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