Marilyn Monroe has been around for 60 years, yet nobody seems to really know what to do with her. She has therefore evolved into our doll, a n*ked figure that we can clothe whatever we like: We are so familiar with her suffering that her name has come to stand for emotional brittleness, a container we may fill with our own worries about isolation and self-doubt. Given her association with John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert at the time of her death in 1962—or even simply a friendship, if that's what you want to believe—conspiracy aficionados are still drawn to her case. A Marilyn Monroe dress, one of the most prized and identifiable in the world, was recently insisted upon being worn to a gorgeous, high-profile party by a woman who is renowned largely for being famous, however that works. This is said to have severely strained the fragile fabric. When Marilyn Monroe wore a dress, it wasn't just a dress; there was an immediate and public protest. We all seem to have forgotten that Marilyn was a phenomenally intelligent and gifted actor, a woman whose natural charm and devotion to her craft produced work so delightful, and occasionally so emotionally raw, that it's deserving of any modern actor's envy. We love Marilyn so much as a face, a symbol, and as a bottomless well that will accept as much pity as we can pour into it.
In Andrew Dominik's willfully ignorant Freudian fantasy Blonde, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates' 1999 zillion-page novel and starring Ana de Armas in an earnest performance that's doomed both by the material and the filmmaker's approach, that Marilyn—the brilliant, perceptive if often difficult performer—is almost nowhere to be seen. Because Oates' Blonde is fiction, its author is free to absolve herself of any accountability, and Dominik does the same by grabbing hold of that ball and running with it. Norma Jeane, our poor, pitiful heroine, who, before she became known to the world as Marilyn, was just a deeply insecure forever-orphan girl named Norma Jeane, is subjected to all kinds of terrible acts by composite characters as we are invited to watch in horror. These characters include sinister studio heads and hedonistic young scions of Hollywood royalty.
Because of her weaknesses, men have manipulated and occasionally mistreated Marilyn in real life. She also suffered greatly because she never knew her biological father. However, Dominik hardly notices anyone there because he is so preoccupied with Marilyn's position as a victim. Even worse, entitled Hollywood execs ogle her, her husbands fail to comprehend her one after the other, and the children she so desperately wants are taken from her womb. The number of her transgressions is so great, and they are depicted in such a risqué way, that the film is propelled by their lust. De Armas is a machine designed only to suffer, and Dominik shoots her eyes repeatedly as if they were a pair of hungry mouths. This is exploitation that has pity as a cover.
Blonde is not a movie about Marilyn Monroe; it is a sad movie about sadness. Blonde leaves no room for the multifaceted nature of the real-life Marilyn, her ability for joy as well as her severe depressions, even though both Dominik and Oates would likely argue that this is on purpose—again, this is a work of fiction rather than a direct biography. Actors are always greater than the sum of their parts, and Marilyn Monroe in particular is too complicated to be reduced to pieces in the first place, both as a performer and as a character. The most important and much overlooked aspect of her biography is how she performs.
What does it take to execute a comedy role with such subtle nuance as Marilyn does in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot from 1959? Marilyn occasionally seems to be riffing on her own insecurities as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the lead singer of an all-girl band infiltrated by two male musicians in drag, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis; but, there's always something in her that's striving toward joy. Although the movie is set during the Prohibition era, Sugar enjoys having alcohol on hand at all times. She maintains a little flask hidden in her underwear and complains that while other band members also indulge in alcohol, she is the only one who is ever caught. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop, she exclaims, her face lighting up at the thought of becoming the punchline of the joke before her features fall into a subtly tragicomic scowl.
These little tonal changes are what make Marilyn's performances so captivating and charming. She played so many sex-symbol roles in the 1950s once Hollywood discovered the key to her bankability: in addition to Sugar Kane, there is the sweet upstairs neighbour temptress in The Seven-Year Itch (1955) and two back-to-back gold-diggers, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (both from 1953). Marilyn made each of these performances stand out, despite the fact that she yearned to pursue roles that would challenge her in various ways. This is largely due to the pin-point accuracy of her comic timing, which prevented any of these performances from seeming rote or routine. Marilyn is a fluttery naif in cat's eye glasses who plays Pola Debevoise, one of the three city girls in How to Marry a Millionaire (Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall are her partners in crime). Pola can't see a thing without them, though she ditches them whenever there are men around, bumbling her way through doors and into tables. When the three encounter a lovely older cattle magnate from Texas (William Powell), he struggles to explain his precise line of business above their interruptions. In her deliciously sneaky Marilyn manner, Pola adds helpfully, "You know, like, cows," pronouncing each consonant as if it were a gem of great price. On the page, a conversation line that would be a huge nothing is transformed into a casual, thrown-off gem.
