The former Norma Jeane Baker would have been 90 this week. Ashley Davies feels she was so much more than a beautiful sex symbol.
Is it shallow to say you first started liking somebody because they were beautiful? If so, hi, I’m Shallow Ash. Lovely to meet you. In the late 1980s, when Athena flooded the country with posters of long-dead cinematic, political and musical icons, I, like thousands of unimaginative, predictable others, papered my walls with black and white images of Marilyn Monroe, despite at that point never having seen any of her films.
I started off merely liking the look of her, then started learning her songs, and then, over the years, got to see what she was like on screen. She seemed to have been invented by a sexually aware committee of Disney artists. She could go from wide-eyed sweetness to world-conquering allure with a slow blink of her perfect eyelids. A miniscule, mid-pout twitch in the centre of her upper lip could transform her from cheesecake sweetheart to holder, keeper and provoker of boiling secrets.
These were qualities that first got her noticed in her late teens, and which helped hoist her up and away from a largely shitty childhood. By the time she died, aged 36, she had played a significant part in shaking up the Hollywood studio system that had until then kept actors trapped in contracts that forced them to appear in films whether they wanted to or not.
She’d set up her own film company and had challenged 20th Century Fox to man the fuck up against McCarthyism. And she did all of this often while in significant pain – physically, from endometriosis and gall stones, and emotionally, from a sense of loneliness, broken relationships and an unstable childhood.
She’d spent most of it in an orphanage and foster homes after her mother – later diagnosed with a serious mental disorder – acknowledged that she couldn’t cope with the responsibility of another child, having already lost custody of her older two to her first husband.
At the age of 16, Marilyn – then Norma Jeane Baker, formerly Mortensen – married somebody with whom she had nothing in common, partly to escape a crappy life. She dropped out of school, got a wartime job in a factory and, thanks to her prettiness, quickly got work as a pin-up model, occasionally taking off her kit for extra cash. It wasn’t long before she was picking up small parts in forgettable movies.
The next few years were not unusual for a Hollywood starlet: she played a series of decorative characters on screen, while in real life having relationships with powerful men from whom she benefitted materially. By her late 20s she was a global superstar, and in her early 30s started trying to break out of the dumb blonde mould. Playwright Arthur Miller saw beyond her looks and sex appeal and, although their short marriage was not an easy one, there was a degree of intellectual connection that she may not have had in previous relationships.
“Like Amy Winehouse, Monroe was beautiful and talented and made some bad decisions.”
The FBI opened a file on her because Miller had been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when 20th Century Fox warned her against associating with him, she accused them of cowardice. She (largely) won her fight to be released from a contract that required her to churn out dumb blonde movies and was granted director, movie and cinematographer approval for future projects, as well as a minimum financial package per film and the freedom to make her own films.
In public, she dealt with some of the undermining shit thrown at her with class. During one press conference, a female reporter asked her: “You’re wearing a high-necked dress. Is this a new Marilyn? A new style?”
Her response, delivered with total sweetness, a pinch of faux surprise and not a hint of sarcasm: “No, I’m the same person, but it’s a different suit.”
One of the things I love about her is the way she tried so hard to improve herself. In her early-to-mid-30s she started learning the Method acting technique in an attempt to develop her craft. This required her to undergo psychoanalysis, which her coaches Lee and Paula Strasberg insisted was vital in helping actors confront their emotional traumas.
I don’t think it was an accident that this churning up and addressing of emotional pain and memories of childhood rejection – and an episode of alleged sexual abuse when she was eight – coincided with her increased dependence on barbiturates. She was nearly always late and had a reputation for being unreliable.
It got so bad that while she was filming The Misfits, an unusually gritty production which Miller had written for her, that it wasn’t unusual for her to be asleep while her makeup was being done. Not long after this, she sang Happy Birthday to president John F Kennedy, with whom she almost certainly had an affair, at Madison Square Gardens. It’s hard not to recognise in her some of the vulnerability seen in Amy Winehouse when she was on stage, tiny, alone and inebriated. Wasted.
Like Winehouse, she was beautiful and talented and made some bad decisions. Substance abuse often got the better of her and she got fired from her last film, Something’s Got to Give, for breach of contract.
I’d like to think that if Monroe was a contemporary celebrity she’d have got the medical and psychological help she needed, and she probably would have, but the truth is she’d have been preyed upon by the tabloids and other purveyors of circles of shame. Expressions of kindness and admiration on social media would be drowned out by crass messages of graphic objectification, peppered with gleefully relayed sightings of her at her worst or most vulnerable.
And while she could have been capable of becoming a more nuanced performer, it’s still impossible to look away when she’s on screen as a cartoonish sex kitten, because she was just so unbelievably beautiful.
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Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.