‘The Marilyn Monroe of Biography’

Carl Rollyson, author of Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, reviews Lois Banner’s upcoming biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, on BiblioBuffet.

‘With one word, [Banner] helps explains why I was so taken with the actress and so certain she was a genius. Banner calls Monroe a “clown,” a clown in the same sense that Chaplin was a clown. She studied with the best mimes and acting teachers in the business. “Marilyn Monroe” was her creation, her creation, but that fact was not generally recognized. Directors like Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) thought she was their creation. And even directors like Henry Hathaway (Niagara), who understood otherwise, could never convince Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century-Fox, to permit Marilyn to do the great dramatic roles, to cast her, for example, in Of Human Bondage, the film Hathaway wanted to direct.

Because Marilyn Monroe became a sex object, because sex came to define her image, the idea that she was clowning never seemed to occur to the men who made pictures. Milton Greene, one of the few men who did understand, and who helped Marilyn form her own production company, used to cheer her up by saying, “One day we will do a picture with Chaplin.” The trouble for Marilyn was that unlike Chaplin, she could never really jettison her costume save for appearing as a fish cannery worker in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and portraying her alter ego, Roslyn, in The Misfits, Arthur Miller’s botched tribute. She rejected Miller when he refused, in his art, to show her dark side, the demons that contributed to the dissolution of their marriage.

Marilyn never could do without male adulation, without the desire to prostitute herself—a desire Banner traces back to the sexual abuse Marilyn suffered as a child. She made herself available for the world to fondle. It dismayed Banner to discover that Marilyn really did like the catcalls and whistles of men in the street. She was, as the maligned Norman Mailer argued, many selves, a truly protean personality and artist we are just beginning to take the full measure of in Lois Banner’s brilliant biography.’

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