Marilyn was aware of her influence over men, and she used it on screen, but never in a shady or cunning way. She radiated with a spectacular and unique feminine power that has always felt giving rather than competitive, which may be why women adore her as much as men do. The perception that Marilyn was "a man's lady," the kind of person who would be unlikely to have many female friends, or who may alienate or intimidate others of her sex, has likely been spread more by men than by women. In 1986, Gloria Steinem penned a sympathetic biography of the actress. She recalled her own brief time spent in 1953 at the Actors' Studio in New York, where she would see fellow student Marilyn sitting alone in slacks and a shapeless sweater: "Confident New York actors seemed to take pleasure in ignoring this great, powerful, unconfident movie star who had dared to come to learn."
Every person who has attempted to learn about Marilyn—to comprehend her difficult and lonely upbringing, to accept the depression and desperation that followed her, to make sense of the fiery intelligence that so many people around her, particularly men, preferred not to recognize—leaves with a sense of her profound fragility. But is it conceivable that, without ever admitting it, we emphasise Marilyn's vulnerability in an effort to control her sexuality and her own sexual appetites? As if to allay any guilt we could experience regarding her sexuality and attractiveness? Marilyn battled her own shame her entire life, but Blonde neglects to emphasise the fact that she didn't fall into bed with just anyone and, despite being fatally insecure, she was aware of when she was being used and screamed against it. Even after we are dead, those of us who love Marilyn desire to guard her. However, infantilization as a means of stoking our own dreams or assumptions is different from protection, which is one thing.
Joshua Logan's adaptation of William Inge's play, Bus Stop (1956), would have been mostly about wounded males without Marilyn. Don Murray plays Bo, a hulking, crude Montana cowboy who kidnaps Chérie, a chanteuse played by Marilyn, because he decides he wants her as his wife, whether or not she agrees. The sexual politics in the film are more offensive than just being outdated or backward, which is the kind of stuff we usually overlook when watching older films. Bo lassos his future wife at one point as if she were a runaway calf. Marilyn, however, realised she could truly make an impact in this role, and her performance is astounding. Her outrage at the thought of this cowboy even attempting to possess her ultimately subverts the entire film, making its awkward, male-wish-fulfillment-fantasy finale feel patched-on and incorrect. Chérie is an Ozarks native who is making her way to Hollywood, where she believes greatness awaits, saloon by two-bit saloon, across the country. These ethereal characters were Marilyn's calling; they mirrored the idealised desires she had held onto her entire life. Chérie isn't a pushover, despite the fact that she has faith in her dream. Chérie doesn't pout or flirt as cowboy Bo approaches her; instead, her eyes expand and her brows slightly arch as if she can smell something seriously foul, like an egg left to rot in someone's pocket. Marilyn portrays Chérie's disobedience as equal parts serious and humorous up until the movie pulls the rug out from under her, which it surely must, and always as an affirmation of the character's value. Additionally, she has an unfair advantage over every other actor in the movie, including the stunning Hope Lange, due to her lunar beauty. Bus Stop is Marilyn's property. She wasn't really conscious of her power at the time, but it was strong.
It's true that Marilyn desired to escape the box that Hollywood had placed her in at the beginning of the 1950s. She created her own production business in 1955 after becoming dissatisfied with how she was treated by the studio that had her contract, 20th Century Fox. It was a short-lived endeavour, but it nevertheless demonstrates her courage. She began studying acting at the Actors' Studio around this time as well. She yearned to be taken seriously in a society that seemed to purposefully discount her intelligence—who wanted a clever Marilyn Monroe? However, there had been indications of Marilyn's seriousness almost from the beginning: Her breakout role as disturbed nanny Nell Forbes in Roy Ward Baker's shuddering psycho-noir Don't Bother to Knock (1952) is so incisive that it will probably keep you up at night. This Marilyn doesn't exactly exude warmth or approachability: She nearly seems like a murderess in the making as Nell, detached and vacuous. (A year later, in Henry Hathaway's Niagara, Marilyn would give another outstanding, chilling performance as a full-fledged murdering schemer.) Nell has been broken by a broken love; she is just returning to society after a breakdown, but her return has come too soon. The sandman will come and sprinkle sand all over your eyes, she declares as she tucks her young charge into bed. Although the remarks are dry and hard like stones, they also seem to be emanating from miles outside the body of this unhappy young person.
Don't Bother to Knock is hardly ever discussed, and it's understandable why. This is neither the glamorous, flirtatious Marilyn from Some Like It Hot or the adoring, pretended-innocent comedienne from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Unsettlingly, Nell is a lady who has let her dream world to imprison her. The performance is but a glimpse of what Marilyn could have developed into had she lived longer and had more time to spread her wings. She was a person we rarely got to know as it was. Her legacy endures, and other authors, directors, and performers have mined it for both good and bad purposes. However, the fact that the outfit could only fit one woman remains unaltered.