Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and The Showgirl
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. I hope that Marilyn is looking down to see just how much of an impact her life and career has had on the world. From the iconic Warhol portrait to Sir Elton John's song "Candle in the Wind" it feels as if Marilyn is somehow still alive. She's inspired everyone from Madonna to Mariah Carey to Lady Gaga. In fact, one could say that Madonna owes her entire career to Marilyn Monroe. Mariah Carey owns Marilyn's white piano and Lindsay Lohan recreated her last photo shoot for New York Magazine. In the past year alone we've had Michelle William's Oscar nominated performance in My Week with Marilyn (an accolade that eluded Marilyn throughout her career) and Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty duking it out to play Marilyn on the TV series SMASH.
Conspiracy theories abound about Marilyn's death, particularly after the revelations of her relationships with both JFK and RFK. Was Marilyn murdered because she threatened to tell the world about her affairs with the two brothers? Was it just an accidental overdose? Or had Marilyn's life so spiraled down that she no longer wanted to live? Those are questions that the world will probably never have answers too.
There are many people who just don't 'get' Marilyn. I know that I was one of those people. Watching old movies as a child, I was drawn more to actresses like Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Haviland. I didn't understand that Marilyn was much more than a wiggle, a breathy voice and large breasts. It wasn't until I started stufying acting in high school that I really began to appreciate her performances in movies like Some Like it Hot and The Misfits. Even in small roles like Miss Caswell in All About Eve, there is a feeling of sadness and vulnerability about her performance. I started reading biographies about her, the two best being the memoir written by Susan Strasberg (the original Anne Frank on Broadway) and Barbara Leaming's biography.
Now Bloomsbury has published a major new biography on Marilyn by Lois Banner just in time for the 50th anniversary of her death. There's been a lot of hype about this book in Vanity Fair and Elle magazines, great reviews from Booklist and Publisher's Weekly. Any reader expecting a juicy, gossipy book to read on the beach will be thoroughly disappointed. This is not the book for you. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is a much more nuanced and authoritative look at the life of the screen siren. The biography is not only a pyschological portrait but also a cultural history of the first 60 years of the 20th century.
The first section of the book which details Marilyn's childhood and early teenage years tends to drag a bit. I was fascinated to learn that Marilyn as a child suffered from a stutter, it's the first time that I've ever read that in a biography. Banner also deduces that Marilyn may have suffered from dyslexia. One of things that I've always found interesting about Marilyn is how her insecurities deepened and grew, the more famous that she became. She never felt that she was good enough. Banner makes a credible case for Marilyn's lateness and insistence on several takes as being part of her need to be perfect, no doubt another legacy from being shuttled around from one home to another.
Banner astutely points out something that I think tends to be forgotten with Marilyn, how hard she had to work for her stardom. Studio executives, amazingly enough, had no faith in Marilyn as either as an actress or a star. Zanuck only took notice when the audience did. Banner suggests that Marilyn's past as a party girl, attending studio parties that were mostly men, may have hurt her in the eyes of the studio. Too them she was just a piece of ass that got passed around. They treated her like a joke. I was also impressed by how seriously Marilyn took her craft, studios normally paid for actors to take singing and dancing lessons but not for her. She paid for all of that herself out of her salary and her modeling jobs. It was Marilyn's determination and skill that made her a star. She manufactured the persona of Marilyn Monroe, not the studio.
Banner also pointed out that Marilyn was very open about that fact that she had been sexually abused as a foster child which was not openly discussed in the 1950's. Marilyn was a pioneer in a way that she talked about sex and sexuality in interviews, in a notoriously puritanical decade. She was pre-sexual revolution.
Banner is an excellent writer and she definitely has a deep love and understanding of Marilyn that I've seen from only a few other biographers. The book is at it's best when Banner is discussing some of Marilyn's earlier films, the ones that sort of get lost in the shuffle, in order to concentrate on her later films after she became a star. My one complaint about the book is that it tends to be a bit repetitative. It's not necessary to repeat a bit of information that you've told the reader two pages before yet again. Our attention span is not yet that bad! Despite that one flaw, Marilyn couldn't have asked for a better biographer to interpret her life story for the 21st century. Marilyn comes across as a deeply complex woman. Hopefully readers of the biography will be motivated to seek out some of Marilyn's earlier films like Niagara or Don't Bother to Knock.