|photo by Jack Cardiff|
|photo by Richard Avedon|
The vision that materialized before wide-eyed young Frank Langella on a New York street was the painstaking creation of the former Norma Jeane Baker, but the realization of this fantasy creature had required inspiration and encouragement from others. Not too unlike an orphan on a quest in a folk tale, she rose from humble origins, faced great obstacles and setbacks and, with the aid of others along with her own hard work and desire, transformed her life.
|Norma Jeane Baker, age nine|
When Johnny Hyde, a powerful William Morris agent on the West Coast, met 22-year-old Marilyn Monroe on New Year's Eve 1949, she was a starlet adrift in the wilderness of the "party circuit" looking for a break. At one time known as producer "Joe Schenk's girl," she had been under contract to Fox for a year, from 1946 to 1947, and with Columbia Pictures for just six months in 1948. It was during her stint at Fox that she had adopted her screen name with the help of Ben Lyon, the studio's casting director. "Monroe" was her mother's family name; Lyon suggested "Marilyn." He had known and loved Broadway star Marilyn Miller before his marriage to Bebe Daniels, and Norma Jeane Baker reminded him of the talented and lovely blonde, blue-eyed actress who had died young.
|Marilyn Monroe in 1950|
For Johnny Hyde, meeting Marilyn Monroe led to an enchantment that brought an end to his marriage and the beginning of his tireless promotion of her career. He saw a singular quality in the sensuous blonde and worked to make things happen quickly for her. By the time of his sudden death in 1950, Hyde had negotiated parts for her in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950). Her success in these roles led to a new, more generous contract with Fox, an agreement that was secured by Hyde.
Howard Hawks had been unimpressed with the starlet when he first met her in 1948. But after seeing her in The Asphalt Jungle, he realized she had something. And when she was cast in a supporting role in one of his films, Monkey Business (1952), he took a closer look at her potential. Hawks became convinced that Fox chief Darryl Zanuck was misreading Marilyn's appeal, too often casting her in the wrong sort of films. He told Zanuck, "You're making realism with a very unreal girl. She's a completely storybook character..." and urged him to produce Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a studio property, and cast her in it; furthermore, he agreed to direct.
In 1949 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had made Carol Channing a Broadway sensation; in 1953, the screen adaptation had an even more powerful impact on the career of Marilyn Monroe. With the film's tremendous success, Marilyn left behind forever her years as a struggling cheesecake model/rising newcomer and emerged a bona fide superstar. She proved to have a talent for comedy and a fine sense of timing and, with Howard Hawks creating the ideal vehicle for her and overseeing an elegant Technicolor upgrade of her look and style, she embodied to scintillating perfection a funny, sexy, sweet and unique confection that produced fireworks on the screen.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe and top-billed co-star Jane Russell are well-matched as a pair of gorgeous gal-pal showgirls on the loose on the high seas and in Paris. Delectably dizzy/witty blonde Lorelei and droll, down-to-earth brunette Dorothy cut loose in clever comic scenes and dynamic musical routines. Both perform renditions of the centerpiece number, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." Marilyn's version became legendary.
Fox's next assignment for its new star was not as solid a film as her last, but it was even more popular. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) teamed Marilyn with not just one but two other glittery leading ladies - Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. Another glamor-fest, the story follows three models who rent a ritzy penthouse in Manhattan for a year in hopes of luring and marrying wealthy suitors before their lease expires. Bacall's is the central storyline and hers is the commonsense character; Grable and Marilyn are both ditzy-but-dear dumb blonde types. Marilyn, of course, is the knockout in the trio and, next to her, Betty Grable seems a decade out-of-date. How to Marry a Millionaire was the #5 box office hit of 1953, with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes close behind at #6. As for Marilyn Monroe, she was on top.
|Marilyn in a classic Travilla gown|
For a while the sensitive but wily star was able to navigate Hollywood's treacherous rapids. She managed to use the scandal of nude calendar photos to her advantage; she explained away the revelation that she was not, technically, an orphan; and she weathered the outcry stirred by the public remarks of Joan Crawford who implied she was lewd and vulgar. But Marilyn could never cope with her performance anxiety.
