Movie Stars: Marilyn–Celebrating Star and Sex Symbol Monroe

The 65th edition of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival will celebrate the career of movie star Marilyn Monroe, who is the choice for their official poster. (see image).

Monroe’s tragically abridged career ended in 1962, at the age of 36, when she was at her prime as a dramatic actress.

Hard to believe that 50 years have passed since her death, in the midst of working on the Fox comedy, “Something’s Gotta Give,” under the direction of maestro George Cukor.

I have researched thoroughly Marilyn’s life and career for my biography of George Cukor, published in 1994 as “Master of Elegance.”  Cukor had also directed Marilyn in “Let’s Make Love,” co-starring the French actor, singer, and icon Yves Montand, in 1960.

In a series of articles, we will explore Monroe’s life, movie stardom, sex appeal, skills and acting range, high and lows of her career, flops and successes, and legacy.  The series will provide insights into the complexity, and likeability of Marilyn—What Made Marilyn Run?

It just happened that this year a new film, “My Week with Marilyn” was released, starring the gifted Michelle Williams, who won a Golden Globe for her portrait and was later Oscar-nominated for that part.

As a star and actress, Marilyn worked with the best Hollywood directors: George Cukor, Howard Hawks (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), John Huston (“The Asphalt Jungle”), Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”), Otto Preminger (“River of No Return”), and Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot”).

In every Marilyn, there are multiple stories—the actual plotline and the ongoing conceptual art piece that is the manufactured public “Marilyn Persona.”

Born Norma Jeane Mortensen in Los Angeles, in 1926, Monroe was raised by a mentally unwell mother, then at an orphanage, and by a revolving cast of caregivers including a family friend who taught her to pattern herself after Jean Harlow (Hollywood Blond Bombshell of the 1930s, who also died tragically at a young age, of poisoning).

Marilyn learned early the malleability of personal and public identity. Not only was Marilyn voluptuously curvy, sexy, and fun on the surface, she also offered a mocking self-awareness that invited the audience to be in on the joke.

She often played tramps, gold-digging characters that were outwardly dumb, but as Maureen Dowd pointed out in an essay in the N.Y. Times. She had the talent and skill to actually made it “chic to be smart”

Many co-stars and directors who knew her say that she was one of the most meticulously subtle comedic (and later dramatic) talents of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  We will review each and every film that Marilyn made in a career spanning 16 years.

While vulnerable, affecting turns in movies like Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952) and Bus Stop” (1956) exhibit her startling dramatic range.

Bookending the best era of her career is her first film, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and her final film, “The Misfits (1961), both directed by John Huston, a demanding, brilliant director and an indefatigable mentor whom she credited with boosting her career.

As a crooked lawyer’s mistress (she calls him “Uncle”) in the classic heist-caper procedural The Asphalt Jungle” her role is small, but she ignites the screen with an insolent, kittenish seductiveness.

In The Misfits,” her last released picture, Arthur Miller’s film adaptation of his own short story, he planned the role of conscientious divorcée Roslyn as a challenging one for his then-wife. There are indelible moments featuring Montgomery Clift and Marilyn, who, according to Norman Mailer in his biography of Monroe, found “the fulfillment of her art” in this film.

Marilyn developed her trademark dumb-savvy persona in small roles in Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve” (1950), as George Sanders’ naïve cocktail party accoutrement, a “graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art,” and in Howard Hawks’ “Monkey Business” (1952), as a flirty secretary. In the latter, she bonds giddily with Cary Grant’s chemist, but only because he’s ingested an elixir (mixed by a chimpanzee in a virtuoso bit of animal acting) that makes him act like a hyperactive, libidinous youth.

By the time she re-teamed with Hawks in 1953 for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Monroe had perfected this type, playing the shameless gold digger Lorelei Lee on a man-hunting expedition with Jane Russell to a pasteboard Paris via an ocean liner.

A talented singer (and a charmingly amateurish dancer), Monroe performs her famous “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in this vastly entertaining picture, which was a smash hit at the box-office.
Marilyn played the blond ditz again as a nearsighted sweetheart in “How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), for which she teamed up with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in a pact to land rich hubbies and does some of her best physical comedy.

Billy Wilder’s comedyThe Seven Year Itch (1955) is also a study in madness and sexual dementia—and features Marilyn’s iconic walk over a subway grate in a billowy white dress.

Insecure and critical of her own talent, Monroe constantly strove to improve her acting. She took classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York and employed a coach on sets. She tended to take more pride in her dramatic turns, like her roles as an unstable babysitter alongside Richard Widmark in “Don’t Bother to Knock and as a café singer who becomes attached to an eager cowboy (played by Don Murray in an Oscar-nominated role) in Bus Stop.”
In almost each of Marilyn’s films, there are enduring poses, outfits, and moments, like her pink dress in Henry Hathaway’sNiagara (1953) that seems like an audacious Technicolor affront to the natural surroundings.

And consider her leotard-clad, show-stopping, subversive rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Cukor’s Let’s Make Love” (1960)

There’s her stylish blouse and sprayed-on jeans, anachronistic but fetching, in Otto Preminger’s CinemScope drama, “River of No Return (1954), co-starring another icon, the macho Robert Mitchum,  and her spirited and probably most erotic turn inSome Like It Hot” (1959), opposite Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.