NOTING THE amount of popular culture that oozed into the ether during the 1960s, we have already come to accept that the current decade will be largely devoted to musing on half-century anniversaries. A particularly mordant such event passed last week: it is just over 50 years since Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her LA apartment.
As Sarah Churchill notes in The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2004), the actress has since attracted spectacular degrees of incontinent waffle from writers who should know better. Truman Capote had a crack. Norman Mailer had several. Joyce Carol Oates blathered semi-fictionally in Blonde.
Too many commentators have felt it clever to place the actress’s name within inverted commas. On each occasion, the author gives the impression that he or she is the first to realise that (ahem) “Marilyn Monroe” might have been a fictional construct as well as a young woman from southern California. Merely by addressing the meaning of Marilyn, the hard-drinking, cigar- chewing, post-war literary lion could establish credentials as serious pop cultural analyst.
This sort of thing has become a great deal more common in the interim. Like a Virgin was still in the charts when the first socio- psychological analyses of Madonna began sneaking onto newsstands. The first person to deconstruct Lady Gaga was, well, Lady Gaga. Indeed, that peculiar singer is so smothered in irony that it becomes hard to credit that her constituent pieces have ever held together in a functioning construction.
Marilyn Monroe was a working actor with no responsibilities to be a paradigm of this or a metaphor for that. You can see her sweeping forward in 1950, in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. In the same year she was amusingly confused as George Sanders’s beard in All About Eve. By 1953, with Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was a proper movie star.
As Huston noted, Monroe was “shrewd”, but – remember that photo of her conspicuously reading Ulysses – “tremendously pretentious”. She had immaculate comic timing, but watch her in The Misfits and you will accept her talent for tragedy.
But here’s the thing. I have always found the Marilyn phenomenon distinctly creepy. So much of her renown depends upon an uneasy obsession with self-destruction, mental illness and bad life choices. Damaged women are, it seems, so much sexier than those who can fend for themselves.
Queasier still, her appeal is deeply connected with male interest in women as infants. Some Like It Hot may be a masterpiece of farcical mayhem, but Monroe’s turn is so ickily childlike – could Shirley Temple have sung I Wanna Be Loved by You any more coquettishly? – that it always turns my stomach just a little.
None of which is meant as criticism of Monroe herself. Unhealthy aspects of the male libido created a market and, inspired by smart directors, Marilyn stepped in to exploit it. What a shame she didn’t get the opportunity to savour the spoils.