In 1953 Marilyn Monroe joined the exclusive club of superstar in what was one of the great returns on investment: 20th Century Fox reportedly paid her only $1,000 per week for her work in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, which collectively earned over $25 million, a hefty sum back then. And probably much greater, since Fox was notorious for its deficiency in updating gross totals. Safe to say people weren’t lining up to see Jane Russell, Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall or Joseph Cotton. Even with their own following, and Grable in particular was highly bankable (a top ten moneymaker for ten straight years), no one and nothing—not even CinemaScope, used for Millionaire—reeled audiences in the way Marilyn did. Wiping nearly everyone off the screen, she became not only the symbol of 50s sex, she also became—maddeningly to herself and those directing and acting with her—the most calculating mess the movies have ever known. The disarray is apparent early on—in her body language in Don’t Bother To Knock and All About Eve. Before being defeated by them, the belief that her emotional and artistic insecurities weren’t part of her strategy is false. A winsome vulnerability as cagey craft, she wrapped her infantile narcissism in a blanket of cuddly excuses. She had the extraordinary gift of converting the dirtiest of leers into horny chivalry while at the same time disarming the bluenoses in their blue rinses. She had instincts the pros envied: no one before or since has sanctified trash or played comedienne so neo-Rubenesquely. That’s why she can get away with not doing much in Niagara—after singing along to “Kiss” in a Cerise red showstopper by Dorothy Jeakins, she doesn’t really need to do anything more, though we like it a lot that she’s plotting to ice Cotton. It’s true, as pointed out by others, she’s set up to embody Hollywood’s rankest view of her, especially when in bed with only a sheet covering that bod. But she’s not an unwitting fool: this piece of work knows her value—that we won’t be able to keep our eyes off her. The movie’s emblem boob says it for all of us: “Get out the fire hose!”

Marilyn got—and still gets—most of the attention in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a confirmation that her image of a teasing “fuck me” ditz will be the major of her lasting near-triumphant accomplishments as performer. This in spite of some handicaps she faced with “What do I do with her now?” male co-stars throughout her career: here it’s doofus Tommy Noonan, the forerunner to Justin Timberlake in Bad Teacher. Soon following were David Wayne in How to Marry a Millionaire, Donald O’Connor in There’s No Business Like Show Business, Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, Don Murray in Bus Stop, Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, the sleazers in Let’s Make Love. As reaffirmation of another of her skills, we still do what Tommy does when she sings—go a bit gaga. A curiously satisfying synthesis happens between her and the microphone that’s absent in her acting. The singing isn’t “professional” as in highly trained, it’s more like closed-door rehearsal; her imperfection has a playful freedom, a witty intimacy, has varied deliveries and it’s one-of-a-kind in that for once we’re grateful for pre-recordings—we get to fully hear the work she finds pleasing. It almost didn’t come about: originally Fox wanted Marni Nixon to dub over Marilyn. Listening to her recordings and realizing the singing voice was inimitably complimentary, Marni convinced Darryl Zanuck not to dub. (She did, however, insert the soprano “no, no, no” and a few other lyrics in “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”) Imagine what we’d have lost had Marni not come to the rescue. Yet it’s Jane Russell who saves the musical. The pouty-mouthed trashiness and overexposed bosom that Howard Hughes loved have been replaced by a Travilla-robed 50s-era straight shooter; she doesn’t reek of cheesy exploitation, her foxy goodwill matches Marilyn’s wiggling innocence and she simultaneously steals scenes while supporting her co-stars. The dames have fun with the Anita Loos nincompoopery, though the dialogue begs the racy: hard not to notice Jane’s frustration when there’s an opening to pop a zinger to Elliot Reid and the only retort that comes out is G-rated. So it’s difficult to understand why lobby cards and posters cautioned that the movie, even with little George Winslow as uncanny man-boy, was “Not Suitable for Children.” What’s unsuitable—the desire for curvaceous babes who are the antithesis of anti-sexual June Allyson or Maggie McNamara?

