Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe. An ode, from my cover story at Playboy Magazine, published December 2012.
“I was full of a strange feeling, as if I were two people. One of them was Norma Jeane from the orphanage who belonged to nobody; the other was someone whose name I didn’t know. But I knew where she belonged. She belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world.”—Marilyn Monroe
“Daughter of God, weaver of wiles,” Marilyn Monroe, like Sappho’s Aphrodite, will never die. It has been 50 years since she gasped her final breath on that lonely mattress with no bed frame—her beautiful nude body just there, collapsed and unrestricted, that body all men (and women) yearned to cradle, ravage or revere. There she was, Marilyn: her hand clutching the telephone that kept her company when she holed up in her hacienda on Helena Drive; her pill bottles visible; her last phone call with friend Peter Lawford; her odd little housekeeper Eunice seeing lights still on under her door; her devoted though strange Dr. Greenson first on the scene, breaking windows; Marilyn’s agent rushing out of the Hollywood Bowl; the cops; the changed stories; the Kennedys; the mob; the FBI files—what on earth was going on? A death scene so like Marilyn, that creature of contradictions: bizarrely glamorous and completely degrading, blatantly obvious and unendingly mysterious. Suicide. Accident. Murder. Myth.
Monumental M.M. myths don’t die. When Marilyn’s inner light—that luminosity she could turn on with one brilliant pout of her lips, with one glance of moist, widened eyes, with one flash of that glimmering, sometimes puckish smile—departed her body, she didn’t lose her power. She lost her life, and that was tragic and indeed too soon. But that vulnerable woman, that strong woman—a woman both in charge of her life and deeply unsure of herself, full of hope and dope and dreams and fear of the future—that woman maintained her power.
Marilyn wasn’t a candle in the wind. The well-meaning Sir Elton didn’t write her swan song. Her poetic soulmate, that troubadour of Americana Bob Dylan, granted her that honor. As Marilyn said herself, “I knew where she belonged,” and so did Dylan, the other famous Bobby one wishes she’d made love to or had lived long enough to meet. (Oh, what a couple Bobby Zimmerman and Norma Jeane would have made!) Without intending it for M.M., Dylan placed her in the “ocean and the sky and the whole wide world,” making “She Belongs to Me” belong to Bobby and herself and to all of us. Marilyn, from the moment she stepped in front of a camera, was an artist and she didn’t look back. “She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black.” Yes. The complexity of a woman. The lyrical duality of a poet. And she, deep down, must have known this, even if she didn’t believe she had everything she needed. And she remains ever present, ever modern, ever the hypnotist collector. “You are a walking antique.”
Much has been written about Marilyn’s vulnerability, much of it irritating. There’s the sad-eyed pat on the head, the poor little-girl-lost attitude that reduces her to the child-woman so many feminists bristle over, to which I ask, what is wrong with the child-woman? What is wrong with holding on to that lost kid, waiting for your daddy to come home? Then there are those who are quite sincere though simple-minded— Marilyn just needed a hug. She needed love and understanding. Of course she did. And of course it’s never that easy—not with a contradictory creature like Marilyn. And then there’s the more honest, robust look at “vulnerability,” chiefly seen in Norman Mailer’s take on Marilyn.
Mailer was a man who understood the mystery of women, a man who both made love to many women and fucked many women, many beautiful women, a man who admitted he wanted to steal Marilyn from Arthur Miller (“I wanted to meet her so I could steal her. And you know, a criminal will never forgive you for preventing them from committing the crime that is really in their heart.”) and a man who understood that vulnerability can sometimes be complicit and manipulative, thereby making Marilyn neither total innocent nor doe-eyed dummy. As he wrote, so beautifully, she was, “a female spurt of wit and sensitive energy who could hang like a sloth for days in a muddy-mooded coma; a child-girl, yet an actress to loose a riot by dropping her glove at a premiere; a fountain of charm and a dreary bore. She was certainly more than the silver witch of us all.”
