2022, Marilyn Monroe’s year? I don’t think so. Sixty years after her death, two highly publicized but nonetheless inglorious events have brought the actress back into the limelight.
First event dated May 2, 2022: Kim Kardashian wears on the Met Gala red carpet the dress that Marilyn wore on May 19, 1962 when she wished a happy birthday to JFK under the cameras at Madison Square Gardens in New York.
That dress worn that evening in May 1962 by that woman immediately becomes the iconic symbol of the American Camelot era, a symbol that will become historic when the woman who sang on stage dies a few weeks later on August 4, 1962 and when the man she sang for – or should I say the man she made love to while singing in a voice cracked with desire – dies a year and a half later.
That dress worn that evening in May 1962 also reflects a turning point in Marilyn Monroe’s life at that time: in open warfare with the 20th Century-Fox studio, she defies the studio’s ban on leaving L.A. where her movie is filmed and flies to New York. She well knows that the media exposure of her song dedicated to the President will be huge and will probably prevent the studio from firing her.
That dress worn that evening in May 1962 isn’t a studio dress, it’s a unique piece acquired and paid by Marilyn: sketched by Bob Mackie for Marilyn and designed by Jean-Louis to Marilyn’s measurements – it is sewn directly on her body – the color of the fabric, the sequins and the crystals is chosen to match the complexion of the actress. Bob Mackie and Jean-Louis were maybe keen to show Marilyn well dressed, but above all naked and glittering. And as a matter of fact, under the blinding lights of Madison Square Garden, Marilyn appears on stage naked and sparkling, the colors of the dress and the skin melting together.
That dress worn that evening in May 1962 is the emblem of independence, of self-affirmation by an intelligent woman, in perfect control of her image and absolutely aware of the effect that her appearances may cause. And there is no doubt that her appearance on stage has been intensely prepared – whether it’s the tardiveness which causes expectation and desire, the indecent and unforgettable dress, the gestures which have been thought out as the photos of the rehearsals show it or this personal way of singing in front of a lover and beyond, in front of America – including a recalcitrant studio. She can always put on the account of the champagne drunk a few minutes before her appearance on stage, a performance considered too daring afterwards.
For those multiple reasons, that dress worn that evening in May 1962 is a very personal piece and a museum piece. Preserved for many years, it was auctioned in 2016. “Ripley Believe It or Not!”, which is not a conventional museum but which brings together American pop culture iconic objects, is the owner of the dress since then.
Sixty years old, made of a delicate and fragile fabric and embroidered with sequins and crystals, the dress should never have been worn again. Anyone who has approached ancient textiles knows their fragility and the irreversible damage that sweat, cosmetics, body heat and flash lights cause. This is why many costume historians and professionals consider that wearing historical clothing is unethical.
However, “Ripley Believe It or Not!” makes the decision to lend the dress to Kim Kardashian’s, who in return makes a charitable donation to two organizations in the greater Orlando area where the dress is usually displayed, on behalf of “Ripley” (a very worrying signal for the future, in my humble opinion, if I consider wealthy people who may feel entitled to wear museum pieces).
And obviously the 1962 dress, which is undeniably part of the American pop cultural heritage – because, no, it’s not just a dress – is damaged forever. Sequins and crystals are ripped out and the fragile fabric is stretched: people in gloves painfully rubbed the dress onto a woman noticeably more callipygic than its original owner (and it worked moderately since the dress does not close behind and that is why Kim Kardashian wears a white fur on her hips).
And obviously, the vision of Kim Kardashian in Marilyn’s dress caused an outcry among museum curators, costume historians and Marilyn fans.
Marilyn was Norma’s or Marilyn’s creation – an unattainable and unique archetype and the rest is plain and basic imitation. For decades, people tried to appropriate the codes of Marilyn’s image (hair, lipstick, make-up, etc), sticked to the superficial image only, and therefore looked like pale imitations – Kim Kardashian included.
This archetype, which goes deeper than body features, is full of contradictions, mysteries and tragedies and makes Marilyn iconic. On the paper, her roles are not specifically outstanding and yet she is a very good actress. Often late on the film sets, she is however known to be totally dedicated to her art. A sex symbol, she is nevertheless childish. Her own statements have sometimes been contradictory about her childhood and adult life and her biographies sometimes come to different conclusions – and I am not even talking about the circumstances of her death.
Whether during her life or after her death, the only certainty is that Marilyn remains a monumental money machine, which will have brought notoriety and fortune to many people. And no later than September 2022.
Because the second event I wanted to talk about dates from September 16, 2022 and concerns the release of the movie “Blonde” on Netflix. The film is inspired by the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, published in 1999.
Where “Blonde” the book has the honesty to warn the reader of the fictionalization that it will operate on Marilyn Monroe’s life, “Blonde” the movie does not.
