Friday, June 1, 2012

Happy Birthday to Marilyn Monroe

Today is the birthday of Norma Jeane Mortenson, who would go on to create an image of sexually charged glamour in American cinema and related media around 60 years ago, something that we're still not sure what to do with today.

Like everybody else who first learned Marilyn Monroe's biography from a maudlin Elton John tune, I cannot help but see her as a tragic figure.  Doubly so as, according to a number of sources, Monroe was also a bit of a genius, just one who knew that wasn't what the cameras or the public believed or wanted, and managed to play a role quite often in her public life.  It's only in seeing the surprising number of photos that surface with Mornoe with a book in her hands, or the fact that one of her choices of a man to marry was Arthur Miller*, that the image of the head tilted back with the open mouth smile becomes a put-on and the other Monroe comes into focus.  But maybe that's why Monroe continues to be discussed when Jayne Mansfield (and, in her way, Mamie Van Doren) have disappeared into pop cultural ephemera most people can't pick out of a line-up.

The endless sea of images of Monroe create a rorschach test.  A quick glance through Google image searches produces an amazing number of images that don't repeat.  It seems she must have been photographed weekly throughout her adult life.  Everyone has a reaction, even if they sometimes forget that Monroe actually existed and wasn't a manufactured icon of 50's-style Hollywood glamour.  She's one of those figures who some seem more than ready to leap to criticize, lest anyone around them need to be corrected.

She's a smiling, licensed photo.  She's a tragic Hollywood icon loaning even her death to the mystique of an industry that doesn't know what to do with it.  She's a victim for conspiracy nuts.  She's the virgin/whore paradox we all read something onto because, in life, she must not have talked too much or said enough to give away the game.  

Confession time:  growing up, I knew that mine was not a house where one was going to hang Farrah Fawcett posters on the wall without an endless string of mockery from all parties.  But when it came to Monroe, somehow nobody said anything.

So my one girly poster I had on my wall in high school (unless you count a Siouxsie Sioux poster or two) was Monroe.  Somehow that flew under the radar.  In the poster, she was in her skivvies, perched on the edge of a table, in classic head tilted-back and with bedroom eyes.  I never knew why that poster was okay, but I think it was just one of those "who knows what he's up to?" moments my parents let slide so often when there were no matches or hatchets involved.

But after a while, a few other pictures went up, and as you tend to do after doing some reading, I wasn't looking for the pics of Monroe vamping.

The thing is (and I think this sometimes gets lost) it turns out Monroe was actually a pretty darn good movie star.  I won't comment on her acting, because I think its as good or better than a lot of others from that same era, but when she steps into frame in a film like Niagra, if her job is to steal focus, she more than succeeds.  

I'm not a Monroe biographer, just a curious passer-by.

But we can still wish Marilyn Monroe a happy 86th birthday.

And now, because its my blog:

* I can read nothing into the DiMaggio pairing other than that Joe DiMaggio was @#$%ing awesome.

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