In an intriguing article for the feminist magazine, Bust, author Dana Burnell suggests that Marilyn’s reputation for ‘difficult’ behaviour was a manifestation of her suppressed anger at the Hollywood system’s exploitation and disregard of her talent.
“The sense of watching a trapped butterfly permeates her best performances; it’s the quality that the starlets set up to compete against her were missing. They might have had more professionalism, but they lacked Monroe’s self-lacerating perception. That Monroe was angry, there can be no doubt. All of her actions speak to it: The lateness, the passivity, the pills and the booze, the relationships. The paralyzing depressions that are the rage of those who feel they are not allowed rage. The pills just damped down the anger and became the only thing that killed it — and her. For only half a moment did fame do what she thought it would, and make her happy.”
Marilyn Forever : Musings on an American Icon by the Stars of Yesterday and Today is a new collection of quotes about Marilyn, compiled by author Boze Hadleigh. Those who knew and worked with Marilyn are featured here, alongside a wide range of public figures from past to present. Marilyn Forever is illustrated with around twenty full-page photos, all well-known. Hadleigh has researched his subject thoroughly, as many of the comments in this book were new to me. Not all of these are flattering to Marilyn, and some are highly speculative, but overall the tone is sympathetic.
My main criticism is that Hadleigh, who has written several books about gays and lesbians in classic Hollywood, seems determined to include Marilyn in their number, though in reality the evidence of anything more than curiosity on her part is rather scant. He focuses in particular on her close relationship with drama coach Natasha Lytess. Hadleigh also devotes several pages to the scandal of Marilyn’s nude calendar, framing her as a pioneer of the sexual revolution. While this may be true, there are other remarkable aspects of her life which are lesser known.
Nonetheless, Marilyn Forever is not overly sensationalised. When discussing the rumours about Marilyn and the Kennedys, Hadleigh gives equal weight to those who believe the allegations and other, more sceptical opinions. A brief epilogue features quotes from Marilyn herself, and I was relieved not to see any of the misattributed remarks which have become so rife on the internet in recent years. Marilyn Forever is well worth adding to your library, and I hope Boze Hadleigh will now consider writing a sequel, based on Marilyn’s own words.
“Curated by Charles L. Ross, the free exhibit features fan memorabilia from the private collection of Wilton Manors resident Ed Witkowski.
‘When Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 I was 14 years old,’ Witkowski said. ‘Marilyn Monroe was a woman who had ultimate sex appeal. I really did not know what sex appeal was at that age, but I felt it as a young teenage boy coming-of-age.’
According to the exhibit, Monroe was ahead of her time on LGBT issues, and many gay men related to her struggles with insecurity and finding acceptance.
‘I really think it’s because she was vulnerable and talked about her life. She talked about how she struggled and that made her different. Gay people felt different and misunderstood,’ said Ross, chief curator at Stonewall. He remembers, as a teenager in Pennsylvania, when news of her death broke over the radio.
The exhibit marks a departure for the gallery, which has generally focused on people who are LGBT.
‘This is so different because there are so many people who had an interest in Marilyn Monroe and still have an interest in Marilyn Monroe,’ Ross said. ‘It won’t be just for the LGBT community. Straight men and women would go too.'”
In an excellent article for Film International, Anthony Uzarowski explores how sexuality was depicted in 1950s cinema – with particular reference to Marilyn, of course!
“Monroe represented pure sexuality, and virtually all the films in which she had a starring role were promoted around her erotic image. Starting in 1953, when she appeared in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, Monroe was regularly voted top female box office star by the American film distributors. Monroe’s image perfectly suited the notions surrounding sexuality in this period. In the majority of her early films she portrays a good-hearted gold-digger (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry Millionaire) whose ultimate goal is marriage, or a fantasy woman who, while highly sexual, is unthreatening to the moral structure of the nuclear family (The Seven Year Itch). Unlike in the case of the femme fatales of the 1940s, Monroe’s sexuality is not lethal or emasculating, but rather designed to flatter the male ego. Monroe’s 1954 film The Seven Year Itch is possibly the best example of how sexuality and star image were used to attract audiences in the 1950s, both in terms of the film’s narrative structure and the publicity campaign used to promote it.”
