By Robert Barger
“If I am a star, the people made me a star,” Marilyn Monroe declared in 1962.
The motion picture industry has long been defined by its stars. No star shined brighter than Marilyn. She made a total of 31 films during her 16-year career, but her social impact remains unrivalled. 2022 marked the 60th anniversary of her passing, however, she resonates today as much as she ever did.
In 2022, Kim Kardashian made international headlines when she donned a vintage Jean Louis gown for her appearance at the Met Gala. The cause for the Kardashian uproar was due to one reason. It was the same gown Monroe wore to serenade President John Kennedy at his 45th birthday celebration. That was in 1962. Marilyn may be gone, but she is certainly not forgotten.
Her origin story is not a glamorous one, but it is inspiring. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, Marilyn grew up in a constant state of peril. She never knew her father and her mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. As a result, she was forced to change living conditions a number of times as a child. Norma Jeane found solace in the movies, saying, “I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim … When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be”.
In January of 1945, Norma Jeane began modelling around her hometown of Van Nuys, California despite protest from her first husband. To cope with the tastes of the time, the budding model straightened her naturally brown hair and dyed it blonde. Before long, executives at 20th Century-Fox took notice and she was signed to a standard six-month contract in August 1946. She was 20 years old. By September of that year, Norma Jeane was freshly divorced and going by her newly minted stage name, “Marilyn Monroe”. Within eight years, Marilyn Monroe was the biggest movie star in the world. In the 60 years since the legendary icon’s death, her legend has only amplified.
According to Forbes’ annual list of the highest-paid dead celebrities, Marilyn made $8 million in 2020. Her image and likeness are routinely and extensively licensed. In May of 2022, Andy Warhol’s 1964 silkscreen image of the late actress sold for $195 Million. This is the most expensive work sold by an American artist ever at auction. Marilyn is once again in the centre of the cinema world as well. In September, entertainment giant Netflix released a controversial Monroe “biopic” entitled Blonde. The film is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 historical fiction novel and stars Ana de Armas as the doomed heroine. In short, Marilyn does not go out of style. She is remembered for her immense aesthetic influence and colossal cultural significance, but her greatest aspirations went unfulfilled.
The thing Monroe desired most was to be taken seriously as an actress. She once remarked, “I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity.” Her life ended before she could realize her ambitions. Marilyn died in 1962. She was 36 years old. The details of her passing are shrouded in controversy. Most experts agree that the cause was an accidental drug overdose. Her premature passing ensures that she will always remain vibrant and beautiful in the public consciousness. Monroe will also be forever worshipped, but for reasons unintended by her. For 60 years, Marilyn’s acting ability has been based on myth and unjustly judged. She is the personification of the “blonde bombshell”, but this was placating performance. For any critic who insists the ageless icon was not a talented actress, they need only consider her greatest role: Marilyn Monroe.
Decriers of Marilyn assert she was severely limited as an actress due to a lack of range and sparse sensibility. Journalist Derek Adams proclaimed that “Monroe flaunts her attributes too blatantly and seems less human because of it”. It was presumed that her talent didn’t extend beyond a curvaceous figure and a perfect smile. These were unfair criticisms, but they were real. As far as her movie studio was concerned, they had found a winning formula. Sex sells – and Monroe was the sexiest star on the planet. Thus, the industry brass could not afford for Marilyn to play a character with any kind of considerable depth. “The Seven Year Itch” (famous for the notorious updraft dress scene) wrapped in 1954. After filming, Marilyn became all too aware that she was regarded merely as a robotic sex symbol. The industry was exploiting her. She was fed up with it.
In 1955 Monroe left Hollywood for New York. She decided it was time to battle both the studio system and her reputation. As the studio saw it, it was simply bad business not to have her identified as the sultry fantasy girl. But Marilyn was, as she said at the time, “tired of the same old sex roles”. The actress, now a genuine superstar, took courageous action. First, she sued 20th Century Fox due to a breach of contract. By the end of the year, Marilyn signed a lucrative new seven-year deal. She was also granted creative control over her projects and formed her own production company with a friend, photographer Milton Greene. Monroe took on the studio system and won. This case paved the way for many freedoms that artists enjoy today. The next step in her plan was to attain what she continually craved, industry credibility.
