Marilyn: A Life in Portraits

Photographed by Eve Arnold on a break during a public appearance in Bement, Illinois (1955)

In another great article for the BFI website, Nigel Arthur explores photographs from the National Archive, and considers how Marilyn’s image was purveyed through different modes of photography: including promotional and paparazzi shots, film stills, portraits and behind-the-scenes photos.

“In Richard Dyer’s Stars, first published by BFI in 1979, the author refers to Marilyn Monroe’s image as ‘situated in the flux of ideas about morality and sexuality that characterised 1950s America’. Indeed, her image transcended her films, and swiftly became firmly entrenched in pop culture. Andy Warhol (Marilyn Diptych, 1962) and Richard Hamilton (My Marilyn, 1964/65) both manipulated her photographic image using a silkscreen process, provocatively referencing her wide eyes and open mouth. In the early 1950s, Monroe was put under contract by Darryl F. Zanuck and became the leading artist at Twentieth Century-Fox. Her public persona was constructed, to a large extent, through the distribution of a wide variety of images, which served to increase her popularity with cinema goers.”

Opening Shots: Bus Stop

A further extract from Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies, considering Marilyn’s first scene in Bus Stop. Screencaps by likeabalalaika

“The first shot of Monroe, as so often in her films, is a point-of-view shot. But it is not Beau, the hero’s, point of view but Virgil, his mentor’s. Indeed, as the latter looks out of the hotel bedroom window, the film cuts to her (Virgil’s point-of-view) and then back to Beau shaving, underlining the fact that he does not see her (and will not until the saloon scene.) This means that the shots of her that follow can articulate more than Monroe as an object of desire, because they have not been set up as contained by desire in the first place.

Virgil’s point-of-view shot is a long shot, and it is followed by a mid-shot (at the same looking-down-at-her angle), then a return to the long shot. In this way, we get to see her better than Virgil does. In one sense, this satisfies our voyeurism – both sexual (we have a better view than Virgil) and in terms of narrative, character and star (we want to know who she is, what Monroe looks like in this part, and so on.)

In the second long shot, a group of men enter the room, crowding around her as she tries to fend them off.  They are broken up by the saloon owner who clears them out and then yells at her to get back to work. The image very clearly sets out the dimensions of male power (of the male audience/clients, of the male employer) within which Cherie/Monroe is caught. She is also caught in our/the camera/Virgil’s gaze, but what we see articulates something of what it is like to be gazed at. We gaze at an image that hints at the politics of gazing.

The scene that follows takes place inside the dressing room, no longer seen by Virgil. It allows us to see Cherie/Monroe close to, and to observe what we could not in the opening shots, which preserve something of the magic and beauty of the half-dressed woman glimpsed from a hotel window. Her hair looks as if it has been peroxided (it would not convince us that she was a natural blonde); her face looks deathly white; her stockings have holes in them. This deglamourising continues in the ungainly way she gets into her green sateen leotard. Scenes in showgirls’ dressing rooms are usually voyeuristic – ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ plays with our expectations of ‘seeing something we shouldn’t’ by teasing camera movements and set-ups, delaying our actually seeing Elsie/Monroe till she has just finished dressing. The treatment in ‘Bus Stop’ is, by contrast, head-on. There is nothing we don’t see (within the conventions of the period), but there is no sense of our being there just to see something, no tease to lead us on as in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. We are there to see it, it is true, and the fact that we are seeing Marilyn Monroe getting into a leotard must lend itself to the pleasure of voyeurism, but the ungainliness, the matter-of fact conversation with a woman who isn’t a showgirl, the tacky setting, none encourages this way of looking. Moreover, the movement shows us the showgirl setting up her act and the conversation stresses wanting to get beyond doing this kind of thing, so that within an image that is traditionally set up for the pleasure of gazing, we are again getting some explorations of what it means to be someone who lives by being gazed at.”

What a Girl Wants…

Another extract from film critic Richard Dyer’s essay, ‘Monroe and Sexuality’, published in his 1986 book, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, focuses on Cherie’s speech to Elma (Hope Lange) in Bus Stop (1956), and also her performance in The Misfits (1961.)

“Time and again, Monroe seems to buy into the ‘progressive’ view of sex, a refusal of its dirtiness – but that means buying into the traps of the sexual discourses discussed above: the playboy discourse, with women as the vehicle for male sexual freedom, and the psycho discourse, with its evocation of the ineffable unknowability of sexuality for women. The choice of roles from ‘Bus Stop’ on indicates the conundrums the image is caught up in. Only ‘The Misfits’ begins to hint at a for-itself female sexuality, and then casts it utterly within the discourse of female sexuality as formlessness. The men in the film look on, unable to comprehend her sensuality; grasping a tree she looks out at them/us with a hollow expression of beatitude, straining to express what is already defined as inexpressible.

Yet some of her later films do contain hints of the struggle, traps and conundrums of the fifties discourses of sexuality. ‘Bus Stop’ is probably the most extended example. It is possible, without straining too much against the drift of the film, to read Cherie/Monroe not just as the object of male desire but as someone who has to live being a sex object.

