Artists in Retrospect: Marilyn Monroe

Over the last few weeks, I’ve caught several Marilyn Monroe films – and while those movies may only range from bad to average, the quality of Marilyn’s performances never dipped below good. She had the charisma of a Hollywood star, but the pathos of a Russian novelist. In films, her characters represented a pure, almost angelic quality most of the time – if sometimes daffy or obnoxious – and never in such bland confines did she ever “phone it in” or resort to manipulative tactics to get across the vapid points of the script. She always held her characters in great esteem and rarely looked down her nose at them — even in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — which must have been hard given the lack of depth and realism of which a disconcerting percentage of her characters were bereft. To summarize before I get too carried away, Marilyn Monroe had talent that was bigger than her celebrity status – it’s only too tragic that the prominence of Marilyn Monroe the icon has forever overshadowed and obscured the accomplishments of Marilyn Monroe the actress.

The first film I caught was 1956’s Bus Stop where Marilyn Monroe plays a woman whose pure and wholesome energy has been made a sickly and almost unrecognizable moroseness by being oppressed and objectified in a nightclub hundreds of miles away from the city she believes will be her sanctuary – Hollywood. She retains her homespun whimsy with the thought that being a big actress in Hollywood equals respect and universal adornment, and in this sense the character is made almost too sympathetic on paper to be a real character with whom we can feel a real sympathy for. It’s only because Marilyn Monroe emanates an undying ethereal quality amidst the overly riotous and unfortunately asinine plot that any genuine emotion can be felt in viewers of the film. Sure, she panders to what the film aims for and the audience its directed for by fitting herself with an indiscernible accent (I believe it was the basis for Hanks’ faux-Southern elocution in Forrest Gump) and splattering countless frames with her bewildered face, but beneath all of the slapdash humor there is a real actress striving to achieve a real connection to her audience.

The film itself is more lousy than it is great, but the way the final act plays out affected me in a shocking way considering the previous two. As you may or may not know, the story is centered around a twenty-one year old farm boy whose all brawn and no brains. He’s accompanied by a longtime family friend to a rodeo in Phoenix. He woos Cherie (Monroe’s character) at a bar by bellowing (as he always does) orders at rude, inattentive bar patrons to listen to the funereal-turned-seductive song she’s singing and view her as the angel he first takes her as and with that they develop a bond. He views it as an everlasting romantic undertaking, while she only experiences the physical magnetism. Soon after Cherie pulls away from him after seeing how insane his untamed ego has made him, but he persists. This eventually leads to a scene where Cherie attempts to board a bus to California, but is literally lassoed from the bus line and hauled against her will into a bus headed for the ranch from whence Bo (the farm boy, Murray’s character) came. You can surmise what kind of misogynistic trappings the film repeatedly falls into along the way, but it all takes a shift when Bo realizes his confidence as condemnable and his entire persona as flawed after being beaten up by the bus driver. (And while that scene may reek of barbarianism and an overly simplistic way of waning a man’s ego, it is the most satisfying moment of the film – if not for its showcasing of how fickle machismo can be then for exhibiting Bo’s humiliation so physically.)

After this scene there’s a big shift that converts the lowbrow comedy into a wonderfully sincere, if brief coming of age tale. Don Murray is given time to show off his capacity for great sobriety after two acts of being drunken with stupor and his character doesn’t seem so bad. It doesn’t erase the dumbfounding scene beforehand, but it does regain viewers’ confidence that the protagonist isn’t such a bad guy – just a misguided chap who was never grounded and thus went astray. Cherie gives Bo another chance and we’re given a happy ending. In these scenes – unlike many of the others that didn’t involve the reliable Arthur O’Connell – Monroe is given a reposed Murray to collaborate with and doesn’t just reprise her daintiness from prior, but expands on the dramatic arc that makes the character far and away the most interesting aspect of the film. Together Murray and Monroe create a truly romantic synergy that the film needed far earlier on in order not to be the miscalculation it was. It also gives reason for not deriding Don Murray’s Oscar nomination for the role, but concurrently fuels more head shaking as to Monroe’s non-recognition for her part in this film. It’s not a good movie – especially not in the first two acts – but does work its way to being a tolerable one thanks to Monroe’s feline approach to comedy and ruminative one to drama and a stellar final act that is made so in large part to Murray’s ability to shake our reprobate and instill us with genuine concern. A must for anyone interested in the versatility of Marilyn Monroe with only enough time to spend on a single feature of hers.

The following year Marilyn Monroe packed her bags and set sail to England to work with one of their finest – one Laurence Olivier. To stay relevant in 2011, the filming of this film (The Prince and the Showgirl) is the basis for the upcoming release My Week With Marilyn. In reading up a little bit about Marilyn Monroe, I learned of the unilateral disapproval Laurence Olivier had of Marilyn Monroe – essentially conceding any artistic merit that could have been summoned from the poor script and regressing into a piece of furniture before our very eyes. Knowing about his smug arrogance over Marilyn’s celebrity before watching this film won’t effect how you perceive his performance or the film itself — the lack of concern on the part of Olivier is apparent from the get-go — but by knowing the conditions of the shoot, you may be able to find yourself in some sort of humor knowing that Olivier held Monroe in contempt for lacking talent while simultaneously being blown off-screen by her “untalent”.

