The mis­fit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FIFTY years af­ter her death, we seem to be no clearer about who Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe was or who we want her to be. Bi­og­ra­phers, nov­el­ists and play­wrights have wres­tled with the prob­lem of how to re­solve the para­doxes that clus­ter around her like so many mir­rors, si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­flect­ing and dis­tort­ing her. While we know how she died — from an over­dose of bar­bi­tu­rates — we will never re­ally know who or what killed her. Was it the Kennedys, the mafia, the doc­tors, the drugs?

To gaze at the most fa­mous im­age of Mon­roe — in­can­des­cent above a New York sub­way grate, white dress bil­low­ing around her shoul­ders, dur­ing the film­ing of The Seven Year Itch — and to read the story be­hind the pho­to­graph — the po­lice and bar­ri­cades; the male spec­ta­tors bay­ing at glimpses of pu­bic hair through her white un­der­pants; the 14 takes, the out­raged hus­band storm­ing off in a fury — is to get a sense of the forces fight­ing for con­trol over her.

In her only dis­cus­sion of the shoot, dur­ing a 1962 in­ter­view, Mon­roe said, ‘‘ At first it was all in­no­cent and fun, but when Billy Wilder kept shoot­ing the scene over and over again the crowd of men kept on ap­plaud­ing and shout­ing ‘ More, more Mar­i­lyn — let’s see more’, what was sup­posed to be a fun scene turned into a sex scene.’’

Lois Ban­ner, an aca­demic who calls her­self a founder of ‘‘ sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism’’, takes the fa­mous sub­way grate im­age as the start­ing point for a lu­cid and com­pas­sion­ate bi­og­ra­phy that ex­plores ‘‘ how Mar­i­lyn was cre­ated, how she lived her life, and how that life ended’’. Hav­ing once dis­missed Mon­roe as a ‘‘ sex ob­ject for men’’, Ban­ner says that she was per­suaded by ‘‘ third-wave fem­i­nists’’ that she might have writ­ten her off too eas­ily, that Mon­roe’s sta­tus as a sex ob­ject might have rep­re­sented power rather than pow­er­less­ness. I’m not sure the book ar­gues this con­vinc­ingly, al­though Mon­roe’s power was man­i­fest in other ways. Ban­ner tell us that she ‘‘ made her­self into an ac­tress and a star, she formed her own pro­duc­tion com­pany, she fought the moguls to a stand­still, and she pub­licly named the sex­ual abuse vis­ited on her as a child’’.

Yet Mon­roe never got the se­ri­ous movie roles she wanted, the roles that might have re­vealed her tal­ent as a dra­matic ac­tress, as some­thing more than the self-made blonde bomb­shell she had been from the be­gin­ning.

A re­veal­ing se­quence of pho­to­graphs, not in­cluded in Ban­ner’s book, shows Mon­roe and her third hus­band, Arthur Miller, watch­ing Some Like it Hot, the Wilder movie in which, as night­club singer Su­gar Kane, she was too dumb even to re­alise that Jack Lem­mon and Tony Cur­tis were men in drag. The movie was a big suc­cess but Mon­roe had ac­cepted the part un­der duress, pushed into it by Miller be­cause the money was good. Film­ing had been dif­fi­cult: bul­lied by Wilder and an­gered by a (mis­quoted) re­mark from Cur­tis that kiss­ing her was like kiss­ing Hitler, she reg­u­larly turned up late on set and was as­sumed to be drink­ing and pop­ping pills. Yet while movie au­di­ences flocked to see Su­gar Kane strum­ming her ukulele and wig­gling her bot­tom on screen, be­hind closed doors at the Ac­tors Stu­dio in New York, Mar­i­lyn was test­ing her act­ing lim­its in the role of Blanche DuBois in A Street­car Named De­sire.

All those con­tra­dic­tions and com­pro­mises, anx­i­eties and frus­tra­tions, seem im­plicit in the pho­to­graphs of Mon­roe watch­ing the movie

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