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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe

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One of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen of Marilyn Monroe came not from a movie or newsreel footage or one of her many photographs. It came from a blanket.

Driving through Death Valley on a long road trip, I stopped in a tiny town for gas and a cold drink. Few seemed to live in this town: it served as a pit stop, a place to either check your radiator or check your mind (or, in my case, both) — one of those locales that offer such a bare minimum of services that a candy bar has never tasted so good. Delirious from hours of 70 mph signposts, I stumbled back into my car, feeling as if modern civilization had melted around me. For months, I’d been working on a piece about Marilyn (a cover story for Playboy -- she was never really pleased about that centerfold, though she handled it with great spirit, as nothing to be ashamed of -- and it's a beautiful image). Marilyn had been on my mind nearly every day.

6a00d83451cb7469e20240a461bd92200c-800wiAnd then … there she was. Driving away, I spied Marilyn on the side of the road, 20 feet from the gas station. With a mixture of excitement and a strange sadness, I jumped out of the car and stared. Her face was hanging from clothespins, blowing in the breeze, next to an open garage. A warm blanket in the hot sun, set against the blue sky, flapping and undulating in the merciful wind, her face changing shape and expression. This desolate desert Marilyn, so frank and alone, just hanging there, cleared away all the clutter of so many T-shirts, stickers, shower curtains, pillows, purses, wall clocks, and coffee mugs — all those Marilyns you walk right past in any given gift shop on Hollywood Boulevard. A little hypnotized and maybe a little crazy, I thought of how Marilyn described herself, as the woman who “belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world.” I had to film it.

 

That was the summer of 2012, the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s passing, a year when Marilyn was on many people’s minds, whether they wanted her there or not. I did want her there, so much so that I was flooding my mind with all things Marilyn, which, given the seemingly infinite amount of material out there, isn’t hard to do. Reading and rereading the books and biographies, rewatching her movies, staring at her photos, and visiting the Hollywood Museum’s Marilyn exhibit (where, among other personal effects, dresses, shirts, telegrams, prescription pill bottles, and notes to Dr. Greenson were on display), I became consumed, as so many have before me.

Out there in the desert, I thought of Marilyn and John Huston’s gorgeous sad end of the line, The Misfits — one of my favorite Marilyn performances and movies. And, again, I thought of the other misfit, Marilyn. I thought of her marriage to Arthur Miller (and I thought of my own marriage which was worrying me ... and staring at the lonely blanket of MM, for the purpose of decoration and for the purpose of warming a stranger, almost brought me to tears).

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End of the line ... Her once hope-filled marriage -- this brilliant, world-weary, haunted, mischievous, smart, artistic woman emulates The Misfits fading cowboys. A movie star in a cruel industry wondering how much time she has left. But still a movie star for sure, but one beset with a gorgeousness that's a little beautifully worn, wise. a little, almost, sick of herself. Troubled ... Which, to me, makes her all the more beautiful. Real. And real life spilled into the picture with Miller — sick of her marriage, but really did she want it to end? Probably she did. Perhaps she didn’t. One thing is for sure: the movie had to end. The marriage had to end too.

Marriages end in Reno. They start there too but they end in that dusty strange place. As Marilyn said:

“When we were first married, he saw me as so beautiful and innocent among Hollywood wolves that I tried to be like that. I almost became his student in life and literature . . . But when the monster showed, Arthur couldn’t believe it.” “I disappointed him when that happened. But I felt he knew and loved all of me. I wasn’t sweet all through. He should love the monster, too. But maybe I’m too demanding. Maybe there’s no man who could put up with all of me. I put Arthur through a lot, I know. But he also put me through a lot.”

Indeed he did. But Marilyn is so charitable here. As Miller, said, “I had no inkling of what to do or say anymore and sensed she [Marilyn] was in a rage against me or herself or the kind of work she was doing. She seemed to be filling with distrust not only for my opinions of her acting [in The Misfits], but also for Huston’s.” Her rage. In herself in Miller. Her distrust."

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He had “no inkling” what to say but he has a pretty good inkling regarding her rage ... take a look deeper regarding that rage. And those reservoirs of rage under that beautiful blonde face and body is why she is brilliant in the movie. It’s hard to know what to say. Just let Marilyn release it. So as Monroe screams, in her big, blistering moment in The Misfits, filmed in a haunting, almost unmerciful long shot, making Monroe a speck of blonde hair and denim in the desert while the men observe and comment on her words from afar — Ii’s perfect. And so powerful. She has to scream, almost an invisible creature in the desert and the dust as the men look with differed expressions. She needs to be heard. Monroe hollers:

"Killers! Murderers! You're liars! All of you, liars! You're only happy when you can see something die! Why don't you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God's country! Freedom! I pity you! You're three dear, sweet, dead men!” 

She understood those words. Miller must have too. And we do too... We try to understand and we never forget Marilyn.

Why is this so? Why Marilyn? I’m not entirely certain unless it’s because she’s so ever-present that you start to project your own qualities and feelings onto her. The more you study her, the more you excavate her history and personae, the more you find yourself using her as a mirror, and the more you find that she reflects something back at you. It seems silly at times, this obsession, this rendering, this exorcism: she’s just a movie star. Yet “her story continues to grow,” as S. Paige Beatty reflects in American Monroe: The Making of the Body Politic (1995):

"And as it grows it assumes new meanings and possibilities. Those who tell Marilyn’s tale negotiate myriad ways of being in America past and present. The dreams, conspiracy theories, photos, tributes, postcards, and refrigerator magnets run together with increasing speed only to crash in a heap of detritus at the feet of the angel of history. Looking back over her shoulder, Marilyn rushes forward, compelled by the wreckage piling in her wake."

