Thursday, June 01, 2006


Her Hollywood career spanned barely more than a decade, with appearances in just 29 films (including The Seven Year Itch, 1955; Bus Stop, 1956; Some Like it Hot, 1959, directed by Billy Wilder; and The Misfits, 1961, with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, directed by John Huston), yet Marilyn Monroe the screen icon still haunts our popular consciousness at the beginning of the 21st century.

This "Marilyn Monroe" -- sensual, generous, breathless, lost -- was pure invention, culled by charm school coaches, solicitous photographers and studio Svengalis from the raw material of a fatherless little girl named Norma Jean Baker (born on this day in Los Angeles 80 years ago) whose mother lived in insane asylums; who married at 16 and attempted suicide; who worked as a paint sprayer at a defense plant; and who wanted nothing more than to be someone other than Norma Jean.

Her acting, which critics failed to take seriously in her time, transcended her coaching, even if it lacked the range she sometimes pretended for it. To her audience, she was simply the Sex Goddess -- there was no need to aspire to be Dostoyevsky's Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov (as she did publicly), to tamper with the image. Her connections with famous men (marriages to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, and posthumously revealed affairs with Frank Sinatra, John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy) give an atmosphere of truth to her status as a sex symbol, but also revealed the strain at the edges of her fabricated persona -- the searching and loneliness, the internal dissonance between Marilyn and Norma Jean. How could anyone really be the person that the world thought she was?

Any alleged mystery surrounding her early death (by an overdose of Nembutals, on August 5, 1962) is outweighed by the more interesting riddle of how a screen persona over a half-century old, so contrived and plasticized by commerce, could still appear to us so real, uninhibited and inviting.

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