Cherie/Monroe’s longest dialogue comes in scenes with other women characters, and has thereby the quality of unburdening herself rather than putting on an act or standing up to men. With the waitress Vera (Eileen Heckart), she expresses her ambition to be a singer and Hollywood actress, referring to the lack of respect she has had up to now. With the young woman on the bus, Elma (Hope Lange), she speaks of the ideal man she is looking for, a notion of a man who combines traditionally masculine and feminine qualities:

‘I want a guy I can look up to and admire – but I don’t want him to browbeat me…I want a guy who’s sweet to me, but I don’t want him to baby me…I want a guy who has some real regard for me, aside from all that loving stuff.’

None of this is desperately radical or progressive; the ambition is mainstream individualism (‘I’m trying to be somebody’), the ideal man is a sentimental fantasy. But both are located in the consciousness of a dumb showgirl type, and given a legitimate voice by the seriousness of the performance, of the way in which they are filmed, and, especially, by virtue of the fact that they are spoken to another woman. The ambition and fantasy are not in the slightest ridiculed, and they have the effect of throwing into relief the showgirl role that Cherie/Monroe is playing.”

The monologue in Bus Stop is rightly considered one of the high points of Marilyn’s acting career. Unfortunately, it was heavily cut – which, Monroe believed, robbed her of an Oscar nomination.

In her 2007 book, Platinum Fox, Cindy De La Hoz revealed the text of Marilyn’s speech in its entirety. The edited parts are emboldened here.

Cherie: I don’t know why I keep expecting myself to fall in love, but I do.

Elma: I know I expect to, some day.

Cherie: I’m seriously beginning to wonder if there’s a kind of love I have in mind…naturally, I’d like to get married and have a family and all them things but…

Elma: But you’ve never been in love?

Cherie: I don’t know. Maybe I have and I didn’t know it. Maybe I’m expecting it to be something it ain’t. I just feel that, regardless how crazy you are about some guy, you’ve got to feel…and it’s hard to put into words, but…you’ve got to feel he respects you. Yes, that’s what I mean…I’ve just got to feel that whoever I marry has some real regard for me, aside from all that loving stuff. You know what I mean?

Elma: I think so. What will you do when you get to Los Angeles?

Cherie: I don’t know. Maybe if I don’t get discovered right away, I could get me a job on one of the radio stations there. Even singing hillbilly if I have to. Or else, I can go to work in Liggett’s or Walgreen’s. Then after a while I’ll probably marry some guy, whether I think I love him or not. Who am I to keep insisting I should fall in love? You hear all about love when you’re a kid and just take it for granted that such a thing really exists. Maybe you have to find out for yourself it don’t. Maybe everyone’s afraid to tell you.

Early Glimpse of a Natural Star

In an essay, ‘Monroe and Sexuality’, published in the 1986 book, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, the British film critic Richard Dyer discusses Philippe Halsman‘s portrait of the young Marilyn among a group of aspiring actresses (Lois Maxwell, who would later play Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movie series, is at top left.)

The photo was taken for Life magazine, as part of an article headlined ‘Eight Girls Try Out Mixed Emotions’. It was published on October 10th, 1949. Dyer mistakenly dates the photo to 1950 and assumes that it was a group portrait for 20th Century-Fox. In fact, Marilyn was not at Fox in 1949 and had only appeared in four movies.

With this minor error taken into account, Dyer’s comments are nonetheless very perceptive on why Marilyn stood out from the crowd from a very early stage in her career.

“In 1950, when Monroe had been signed to a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox, she was photographed for the studio with a group of other contract players by Philippe Halsman. It is not only with hindsight, because she is the only one we now recognise, that Monroe stands out. We may ascribe to Halsman the fact that Monroe is placed at the front and in the centre and looks straight to camera (rather than in the various off-screen or self-absorbed directions of the other players) and thus seems to make a direct contact with the viewer’s eyes. We could go on to ascribe the very simple, relaxed pose to Halsman, the tousled, naturally falling, uncoiffed hair to an expert hair stylist, the unfussy blouse to the wardrobe department and so on. But of course we have no way of knowing who made such decisions, Monroe or someone else; the evidence in the biographies suggests that even if others did make the decisions, it was because they had already ascribed naturalness to her in their minds; and, most important, it is unlikely that anyone seeing this photo in 1950 would have sought to identify those responsible for constructing her in an image of naturalness. Indeed, what is striking about the photo is the contrast between the very obviously contrived poses of the other players, though each a very recognisable female stereotype of the period, and the apparently artless look of Monroe that makes the others seem constructed but her seem just natural. Many other Monroe pin-ups from around this time have a similar quality, and the contrast between Monroe and the others in this photo encapsulates the more general contrast that was beginning to be apparent between her pin-ups and the other available cheesecake.”

The Soulful Marilyn

Marilyn by Alfred Eisenstadt, 1953

“Although the material is new the editors in their foreword slightly exaggerate its meaning. They claim that in the 1950s Marilyn’s image had to be flawless. But I believe on the contrary, following Richard Dyer, that Marilyn’s star charisma was based from the beginning on the fact that she was able to reconcile huge contradictions. One of them was that she was known as the girl who read Rilke and Joyce on the sets of her dumb blonde vehicles. Even intelligent directors such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz were bluffed. They believed Marilyn actually to be the dumb blonde she played. Those who read her interviews at the time always knew otherwise. She was at her most perceptive in the ones she gave in 1962. These private notes collected from desk drawers provide more evidence of the soulful Marilyn.”

Antii Alanen, programmer at the Cinema Orion, Helsinski, reviews Fragments