Billy Wilder, ever outspoken and eminently quotable, quipped about his tribulations in working with Marilyn, "I had no problems with Monroe. It was Monroe who had problems with Monroe."
|Marilyn sans makeup|
Determined to be more than a pretty onscreen face with a voluptuous body, she took acting seriously. Teacher Natasha Lytess, employed by Fox at Marilyn's insistence, coached her even as the actress performed in front of the camera. Howard Hawks balked at this and successfully barred Lytess from the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Billy Wilder referred to her as "that creature Lytess" but put up with her on The Seven Year Itch.
By the mid-'50s, Marilyn was studying with "method" guru Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. Julie Newmar, a member of the Studio at the time, remembered her performance of a scene from Anna Christie with Maureen Stapleton. She recalled that Marilyn's hand actually shook as she lifted a drink from the bar. In her view, Marilyn reflected precisely the essence of Strasberg's teachings - she had become Anna Christie. Of Lee Strasberg Newmar mused that he favored three kinds of artists, "the highly gifted; the injured, tortured souls; and the beauty queens. He adored Marilyn." Soon Lytess was replaced as Marilyn's personal acting coach by Paula Strasberg, Lee's wife.
|...with Brando promoting a 1955 Actors Studio benefit|
Billy Wilder happily agreed to tackle another project with Marilyn in 1959; her natural luminosity was "something extra, something special" that he believed no one else could bring to the film. He would struggle mightily with her on the comedy masterpiece Some Like it Hot and was critical of the effect method acting seemed to have had on her. Before she took up Strasberg's approach, he said, Marilyn came before the camera as if she were about to walk a tightrope over a pit. After adopting "the method" it seemed to him that she focused her full concentration on only the pit...
Over the years, perhaps in an attempt to deal with her terror of "the pit" and other personal woes, Marilyn became dependent on drugs - pills that lifted her up or calmed her down or put her to sleep - and alcohol. Her reputation for being unreliable and difficult grew to epic proportions. Those who worked on her later films reported that she sometimes appeared on the set as if in a daze and, during the filming of Some Like it Hot, screenwriter Izzy Diamond recalled that she sipped liquor from a thermos that ostensibly contained coffee.
|photo by George Barris|
|Something's Got to Give (1962)|
Even at the peak of her popularity, Marilyn was considered risqué, a sex symbol, and was not taken seriously. Her film roles changed little over time and became, for her, a deadly repetition – the artless, often giddy showgirl, or ex-showgirl. Cherie in Bus Stop (1956), Elsie in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Sugar in Some Like it Hot, Amanda in Let’s Make Love (1960) and even Roslyn in The Misfits (1961) are variations on a type the actress wanted to break. With her final, unfinished film, George Cukor’s Something’s Got to Give, she was cast in a role that might have helped her broaden the "Marilyn Monroe" persona; Ellen Wagstaff Arden was beautiful but she was also married and the mother of two small children. Had she been able to finish the film, Marilyn might have gone on to romantic comedy roles a la Doris Day or Shirley MacLaine. It’s also possible she could have moved into mature dramatic roles as Ava Gardner, Lee Remick and others did. But this was not to be. Life as a cultural metaphor and brand-name commodity may simply have been too much for a woman already consumed by an array of insecurities.
50 years ago Marilyn Monroe stepped out of the dream and into eternity. Her extravagant fulfillment of a childhood guardian’s fuzzy fantasies had taken her on a journey both harrowing and exhilarating, but her life would come to no fairytale ending. Only with death would come transcendence, and the mythical being she so carefully fashioned and brought to vibrant life lives on, unforgettable and bewitching.
|photo by Bert Stern|
This post is my contribution to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Jill of Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Michael of ScribeHard on Film. Click here to learn more...
Click here for a link to Turner Classic Movies' Summer Under the Stars tribute page for Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe: The Biography by Donald Spoto, Harper Collins (1993)
Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Leaming, Crown (1998)
On Sunset Blvd.: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov, Hyperion (1998)
Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis by David Wills and Stephen Schmidt, It Books (2011)
Dropped Names by Frank Langella, Harper (2012)