Heartbreaking, breathtaking sex symbol still bewitches us today

Mon, Aug 6, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Marilyn Monroe remains deeply etched in the global imagination 50 years after her death, but now she is perhaps appreciated more for her humanity than her anatomy, writes MAUREEN DOWD

MIKE NICHOLS claims he called Marilyn Monroe to work on a scene. “Are you sure you weren’t hitting on her?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t have dared dream of it,” he replied.

It was the mid-1950s, and they were both taking an acting class in New York with Lee Strasberg.

Nichols recounted his conversation with the woman with the familiar breathy voice: “The phone rang and somebody said, ‘Hello,’ and I said, ‘Hi, is Marilyn there?’ And she said, ‘No, she’s not,’ and I said, ‘Well, this is Mike. I’m in class with her. Could you take a message?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s a holiday,’ because it was the Fourth of July weekend, and that, to her, was an excuse for not taking a message for herself.”

No one ever said Monroe wasn’t complicated. Nichols directed the Tony Award-winning revival of her third husband’s play, Death of a Salesman. I interviewed him for a BBC radio show based on a column I wrote for the New York Times about how we have devolved from Monroe’s aspirational attitude towards knowledge, in which she wanted to collect great books and meet authors and intellectuals – even marrying one – to Sarah Palin’s anti-elitist scorn about reading and intellectuals.

Nichols surprised me when he said he was present at what he dryly calls the “historic moment” in May 1962 when Monroe sang Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy, who was turning 45.

Monroe was wearing that shrink-wrap, sheer Jean Louis gown ablaze with rhinestones – “skin and beads”, she called it. Nichols and Elaine May were also performing that night in Madison Square Garden, not that anyone remembers. “I was standing right behind Marilyn, completely invisible, when she sang ‘Happy birthday, Mr President’,” Nichols said. “And indeed, the corny thing happened: Her dress split for my benefit, and there was Marilyn, and yes, indeed, she didn’t wear any underwear.”

At a party afterwards, “Elaine and I were dancing, and Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn danced by us, and I swear to God the conversation was as follows”: Here Nichols put on, first, a feathery voice and then a nasal one: “‘I like you, Bobby.’ ‘I like you too, Marilyn.’”

The famous director has worked with many famous beauties. So I asked him, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death this week, if he could explain her astonishing staying power. “I think that the easy answer might be that she had the greatest need,” he said.

“She wasn’t particularly a great beauty, that is to say, Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner would knock the hell out of her in a contest, but she was almost superhumanly sexual.”

Feminism has come and gone, and women now routinely puff their lips, inflate their chests, dye their hair and dress with sultry abandon. But Nichols said Monroe’s heat went deeper, with a walk, a look and movements that were an “out-and-out open seduction right in front of everyone”.

Wherever I travel in the world, I run across the luminous image of the heartbreaking and breath- taking sex symbol who was smart enough to become the most famous “dumb blonde” of the 20th century. Monroe, her white pleated halter dress flying up over the New York subway grate, is as deeply etched in the global imagination as Audrey Hepburn in a black Givenchy dress at Tiffany’s. Starting as the 1948 Castroville, California, artichoke queen, Monroe was a genius at self-creation, high gloss over deep wounds. “Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane,” she said.

Lois Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, hails the star in her new book, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, as a proto-feminist who had to swim upstream past a mentally ill mother, 12 foster homes, a stutter, sexual abuse as a child, sexism as a star, manic- depressive cycles, addiction, Joe DiMaggio’s abuse and Arthur Miller’s condescension.

Half a century after Monroe was found on August 5th, 1962, in her Brentwood bedroom, nude, holding her phone, soaked in drugs, she continues to bewitch: her death at 36 and the sketchy cover-up; her tempestuous marriages to a famous baseball player and famous playwright; her role, with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, in the most intriguing film noir triangle of all time.

She gazes wistfully from the latest People, beside Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, with the headline, “Was Marilyn Murdered?” “Could the iconic bombshell,” USA Today asked, “be any more alive?”

She made $27 million (€22 million) last year, gobs more than she ever earned in life. She was the poster girl at Cannes, a festival she never attended. And her time in England making The Prince and the Showgirl was the subject of a film that got two Oscar nominations, even though the golden girl never won a gold statuette herself.

There’s a fresh cascade of books, photos, Twitter messages, Blu-ray box sets, Marilyn Monroe cafes, nail salons, and a Mac make-up collection. NBC’s Smash is set behind the scenes of a Broadway show based on Monroe’s life; Nicki Minaj has a song called Marilyn Monroe; and the documentary Love, Marilyn will have its premiere at the Toronto film festival next month.

While making her last film, Something’s Got to Give, Monroe posed nude for a young photographer, Larry Schiller, hoping to ratchet up her $100,000 salary to Elizabeth Taylor’s million-dollar territory for Cleopatra. Schiller wrote in Vanity Fair that he saw the confidence that spurred Monroe to become one of the first stars to create her own production company. “There isn’t anybody that looks like me without clothes on,” she laughed. He also saw her dark companion, insecurity.

“Is that all I’m good for?” she keened about nudity.

Yet Schiller told the Associated Press that “it’s women that have kept Marilyn alive, not men”. He says teenage girls flock to see gallery shows, and that the photos selling now accentuate her humanity, not her anatomy. “I think,” he said, “people want to see her now as a real person.” – (New York Times service)

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