Without singing a note, Marilyn saves How to Marry a Millionaire. What she said about herself explains how: that in this picture there’s a winning modesty exhibited, her attributes conquer without threat. Our receptiveness towards her comes from her enormous reserve of innate sweetness, her spectacular rump and her daffiness, permitting more laughs than should be allowed for making fun of herself as a four-eyes. She’s welcomed antidote for Lauren Bacall as snooty social climber and Betty Grable’s gratuitousness and manages to escape the screamer atrocities in Travilla’s fashion show. In the gaudy There’s No Business Like Show Business, Marilyn is again enrapturing as she sings “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It” and “Lazy” as pre-feminist anthems. (During the faggy “Heat Wave,” she’s mammiferous joke wearing an insulting rigout requiring a star’s firm “No way in Hell am I wearing that shit!”) Although there’s nothing about this revue that isn’t garish Americana, we give up fighting its patriotic clunkiness and enjoy Donald O’Connor’s impossible dream of winning Marilyn, get huge kicks from Ethel Merman’s “you big lug” acting style and have a wonderful time whooping it up over her wardrobe. Then there’s Johnnie Ray. Is there any derogative fit to describe our reactions as he’s belting out “If You Believe”? Every warning ignored, he’s compulsive viewing. The Gods intervened by keeping him away from Marilyn.

Where were the Gods to stop the Strasbergs? Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote of Marilyn in Bus Stop: “Fortunately for her and for the tradition of diligence leading to success, she gives a performance in this picture that marks her as a genuine acting star, not just a plushy personality and a sex symbol.” This blather came after Marilyn “enrolled” at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio for a go at trying to be more than a sex goddess. She decided to bring what she absorbed in his classes to William Inge’s cloying bit of rural America. Only once in her movies is vamp Marilyn barely acceptable as campestral for all the wrong reasons—in River of No Return, with Robert Mitchum as her needed anchor. But not in the tripe that’s Bus Stop, not opposite Don Murray with whom she has no chemistry (she wanted Rock Hudson), and not in a performance recording her first virtual nervous breakdown; it’s an advance look at Let’s Make Love, The Misfits and clips from Something’s Got to Give. She’d been flattered into believing she deserved an Oscar for the exposure; instead, looking pasty-faced, fighting to keep her eye lids open while moving her mouth incessantly, singing “That Old Black Magic” as an over-coached floozy decomposing, it marked her descent’s beginnings. All of this is evidence of the damaging relationship she had with Strasberg and his family. With their obsequiousness, false praise of her acting range, interference on movie sets and innumerable interventions, they helped rob her of her right to honest self-assessment. For their influence in turning America’s most giggly, seductive comedienne into a lachrymose, visually unassured version of Madeleine Sherwood, the Strasbergs would inherit the bulk of Marilyn’s estate.

In Confessions of an Actor, Laurence Olivier writes about his inability to cope with Marilyn’s infamous lack of professionalism on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, in spite of entreaties from American directors to excuse it: “I refused to treat Marilyn as a special case—I had too much pride in my trade...Her manner to me got steadily ruder and more insolent; whenever I patiently labored to make her understand an indication for some reading, business or timing she would listen with ill-disguised impatience and when I finished would turn to (Lee Strasberg’s wife) and petulantly demand, ‘Wasseee mean?’ A very short way into the filming, my humiliation had reached depths I would not have believed possible.” He stayed the course because it was her request he direct. (Echoes of the Strasbergs can still be heard: “Marilyn’s ready for the world’s greatest actor!”) What he got from his temperamental star is the reverse of his fears: doing nothing that hadn’t been done before with better directors, she’s the only attraction to keep us watching, though some of us keep seeing and wanting Barbara Nichols in the part. (And in My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams has a stronger resemblance to Nichols than her character.) Olivier’s tantrums worked against him, unable to see that it might have been a whole lot better had everyone else not been manneristic and stodgy; this parlor comedy decays right in front of us. Olivier attributes to Russian ballerina and actress Irina Baronova what are both perceptive and erroneous appraisals of Marilyn: “She has a quite unconscious but basic resistance to acting. She loves to show herself, loves to be a star, loves all the success side of it. But to be an actress is something she does not want at all. They were wrong to try to make one of her. Her wit, her adorable charm, her sex appeal, her bewitching personality—all a part of her, not necessarily to be associated with any art or talent.” Those last four qualities are her art.