Fans of the Loving Marilyn website will already be familiar with the lively, perceptive writing of MM superfan and vintage style queen Shar Daws. Shar has now written a scintillating new piece for Tease and Cake, a UK-based burlesque magazine. Illustrated with several gorgeous photos of MM, ‘Sex, Lies…and Marilyn Monroe’ debunks some common myths and reflects upon Marilyn’s timeless sex appeal. Tease and Cake can be ordered here for £6.95, plus shipping to the UK, Europe and beyond. (Please note: this magazine contains some mild nudity.)
A rather provocative article, headlined ‘Marilyn Monroe Started Sexual Revolution’, has appeared at The Inqisitr. It’s an interesting proposal, but unfortunately the content is somewhat ill-informed.
Firstly, none of the quotes attributed to Marilyn can be substantiated. They are all quotes which have only appeared online in recent years. None of them can be traced back to an interview or reputable biography.
“I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous. This is where a lot of them miss the boat. And then something I’d just like to spout off on. We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it, everything.”
Secondly, Marilyn’s much-vaunted ‘affair’ with John F. Kennedy has been wildly exaggerated. The best evidence suggests that it was at most a weekend fling. And her last phonecall was not to JFK.
In private, Marilyn was perhaps more sexually liberated than most women were generally in her lifetime. But among other Hollywood stars, she wasn’t especially promiscuous.
Where she was arguably more radical is in how she expressed her sexuality in public life. The Inquisitr rightly states the revelation of her nude calendar, and Marilyn’s refusal to disown it, as a turning point in her career.
She was America’s greatest post-war sex symbol, which is all the more remarkable since she came to prominence in an era when women’s sexual freedoms were being curtailed.
In her first true star vehicle, Niagara, Marilyn played a ‘femme fatale’ with fierce, threatening sexuality. However, her bosses at Twentieth Century Fox subsequently placed her in comedic, ‘dumb blonde’ roles, in an attempt to neutralise her allure.
Despite being forced to play a stereotype, Marilyn managed to poke fun at her image, presenting sex in a way seldom seen before. Unlike the vamps who preceded her, Marilyn’s sexuality seemed both natural and joyous.
Over at In These Times, Lindsay Beyerstein eloquently responds to the literary critic Lee Siegel’s curious assertion that Marilyn’s legacy has been ‘de-sexualised’, and in particular, his bizarre attack on Norman Mailer (who, if anything, was even more fixated by Monroe’s sex appeal than Siegel seems to be.)
‘Was it all an act? Monroe biographers have wondered ever since. It must have been to some extent, because, as we all know, angels of sex aren’t real…
Mailer wisely refuses to create a false dichotomy between the image and the woman. He’s not impressed by the Norma Jeane Baker vs. Marilyn Monroe cliches. She cold be open, playful, and lusty. But she was a person with needs, ambitions, and limits of her own.
Mailer is equally upfront about the fact that Monroe enjoyed sex and romance for their own sake and defied many of the restrictive sexual mores of her era…
Siegel conflates Monroe’s sexual allure and her sexuality, as if it were a foregone conclusion that those were the same thing. “My Week With Marilyn” is all about Monroe’s sexual allure. Almost every scene shows someone gaping at her. Most of the laughs come from seeing Monroe vamping and men slobbering.’
On the New York Review of Booksblog, the critic Lee Siegel argues that while Marilyn is America’s most famous sex symbol, her sexuality is often swept under the carpet.
“She was in thrall to her sexual nature. As she once said: ‘We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it. Everything.’ Yet this ‘gift’ had another, punitive dimension. Her preternaturally powerful sexual instincts were her first, her primal addiction. She turned to drugs—just about every imaginable type of drug—and to alcohol in hopes of replacing one type of dependency with another. But the orphan’s need for love seemed too powerful, and sexual gratification was perhaps the only way it could—fleetingly—be appeased.’
