Essay: On the continuing fascination with Marilyn Monroe
From Joyce Carol Oates to Norman Mailer and Andrew Dominik, most writers and filmmakers find it impossible to celebrate Monroe for the artist she was and view her life only as tragedy
For Norman Mailer, she was the ultimate figment of every man’s desire. For Joyce Carol Oates, she was a woman who belonged to everyone but herself. For Arthur Miller, she was “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” For Elton John, she was a “candle in the wind.” Sex symbol, feminist icon, metaphor, merchandise, mystery — Marilyn Monroe has been just about everything the world wants her to be. Everyone has an idea of her in their minds that they’ve reduced her to. For Andrew Dominik in his recent film Blonde, she was a performer destroyed by the myth she herself created.
One of the hazards of being a celebrity, Monroe described, was “you’re always running into people’s unconscious.” Dominik’s vision (featuring Ana de Armas as Monroe) is distorted, corrupted even, by this collective unconscious, as her life becomes a screen onto which the public cast their desires and fantasies. Her own desires and fantasies are crystallised into a curious quest for the father she never knew. This daddy complex acts as a guiding force right through to the devastating end. As the film sees her life only as tragedy, it cannot celebrate her for the artist she was, one who captivated millions with her playful screen presence.
If Monroe remains catnip to writers and filmmakers more than 60 years after her death, it is partly because tragedy did colour her entire life. The mole artfully placed above her quivering smile resembled a facial asterisk of sorts, indicating the private pain her public persona strained to hide and inviting biographers to investigate the root of it all. Pain stemmed from so many emotional wounds: the institutionalisation of her paranoid schizophrenic mother, the absence of a father, the childhood spent shuttling between foster homes and orphanages, the broken marriages, the devastating miscarriages, and (last but not the least) the endless exploitation by the Hollywood Dream Factory. The exploitation indeed continues posthumously via T-shirts, posters and mugs bearing her likeness.
Go to a library: you will likely find an entire shelf devoted to Monroe, ranging from coffee table books to ponderous tomes. Her life and death have been picked over so much that the obsession borders on necrophilia. When artists die tragically young, it evokes the sadness of an unfinished work. Monroe’s untimely death enshrined her in amber. That she will stay frozen in eternal youth and never grow older than 36 only fuels our fantasies. As Gloria Steinem wrote in Marilyn: Norma Jeane, “When the past dies there is mourning but when the future dies, our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”
The books may be many, but fresh perspectives are few and far between. The bulk recount more or less the same set of imaginative speculations, false assumptions and half-truths about her from a slightly canted angle and call it a retake. Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography was a grandiose symphony written for a woman he described as the “Stradivarius of sex.” Steinem’s Marilyn: Norma Jeane countered the male fantasy with what she believed to be the female reality of a star who was treated as a walking headline. From a former maid to a third assistant director who spent all but a week on production with her, everyone who had the privilege of running into Monroe got in on the memoir business, as if death granted them all a license to cash in. Given factual accuracy wasn’t a big concern as long as the books sold, the writers took liberties, made unsubstantiated claims and pushed far-fetched theories. The cook confessed to fabrications. So did Mailer. When asked why he alleged that FBI and CIA agents had murdered Monroe in his book, he simply said, “I needed money very badly.”
Taking a rigorous academic approach to profiling a subject like Monroe presents its own constraints. Being overly beholden to particularities can blinker a biographer. For how does one capture the interiority of a dead celebrity? Fiction here presents a practical tool to get inside the head of others. What the truth of facts alone can’t reveal the lies of fiction can. Oates’ novel Blonde combines both in an abstraction of Monroe’s life to arrive at the emotional truth of a woman whose attempts to strive for autonomy are continually thwarted by the men and the industry she so loves. Milestone moments, scenes from movies, an inner monologue and poetry — all bleed together into a waking nightmare of endless misery. For misery is all Oates or Dominik see. Not a woman blessed with radiance, warmth, charm, intelligence, and a sense of humour. But a needy soul who had no agency in her myth-making, a passive victim who let herself be exploited by parasites, and a daughter desperately seeking a father figure. Oates invents entire episodes — from a passionate threesome involving Charlie Chaplin Jr and Edward G Robinson Jr to a nauseating encounter with JFK — to suit her interpretation. The bad romances are distilled to three big ones: The Ex-Athlete (Joe DiMaggio), The Playwright (Arthur Miller) and The President (John F Kennedy).
