Unbelievably this week marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, unbelievable because she still regularly makes the news; almost as much as her (not worthy to lick her boots) celebrity fans like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton…actually, what has happened to Paris recently? Who cares.
It’s easy to forget what a great film legacy Marilyn Monroe left in her short film career, when there’s so much focus on her (still) mysteriously tragic end and tragic love life. Never regarded as much more than an eye-bogglingly gorgeous, blonde bombshell with some comedy timing by the powers-that-be during her lifetime, Marilyn famously took her craft seriously, running away to New York to attend Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting School. She regularly turned in strong dramatic performances even when working with comedy-led scripts and her singing has rightly earned her acclaim. And yes, she was a skilled comedienne.
Whether you’re a fan of Marilyn Monroe and want to re-visit some of her best moments, or if you’re a cynic, who needs convincing, keep reading…
A star is born – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Marilyn Monroe had been working steadily in supporting roles, surprising the movie bosses with the amount of fan mail she was being sent, when she finally got the chance at a joint-lead in a major release. She was helped by the generosity of her experienced (brunette) co-star, Jane Russell, and it was the part of Lorelei Lee, that would establish Marilyn Monroe as a major star (and to her annoyance ultimately typecast her as a sexy, ditzy gold-digger). This film works as an interesting companion piece to the similarly themed How To Marry A Millionaire).
The highlight in this comedy-musical is, of course, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. Madonna would famously use it as the inspiration for her turn-it-on-its-head 80s hit Material Girl, wearing a replica of Marilyn’s dress. Given a troop of male dancers, a punchy big band backing, Marilyn gives it her all, managing to be cheeky and even a little innocent, despite the song’s lyrics. It’s worth noting that Marilyn wasn’t a massively material girl herself in real life, she owned relatively few “luxury” possessions and most of her off-set costumes were borrowed from the studio wardrobe.
Comic timing – Monkey Business
Marilyn has a supporting role in this slapstick, screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, as usual stealing most of the scenes she’s in.
It’s a glimpse into the kind of career Marilyn might have had if she had been born a generation earlier, old enough to star in films by Howard Hawks (who directed this), George Cukor and Frank Capra in their prime, when Hollywood was specialising in more adult, psychologically driven comedies than they did in the 1950s.
As the quintessential eye-candy, Marilyn Monroe imbues her part with her typical over-layers of sensitivity and innocent sensuality. You’re in no doubt that she’s in love with her boss, Cary Grant – but, who wouldn’t be?
Characterisation – Bus Stop
The happiest time (professionally) in Marilyn Monroe’s life was undoubtedly the mid 1950s when she successfully put her foot down against being cast in low-grade sex comedies, formed her own production company and got the chance to use her new found method acting skills. Bus Stop had been a highly acclaimed Broadway play and Marilyn was attracted to the nocturnal, drifting, romantic character of chanteuse Cherie.
As well as developing a distinctive accent for the part, Marilyn adopted a new make-up style, using chalky-white foundation, which was intended to reflect her character’s habit of sleeping in all day and missing the sun.
She is pensive, but not tragic in this film, demonstrating an iron-willed stubbornness. She wasn’t afraid to show herself in a less than flattering light either, performing That Ole Black Magic in the style befitting an amateur performer, full of flat notes and awkward, stumbling movements.
Everything – Some Like It Hot (image at top)
Like a lot of the best films, the making of Some Like It Hot is almost as interesting as the film itself; Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller was staggering on, Billy Wilder couldn’t resist picking the scab of her now-notorious performance anxiety/punctuality issues and Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis were developing bad backs and bunions from waiting around in their high heels for her to turn up on set.
This film has been voted best comedy of all time and one of the best films of all time in numerous polls, but if you’ve got an allergy against critics’ choices, please don’t let that put you off. It’s such a well-constructed and perfectly (irony intended) choreographed film, you’ve got to check it out. And Marilyn is on top form throughout, which no-one thought possible during the shoot.
From playing up to her mythology (“I always get the fuzzy end of the lollypop”), to being innocently sensuous (snuggling under the covers with “Daphne”) through to being confused but immediately delighted that it’s “Josephine” who kisses her after she sings “I’m Through With Love”, as Billy Wilder (who got on with her so badly on this film he was known to have claimed that she permanently damaged him) put it: ”My Aunt Minnie would always be punctual and never hold up production, but who would pay to see my Aunt Minnie?”
All About Eve: When the cast is led by a combustible Bette Davis, no starlet would expect to get any attention in a minor role, but Marilyn catches the eye as the bimbo with ambition in one of her better early minor roles.
The Asphalt Jungle: She apparently auditioned for John Huston lying on the floor because there wasn’t a sofa (which she had rehearsed on) to use. He loved her and playing a gangster’s moll in this classic noir helped set her on the road to stardom.
Niagara: There was enough of a buzz around Marilyn Monroe at this time for the film to be promoted as the chance to see two American icons for the price of one. It’s a hefty, overblown melodrama with Marilyn playing the “bad girl” for the last time.
Jenny Simpson is a freelance writer (available to hire…) and “golden era” movie geek, blogging at http://sunshineonheath.wordpress.com/, as well as collecting pictures of Marilyn Monroe on Pinterest http://pinterest.com/sunshineonheath/.