While Siegel makes some interesting points, this ‘oversexed’ portrayal of Marilyn is ultimately as limiting as the sanitised representations he criticises, and adds little to our understanding of her true sexual identity.
Over at Joan’s Digest today, an article by Sheila O’Malley about Marilyn’s sexuality – the image, the reality, and how other women relate to her.
I have a lot of time for O’Malley, who has made many interesting posts about Marilyn – especially her acting – on her own website, The Sheila Variations. And I also think the subject of Marilyn’s sexuality is fascinating.
Unfortunately, the article got off to a bad start for me by quoting John Miner’s disputed transcript of tapes supposedly made for her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson (in which Monroe claimed not to have had an orgasm until her 30s.)
These tapes have never surfaced, and while I wouldn’t discount them entirely, there is something a little ‘off’ about the text. (Melinda Mason wrote in depth about this in her article, ‘Songs Marilyn Never Sang.’)
There is also an anecdote from Orson Welles about Marilyn’s supposed promiscuity which I’m not entirely sure of (Welles had his own peccadilloes, and thus was hardly a disinterested witness), as well as a quote by photographer Lazlo Willinger which is mistakenly attributed to Ernest Cunningham, who wrote a book about Monroe a few years ago, but never actually met her.
Nonetheless, O’Malley is right to note the disparity between Monroe’s ‘Sex Goddess’ image and her turbulent private life, and ‘The Anatomy of Marilyn Monroe’ is a thoughtful piece, especially towards the end:
‘When working on a film, Monroe kept directors and crews waiting for hours while she holed up in her dressing room, staring at herself in the mirror. What was she looking for? Marilyn Monroe was second to none in crafting and perfecting her persona. Every element of her “look”, her hair, her makeup, her clothes, she engineered with a specificity and a cold eye towards what “worked”. John Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, Monroe’s acting mentor, made the insightful observation: “It was clear that she was aware that she had created a female character in the tradition of the sad sack tramps of Chaplin and Keaton.” It is not always easy to step into your fantasy of yourself, to take on the persona you have created. Monroe’s looks were so startlingly beautiful and sexy, that on days when she felt low or panicked, it took an act of sheer will to step into that “sad sack tramp” comedienne she had courageously created for herself. The exterior was what was valued in Monroe. Staring at herself in the mirror for hours, while keeping entire crews waiting, was not vanity. It took time to get the interior and the exterior in alignment.
Male sexuality is primarily exterior. There is no great mystery for young men about what they need to do to relieve the tension. But women’s bodies are interior. If you somehow miss the memo that all joy comes from the clitoris (and many of us do), or if you are embarrassed to investigate yourself, then your entire sexuality can remain an interior and mysterious operation. You can’t access it, you can’t see it. Marilyn Monroe’s movie magic was in her ability to take her emotional interior and make it palpably visible to audiences. In so doing, her actual interior was ignored, for years. Staring at herself in the mirror was an act of searching, perhaps, an act of anxious exploration. What is it that they see in me? And can I see it in myself? Can I actually feel, in myself, what it is that others see in me? But where to even begin?’
Writing for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Stephen Whitty looks at the ‘metamorphosis’ of Norma Jeane into Marilyn Monroe. Interestingly, he argues against the usual interpretation of Marilyn’s sex appeal – the little girl trapped in a woman’s body – and suggests that her sexuality was defined by her lifelong desire to become a mother:
‘This is not the usual reading of Marilyn Monroe. The accepted interpretation is that she was a sexy contradiction, the overripe figure and underage voice combining to inspire a thousand taboo daydreams.
“My body turned all these people on, like turning on an electric light,” she complained once. “There was so rarely anything human in it.”
But look at her real appeal again. The womanly curves are those of a new mother. That breathy voice is that of someone whispering a lullaby. The Marilyn Monroe that connected with audiences wanted to take them to bed, all right. But mostly just to tuck them in.’