Beatty wrote this beautiful passage almost two decades ago, and Marilyn’s still rushing forward, still looking over her shoulder nearly 20 years later. It’s doubtful she’ll ever stop.

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That year of 2012 Marilyn deluge found her gracing magazine covers from Vanity Fair to Playboy, and starring in a new documentary (Love, Marilyn) as well as several new books (Marilyn by Magnum, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, and a rerelease of Norman Mailer’s Marilyn, with photographs by Bert Stern from her last sitting). She inspired a storyline on the TV series Smash, a line of MAC makeup (the color collection was referred to as “distinctly Marilyn”), and starred as ghost spokeswoman for a lovingly crafted, surprisingly moving Chanel No. 5 commercial, which used her famous, provocative answer to the question of what she wore to bed: “Just a few drops of Chanel no. 5.” Chanel surprised viewers with Marilyn’s own voice, taken from an interview conducted soon before her death, as if she were speaking from the grave. And Marilyn loomed large, quite literally, when in a 26-foot tall, 34,000-pound statue, “Forever Marilyn,” was moved from Chicago to downtown Palm Springs, her white Seven Year Itch dress fluttering and enormous. Marilyn was not only everywhere that year: she was elevated, in stature and in sophistication.

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Now that the anniversary had passed, the flood has slowed but had not let up. In March 2013, a 33-page comic book titled Tribute: Marilyn Monroe, written by Dina Gachman, illustrated by Nathan Girten, and colored by Dan Barnes, was released. The comic covered the star’s sad, glamorous and tumultuous life: her humble, heartbreaking beginnings when she was shuffled through foster homes, her young marriage to Jim Dougherty at age 16, her divorce, her early modeling career, her struggle and rise in Hollywood, her famous marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Miller, her movie roles, and her eventual downfall. It’s a sensitive, celebratory ode to Monroe, with some charming, unexpected details that prove Gachman did her homework: for instance, the fact that teen Norma Jeanne cooked peas and carrots because she liked the colors (something ex-husband Dougherty relayed in an interview), and the story of how Marilyn and her early roommate, Shelley Winters, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, who then crashed into Charlie Chaplin’s tennis court.

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I was worried, for a moment, when I read Gachman’s Indiewire essay, in which she admits that, upon receiving the assignment to write about Marilyn Monroe, she didn’t have a “huge amount of respect for her.” But, predictably, extensive reading and research resulted in a newfound appreciation and admiration of her intelligence and talent. In Tribute, you can sense Gachman wanted to do Marilyn justice, and with the fresh, excited perspective of a newly christened devotee. “I really fell in love with her,” she writes.

And new love is refreshing. One would think that this woman — the woman Mailer so eloquently called “more than the silver witch of us all” — had already been represented to death. And yet, she remains, decades after her death, enthralling. Ubiquity may cause some to take Marilyn for granted, or even to become tired of her, but it will never, ever diminish her. Andy Warhol, the first artist to put her in what was, essentially, a comic-book setting, knew it right away. His Marilyn Diptych (1962), created weeks after her death, with its rows of colorful Marilyns juxtaposed with the inkier, moodier black and white Marilyns, is a prescient, powerful work. Placing a picture that already seemed like a relic (a va-va-voom publicity shot from Niagara) into a modern pop art tableau, he exposed her timelessness and her versatility. Each of the 50 duplicate images, on closer inspection, are different.

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It’s easy to say that the two halves of the picture represent the two sides of Marilyn: one side the bright star, the other the darker, moodier Marilyn who is fading away. But the work is more surreptitious than that. Warhol seemed to know instinctively that the viewers would project their own thoughts on her image. Helpless victim, powerful sex goddess, movie star, beauty icon, camp icon, cartoon — we take her in many ways, positive, negative, or a mixture of both. Warhol, bless him, catapulted Marilyn into the modern era after she lost the ability to do it herself (and, rest assured, she would have).

What did Marilyn want us to see? Well, of course, we’ll never really know, and that is an enormous part of Marilyn’s power. You can see this in her work in front of the camera, as a brilliant, creative photographer’s model, with, among other greats, Andre de Dienes, Eve Arnold, Milton H. Greene, Bruce Davidson, Richard Avedon, Erich Hartman, George Barris, Bert Stern, Phil Stern, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dennis Stock, Philippe Halsman, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Kirkland, and Inge Morath (who shot some of the more powerful photos of Marilyn alone and with her husband Arthur Miller as their relationship was disintegrating — and, who, interestingly, became Miller’s next wife). Morath loved photographing Marilyn. Most photographers did. As Eve Arnold said:

"I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me, there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects."

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Marilyn died young and beautiful, but she still inspires, beguiles, and offers new gifts, like that cheap blanket I encountered in the middle of nowhere.

I hope that blanket is keeping someone warm at night, as Marilyn famously claimed her work failed to do: “A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night.” But thank God for that career — the movies, the photographs, the life. Even after tragically expiring on that lonely mattress, nude, in her rather humble Beverly Hills hacienda, she never lost her mythic power. In her last picture, The Misfits, Montgomery Clift’s cowboy poignantly and revealingly tells Marilyn’s Roslyn, “Don't you let them grind you up. Hear?” Decades later, we still hear you, Monty. 

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