The Wistful World of Wes Anderson
On the Road with The Hitch-Hiker

MM: More Than the Silver Witch of Us All


She's all over the place, but I'm back to her. It's June 1st and, as always, I'm happily, sadly and at this point, superstitiously back to her. Norma Jeane, Marilyn, M.M., or as Norman Mailer called her, "more than the silver witch of us all" -- Marilyn Monroe. Every year I must celebrate with her -- it would feel wrong if I didn't. At this point, even the thought of not mentioning her makes me sense something terrible will happen. It's just a birthday but, well, most people become anxious on birthdays. I hate birthdays. So, June 1st. Today. She would have been 86 years old. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of her death.


"Don't you let them grind you up here." That's what Montgomery Clift says to her in The Misfits -- something that always resonates well beyond the parched Nevada landscape their characters are enduring.  And God bless Monty Clift, he was -- on screen -- the last man to perform a heroic action for his beautiful fellow misfit -- he untied those damn horses.


In John Huston's The Misfits -- their only picture together -- the two share a powerful kind of chemistry uniquely their own. World-weary and haunted, knowing and childlike, they're akin to the picture's fading cowboys -- vital stars with all their power, but ones in need of shade and rest and some healthier people around them. Both are movie stars for sure, but they reveal a gorgeousness that's a little worn, almost, sick of themselves -- it's painfully poignant to watch them at the end of the road. The movie reflected their own lives: As much as they enjoyed their status, as talented and as lovely as they were, both might have wanted to hang it all up.


But then, do they really? And to do what? And with whom? What to do in this life except settle down with Clark Gable's cowboy? But is that such a great idea? Thinking that in real life, Monroe's author was her husband (Arthur Miller) and her character was inspired by her, it's tough not to separate how doomed all of this feels. Miller and Monroe would end it, Gable would die after making the movie, Monroe would slide into a pill addled depression and would soon, infamously pass away. And then Clift would follow a few years later. I always wished Monty and Marilyn (in the movie and in real life) would have run off together, no matter how unstable the match. Yes, both were probably too damaged, too self destructive, too complicated to take care of anybody but themselves and Clift was homosexual but ... oh maybe it could have worked. You feel it when Clift says to Monroe: "I don't like to see the way they grind up women here ... Don't you let them grind you up here." He doesn't just love her, he understands her. 


Especially when he performs the heroic task of untying those Mustangs for Monroe. I think because it's Clift and because it's Monroe that this noble gesture becomes so overwhelmingly moving, so eloquent. Yes, it's a movie, but again, I will eternally love Monty for saying screw the money and letting those horses go -- for her.

And I will forever love Marilyn. How can one not love Marilyn? So I return to my ode for her day, her birthday, the birthday of cinema’s ultimate fractured sex goddess. 

Marilyn 4

As I have written:

Despite all those coffee mugs emblazoned with her image, countless MM impersonators, and that certain movie last year, one that did not come anywhere within the zip code of Marilyn (in spite of Michelle Williams valiant attempt), and so many sexy starlets naming her as an influence, she remains fascinating.


It’s not just that she died tragically and in mysterious circumstances though, that has certainly added to her legend. It’s not just for her famous husbands and her Happy-Birthday-Mr. President dalliances with the Kennedy's (something I've always found incredibly sad -- what else was going on there?). And it’s not just for her iconic beauty and glamour.


No, there’s something more to Marilyn that makes her continually interesting. It's all her now legendary tragic contradictions -- her messy, mixed-up life, her massive consumption of pills and champagne, her continual and final mental instability juxtaposed with her peaches and cream gorgeousness, her absolute command of the big screen (in spite of her problems with lines) and her ultimate, natural talent. It’s her ability, after all these decades, to still pop off the screen with such undeniable “It” that we almost take her for granted. Of course Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women in the world, who doesn’t know how wonderful she is?

  Annex - Monroe, Marilyn (Seven Year Itch, The)_01

But then, watch her again perform “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with effortless charisma and cleverness, observe her studied, but certainly real and potent melancholy in The Misfits (and every scene with Montgomery Clift - her beautiful brother in brilliance), enjoy the Freudian fantasy -- the erotic fun she’s having in The Seven Year Itch, think about all that sexed up sadness from Some Like It Hot (and yes, she makes you actually think about it: "I'm through with love, I'll never love again..." even in that fantastic flesh colored dress -- at that moment, she really means it). Further, view her va-va-voom bad girl in Niagara, her tragic, heartbreaking instability in one of her best performances and movies, Don't Bother to Knock, her jeans-wearing authenticity in Clash By Night, and revel in her garish vulnerability and sweetness (and my God those beautiful close-ups) in Bus Stop -- she is just so wonderful.


I had a thing for MM ever since I was a little girl (we were born on the same day). I even composed a slightly scandalous speech in the 7th Grade proclaiming the movie star was murdered (I think she ended her own life now, by accident or on purpose. As I go through life in general, and see how both sick this town can be, and glommy men can be towards vulnerabilities -- I better understand why she felt so alone). But even without young conspiracy theories, most little girls love MM in some way, especially those obsessed with movies. My love would would reignite later in life after I watched nearly all her films by high school and then, moved on to other celluloid goddesses -- a list of women I could rattle off forever -- I’d work through their movies (and still do) but I'd always come back for Marilyn. It's hard to leave that woman.