Viewers who are not familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s life will take it as a reflection of reality and the media coverage of the film does not help since the film is called a “biopic”.
The 2 hours and 46 minutes of film are extremely disturbing for multiple reasons. Some shots are gratuitous – an attempted murder (which never happened) of a child by her mother, excessive and pointless nudity – others are unspeakably vulgar – a fetus who speaks, an entry into the vagina of this fictional Marilyn or even a fellatio filmed in very, very close-up for very, very long seconds.
It’s not even the worst. “Blonde” only paints the portrait of a mad woman, a perpetual victim of physical and verbal abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape.
As I said, Marilyn had succeeded in creating a personal archetype unattainable by others.
“Blonde” the movie reduces her to a caricature and in doing so, perfectly resumes the codes, elements of language and visuals peddled on the actress during the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
I myself took many years to understand and appreciate the Monroe phenomenon. I was born in 1974 and my education by a liberal mother absolutely and irremediably refused this type of icon. The point was not the sex symbol status of the actress in the eyes of my mother, but rather her supposed weakness as a woman victim of her flesh and her corporality. Marilyn only existed through her body, the male gaze and this unique dimension in which she was crushed did not correspond to the idea of the strong, multidimensional femininity that my mother wanted to instill in me.
As the years passed, interviews, biographies and documentaries dedicated to the actress, the publication of unknown photos in which she appeared natural and the publication of her poems, notes and letters made it possible to recreate her inner life in an impressionistic way.
Appeared a woman who had been an abused child and an emotionally fragile woman – but also a woman who had been cheerful, hardworking, curious and surprisingly strong and determined.
Norma Jeane is a child of the American Great Depression. Born in 1926 to a mother with a fragile mental health and an unknown biological father, she is placed in a foster family and then in an orphanage when her mother is interned. She escapes the orphanage by getting married a few days after her sixteenth birthday to a nice boy whom she leaves in 1946, because after a great success as a model, she is hired by the Fox studio. Confined to the supporting roles of a pretty, silly blonde, the young woman who now calls herself Marilyn Monroe may be of poor and uneducated origin, but she is far from being stupid. She is determined to get out of the uninteresting roles that the studio offers her, she is hardworking and she is smart.
She who stuttered works her voice so well that her diction becomes immediately recognizable, she perfectly masters the comic tempo of the comedies in which she participates and she records many songs.
She who was in the eyes of the studio a pale imitation of Jean Harlow manages to create an immediately identifiable and non-duplicable physical archetype (we remember Marilyn, we remember less, in terms of image, Lana Turner who used almost the same codes). The cropped and bleached hair, the white-on-white makeup, the facial expressions, the way of moving all contribute to the creation of this unique feminine archetype which combines humor and sexuality.
She, who was confined to supporting roles of the stupid blonde or a sex bomb, works so hard that she brings to all her roles a subtlety and a depth that does not exist on the paper, to the great displeasure of the directors to whom she requires several takes, each time refining her part a little more. She often makes mistakes in her text in order to introduce, take after take, her vision of the character – which is finally accepted by an exhausted director too happy to finally have a take with no mistake.
Sugar Kane, in “Some like it hot” is moving and it’s thanks to her: Billy Wilder had in mind a silly role but it is undeniable that Marilyn, who tried to understand why Sugar Kane is the way she is, brought a depth that wasn’t there in the script.
She plays with her weapons. She is perfectly lucid about the risks involved by her beauty and knows that she sometimes has to play dumb to get out of potentially dangerous situations (sexual assault, as she openly talks about it in her text written in 1953 “Wolves I have known”) or shape her roles as she sees them.
She plays with her weapons. If the directors who worked with her had only listened to her when she wanted to share her thoughts on her roles, the anxiety attacks and delays might not have been so regular. But since they do not listen to her and reduce her to the simple rank of profitable merchandise, she twists the situation by committing mistake after mistake and by overplaying the weak and helpless character attributed to her. But at the end of the day, everyone praises her talent and her genius for the camera.
In 1955, she takes the risk of going to New York to take courses at the Actors Studio and deepen her acting – which was already a declaration of war on the studio system. Worse, she creates her own production company “Marilyn Monroe Productions” the same year. Unthinkable for a woman, for a woman of this notoriety, for a woman of this notoriety under contract with a studio.
She reads intensely and writes frantically. She builds the education she never received as a child.
She constantly draws from herself the authenticity that will feed her acting. And as a matter of fact, she is capable of taking on femme fatale roles (“Niagara”), comic roles (“Seven Years of like it hot”, “Men prefer Blondes”) and dramatic roles (“The Misfits”). Drawing so deeply into her traumas is not without risks for her mental health, and she must be well aware of this since she has the courage to consult a psy as soon as 1955, which must not have been very common at the time.