If Oates’ interpretation wasn’t already reductive, Dominik’s narrows it further. While the book delves into Monroe’s intellectual curiosity, her passion for poetry, and her preparation for the roles she played, the movie cannot find room for any of them. Her perceptiveness, rather than her anguish, gets a rare showcase in a meet-cute with Miller where she shares her thoughts about a character in his play by making a connection with Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The insight she provides moves him to tears. Otherwise, her voice, already a breathy whisper, is muffled to a faint echo. Her lack of autonomy is driven home via vaginal POV shots as doctors hold her down to terminate her pregnancy despite her repeated pleas against it. Grief manifests as a sentient CGI foetus who begs her not to have another abortion. The regressive film exploits her even as it accuses others of doing the same.
At worst, the image of Monroe has been monolithic. At best, it has been dichotomous. But the Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe bifurcation remains a facile schematisation that fails to grasp the psychological complexities of identity and compartmentalising. These are still pre-Severance times we are living in. Furthermore, the idea of two duelling personas also risks diminishing Monroe’s legend with the Madonna/whore paradigm. If there was a disconnect, she struggled with, it was over wanting to be taken seriously as an actor with ideas of her own but continually being pigeonholed as a dumb blonde both on screen and off.
However, the idea of two women — one exceedingly visible and one exceedingly vulnerable — inextricably tangled in a tortured psyche has persisted over the years. Oates reiterated the idea in a recent interview with Variety, referring to Norma as the “authentic self” and Marilyn as the “performing self”. In the film, the frame mimics her fractured psyche — switching between colour and black-and-white, roomier and claustrophobic aspect ratios — to make the viewers feel her dissociation more viscerally. Dominik attempts to make up for the film’s psychological reductivism with aesthetic exhibitionism. He adopts the high-contrast film noir look, the majesty of Technicolor and expressionist distortions in his visual language to recreate quintessential moments from Monroe’s iconography. The Seven Year Itch scene in which Monroe stands on a subway grate is staged from different lascivious angles before the camera puts the male onlookers ogling in focus, thereby questioning the public’s participation in Monroe’s exploitation. In a later scene at a movie premiere, the mouths of the men in the crowd roaring her name distort into cavernous voids, as if to suggest men not only want to possess her but consume her.
All Monroe wanted was to be understood. Every writer thinks they do. In reality, they don’t see her as much as perceive her image. Reading Mailer’s “novel biography”, we come to learn less about her, more about how horny she made the men of his generation. The ornamental prose naturally attracted criticism. Pauline Kael wrote, “He (Mailer) pumps so much wind into his subject that the reader may suspect that he’s trying to make Marilyn Monroe worthy of him.” John Simon echoed her sentiment, deeming the work to be “transcendental masturbation.” The portrait Steinem draws in Marilyn: Norma Jeane, which grew out an earlier essay, at least attempts to locate an inner life in a woman longing for self-determination but being straitjacketed by men wanting to control her.