The Prince and the Showgirl pooped out at the box office, and so did Marilyn’s bag of wiles and she knew it. Rejecting lame projects Fox was offering under her contract, she was, according to insider gossip, sending feelers about wanting to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, quickly rejected by the studio financing the production. Two years would pass before her next movie Some Like It Hot. Despite contract obligations, she balked and let Fox have it—making abundantly clear she was fed up with playing the “dumb blonde,” hated the script, calling it unbelievable that she wouldn’t know it’s two guys in drag. She tried to sabotage the campaign to force her to the set by inflating—eating and boozing at furious rate to be unfilmable. (She also became preggers, later to suffer a miscarriage.) Personally I’ve never been crazy about Billy Wilder’s comedy and still can’t explain why; maybe it’s Tony Curtis, maybe the whole thing is frenetic theatre of the absurd to the point of boring. Come of think of it, so are the repeated kisses Marilyn gives Curtis. The torture may also be in the length of time in takes to get the masquerade over with. Recognize Jack Lemmon is having a good time; he’s at his most tolerable with this kind of sex schtick, suited to bring out his small gifts, liberated by the flapper dresses and beads accommodating as well as minimizing his whiny persona and nothing less than a miracle he’s swishing opposite Joe E. Lewis, who almost steals the picture. Noteworthy to cinephiles for all the gossip related to Marilyn’s repeated flubbing of lines is that Wilder, one of those to tell Olivier to stay the course, almost lost it over the huge number of takes required for Marilyn to say “It’s me, Sugar” because she kept saying “It’s Sugar, me.” Why couldn’t he hear that, whether out of her insecurity and/or intentionally driving him and Fox nuts, she was right about the way the line needed to be delivered? Not until reading Barbara Lemming’s bio on Marilyn did I find something to like. She quotes the duplicitous star, after finally seeing the movie: “Those god damn cocksuckers made me look like a fat pig!”

Surprised by Some Like It Hot’s popularity and rave reviews, she nevertheless remained pissed and then depressed knowing it meant she’d be doing more bimbos. As if on cue, she faced the rot that was Let’s Make Love, which might have been delayed or canceled had Truman Capote’s preference for her as Holly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s prevailed. (That deal, to be directed by John Frankenheimer and specifically tailored for her by adapter George Axelrod, crashed when Lee Strasberg advised her not to play a “lady of the night” as it would be injurious to her “image.”) Again close to filing allurement bankruptcy, she added sloppy glam and sloppier warbling as liabilities: blanched, puffy-faced, eyes begging for Visine, trying to hide the flab while singing an insipid version of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” revealing gross exhaustion in “Specialization” and the title song. And facing the charge of flaunting indiscretion: she’s willing accomplice to her co-star Yves Montand’s seduction, virtually in front of her husband playwright Arthur Miller and the Frenchman’s wife Simone Signoret. Sound vaguely familiar to the Eddie-Debbie-Liz biz? A flash cut to Love, Marilyn, a 2013 hybrid documentary which suggests what observers recognized—that Marilyn was envious of Liz’s million dollar plus salary for Cleopatra, a role she supposedly had fantasies of playing—but what’s missing sequentially in the invidia is how she marveled at Liz’s successful survival of her first scandal of public adultery, the second in Rome still a few years down the road.