Thespian titan Martin Landau was a friend and classmate of Marilyn’s. He first encountered her in 1955 when he stated, “She was being used and abused in Hollywood…People perceived her as a Hollywood blonde bimbo…She wanted to become an actress”. A goal to which she was totally committed. Monroe was very devoted to honing her craft. She relocated to Manhattan to study at the prestigious Actor’s Studio. This was a pivotal point in the evolution of her career. Marilyn was sick of being treated as a commodity and wanted credit for her ability. She famously asserted, “I have feelings too. I am still human. All I want is to be loved, for myself and for my talent”.
Monroe was receiving a masterclass in the art of acting while studying alongside many incredible young performers. They included the likes of Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Landau, Kim Stanley, Patricia Neal, Maureen Stapleton, Lou Gossett Jr., and Jane Fonda. Those classmates alone represented a total of 31 future Academy Award nominations. Up to this point, the closest that Marilyn got was a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for the film “Bus Stop”. Don Murray co-starred with her in the 1956 drama and could sense her recharged resolution. In a 2012 interview, Murray said Monroe, “Was trying to prove she was a serious actress and not just a movie star playing bimbo parts. She was trying to prove she was an actress of substance, and in my opinion she certainly did.” This was Marilyn’s first performance after taking on the tutelage of Lee Strasberg.
If acting instruction were a formal institution, Lee Strasberg is a charter member. His revolutionary teachings are the basis for the now infamous style of “method acting”. Some of the most important actors of all time studied with him. That list includes James Dean, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Robert De Niro, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino. Strasberg’s contribution to the world of acting cannot be overstated. Marilyn became a private student and even a surrogate daughter to the acting teacher. Under Strasberg’s instruction, Monroe flourished and found the range and depth that she was previously criticized for lacking. After her death, Strasberg summed up Marilyn’s acting abilities rather succinctly. He said, “She was one of the two or three most sensitive and most talented people that I’ve seen in my life. One of the others is Marlon Brando”.
Marilyn was an astute screen performer with tremendous timing. The great tragedy is that fans today truly have no idea how gifted Monroe was as an actress. It has been so long since her death that she no longer exists in memory as a performer, but only as a caricature. Unfortunately, people usually only associate her as the stereotypical “sexpot” in roles such as “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like It Hot”. Those are great pictures, and they required serious skill. But they are not the best representation of Monroe’s skill. In the end, she could not shake the biased labels that she repeatedly had to endure. Motion picture historian Paul Batters refers to it as “an unfortunate truth…the ‘sexy dumb blonde’ persona that plagued Monroe’s career”. The persona that Marilyn created, responsible for her fame and fortune, had obscured her talent. And she knew it.
Photographer Larry Schiller took some of the most famous ever pictures of Monroe. He was also one of her closest confidants during the last two years of her life. In his 2012 book, “Marilyn & Me”, Schiller recounts a conversation that he had with the star shortly before she died. It serves to illustrate the level of frustration Marilyn felt about her career. “Sometimes I feel my whole life has been one big rejection,” Marilyn told Schiller. “But look at you now,” he said. “You’re a star! Your face is on magazine covers all over the world! Everyone knows Marilyn Monroe!” “Let me ask you, Larry—how many Academy Award nominations do I have?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I do,” she said. “None.”
The Misfits, filmed in 1960, was Marilyn’s last completed movie. It again paired her with director John Huston and co-stars fellow Hollywood immortals Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Strasberg’s teachings helped Monroe through the difficult shoot. The role was terribly challenging, but it stands up as some of her best work. Film scholar Joe Zentner states, “Marilyn Monroe’s acting in ‘The Misfits’ is superb…She transforms her stunning good looks into something more vulnerable than sexuality”. Marilyn’s character is in emotional shambles. Sadly, this is an example of art imitating life. At this point in her career, Monroe was considered unstable and a professional liability due to her dependence on drugs. However, despite her considerable obstacles, Marilyn turns in a tragically brilliant performance.
Ana de Armas, who has gained rave reviews for her portrayal of Monroe in “Blonde”, developed an interesting perspective concerning her subject. She says, “Fame is what made Marilyn the most visible person in the world, but it also made Norma the most invisible”. Six decades after her death, the public continues to distort Monroe’s legacy. While she remains highly recognizable, her contributions as an industry trailblazer are almost never recognized. She is routinely considered a great brand ambassador yet is routinely branded “silly” and “witless”. It is the Monroe façade. But the hard truth is the façade survives because she was always in character. She once divulged, “I never wanted to be Marilyn – it just happened. Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane.” Perhaps the problem is that Monroe played the role of Marilyn just a little too well.