There was perhaps nothing as damaging to Marilyn Monroe’s film legacy as the hagiography lain both lovingly and opportunistically before her tomb; there is, as a result, no other Hollywood saint more immune to euhemerism. Peeling back the plastic icon shell reveals layer upon layer of culturally inherited tropes and question marks: feminine angst, American (anti)heroism, sexual ambivalence. She is our one nationally shared masturbatory impetus—shared without choice, even by those who dismiss her, due to the sheer inevitability of an encounter, a wrangling, with her obsoletely ideal womanhood. There is no “real” Marilyn, no genuine Norma Jeane. We have mythologized the particulars of her humanity more than we have her faux-blondness, her baby-doll shtick, or her facial punctuation mark, and internalized her frigidity and arrogance as much as her Bernie Taupin-metaphorized vulnerability. The distance between us and her shapeliness, her winks, and her hair-tosses on the screen, on any screen, is enormous, and fertile with teasing distractions from third-party discourse. Her face is so ubiquitous that it transcends tiresomeness.
Adjectives don’t stick easily to Marilyn Monroe, to any of the hundreds of Marilyn Monroes that exist. The gap described above between the audience and her object is part of the reason for this critical difficulty; we constantly feel as though we’re lobbing conceptual modifiers at her from inconvenient angles. The other reason is Norman Mailer, whose prose-poetic biography, whatever its accuracy, is profligate with feverishly florid superlatives, paradoxes, benedictions. She is both virgin and whore to him (and to us, admittedly), mother and child, sex symbol and iceberg, dramatic innovator and hack, inchoate prototype and fruitful exemplar. It’s an exhaustively qualitative text, full of its own self-cancelling rejoinders and rebuttals (Pauline Kael supplied a colorful objection of her own), and circuitous enough to feel like both the last word on her celebrity and an argument for silence on the topic. This implied quieting, furthermore, is meant to be neither respectful nor bereaved but a signal of rhetorical surrender to Marilyn’s luscious, overlapping multitudes. Mailer limned, or maybe just first verbalized, the Marilyn impregnable.
Despite the subtly patriarchal tone of Mailer’s book, and its figurative diarrhea, I do recognize a resonant male kernel in his approach that is worth popping: Marilyn was much more valuable as a fantasy, as an inspirational means of feeling for the limits of one’s desire, than as a means of fulfilling desire. She was likely our first female meta-movie star, one whose value rested in her ineffable presence, and in the friction between her persona and her film roles, rather than in talent or attractiveness. Her utility as an actress remains questionable—which is why I have, up to this point, largely ignored her career, choosing to fashion my obligatory response to her pulchritude as one of willful, if not necessarily iconoclastic, skepticism. How strange it feels to be making her un-sturdy acquaintance now, via BAMcinématek’s 14-film retrospective, which touches upon all the highlights, for better or for worse, that her meager filmography has to offer. For those who often find Monroe outside their own limits of desire, the program might additionally provide an assessment space free from the weight of her archetypes—after all, there’s only so much one can do to contextualize clunkers like River of No Return within a framework of fallen beauty or exploited naïveté.
What’s refreshing, too, about rediscovering Marilyn through her earlier roles especially is how impeccably her life’s tragic trajectory was reversed in her climb up the studio ladder. Mailer’s book turns her less-than-private, latter-day cynicism into fatal pathology (Tony Curtis famously pronounced that necking with her was “like kissing Hitler”), but neglects that she arrived to us with the typecast of a perverted thing, a tossed-off nobody. In The Asphalt Jungle she endows the “other woman” convention with uncommon puissance, but it ultimately cannot overcome her anonymity; she would cover the same territory in Monkey Business as a tempting secretary whom Cary Grant needed narcotics to enjoy the company of. Likewise, in All About Eve her dour slut/Broadway-hopeful shruggingly refers to a string of producer/rapists as “sad rabbits.” The irony of her participation in that film’s icy landscape is that she seems to have accepted her station as a lackadaisical seductress without a prayer to whisk her onto the stage; she’s recognized her calling as an altogether different variety of social conquistador, albeit one with limited access to material glories. She embodies the personality of the prematurely wizened sex-barterer with an effortlessness her pinup pictorials do not suggest.
With her first starring part, in Don’t Bother to Knock, the resistance begins to emerge. Babysitting for a rich couple, her character spends an evening in a hotel room flirting with Richard Widmark until the cracks in her psyche begin to reveal themselves via banally Freudian triggers. Her breakdown is clumsily histrionic (it’s a flurry of razors, tears, and confused proper nouns) and the eventually disclosed reasons for her state are yawn-inducingly misogynistic. (The girlfriend of a deceased pilot, she can’t rationally comprehend life without her one-time beau.) But Marilyn’s jagged edges are eerily believable, and the psychological claustrophobia of the hotel chambers predict, in some ways, future explorations of domestic feminine contortion such as Repulsion. Catherine Deneuve’s refusal to emote traditionally throughout her mental dithering is in one sense a comment upon and a gender reclaiming from Marilyn’s blatantly sex-starved, modern-ly bonkers not-quite widow.