The dingy Let’s Make Love failed to duplicate the box office and gamy cultural vibes of Tennessee Williams and BUtterfield 8. Those were, however, anticipated for The Misfits, Miller’s exploitation of his wife’s perturbation. Marilyn achieved nadir; she’s the glassy-eyed wreck we sensed—no, we knew—she had become and didn’t want to pay to see. Love, Marilyn allows hostile illation that Marilyn started falling apart during her marriage to Miller, became certifiable when she supposedly discovered Miller’s audacity in writing about her instabilities. Convenient, as it would ask us to dismiss that she didn’t find much happiness (except in bed) with Joe DiMaggio, and with whom, as with Miller, she’d also look occasionally disheveled and drugged, expelling the vapors of what Miller later described as “competing demons” during taped and on-the-fly interviews. More assertion from the documentary: that director John Huston’s habitual gambling during filming, and not her breakdown, halted production because the producers were paying his debts and covered it up by using Marilyn’s deterioration as excuse for the money drain. (He gambled and was often on the phone with his bookie during takes, and, reportedly, would snooze through them, excusing the audience for doing the same.) The documentary states the obvious: one look at Marilyn’s face and carriage and we get that she holds a lot of responsibility. The documentary doesn’t say anything about Clark Gable’s death from a heart attack which quickly brought on malicious accusation that she was responsible due to her behavior on set. By several accounts he was sometimes irritated with her, but he was incessant smoker and liberal drinker for years and did stunts in the Nevada desert no insurance company, had it known, would approve. He died before the movie opened to respectful notices. Curiosity ghouls did their share to bolster box office for a few weeks; when that crowd was exhausted, so was the movie. Not snuffed was industry speculation that Marilyn too was close to being finished.

Why Fox pushed her into the Doris Daysian Something’s Got to Give remains conundrum. Even the public was onto Marilyn’s precarious condition as potential danger, mocking the pun permitted in the movie’s title. Love, Marilyn will purport that her acting up on and off the set, mimicking Liz’s supposed demands and no-shows during filming of Cleopatra, was to guarantee that she’d get a similar payday. A month behind schedule, with no useable footage of Marilyn, and incensed by her absenteeism, inattentiveness and insubordination, Fox fired her. The docu then tells us that among papers found in Marilyn’s personal correspondence was a new million dollar-two pic contract she would apparently sign four days before she died. We don’t get to see the contract, but we do get to hear her taped anti-Fox comments after the company sacked her. In the midst of Fox’s financial collapse, during which Cleopatra was still in production, why would execs negotiate with a star they just canned, one who was severely unstable, expensively temperamental and whose last two movies were bad and flops? Theories overflow from the vat of nonsense, but three have distinct possibility—the studio bigwigs were covering their asses; and/or there never was any intention of honoring the suspiciously long-missing contract because they likely felt she’d repeat her self-destructive behavior; and/or the deal was a last ditch intervention to save her from herself.

Love, Marilyn has a prestigious load of actors—including F. Murray Abraham, Adrian Brody, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Pivens, Oliver Pratt, David Strathairn, Uma Thurman and Marisa Tomei—reciting Marilyn’s words and those of directors, an ex hubbie, friends and on-lookers, interspersed between many clips. As tribute, some of these suckers, with indecent touches of self-awareness, ascribe implicit originale unexpectus to her quotable bon mots, when some of them are arguably lifted from or supplied by other sources. Probably why dishy Amy Greene, a respected, very clear-headed magazine editor and widow of famed photographer Milton Greene, is the equivalent of voltage of the juicy kind; she’s what this shitted up valentine needs more of in order to keep from scrolling the usual caveat that the nebula surrounding Marilyn remains ass-gassy.

