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“She’s quite wonderful. No training, no craft to speak of… no guile… just pure instinct. She’s astonishing. But she won’t believe me. That’s probably what makes her great. It’s almost certainly what makes her so profoundly unhappy. I tried my best to change her, but she remains brilliant despite me.”
– Sir Lawrence Olivier on Marilyn Monroe *
Sir Lawrence was trying above to put his finger on the strange and eternally undefinable allure of Marilyn Monroe who was born on today’s date in 1926 in Los Angeles, California. Born Norma Jean Mortenson, she was given her mother’s name and was baptized Norma Jean Baker. To say that she was the ultimate sex symbol of the 1950’s and 60’s is only to speak the obvious. This woman held the fascination of so many of those who beheld her that her allure surely was more than that of a mere sex symbol. There was surely something more about her… perhaps it was her sadness. That longing for acceptance which perhaps came from her unhappy and unsettled childhood which could therefore never be assuaged. Maybe the fact that this woman, who seemed so very desirable, that she could never find her heart’s desire, or even figure out what her heart’s desire was, maybe this is what has made her so fascinating to the generations of film lovers who have watched her work, as well as those who worked with her. What was it that has made her such an icon?
Norma Jean Survives Childhood
The future star certainly had her share of troubles starting out in life, troubles which she had no part in creating, but troubles with which she would spend her life contending. Both her maternal grandparents and her mother were committed to mental hospitals, and young Norma Jean wound up spending her youth with a series of foster families. She married a neighborhood guy – James Dougherty at the very young age of 16. Norma was one of those original “Rosie the Riveters”…. part of that generation of american women who went to work in the factories while their men were off fighting in the war. Her husband was a Merchant Marine who was sent to the South Pacific during World War II. And it was there in the munitions factory that a photographer – David Conover discovered the photogenic young woman (right, circa 1945) and moved her on to a successful career in modeling. Divorcing Dougherty in 1946, she was signed to a film contract with 20’th Century Fox in 1946. But her name of Norma Jean was deemed as unsuitable for a potential star. So like so many Hollywood stars she hit upon a new name. She decided to follow her idol Jean Harlow in taking her mother’s maiden name of Monroe, and thinking that Marilyn had a nice flow with that and thus she became Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe Becomes a Star
After a string of small roles that passed largely without notice, she garnered some attention with a bit part in “All About Eve” (1950), in which she played a ditsy young blonde under the wing of a powerful theater critic. But her most important role to date would come in “Niagara” (1953) in which she played an unfaithful young wife who connived with her lover to murder her husband. The reviews centered in on Monroe’s overt sexuality in the film while disparaging her acting. Nevertheless, with this, her career was on the fast track, and she found herself on Hollywood’s “A” list with such films as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) in which she sung (she had a fine, very sultry singing voice) a famous rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girls’ Best Friend.”, and “the Seven Year Itch” (1955) in which she played the object of a man’s desire to step out on his wife. Sadly this success in her professional career came at a heavy price in her personal life.
Marilyn’s Life As a “Sex-Symbol”
An international sex symbol, she became involved with the great New York Yankees player Joe DiMaggio, whom she married in January of 1954. On a honeymoon trip with DiMaggio to the far east, Monroe performed for U.S. Troops in Korea, causing a near-riot among the super enamored troops for their dream-girl. This sort of sex-symbol worship of Marilyn was something with which the more staid and privately natured DiMaggio was never able to get comfortable. They would divorce the following October, although they would remain friends for the rest of her life. But Marilyn was notoriously insecure about herself, her public image, and also about her ability as an actress. She had by her prime years as an actress become a regular user of various drugs to help herself sleep, to wake up, to gain energy, to calm down… these not surprisingly took a significant toll on both her personal and professional life. Her next marriage to playwrite
Arthur Miller lasted four tumultuous years from 1956 to 1960. Miller, as would many men, tried to get to the bottom of Marilyn’s insecurities, but found himself stymied. “She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence.” Miller recalled.
Monroe’s Life Spins Out of Control
Marilyn’s work continued to expand while her on-set habits of showing up late for work, sometimes not showing up at all made her a well-known headache for her directors, as well as her colleagues. She also insisted on having her acting coach, Paula Strasberg with her at all times, which made matters even more difficult. While Marilyn was certain that Strasberg’s presence would make her a better actress, many of her colleagues, like the above quoted Olivier thought that Strasberg’s only function was to “butter Monroe up”. Still, it was during this later period of her career that Marilyn delivered two of her best performances in “The Prince And the Showgirl” (1957) with Lawrence Olivier, and “Some Like it Hot“(above,1959), with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. That last one, under the direction of the great Billy Wilder, was later named by the American Film Institute as the funniest American comedy ever made. But her personal life continued to run out of control with various affairs both rumored and real. She was said to have been involved with President John F. Kennedy for a time. It was her very sultry rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy in May of 1962 which was her last public appearance. Monroe was found dead at her home in Brentwood, California on August 5, 1962. She was 36 years old. At the autopsy which followed, eight milligrams per cent of chloral hydrate and 4.5 milligrams percent of Nembutal were found in her system,and Dr.Thomas Noguchi of the Los Angeles County Coroners office recorded cause of death as “acute barbiturate poisoning“, resulting from a “probable suicide” There are manywho doubt this verdict by the coroner. Rumors about some shadowy figures perhaps even hired by the Kennedys to silence Marilyn abound to the present day. There may be some truth to such theories, but it is not my purpose here to debate them. Let it suffice here to say that the doubts exist.
Marilyn Monroe and “Star Quality”
“I have great faith that her career would have continued,” commented Ben Lyon, who signed Marilyn to her first studio conract. “She was one of the greatest draws in the history of motion pictures, and today I think she would have been tops. Marilyn had a childlike quality which made men adore her. Yet women weren’t jealous. Like John Wayne and a few other giants, she had a star quality that had nothing to do with acting… What women in pictures can compare with her today? Nobody.”
So what was it that made Monroe such an icon? That “star quality” which Ben Lyon spoke of above was surely present in Marilyn Monroe. Yes, she was a beautiful and alluring woman. And men have been known to make fools of themselves over such women in the past dating back to Julius Caeser and Cleopatra. Even substantial men such as Olivier have been known to see things where there was nothing when searching to recover their youth. But what Olivier said elsewhere and others did as well is that she took the worst that Hollywood could dish out, and succeeded anyway. This could not possibly have happened without substantial talent, determination and pure guts on Marilyn’s part. And also, she must indeed have had tons of that elusive and mysterious ingredient called “star quality”….
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2011, the Weinstien Company Directed by Simon Curtis
* = The quote from Sir Lawrence Olivier with which this posting begins was taken verbatim from the 2011 film “My Week With Marilyn” (listed above). I have been unable to locate the exact quotation, or quotations from which it was taken in the book version of that film. Also, I have been unable to locate a copy of Colin Clark’s book “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me” on which the film was based. But I feel safe in assuming that Olvier did in fact utter the sentiment with which I quoted him from the film. If and when I am able to locate the exact quote or quotes, I will indeed list them here as a source.