“She only acted according to the script we gave her ” —Ernesto Cardenal
Exactly fifty years ago, when Marilyn Monroe died aged 36 of a sleeping pill overdose in 1962, I was—like Elton John at the time—just a kid. From age seven, I would wander the hundred yards from my gran’s house (no TV and radio powered by a car battery as there was no electricity) along to the local cinema. It showed three films each week and I’d splash out 6d admission on those that looked adventurous.
That 6d got me a seat in the front row where, craning my neck, the picture filled my entire vision, compensating for my short-sightedness nicely. It taught me to immerse myself within the film, to forsake the grey sleet, coal smoke and dun-coloured macs of fifties Britain and, for an hour or two, live in the glorious world of the film.
Tiring of wooden Cecil B. de Mille epics or Brief-Encounter-ish British fare, I would sometimes take a leap of faith and be rewarded with a Hound of the Baskervilles edge-of-seat job as often as a slushier Kiss Me Kate. Part of Perth-based Caledonian Cinemas, films shown at North Berwick’s Playhouse were always months after their first run. But, since I had no way of knowing this, that made little difference to me.
Marilyn Monroe’s earlier work was long passed before I was a regular. I do vaguely remember Some Like It Hot, but that was because my budding twelve-year-old manliness was discomfited by men dressing up like women and almost nothing to do with her. Her jiggle from the steam jet was a joy that I would discover only later.
So it was that The Misfits came to the Playhouse in the spring of 1962—the same year that I first traveled far (to exotic St Andrews), that I first embraced scout camp as a winner with a sun tan, that a new NI card got me my first summer job…and I first kissed a girl. The characters and life-style in that film seemed exotic, rather than gritty. At the time, I had no appreciation of either Miller’s script or Huston’s directing—I was passive, wanting film to entertain me, not thinking about how and why, much less appreciating the craft behind it all.
It was my first awakening. Schooled in the simplistic boy-meets-girl-marries-gets-mortgage-retires-into-sunset consensus of the fifties, the film’s emotional messiness was far more discomfiting than Some like It Hot. And, though repelled by differently flawed characters portrayed by Gable, Clift and Wallach, despite myself I saw, for the first time, just how people negotiate their own path towards happiness as best as circumstance will allow. Later on Sillitoe’s Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner would move me much further down my road to self-realisation. But The Misfits set me out on it.
It was only later that I appreciated Monroe’s real contribution. At the time, I thought her far too beautiful to ever find herself in such circumstances. Like most tumescent teenagers, I saw her characters almost entirely through the prism of what the media made of her: the jiggle-action, poo-poopee-doo, platinum-blonde arm candy. When I first heard ‘Candle in the Wind’ on a friend’s state-of-art stereo in Lausanne in the mid-seventies, I still subscribed to that vulnerability and loved the sexy references to it, such as Kelly le Brock’s skirt-wafting grating homage in Woman in Red.
But, thanks to technology, a miracle for us fifties filmgoers has now happened: for a few quid and fewer hours of your time, any film is yours to dissect. And it can be freeze-framed, rewound, slo-mo’ed—you name it. Looking back over Monroe’s films, you can see the fertile female-as-icon soil from which the legend grew.
Starting from the pouting WW2 pinups of Grable, Haworth and Gardner, things grew more complex, developing several sub-genres from the hard-ass Crawford/Stanwyk school, through the more readily voluptuous Jane Russell (“hard to describe her without moving your hands” in Bob Hope’s phrase) to the class of ditzy blonde deriving from Betty Boop. With little thought, the media machine swept Marilyn into this last category.
It may be hard for women in the 21st century to recall when emancipation was limited to the vote and equality was regarded as an aberration against scripture. Watch an episode of Mad Men to get a sense of how different things were then: men were the boss; women turned passive aggression into an art form as they had few alternatives to get their way.
Seen in that context, it’s amazing what Monroe achieved. After an unsuccessful early marriage and difficulties with trusting men from having been abandoned by her own father, she took control of her life using what tools she had. Famously unpunctual, she got her own back through milking the rights of stardom and playing to the gallery. No doubt impressed by second husband Miller, she nonetheless declined to be simply the blonde ego-boost he (and his society) had written as a role for her.
Her classic pose is the tossed back head and narrowed eyes. But watch the cool intelligence in those eyes when they are open (if you boys can pull your gaze away from the rest of her). If she’s ditzy, then so is Carol Vorderman doing a maths quiz. See how she plays the torn neediness, the necessary compromise, the inner gustiness of Roslyn in The Misfits and you realise that this was no candle in the wind.
She tried to be her own woman, making the best she could of what breaks life gave her. The tragedy is that proper companionship—something she perhaps needed most of all but was least likely to get with that public image—does not seem ever to have been among them. The memory that remains is of that image she played to and not of the woman she always knew was in there.