She is undeniably talented, hardworking and courageous. Alas, her success will hardly benefit her. She is watched, but not seen. She is watched, but not heard. To come back to this famous May 19, 1962 at Madison Square Garden, everyone forgets that Marilyn Monroe was there to bring her celebrity support to the political cause of the democrats. Posterity only keeps the image of this woman singing but there is a speech where Marilyn expresses her gratitude to the President of the United States.
She is watched, but not seen. She is watched, but not heard. She is forced to enter into an open warfare with the Fox studio because she has been underpaid for years and her requests for renegotiation remain a dead letter.
She dies in circumstances that will probably never be elucidated, in the middle of the battle with the Fox studio and which she is about to win.
In the meantime, she will have been exploited by the studio, which will never have given her the opportunity to make money – she has to borrow the small amount allowing her to become an owner for the first time in 1962, a few months before her death.
She will have been beaten by her first husband, manipulated by shrinks who will often lose sight of her well-being as a patient, betrayed by her second husband who will write the cruel screenplay of “The Misfits” and the play even more cruel “After The Fall”.
After her death, the photos that she herself had discarded and crossed out with an orange pen are published and adorn the covers of certain biographies, ensuring the notoriety and fortune of the photographer who took them, Bert Stern.
This woman will never have ceased to be exploited, during her life and well after her death. There is a fine line between homage and opportunism, but it does exist. And I come back to Kim Kardashian and Andrew Dominik who directed “Blonde”.
The film addresses the emotional and mental fragility of the actress (which is indisputable) but it would have been so simple and rewarding to also address the joys and successes of a complex personality who can in no way be reduced to a caricature of a sex bomb with mental health issues.
Contrary to what Andrew Dominik may have said in an interview, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is not just a “story of well-dressed whores” and many people still watch Marilyn’s movies – quite simply because we are talking about classics and simply because she’s brilliant in them.
If Andrew Dominik wanted to make a film about the dichotomy between Norma Jeane and Marilyn or about the childhood traumas that poison a lifetime, his production is crude and vulgar.
If Andrew Dominik wanted to denounce the devouring character of celebrity or the exploitation of a woman by a system of studios, his film makes him complicit and worse, makes us accomplices too. Exposing exploitation and showing nothing of Marilyn’s struggles is a biased message at best, dishonest at worst.
Shooting in the very house and bedroom where the actress died in 1962 and saying, like Ana de Armas, that Marilyn’s ghost floated on the shooting scene is a lack of respect and a crass exploitation of the actress’ memory. I’m the first to believe in the invisible world but summoning Marilyn’s spirit to the shooting scene of a fictional film itself based on a fictional novel itself inspired by her life is insulting to her memory and to our intelligence.
Marilyn had created an archetype, Andrew Dominik reduces it to the caricature which was still trendy twenty years ago. If French women like my mother or me have been able to make their revolution over the last twenty years about Marilyn, Andrew Dominik, who has carried out his film project for more than ten years, could have been able to do so.
Finally, I can only encourage everyone to see or review the great classics in which she plays. “Seven Years Hitch” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are, under the guise of light comedy, vitriolic paintings of the hypocrisy of American society and “Some Like It Hot” carry the idea of a love who can know all forms. “Niagara” is a gem of American film noir.
“The Misfits”, which dates from 1961, is in my eyes the movie where Marilyn is the most moving, because the most emotionally naked. Much has been said about the curse that weighed on this film and that has long been attributed to the erratic character of Marilyn. Well, everyone seems to forget that the screenwriter, who was none other than the actress’s husband – Arthur Miller – constantly rewrote the dialogues to transform what was at the beginning a tribute to his wife into a cruel and limpid charge against her. Everyone seems to forget that director John Huston was drowning in alcohol and gambling every night, that Clark Gable had heart problems that forbade him to drink or smoke, and that Montgomery Clift was even more desperate than Marilyn.
Despite these difficulties or thanks to them, I do not know, “The Misfits” arouses emotion and remains with you for a long time. One of the last shots where Roslyn screams in the desert without really being seen is perhaps one of the only times where Marilyn is heard rather than seen. And it is poignant.
There will be no blonde wig in the photos that follow – I would look like a pale imitation of Marilyn and I want to avoid caricaturing her and instead pay homage to her. So here I am in one of her favorite activities: reading.
Speaking of reading, I strongly recommend Marilyn’s biography by Donald Spoto, Marilyn’s “Fragments” – her poems and personal notes – and André de Dienes’ book of Marilyn’s beautiful photographies. The biographies published by Anthony Summers, Robert Slatzer and Don Wolf and the book by Bert Stern and Norman Mailer, which includes the infamous orange-crossed pictures of Marilyn and – cherry on the cake – a conspiracy theory can all be avoided.
I’m always alone
No matter what”
“Oh damn I wish that I were dead
Gone away from here
From everywhere but how would I”
Chloé vintage blouse – Vionnet sarouel trousers – Repetto flat shoes
October 7, 2022