Adjectives don’t stick easily to Marilyn Monroe, to any of the hundreds of Marilyn Monroes that exist.

Photo: Andre de Dienes

There was perhaps nothing as damaging to Marilyn Monroe’s film legacy as the hagiography lain both lovingly and opportunistically before her tomb—and 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 between the audience and her object is part of the reason for this critical difficulty, as we constantly feel as though we’re lobbing conceptual modifiers at her from inconvenient angles. The other reason is Norman Mailer, whose 1973 prose-poetic biography, whatever its accuracy, is profligate with feverishly florid superlatives, paradoxes, benedictions. Marilyn 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.

Marilyn: A Biography is an exhaustively qualitative text, full of its own self-cancelling rejoinders and rebuttals (Pauline Kael colorfully objected to the way Mailer “inflates her career to cosmic proportions”), 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, her impregnability.

Despite the subtly patriarchal tone of Mailer’s book, and its figurative diarrhea, I do recognize a resonant male kernel in his approach that’s 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 Otto Preminger’s River of No Return within a framework of fallen beauty or exploited naïveté.

What’s especially refreshing, too, about rediscovering Marilyn through her earlier roles 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 John Huston’s 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 Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, her character, a dour Broadway hopeful, shruggingly refers to a string of producer cum 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 that her pinup pictorials do not suggest.

With her first starring part, in Roy Ward Baker’s 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.

But resistance isn’t the same as agency, which no artist would properly allow her to exact—though this may speak more to how women were generally portrayed in film during the ’50s, with Marilyn simply being unfortunate enough to be viewed as a paragon of her gender’s compensatory-at-best class triumphs. When she was not nursing the wounds of abandonment, she was likely to be found sniffing out rich husbands, either satirically (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) or serio-romantically (How to Marry a Millionaire, which, aside from the sight of Marilyn in spectacles, is dreadful). Howard Hawks eked out another winningly exaggerated performance from the steadily rising star in the former, though he manages this mostly through mean-spirited spoofing. The camera clearly favors Jane Russell’s witty, sable eyebrows and comparatively steely frame; our gonads shrivel at the sight of Marilyn’s modest, reproductively ineligible carriage. And as with Don’t Bother to Knock, Marilyn’s love/lust interest is an absentee force seemingly unencumbered by physical attraction. She spends the picture romancing a castrated Charles Coburn’s diamonds, and having her “animal magnetism” pointed out to her by prepubescent admirers. She’s the butt of the screwball.

The “animal magnetism” gag is an odd one, precisely because we can’t imagine anyone, let alone a boy that young, mistaking Marilyn for feral. The extent of her sex appeal is determined by how much of ourselves we superimpose onto her dispassion, especially within the context of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’s full-tilt mercantilist view of marriage. Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch is the quintessential Marilyn picture not only because of the white, upward blown skirt (and the character’s own cluelessness as to that gesture’s semiotics), but because of how concretely, and hilariously, it dissects this phenomenon. Tom Ewell is terrified not by his upstairs neighbor herself, but by the idea of her, by his imaginative access to her. (He fantasizes about his wife coming home early from her summer vacation in Maine, and punishing his temptation with a firearm.) It’s his own “animal thing” that cannot be controlled more so than the irresistibility of Marilyn’s potato chips-and-champagne diet. When in a moment of weakness—or strength, depending on one’s perspective—he attacks her on his piano bench, she shrugs it off. “It happens to me all the time,” she says. Her sexuality is all anti-animus; she stands stoic and dry while inadvertently pulling wet planets into her orbit.

Wilder was also likely reacting in part to the objective correlative Marilyn had been made into since the early ’50s. In Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, Joseph Cotten suspects her of perfidy, and when her true intentions are revealed they seem almost to have been conjured by his convictions rather than her actions. (Hathaway beautifully captures her intoxicating indolence in one scene where she lounges about on a hotel bed while Cotten toys with the blinds; the dumb moral binary of shadow/light aside, it suggests Marilyn as cat-like, nurturing her curves under warm covers while our eyes blink in disbelief.) In the abysmal River of No Return and Joshua Logan’s only slightly more tolerable Bus Stop, this unwillingness to engage seems to come with her ticket price; we’re paying for her presence, not her resonance. In the latter especially, applauded by some as evidence of her dramatic maturation, her wavering accent and hokey aspiration-speak merely motivate Don Murray to keep the plot moving along. Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl is a more fascinating failure: Marilyn, as the titular showgirl, gradually teases out her feelings for the prince with nuance suggestive of familiarity with real-life romance. But these feelings hardly amount to the unprecedented sexual pursuit that would have clamped down her mercurialness.

She would make one other great film with Wilder, Some Like It Hot, though today her dippy chanteuse appears a gaping-mouthed third wheel to the fervent comic intercourse between Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. By contrast, all of the performances in her last movie, the Arthur Miller-penned, John Huston-directed The Misfits, feel like third wheels to each other’s internal conflicts; she alternately spars with and is entranced by a gracefully impotent Clark Gable while Montgomery Clift scratches his head in disbelief. We want to savor this valediction, or intellectualize its weakness, but our clunky attempts to do so only accentuate the premorseness of her career, and her inability to be viewed as an auteur. Any discussion of Marilyn’s significance, if essaying honesty, must end equally abruptly.

I remain touched most indelibly by a single theatrical gesticulation of Marilyn’s—a moment at the end of Don’t Bother to Knock, when she timidly hands over her concealed blade to an avuncular Richard Widmark. She appears truly frightened by what harm she could manage with such an innocuous, household object in a manner that predicts the predatory nature of her iconolatry. She seems, in that moment, to be reaching out of the screen, across that divide between her and her audience, in order to surrender a token of her desire to melodramatically entertain. It was the last time she would give up anything in the movies.

“Marilyn!” runs from July 1–17 at the BAMcinématek.

Joseph Jon Lanthier

Joseph Jon Lanthier is the director of What Should I Put in My Coffee? His writing has also appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal.

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