I realized later in life that I favored Marilyn both early in her career, when she was so fresh and un-mannered in films like The Asphalt JungleAll About EveDon't Bother to Knock (in which she's brilliant) and one of my favorite MM performances, Clash By Night (Marilyn slopping around in jeans eating that candy bar! So natural, so her.)

I adore her work during her so-called decline, like her odd glamour-puss beatnik performance from Let's Make Love, her sad eyed, superb method style in The Misfits and the absolutely mesmerizing bits and pieces I’ve seen of her in the ill-fated Something's Got To Give. She looked so stunning, so fit, who would think she was to die mere months later?


Like re-reading a great novel or play, you understand her better with age. And with age she can seem exasperating. You understand why people gave up on her -- they had their own lives to live. But then, there were so many insensitive creeps out there. Or those who just didn't understand mental illness. In My Week with Marilyn, poor MM is going through hell and we're of course supposed to feel for her, but we're supposed to feel for the young man who continues to watch this woman fall apart too.


Why? Sure he was young and naive and thrilled she found him special enough to spend time with, but he made me ill. How many men felt so "understanding" because they let her cry on their shoulder while getting their rocks off watching her roll around in tear-stained white sheets? What did they know about anything? And how did they ever help her? Ugh. Find her a Thelma Ritter or an Eve Arden (ah, if only we could all find a Thelma Ritter or Eve Arden). I just kept thinking to myself -- get out of her room, I don't care if she's summoning you. She's high. She's despondent. Never mind if any of what the character (Colin Clark) wrote was true, even star Michelle Williams questioned his story. She said in an interview: "When you read both of his books, you do get the sense that he's writing with the advantage of hindsight, and he's put some awfully big words in his own mouth...I think he says in the book that Marilyn wanted to make love, but he said, 'Oh, no!' And you're like, 'Oh, sure.' I'm sure that there was a relationship there. To what extent it was consummated, I don't know." God, I hope it wasn't. Sleep on the couch you asshole.


But that taps into something that through the years makes Monroe so powerful. That as manufactured as her screen persona was -- we can imagine how her skin might have felt. Or how her perfume might have smelled. Or even her sweat. Of course we'd all like to be in her presence, at least once, just to experience her realness. Or her real fakeness. Her tragedy is so merged with her fantasy that her humanness becomes one of the sexiest things about her, which is why her photographs are so endlessly intriguing, so haunting, like Milton Greene's "Black Sitting."


Like so many others, I'm fascinated by her later photo sessions; especially Douglas Kirkland's intimate photos where he was a young man on an early job and she instructed that they stay in the room together. And then there's Bert Stern’s iconic final sitting. MM is less made up, wearing simple clothes (if you ever look at the Christie's book on her auction, you'll notice how basic her personal style was) and you notice her skin aging, her fascinating flaws -- you can even see her possible appendectomy (one is not sure what happened) scar. But there is something so fantastically real, morbid almost, about these pictures. She looks a little modern (I always think of Deborah Harry or what Edie Sedgwick might have aged into when I look at these), very drunk and wonderfully rough around the edges -- less the big eyed-blonde and more the world weary movie star.


As Norman Mailer wrote of her in his perceptive ode Marilyn (I think, better than Gloria Steinem's victim-oriented  tome -- Mailer understood Monroe's sometimes complicit nature, her manipulations, thereby making her neither total innocent nor wide-eyed dummy) 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.”


Yes. Lying on that mattress on the floor in that modest little house at the end of her life, so many women (and men too) can understand and/or relate to her sadness -- and so many can see what demons led to her demise ... and yet, she remains mysterious.

And though she may be ultra ubiquitous she also remains important. Sexy, breathy, objectified, so-called dumb blonde? Someone's got to show them how to do it. And perhaps even more important, someone's got to reveal so much joy and pain yet remain so very specifically enigmatic. The cracked fantasy.


As always and forever, Happy Birthday Marilyn.


Graham Ashmore

Kim, in the letters section of the June 21 LRB is an excellent defence of Marilyn by Andrew O'Hagan (author of Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe) in response to a letter from David Thomson. Here are both links (you need to scroll down for O'Hagan's letter):

Graham Ashmore

So why didn't I just post the original Rose article, which has both letters and others besides? Duh.


I do so wish she'd have had her own personal happy ever after. It's terrible how they kept such a wonderful person down.

katharine Spencer Kelly

She glows from within, I never tire of Marilyn stories.
She will always inspire with her insights & I'm saddened by
her efforts to be a mom. Look @ the photos of Marilyn when she is with children.
Katharine E. Spencer Kelly


I stumbled across this write-up about MM and wow -- you make me want to view all of her films. Most of what's been written about Marilyn in the last 10 years seems to focus more on her unappreciated talent which you seemed to have captured in your essay.

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