Mailer understood her as both a human and celestial being—the “very Stradivarius of sex.” That may sound like horny hyperbole to some, but to me it places her on the level she deserves—a woman as a poet, an artist in her own being, her own sex, her own talent. And no one has ever captured that specific magic that is Marilyn. No one. Mailer’s words are a gorgeous counterpoint to what that other famous Marilyn biographer, Gloria Steinem, said of Marilyn on the American Masters special “Still Life” a few years back: “She was a joke. She was vulnerable. She was so eager for approval. She was all the things that I feared most being as a teenage girl.”
I don’t believe you, Gloria Steinem. Further, in the same special, Steinem (who I do believe admired Marilyn) comments on Marilyn’s final shoot with photographer George Barris—those gorgeous, timeless, casual shots on the beach, where she’s wrapped in a green towel and smiling or walking along the water in a sweater, staring at the camera with such soulful ambiguity that we can only stare back and wonder what she’s thinking; where she looks so modern, so ready for the 1960s in all her classic Pucci and slimmed-down frame and progressive ideas about sexuality. She’s clearly enjoying the beach, enjoying life. But she’s contemplative too. And this makes these photos poignant, not tragic. She looks so happy and womanly and alive: Who could believe she would die three weeks later? But Steinem, who sees Barris as a “kind man,” felt Marilyn was not her true self in those pictures. “The photographs are rather mannered and female impersonating and pathetic and sad.”
Pathetic? If there’s one thing Marilyn Monroe was never pathetic in front of, no matter the quality of the shot or the quality of the movie, it was a camera. She was a master. She had the God-given talent and charisma to turn on that inner light, and she had the intelligence to dim that light as well, to create darker erotic images (like Milton Greene’s Black Sitting), sad images, vulnerable images. And that is not pathetic. That’s strong. That’s brave. That’s art. Marilyn’s art.
And this instinct of her artistry came to her early. As chronicled by photographer André de Dienes, who shot some of her better-known youthful images, Marilyn yearned to express herself. She suggested ideas (as that other great M.M. photographer, Eve Arnold, can attest to as well). In 1953 the rising star called De Dienes at two in the morning, sleepless, sad and distressed. And in this state, she wanted to take pictures. When he arrived she wore no makeup, her eyes tired, her hair disheveled, and she was on the verge of despair. He was hesitant to shoot, but she insisted he snap her just as she was, in the dark streets of Beverly Hills (all her idea).
In one of the most compelling images, Marilyn is leaning against a tree near a garbage can, eyes closed, in a black coat, lit only by De Dienes’s car headlights. If you didn’t know it was Marilyn, you could mistake it for a Cindy Sherman film still (and Marilyn set it up just as Sherman would). But since she was in real pain, it’s much more raw than Sherman’s work and in line with the dark beauty of a Francesca Woodman. She said to De Dienes, “You usually write captions for your photos. You can put ‘the end of everything’ under these.” The images are heartbreaking— stunningly beautiful and depleted and scary and fascinating. Not only for M.M.’s pain, but also for her modern approach to exposing it.
“I can’t figure you out. You’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other,” Richard Widmark says to her mentally ill babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock, released a year before the “end of everything” photos and a movie that feels lost among her Technicolor dreamscapes. How many times had Marilyn heard similar versions of that male confusion? “What are you?” Her movie answer? A breathy “I’ll be any way you want me to be.”
Does she mean it? I hope not. Marilyn is brilliant here: so young and sexually damaged and complex, simmering with erotic heat that flows naturally out of her. There’s a prophetic sadness permeating her performance as this delusional young woman freshly released from an insane asylum. Knowing what we know about Marilyn’s childhood— the mentally ill mother, foster homes, sexual assaults, the longing for a father— she certainly understood the pathology and despondency of her character. She was a woman who wanted to be normal. Normal and special. But mental illness— in real life Marilyn’s greatest fear, that demon—just wouldn’t allow it. The breach between reality and fiction bedeviled her as a walking work of art—no matter how effortlessly sensual she looked in a negligee.
Silk and sandpaper. Love and sex. And again sex. As women, may we just have sex without judgment? Marilyn may have been used early in her career (and all through it), and she certainly harbored anger and sickness over some of those rougher moments, but women like that survive it. And she did. It didn’t destroy her creativity and it didn’t destroy her sex. She may have discussed her background and heartache as a little girl, but she didn’t let go of her carnality, healthy or unhealthy or a mixture of the two. I love what she said in her last interview, before the feminist movement, which often viewed her as a movie star trapped by the male gaze (a tired criticism that forgets how much women revere Marilyn): “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God,” she said, “but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it, everything.”
