The first movie I’d ever watched starring Marilyn Monroe was The Seven Year Itch. Until that time, I’d never thought much of her. From her photos, she simply seemed full of… fluff. And not much more.
But after actually having seen her in a movie, I couldn’t help but admit to myself that she was incredibly charming. In a silly but very honest way.
While there has been a lot of attention given to Marilyn recently, what really brought her back to my mind again was my accidental discovery of this article, “Anatomy of a sex symbol,” from Joan’s Digest. The article touches upon Marilyn’s private struggle with her own sexuality. While she was considered by many people to be a dazzling sex symbol, she herself had been unable to enjoy her own sexual experiences. This inner struggle mainly stemmed from the emotional and mental turmoil which she had endured throughout her life.
Certainly, there was a lot more to Marilyn than the “dumb blonde” character that she often played in front of cameras.
She was often mocked and patronized, but somehow she always managed to thwart snide remarks with charming wit. She took her work as an actress seriously, and worked very hard to break away from the stereotyped roles she was often given in films. The studio system used to have the final word in determining which films actors would star in, but her refusal to do anymore “dumb blonde” roles helped to overhaul this system.
During the time when Marilyn broke away from Hollywood, she moved to New York and began her own independent film production company.
Although she never finished high school, Marilyn sought to cultivate her mind through the books that she read. Many people scoffed at this, claiming that it was all an act to make herself look more intelligent than she really was. But her impressive library collection which was catalogued at the time of her death and her thoughts on reading Ulysses suggests that Marilyn genuinely held an interest in thought-provoking literature. What’s more, she enjoyed surrounding herself with intellectuals and eventually married the celebrated playwright Arthur Miller.
She was also an early advocate of racial equality and civil rights. The most endearing example of this is how Marilyn helped the legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald land a permanent gig at the Mocambo nightclub. The Mocambo was a popular nightclub in Los Angeles but it refused to book any black performers. Marilyn Monroe, who was at the pinnacle of her fame in the 50’s, made a deal with the nightclub’s owner: if the club took on Ella as a regular singer, Marilyn promised to come every night to the club to see her sing, which would mean extravagant publicity for the club. The club agreed and just as she had promised, Marilyn appeared every night, sitting at the front row to hear Ella sing.
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt; it was because of her that I played the Mocambo. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her time. And she didn’t know it.” – Ella Fitzgerald
Her warmth, generosity and love for the underprivileged is an aspect that is often lost to the pop culture sex-symbol icon of her. She often aligned herself with the working class. During World War II, while her first husband was away serving in the Merchant Marine, Marilyn worked in an Airplane Factory, spraying airplane parts and inspecting parachutes. Later in interviews, she would often refer to herself as “a working girl.” And in her film roles, Marilyn played characters that people could easily identify with.
As this article from Sound on Sight puts it: “Marilyn was working class – for all her voluptuousness and breathy wet-dream sexiness, she was blue collar. She was one of us. And maybe, in the end, that’s what she had over the other sex idols of her generation: she was believable, a believable dream, something maybe not probable, but certainly possible. You put that together with that inherent fragility of hers she could never quite conceal, and it made her real; someone any of us could know.”
Before she went on to become a famous movie star, Marilyn had to overcome numerous obstacles. She was abandoned as a child, having never known her father and then losing her mother to mental illness. She was purported to have a speech impediment (her signature breathy way of speaking may have been a way to treat her stuttering). Growing up, she struggled with poverty, often working hungry during the early years of her modeling career. The fact that Marilyn Monroe triumphed over her personal hardships is a testament to her spirit. Although the specters of her childhood continued to haunt her throughout her life, Marilyn harnessed her vulnerability and channeled it towards the camera.
The cameras loved Marilyn and she loved them right back. Of all her qualities, the one single trait that I admire the most is Marilyn Monroe’s “photogenic-ness”. In every photo of her, it’s as though light itself illuminates and basks in her face.
“What she has—this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence—could never surface on the 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.” (A conversation from Truman Capote’s memoir of Marilyn Monroe)