not in our stars, but in ourselves
If you’re a good man, and thorough, you read my “about” page to the left there. If not, I’ll tell you now: I am a HUGE Marilyn Monroe fan.
And not in some sad, misguided way that involves trying to pretend she was just as fat as I am (and I’m not especially, but she was tiny, so), or seeing her as some sort of reverse feminist inspiration (i.e., what not to do), or idolizing her for her psychological problems and tragically early death. I just think she was lovely and funny and as sweet and sad as an abandoned puppy.
Everyone knows the story: she was born Norma Jeane Mortensen, and later Baker, to a mentally ill mother; in and out of foster homes throughout her childhood; abused throughout her childhood, in numerous ways; married at 16 to avoid going back into a foster home; started modeling during World War II; spent years as an extra and gradually worked her way up to starlet, and then boom! full-fledged stardom; three marriages, three divorces, a few love affairs; some great movies, some not-so-great movies; and an accidental, or intentional, or homicidal overdose at the age of 36.
She was well aware that she was little more than a pretty face and a beautiful body as far as the public was concerned, and certainly as far as 20th Century Fox was concerned, but she wanted to be more. She was seldom taken seriously. When the star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes told reporters she’d love to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov, one of the rabble asked if she could spell “Grushenka.”
Her fellow classmate at the Actors’ Studio, Marlon Brando, said, “Marilyn was a sensitive, misunderstood person, much more perceptive than was generally assumed. She had been beaten down, but had a strong emotional intelligence — a keen intuition for the feelings of others, the most refined type of intelligence.” However, her director and co-star of The Prince and the Showgirl, Laurence Olivier, became so frustrated by her neuroses and dependence on the Strasberg family that he famously instructed her, “Be sexy,” as if she were incapable of understanding or acting on any more complicated direction.
In short: poor girl.
Of course I love her movies. Some Like it Hot and The Prince and the Showgirl are dreams of romantic comedy; The Seven Year Itch and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are gaudy and fabulous ’50s-stravaganzas; and while she doesn’t steal the show in All About Eve, she is captivatingly adorable. “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?” Indeed, Miss Caswell. Indeed.
But really, I just wish I’d been her friend. She was fun, lively, quick-witted, generous, nervous, loving, and a host of other wonderful qualities that the Mythic Marilyn seems not to have brought along with her. It’s a shame. I mean, look at her here. As Richard Brody writes,
Look at Marilyn Monroe, about twenty seconds into the clip, when a journalist “asks,” without a question mark at the end of the sentence, “You’re a happy girl now.” The infinitesimal silence that goes with her dubious glance—a tightly controlled eye-roll—away from the interviewer, followed by her ironic verbal shrug (a melodic “uh-h” with a subtly derisive smile), suggests the equivalent of, “You have no idea.” It’s in that sudden abyss of true and horrific emotion in the midst of the most conventionally candied context that encapsulates Monroe’s art—and art it is.
It’s also evidence of a real, thinking, feeling person – not just a sex symbol, or an avatar for “plus-size” women, or anything else that exists only as a body without a brain (note that even a female reporter asks her if she’s gained weight or lost weight or what), or a crazy girl poet suicide (without the poetry) – but the kind of woman you could easily love, and talk to, and empathize with. She’s become the patron saint of celebrities consumed by their own fame, in many ways, and is still more of a commodity and an icon than a real person. For most people, if they think of her at all, they just think of her “being sexy” – not much else going on, except maybe some booze and pills. But in that news footage, despite being so famous and beautiful and – yes, sure – sexy, she seems so genuine and delicate, the ghosts of her sad childhood haunting her at every moment. How can you not love her more for it?
In 1952, she said, “In the movie business your career comes first. But I want to start with my life first – and then pick and choose what else I want. …Maybe it’s corny to say, but I don’t want to be just a woman alone…I want to belong.” I want her to belong, too.
Come sit with me, Marilyn.