Real art. Marilyn’s innate acting ability and sexuality radiated in early pictures, like her unaffected, jeans-wearing charm in Clash By Night—a movie in which she utters Clifford Odets’s dialogue with such naturalism you wish the movie were about the girl in those jeans. She held her own with the inimitable George Sanders in All About Eve and gave us more than a mere plum honey in The Asphalt Jungle. In front of the movie camera she was pure talent, pure instinct, pure sex and sympathy and strength, from her fantastically overripe voluptuousness in Niagara to her sweet playfulness in The Seven Year Itch to her impeccable comic timing in Some Like It Hot—imbuing what could have been dumb blonde Sugar Cane into a soulful chanteuse who breaks our hearts and turns us on (that translucent dress!) with “I’m Through With Love.” She is not only dreamlike but bursting through the celluloid with such humanity and temperature that you feel as if you could almost touch her.
In The Misfits, her bravura performance, the faded cowboys circle around a near faded woman but one still so lovely that classic movie star Clark Gable, sitting on Marilyn’s bed, just next to her exquisite bare back, is humbled by the sight of her. Yes, even Rhett Butler is honored to be touching that skin.
The Misfits was a notoriously tough shoot, but I don’t care how many accounts I’ve read about her lousing up lines, showing up late or not showing up at all. She was worth it. Even Billy Wilder, who was deeply frustrated while working with her, cited her “elegant vulgarity” and her understanding of the camera: “She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.”
She must have been aware of it, at least sometimes. Watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Once you get to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, with that famous pink dress and those black-clad sadomasochistic ladies hanging from chandeliers (what a fantastically kinky touch!) and Marilyn’s “No, no, no, no, no,” she is such a movie star and yet has such a sense of humor about herself and is just so damn glamorous that she brings you to your knees. And she had to have known that. She wasn’t stupid.
And most self-respecting Marilyn biographers know she wasn’t the dumb blonde. But as much as Marilyn has been written about, with all the usual facts emerging—her pain and her undeniable magic, her epic rise and fall—she still seems, through all these years, misunderstood. Good. For as ubiquitous as she is, she’s still mysterious. She’s still beguiling.
Her films are more layered, enchanting and intricate now. I recently took in Marilyn’s powerful performance in Bus Stop and Lars von Trier’s genius Melancholia back-to-back and thought to myself, My God, would Mr. Von Trier have gotten Marilyn! In Bus Stop she’s the ultimate hillbilly beauty—broken down and abused and filled with all that excitable “Hollywood and Vine” hope that will never pan out. But she’s an angel. Like one of Von Trier’s tortured martyrs, she’s a unique woman because she’s so confused and frustrated, because she’s willing to demean herself. Painted up in that gorgeous chalky white makeup that only M.M. could pull off so naturally, gyrating in that dive, donning costumes probably unwashed for weeks, standing onstage in sexily torn fishnets and bruised legs and sweetly warbling through “That Old Black Magic” (even though M.M. was a talented singer and dancer), she is a deity—a vision that man-child Don Murray sees right away. And he’s right.
Yes, she’s an earthly woman, a woman who sleeps in all day and probably bleeds on the sheets and spills liquor on her clothes and continually embarrasses herself, and a woman so lost or sacrificial that she just gives up her dreams and leaves with that insane cowboy. But that makes her even more interesting and almost guiltily desirable. As I’ve written about Von Trier’s women, they live in hard, oppressive worlds filled with people who harbor little concern for their goodness or who at least attempt to understand their ugliness. I can imagine Marilyn, like Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, basking under that doomsday planet, naked and pale and accepting—absorbing and eroticizing that pain—and, as Marilyn did in film, giving us the pleasure of looking at her beautiful body.
Because through it all, no matter what was happening in her life, Marilyn gave us that gift: pleasure. Pleasure in happiness and pleasure in pain and the pleasure of looking at her. And great artist that she was, looking at her provoked whatever you desired to interpret from her. Her beauty was transcendent. For that, we should do as Dylan instructs: “Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes.”