For years many cynics believed it was Marilyn’s lucky misfortune that she passed from the scene when she did. In spite of the disgustingly lucrative cottage industry developed as a result of her death—unchallenged counts range from 500 to 1,000 books have been written about her—it had been assumed she’d forever live in the annals of movie history as one of its cleverest cookies who knew her limits and how to maximize them. To the disinterested, maybe. For those seeking the unanswerable, time and multiple readings and re-viewings and temptation if not need to tear down myths have altered that belief. At peak, she remains among the highest ranking symbols of Hollywood sex; at end a life lesson, a hopeless grotesque mired in space cadet self-sabotage. Her growing emotional wreckage and fretfulness as impenetrable walls kept her agents, advisers and lawyers closed off, movie executives and directors seething, the pharmacists on call. Inevitably the worst became manifest: the industry, the press and the public started vicious nitpicking, assigning degrading epithets, broadcasting lay diagnoses predicated on two previous suicide attempts. The most calculated bombshell miscalculated our tolerances. Unlike Liz’s endurance through scandals, Marilyn hadn’t much discernible inner-fortitude nor a sustained cadre of support. No family, few trustworthy friends. Cliché, her fate seemed destiny: those formative years in childhood were foundation on which various latent distresses were built; strains of filming activated additional anxieties and disturbances related to her constant fear of inadequacy requiring sedatives; highly publicized private relationships with husbands and other men triggered more extreme levels of anguish and increasing use of heavy-duty barbiturates. (And downing them with booze.) With years of legal drug abuse, there’s no doubt she knew she was “addicted”—equal to the dirtiest of forbidden words back then. Oxymoronic but standard practice in the 50s and 60s: as with other big stars enabled by those seeking help from, including the studios, she’d detox and then return home or arrive on the set with new miracle pills.  

Whatever the design by Marilyn, aided and abetted by addiction, the eventually ruinous imagery as every man’s fantasy piece of ass led to the last public meltdown. While leaving it to conspiracy nuts and sexologists to concoct fresh stupidities over the L.A. Times printing excerpts of tape recordings made during her sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson, in which she claims wanting to break off her romance with Robert Kennedy, trying to enlist JFK to assist in the breakup, and that she had a one night fling with Joan Crawford. Or swallowing the latest gossip, from Fred Laurence Guiles’s 2020 Norma Jean, that on July 20, 1962 she reportedly entered Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in L.A. under an alias to undergo an abortion, with mere inference of either John or Bobby Kennedy as the father, tho, as an aside, the author teases she had been sleeping with other men during the same time frame. Without confirmation to back up the claims, we may tend to accept only the possibility of them by the circumstance that her therapy culminated in what was both malpractice and a career blunder causing consequential reaction—her singing Happy Birthday to JFK at Madsion Square Garden on 5/19/1962. In a flesh-colored gown literally sown on her, in ultra tramp bouffant, loaded on a Doctor Feelgood injection, she was psychiatry’s safest unrecoverable—a slinky zombie sacrificed before blame could be attached to pharmaceutical roulette. She attended this brash despite having called in sick at Fox so as not to continue filming Something’s Got to Give; she was fired on 6/7/1962. Nearly all those who said they knew Marilyn called her smart, including Arthur Miller. Yet it would be the playwright who’d straightforwardly thumbnail what everyone else surmised—“she wasn’t smart enough to survive.”

One of the unique powers of movies is coexistent with time’s healing—the pouring of a protective gloss over demise, over scandals real or alleged or imagined or to ever be satisfactorily resolved. For a few hours the magic of Marilyn allows movie lovers to indulge, preferring Lorelei and Pola and Sugar as Queen of the Ditzes to the naked civil servant blowing candles. If fifty-eight years after her death she persists as genuine Jackie Susann tragedienne, as icon of victimization, there is in 1950’s All About Eve an accidental foresight as absolution. Written by director Joseph Mankiewicz as a slap-on-the-ass quip to be enunciated by George Sanders’s Addison DeWitt, it not only boomeranged into meteoric stardom just three years later, it also thumbnails our lasting love for this mess of messes: as Miss Casswell, Marilyn is “a graduate of the Copacabaña School of the Dramatic Arts.”

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  (Revised and expanded  4/2020) All Rights Reserved.