Sunday, June 5, 2011

Marilyn Monroe: More Than Just a Pretty Face

Marilyn Monroe
As a child, I always looked forward to a Saturday night movie. Especially when we watched a Marilyn Monroe flick. In my pyjamas, I would curl up next to my father as we both became mesmerized (obviously for different reasons) by this actress’ every move. From the devious wife in Niagara (1953), to her signature comedic roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she stole every show. I, like generations of viewers before, became completely enamoured with Marilyn.

The actress, who would have been 85-years-old back on June 1st, is still a cultural icon all these years after her untimely passing on August 5th, 1962. From her Andy Warhol portrait to the unforgettable scene in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch (where she stood over a subway grate and her white dress blew all around her), Marilyn Monroe is recognized today even by those who were not even born during the star’s lifetime. Her image remains an emblem for beauty, femininity and sexuality.

But Marilyn was so much more than this. Although she cleverly mastered the comical “dumb blonde” persona on screen, my father found the need to stress that she wasn’t dumb at all. This made her even more intriguing to me. It was soon confirmed that not only was she intelligent, warm, and compassionate, but there was a very lost human being behind the stunning smile.

Many attempts to portray the woman behind the icon have been published over the years. Two of the more compelling sources are the star’s memoir, My Story (Stein and Day, 1974), and the film documentary Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001). The former is her alleged autobiography; it’s debateable whether the manuscript was typed by Marilyn herself, or if it was a documented interview done with the actress for London’s The Empire News in 1954. Either way, it remains her story. The latter documents Marilyn’s time on the set of her 33rd, and final movie shoot, Something’s Gotta Give (1962), which was never completed. The film showed an exhausted and pained Marilyn, burdened by manic-depression, a broken love life, a dependency on sleeping pills, and a crumbling career. Her full story could have made a wrenching Hollywood melodrama. As most of us already know, she was born in 1926 as Norma Jean Baker. She was rejected by her father and unable to stay with her mother who was plagued by mental illness. Norma Jean’s painful journey began in foster homes and orphanages. As a child, she endured poverty and harrowing emotional and sexual abuse. Suffering from loneliness (she was often ostracized by her peers), the child resorted to silence. Because of her withdrawn behaviour, she was labeled as disobedient and dumb, which only served to isolate her further.

What I found so extraordinary about this chapter of Marylin’s past was that despite being told by practically everyone that she was worthless, she somehow knew better. Needing no one else to confirm that she could become something, she created a persona that others would need and desire. While my childhood did not compare in tragedy to the tale of young Norma Jean, I was no stranger to painful and discouraging remarks both on the playground and from teachers. I found that I could adopt Norma Jean’s method of escapism and pine for a brighter future. If she could pull herself through by daydreaming for hours about a way of being loved, why couldn't I? Most remarkably, she wove her own destiny with a willful determination.

Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes
Marrying at sixteen to escape the orphanage, Norma Jean did not fully adopt a safe domestic existence. Practically penniless, she scrapped together funds for acting classes and began studying at the famed Actors Studio in New York with Lee Strasberg. Through becoming a carefully crafted creation, she strategically dodged the “wolves” of the city who were after her for only one thing. Often exploited, short-changed and undervalued, her purposefulness prevailed nevertheless. Success accompanied her friendship with talent agent Johnny Hyde, who re-imaged Marilyn and negotiated her contract with 20th Century Fox. Marilyn Monroe, as we now know her, was fully created.

Not surprisingly, her struggle was not remedied by fame. Romantic and professional heartaches continued for the star. She once quoted, in reference to her typecast comedic airhead characters: “I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one.” Marilyn was not dumb; but sadly, I believe her life would have been easier if she had been. She knew exactly what everyone wanted from her and also when she was being lied to. She knew she was underestimated and disrespected and fought the hopeless battle to prove herself until the end.

The portrait of Marilyn, as a person not just as a goddess, is a vital one for so many reasons. She is an image of feminine willpower to anyone who has experienced unfathomable pain and needs to put on a bright front. But it also raises the question: Can that bright front alter the course of a damaged life? In time, Marilyn would become the prototypical example of how the stresses of excessive fame and fortune can amplify the star's frailties. Her footsteps would be followed in years to come by the likes of other celebrity deaths including Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith. As for the behaviour of young stars who propel their way to the top, only to come falling down the bottom, enter Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.

Marilyn Monroe's story though is important to many women – and I say women because it is often the “fairer” sex who struggle with these stereotypes – who are trying to prove themselves. Both in the workplace and in social settings we are faced with the question of how to be feminine and still be respected. Instead of basking in a more youthful appearance I cannot stress how frustrating it is to, year after year, explain to clients that I’m not an interning student, a receptionist, and no, my mother didn't decide that it was “bring your daughter to work day.” And then there’s the paradox of finding true love. There is a scene from Legally Blonde (2001) that sums the situation up perfectly: Elle Woods, weeping in a hair salon after her would be fiancé broke up with her to pursue a more stern looking prototype, concludes that, to win back her man, she needs to be more Jackie and less Marilyn.

Due to the tragic circumstances of her death some may be quick to declare such behaviour as weak. But Marilyn showed strength and grace for as long as it was humanly possible. She lives on in my mind, and in the mind of many others, not just as a childhood fascination, but as a role model, a symbol for hope.The legend of Marilyn Monroe tells us that she was adored by the world for her unparallel beauty and charisma. But for others, like myself, she is loved for her bravery and unbridled talent.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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