Point blank: this is an awful movie saved from unremitting personal discouragement by Marilyn’s finest performance. Akin to her trademark characters Monroe plays a daffy but delightful young woman with blossoming aspirations and a keen sense for riches despite her own unremarkable net worth. Monroe plays Elise, an understudy in the London theater but based from Milwaukee. She’s clumsy and candid and for these two traits and her looks, she is not-so-casually invited to have dinner with the Prince Regent (Laurence Olivier) of a country who is one alliance away from starting a war with Germany.

At dinner the Prince Regent purports to Elise that drinking more alcohol will make her time with him better. He doesn’t drink though because he essentially wants to rape the woman and wants to make sure her lips won’t be able to slur objection during intercourse. He’s classy like that. But fortunately it doesn’t go so far – Elise realizes the situation she’s in and remains competent enough to get through the evening with the Prince. Monroe plays up her staple vulnerability and subsequent sadness very well here, but to no effect on the overall impact of the scene because no matter the charm she gives the scene, Olivier’s stubbornness negates sought to negate it.

For some inexplicable reason – unless you go the simple and depressingly superficial route, which is unfortunately the most rational one – Elise returns to the Prince’s graces because she wants to change him to be her ideal man. Well, not her ideal, but good enough. She is forced to swallow more and more liquor at the beck and call of the Prince and this progresses to her falling all over the man in a hilarious drunken stupor. Monroe bounces from conveying soft sensitivity to harboring passionate resentment to basking in thoughts of great love in her most celestial scene of her career. Olivier remains remiss and his character remains a sordid type. Later when greeting his similarly anhedonic cabinet he refuses to bid Elise a smidgen of deference. Still, she wants him and when she becomes aware of his son’s plot to dethrone him she remains loyal to the Prince Regent.

Monroe showcased her undying voracity as a performer with this film. Not because she played the emotionally rambunctious character with utter sincerity and thus revealed her vast talent in both comedy and drama, but because she didn’t succumb to the seemingly spurious nature of everyone else on set. By this regard, if one were to legitimately enjoy the film for what it represents and interpret Olivier and his company’s nonacting as some form of smart dry wit, you may find yourself being disenchanted with Monroe’s charisma. Though this is highly improbable as Monroe’s illuminating spirit is the guiding force of the film. But please, if you’re not a person who focuses on performances when watching a movie don’t see this. It’s absolute trash.

Prior to 1953 and the release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe was a budding performer on a world stage. Previously featured as a supporting player in more melodramatic productions like Clash By Night and Don’t Bother To Knock, her effortless charm was viewed by producers as being wasted given the abundance of charisma and sex appeal she naturally exuded. It was only logical, then, to typecast her in roles targeted to incite fires in the pants of common Joes and project onto the world the “liberated female archetype” (aka, the dopey leggy blonde) for women to idolize. This opposed to giving her artistic freedoms and playing pedestrians in realistic features made to incite discussion and debate in the minds of men. Lowest common denominator stuff and as such, this film doesn’t go anywhere.

The film’s most fatal flaw is the lack of arc in our protagonist Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe). In the opening scene, she’s getting ready to marry a very wealthy young man who has been won over by her sexuality and innocent charm. In the final scene, she’s getting ready to marry the same very wealthy young man. Throughout the movie she tries to convince a rich old stalwart with sexual aspiration for the young blonde (Charles Coburn) to get his curmudgeonly wife’s diamond tiara for her. Amidst all this there’s a spy following Lorelei in an attempt to grasp her intentions for the rich young man she wishes to marry. Her intentions aren’t good, but they’re vilified for the audience in the most offensive way possible in that they attempt to pass her gold digging and disregard for her future husband’s feelings as “teehee, isn’t she so cute?”. Puerile crap.

Apart from being downright offensive in making Lorelei who she is, the movie isn’t half-bad. The film is shared between Lorelei and her song-and-dance partner Dorothy (Jane Russell) with that character appearing to be created in the likeness of past Katherine Hepburn successes; performed as such by Jane Russell as well. Dorothy’s storyline consists of not knowing whether or not to trust a man who pursues her with as little shame as Lorelei does anyone with money – this becomes especially difficult for her after realizing what he was really after. Their storyline based around an idea of real love works great in contrast to Lorelei’s which is based around anything but.

Still there’s something winning about Monroe’s performance that doesn’t quite earn us our acceptance or condoning, but allows her to be tolerable and far less admonishable than written. This is especially true during the famous “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend Number” where she casually swings her hips and shakes her shoulders to the great opponent of feminism that music had produced until the prominence of hip hop. Monroe completely accepts Lorelei for who she is — as one-dimensional as she is — and earns our magnanimity. She registers truth through each sway and blissful verbal hiccup and in this sense her performance as Lorelei Lee effusively demonstrates how natural an actress she was.

It’s important to impress that the three titles above are only being talked about so expansively because I’ve seen each of them recently. They are not her best performances – though I would say the first two are, but not in order of presentation – and if I were to compile a list of must-sees for people interested in Monroe’s acting ability, I’d avidly recommend her lachrymose performance in The Misfits where she has boundless chemistry with Montgomery Clift, her “to be young is to be tragic” supporting turn in Clash By Night, and of course her most revered portrayal as the heartwarming Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot. While none of the aforementioned titles – be it ones that I fully reviewed or the ones I just listed off – are “good” movies (save Clash By Night) they’re all worth viewing for Monroe’s talent alone.


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