asked, shocked. Back then stars didn’t die unless they lost their lives in accidents or were murdered.
“Who killed her?” I asked.
“They think it was suicide.”
At the time of her death, I’d only seen one of Monroe’s movies, the hilarious “Some Like It Hot.” Even though I’d only seen just that one film, Monroe was so familiar to me because her photos were literally everywhere, in newspapers and on the covers of magazines in every dimestore and supermarket, week after week. She was always having emotional troubles of one sort or another and getting married and divorced. The tabloids went crazy over her.
In the mid-1950s, everyone in my neighborhood, including me, considered Monroe to be a dumb blonde busty bimbo. In that Age of Male Chauvinism, there were lots of women like that, usually called “broads.” The Hollywood machine took women and molded them into “sexy bimbo broads” the same way toymakers molded Barbie dolls. This rampant chauvinism wasn’t apparent then because everyone lived within it; we were part of it; we couldn’t see it. Only decades later can we now look back and see it clearly, like paging through a history book to the Dark Ages.
That’s probably the key to the ever-fresh fascination with Monroe. She was, by all accounts, very intelligent and had the potential to be a superb serious actress besides being drop-dead gorgeous – the most photogenic star who ever lived. But that’s all they wanted her to be, all they let her be is the blonde bombshell with a breathy little-girl voice who could pack them in at the theaters.
In the best photos of Monroe – the ones in which she’s not emoting for the camera (which she did with natural-born genius) – one can see her intelligence, inner depth and profound sadness shining through the stardust. They are extraordinary photos; you just can’t stop looking.
So many writers — most notably Norman Mailer – have tried and mostly failed to explain the Monroe mystique. There is something virtually unexplainable about how this star, this woman, long gone, still has the power to rivet the attention of so many people worldwide. In trying to “explain” that magnetism, even the best writers have to pick and choose combinations of words from a long string of adjectives: ravishing, incandescent, tragic, alluring, seductive, moody, sexy, vulnerable, iconic, sensitive, child-like, funny, dazzling, unstable, photogenic, radiant, vibrant, glamorous, volatile . . . No combination of words can pinpoint the mystique. It just can’t be done. The Elton John song, “Candle in the Wind,” came very close to evoking part of the Monroe charisma – the tragic part.
In the half century since her death, I have seen all of Monroe’s movies. Favorites are “Some Like It Hot,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and the greatly under-rated “The Misfits.” But even her lesser movies such as “River of No Return” and “Niagra” are worth watching again every now and then simply because she has that star power that can burn up the screen.
If Monroe were alive today, 50 years after her death, she would be 86. In a way, she still is alive. With the possible exception of Elvis, I cannot think of any star who is more “alive,” year after year, than Marilyn Monroe – the immortal Marilyn.