This month, the BFI is treating London film-goers to a terrific retrospective of the ultimate movie star: Marilyn Monroe. It’s more than 50 years since her premature death – and it’s certainly time to honour her in the way she would have wanted: as an actress and performer. After a half century of speculation about the myths that swirl around her suicide, we need to move on – and look past the legend, to the legacy on film. The riddles of Monroe’s mixed-up mind and the hushed-up circumstances of her death will never be fully understood – and the obsession with her personal life, her sex appeal and her status as a cultural icon overshadow one important thing: her work.
Marilyn Monroe’s was a dazzlingly impressive if spectacularly short career. Not only was she a phenomenally talented comedienne who created the definitive “dumb blonde” persona, but she was also an exceptionally gifted and affecting actress – some of whose performances are so raw that they make for uncomfortable viewing – and a wonderful singer whose recordings of even established pop tunes became iconic, if not definitive, versions. Like other geniuses who died young, she left a small body of work packed with moments of greatness and at least one bona fide masterpiece, in the form of Some Like It Hot.
Indeed, it’s astounding to realise that a star whose name has been known in every corner of the globe for half a century only had leading roles in 11 films spread out over the last decade of her 36-year-old life. Such was the impact of her unique brand of irresistible sex appeal – vulnerability combined with voluptuousness, sensuality plus serenity, child-like naivete fused with a very wholesome and womanly guile – that her presence transcends much of the material she worked with. She was born to be a movie actress: the camera loved her. Billy Wilder, the only director who worked with her twice during her leading lady phase, described her appeal on camera as “the flesh impact .. Some girls have flesh that photographs like flesh. You feel you can reach out and touch it.” He made great use of this when he filmed her in Some Like It Hot.
It was, of course, her physical appeal which first landed her a screen test – but it was immediately apparent to no less a figure than 20th Century Fox’s production chief Darryl Zanuck that she was more than a particularly sexy starlet. “It’s a damn good test,” he said when he saw the rushes. But that didn’t stop his studio, or others – like Groucho Marx who cast her in Love Happy (1949) on the strength of the fact that she had “the prettiest ass” – from casting her purely in decorative roles. This soon instilled in her the resolve to become an actress and win respect.
She won some especially valuable respect early on – from John Huston who directed her when she played a crooked lawyer’s naive young mistress in his superb heist movie The Asphalt Jungle (1950). She may only have been in two short scenes, and her name may have been omitted from the titles when the film was previewed, but Monroe caught the audience’s eye then – and again that year when she stole a scene from right under Bette Davis’s over-powdered nose in All About Eve. Those films got the public talking but Monroe’s launch into the bigtime was still a couple of years away. And she used that time to get professional help with her acting.
The breakthrough came in 1953. Monroe had the opportunity to get her teeth into a juicy dramatic role (and her bottom into a particularly tight skirt – essential for the scene in which the famous Monroe walk was first captured on camera) when she played the treacherous, man-eating Rose in Niagara. And, that same year, she created the definitive dumb blonde in the lavish comedies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. She may not have been the first dumb blonde but, with her combination of big-eyed innocence, dopeyness and a hapless way of always landing on her feet, she was the most lovable and the most enduring.
In those two career-making films, she revealed herself to be a great comedienne, up there with Mae West in the comic timing stakes (and in her own, offscreen, gift for one-liners) and willing to send herself up a la Carole Lombard or any of the screwball comedy era stars. This aspect made her particularly appealing to both sexes.
Director Nunnally Johnson later said: “I believe that the first time anyone genuinely liked Marilyn for herself, in a picture, was in Millionaire. She herself diagnosed the reason for that very shrewdly. She said that this was the only picture she’d been in in which she had a measure of modesty about her own attractiveness. She didn’t think men would look at her twice, because she wore glasses … . In her other pictures they’ve cast her as a somewhat arrogant sex trap, but when Millionaire was released, I heard people say ‘Why, I really like her!’ in surprised tones.”
Despite her success and the fact that she had proved that she was more than window dressing, Monroe was still trapped in what she described as “sex roles” – even River of No Return (1954), a western drama by no less serious a director than Otto Preminger, offered her little opportunity to show her worth as an actress. Announcing the formation of her own production company (and act which ensured that Fox renewed her contract and met her terms), she told the press : “I want to broaden my scope. I want to do dramatic parts. It’s no temptation to me to do the same thing over and over. I want to keep growing as a person and as an actress … in Hollywood they never ask me my opinion. They just tell me what time to come to work.”
Her next four films marked the peak of her short career. She gave a nuanced comic turn as “The Girl Upstairs” in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) and a superb dramatic performanceas the flighty, southern “chantoosie” Cherie in Bus Stop (1956); a performance which prompted the film’s director, Joshua Logan, to later describe her as “as near genius as any actress I ever knew”. By this time, Monroe was studying with the Actors Studio in New York, and her un-starry, “courageous”, willingness to sacrifice her looks for the sake of her character was one aspect of her work on the film which impressed Logan. She may not have had a rapport with Laurence Olivier on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) but this period drama garnered her more rave reviews. The pinnacle of her success came in 1959 with her gloriously endearing portrayal of the uber-naive Sugar Kane in the uproarious Billy Wilder comedy Some Like it Hot.
Monroe was never better than as the gullible Sugar and her performance was the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. Sadly, though, she was descending into her own personal hell – a troubled personal life that was so thoroughly and intrusively documented in the press that it became increasingly difficult to appreciate where reality ended and performance began. And which makes her final complete film, The Misfits (1961) – in which she played a damaged, child-like woman in search of direction and in need of protection – all the more poignant.
* The Marilyn Monroe season runs from June 1-June 30. For a full list of films and times, click here