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 miscalculating 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, for example. 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. Of course, after she’s done in by him, the movie, already a Technicolor noodle-headed rip-off of James M. Cain, likewise craps out. 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 body. But she’s not entirely 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 one 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. (Later it would be Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, the sleazers in Let’s Make Love.) As reaffirmation of another of her skills, we do what Tommy does when she sings—go a bit gaga. A curiously satisfying synthesis happens between her and the microphone absent in her acting. The singing isn’t “professional” as in trained, it’s more like a closed-door rehearsal a few days before opening at a cabaret. 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 glad 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 boy-man, 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.”) Although there’s nothing about this revue that isn’t garish Americana, we give up fighting its patriotic clunkiness and enjoy 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 the appallingly directed 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 really wanted Rock Hudson), and not in a performance recording her first virtual nervous breakdown; it’s like an advance look at the out takes of Let’s Make Love, The Misfits and Something’s Got to Give. She’d been flattered into believing she deserved an Oscar for the exposure; instead, pasty-faced, fighting to keep her eye lids open and 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 innumerate interventions, they helped rob her of her right to honest self-assessment. They helped turned America’s most giggly, seductive comedienne into a lachrymose, visually unassured version of Madeleine Sherwood.

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. (We still hear the Strasbergs: “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 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 mannerist 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.” What’s forgivably faulty about this is that 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 probably 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 and Suddenly, Last Summer, just as quickly rejected by the studios financing them. Two years would pass before her next movie Some Like It Hot. Despite contract obligations unfulfilled, 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—she inflated, eating and boozing at furious rate to be “unfilmable.” (She also became preggers during the making, later to suffer a miscarriage.) In Barbara Lemming’s bio, duplicitous Marilyn, after seeing the movie, supposedly bitched, “Those god damn cocksuckers made me look like a fat pig!” Surprised by the movie’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. Soon she was again close to filing creative bankruptcy, adding 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 accessory 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 asserts what others have throughout the years—that Marilyn was envious of Liz’s million dollar plus salary for Cleopatra, the role she purportedly coveted.

The dreariness of Let’s Make Love was duplicated at the box office. A year later, exposed by Miller’s psychoanalyzing and her own perturbation, Marilyn reached nadir in The Misfits; 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 inference that Marilyn started falling apart during her marriage to Miller. 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 during taped and on-the-fly interviews. More assertion: that director John Huston’s gambling during filming, and not her breakdown, halted production because the producers were paying his debts and covered it up by using Mariyn’s deteriorating condition as excuse. He gambled, yes, and was often on the phone with his bookie during takes, and it’s reported he snoozed during a few of them. (That excuses the audience for doing the same.) The documentary does state the obvious: one look at Marilyn’s 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 brought on malicious gossip that she was responsible for it due to her behavior during filming. Somewhat irritated with her, he was foremost an incessant smoker and liberal drinker for years and did stunts 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 public guessing about Marilyn’s departure.

Why Fox pushed her into Something’s Got to Give is another question unanswered. Even the public was onto Marilyn’s precarious condition as potential danger, mocking the pun permitted in the movie’s title. Love, Marilyn will assert that her acting up on the set, mimicking Liz’s supposed demands on the set of Cleopatra, was to guarantee that she too would get a similar payday. A fatal miscalculation. The doc also claims memos found some years ago show Fox, who fired Marilyn just weeks into SGTOG, signed her for a million dollar-two pic deal four days before she died. In the midst of Fox’s financial collapse, why would execs, bad as they might have been, 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 vats of nonsense, but two of them have distinct possibility—they were covering their asses and/or there never was any intention of honoring the suspiciously long-missing contract.

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 friends and associates, interspersed among many clips. As tribute, some of the suckers ascribe and enumerate her quotable bot mots as intimating intelligence and originality unexpectus, when many are arguably lifted from or provided by other sources. The deliveries of them are self-conscious, too, with Glenn Close confirming such in an out take that oughtn’t be included. Probably why Amy Greene, a respected magazine editor in her own right and widow of famed photographer Milton Greene, is the equivalent of voltage of the juicy kind; she’s what this mournfully inadequate valentine needs more of to keep way from issuing the usual caveat that the nebula surrounding whoever Marilyn was remains fuzzy and ass-gassy.

For years many 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, she’d forever live in the annals of movie history as one of its most clever cookies who knew her limits and how to maximize them. To the disinterested, maybe. For those seeking the unanswerable, time, multiple readings, re-viewings and temptation to tear down myths have altered that belief. At her best, she’s still among the highest ranking symbols of Hollywood sex bomb; at end a life lesson, a discarded grotesque mired in space cadet self-pity. Her growing emotional wreckage and fretfulness as impenetrable walls kept her agents, advisers and lawyers compliant, Fox 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. Unlike Liz’s endurance through scandals, Marilyn had no discernible inner-fortitude or a sustained cadre of support. Clichéd as it will read, her fate seemed destiny: those formative years in childhood were foundation on which latent distresses were built. Early on still-unknown anxieties triggered disturbances requiring sedatives; highly publicized private relationships with men and every hanger-on in between triggered extreme anguish and use of heavy-duty barbiturates. Years of drug abuse documented, there’s no doubt at all she knew she was—equal to the dirtiest of forbidden words back then—“addicted” and, as with other big stars hooked, had been enabled by those seeking help from, including the studios. We know too that detox to lift the dense fog doesn’t work for long if in place of habit-forming prescriptions are other presumably safer pills. Oxymoronic but standard practice back in the 50s and 60s: she’d dry out and return to the set with fresh supplies of narcotics. She was psychiatry’s safest chronic unrecoverable—dead before the game of blame could be attached to pharmaceutical roulette.

Leave it to conspiracy nuts and sexologists to concoct new stupidities regarding the following: the L.A. Times not too long ago printed excerpts of tape recordings made during 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. Fortunately one of the unique and dependable powers of movies is the pouring of a protective gloss 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 never having had the chance to power up and control her brand as a public commodity. If fifty-five years after her death she persists as genuine Jackie Susann tragedienne, there’s a quip in 1950’s All About Eve that serves as accidental absolution. Written by director Joseph Mankiewicz as a slap-on-the-ass 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, Addison says with bitch drollery, “a graduate of the Copacabaña School of the Dramatic Arts.”

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  (Revised and expanded  8/2017) All Rights Reserved.