She is a perennially fascinating screen actress — and from next week she will be the face of the official festival poster of the Cannes film festival. The photograph shows the beguiling, funny leading lady blowing out birthday candle, giving a seductive air-kiss to the lens.
In a press release, the organisers explain: “The poster captures Marilyn by surprise in an intimate moment where myth meets reality — a moving tribute to the anniversary of her passing, which coincides with the festival anniversary [Cannes turns 65 this year] … Their coming together symbolises the ideal of simplicity and elegance.”
Well, full marks to Cannes for wanting to pay tribute — but is this anything more than a champagne flute of glamour with which to launch the festival? The semiotics of Marilyn-in-Cannes are more interesting than the official press release implies.
Cannes has long had a crush on Monroe and used her as a mascot only last year: Yet Monroe never came to Cannes, and only one of her films played in competition here: All About Eve, in 1951. The nearest she came to Cannes was almost visiting Paris in 1957, but being pregnant, she chose at the last moment not to travel.
If Monroe had come to Cannes with All About Eve, and staged a photocall on the beach, what a sensation that would have been. Cannes acquired its reputation for starlets frolicking in front of the paparazzi later, in 1954, when Simone Silva took her bikini top off, saying that her inspiration was Monroe’s 1951 nude shoot. The festival was annoyed that its serious world-cinema event was being upstaged — and secretly tickled by the publicity. It’s a doublethink that persists, something the Marilyn/Cannes poster acknowledges.
As well as reclaiming Monroe, the poster emphasises her distance from the intellectual world of art house. In this sense, it also belongs to a tradition that fetishises and exoticises Monroe from a distance. This is a tradition that was authorised by Arthur Miller when he married Monroe, and then wrote ungallant fictional versions of her in his play After the Fall and in his screenplay for The Misfits, the 1961 film. Acidly, but perhaps presciently, columnist Walter Winchell wrote: “America’s best-known blonde moving picture star is now the darling of the left-wing intelligentsia.”
Recently, author Jacqueline Rose wrote an essay on Monroe, in which she wondered how the actress came to epitomise the destiny of American popular culture. She notes that, on the set of All About Eve, Monroe was reading a biography of journalist Lincoln Steffens; she speculates as to what Monroe might have made of his belief that a passion for sex had triumphed over political idealism, as well as his belief that cinema, “the blindest, most characteristic of our age of machinery, will triumph over other art forms”. Rose repudiates questions about whether Monroe committed suicide or was even murdered: “I am interested, rather, in what she, unknowingly, but also crucially for my argument, knowingly, is enacting on behalf of postwar America.”
Personally, I am more interested in the other half of the equation, what Rose calls Monroe’s own “knowing”. She was an inspired comic who understood the art and craft of comedy in cinema and could debate it with any critic in the world.
Whether Monroe could have got more serious roles is beside the point. A more interesting question is: could she have been a director? I think that if she had been alive today, Cannes might have given her directorial debut a break. But I also wish the festival had gone further and screened some of her greatest films: Monkey Business, All About Eve, The Misfits, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. All these performances, in their various tonal registers — dark, light, happy, sexy, rueful — show repeatedly the quality that made her a poster girl in the first place: that sublime gift for comedy.