Among other things, Monroe’s death exposed the limits and excesses of psychoanalysis. She was reportedly treated by as many as five different therapists in the years prior to her overdose. Of those five, Ralph Greenson emerged as a recurring controversial figure. In the exhaustively researched Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, Donald Spoto puts the Kennedy brothers and FBI-CIA murder plot rumours to rest, while accusing Greenson of crossing professional and ethical boundaries. Concerned over the abandonment issues of his celebrity patient, Greenson was said to often follow up sessions with invitations to dinner with his family. Spoto describes how he insinuated himself into her daily life, by hiring a maid of his choosing and getting his brother-in-law to handle her legal affairs. By making her dependent on drugs, he made her dependent on him. Barbara Leaming, in Marilyn Monroe: A Biography, wrote Monroe may have overdosed because Greenson was unavailable the night she overdosed. The conspiracy-minded even posit he killed her or tie him to the Kennedys.
As she would later build on in What If Freud Were Phyllis, Steinem launched a polemic against the deep-rooted sexism of psychoanalytic theories. Instead of Freud, she finds her psychiatric guide in Dr W Hugh Missildine, whose ideas about “our inner child” informed her own. She believed Monroe struggled to overcome the emotional neglect in her childhood so much so that it put her on “a lifelong search for nurturing, wanting to belong yet feeling a perpetual outsider, trying to make fathers out of husbands and lovers, using sex to get childlike warmth and approval, and neglecting one’s own welfare because neglect feels familiar, like home.” The need to “make fathers out of husbands and lovers” is also literalised in Blonde, with Monroe calling DiMaggio and Miller “Daddy”.
If Monroe turned to therapy, it was on advice from her method acting coach Lee Strasberg. The “method” involved drawing upon personal experiences and channelling the emotions into art so actors “live” the part they’re playing. For Monroe, it meant tapping into some deep reserves of misery. In Blonde, we see her put the “method” into practice during an audition for the role as a deranged babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1961).
We meet a whole different Monroe, a happily thriving one, in Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy. Elizabeth Winder presents a concentrated look, centring on 1955, when the actor moved to New York to get away from a marriage breaking down and an industry short-changing her. New York, according to Winder, breathed new life into the star and embodied freedom. “It revitalized her and provided a stimulating haven for reinvention and self-inquiry,” she writes. “For the first time, Marilyn was living by herself, for herself.” She read Russian novels, took acting classes with Constance Collier, and earned some relief from movie stardom. Oates once wondered if a more permanent move may have even prolonged her life and allowed her to enjoy a more fulfilling career. “Unlike the movies, the theatre allows actresses to mature and to continue to work virtually as long as they are able,” she said. “Had she not died at 36, it is possible that Monroe could still be acting today in, for instance, a play by Shaw or O’Neill or Chekhov. I wish that this were so.”
New York is where she met her good friend and fellow misfit Truman Capote. In the conversational portrait A Beautiful Child, Capote recounts an afternoon where the two met at Collier’s funeral and spent the day chatting and getting drunk off champagne in an empty Chinese restaurant. The title was sourced from words confided to him by Collier, who believed Monroe’s talents were best suited to the screen as opposed to the stage. “I don’t think she’s an actress at all, not in any traditional sense,” Capote quotes Collier. “What she has — this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence — could never surface on stage. It’s so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It’s like a hummingbird in flight: only a camera can freeze the poetry of it.”
No one could have said it any better. For a more intimate understanding of Monroe, one must reply upon her own words. The posthumously published My Story and Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters salvage her voice and bring to vivid life a performer who is self-aware, painfully so. She recognised the contours and limits of her persona. She understood the passion she radiated and the attention she commanded. She was articulate and ambitious. When she describes herself as “the kind of girl they found dead in the hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand”, she presents a startlingly prescient vision.
Pinning the blame on the Kennedys, FBI, psychoanalysts or Hollywood producers may make it easier for readers to make sense of a life tragically cut short. But the mystery surrounding Monroe should have been about who she could have become, not how she died. Faults and all considered, Blonde does leave us with some striking final images: an overhead shot sees Monroe’s spirit separate from her lifeless body, snuggle up against a pillow and smile at us like in a pin-up photo. Marilyn Monroe may be dead, but the fantasy of her will live on.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bengaluru
The views expressed are personal