Roving thoughts and provocations

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Unsexing Marilyn

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Marilyn Monroe, Los Angeles, 1960

It is not entirely the fault of the recent movie My Week with Marilyn—about Monroe’s disastrous attempt to make The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier—that it is devoid of sex, which is something like depicting the life of Napoleon without mentioning that he was French. Monroe might have been one of the most sexual beings who ever lived, but the portrayals of her, even by disillusioned observers, sooner or later descend into a sanitized ideal.

The sex is overtaken by sentimental treacle, or heroic fantasy, or defensive over-analysis. In his book on Monroe, Norman Mailer, for all his worldly candor, concluded that “she was our angel, the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin.” Gloria Steinem envisioned a hypothetical post-feminist Monroe: “student, lawyer, teacher, artist, mother, grandmother, defender of animals, rancher, homemaker, sportswoman, rescuer of children—all these are futures we can imagine for Norma Jeane.” Relying on testimony from male acquaintances who knew Monroe, Diana Trilling claimed to discover a “considerable factitiousness in Marilyn Monroe as a sexual figure.” (Trilling then goes on to provoke the reader’s curiosity about the writer by asserting that Monroe “glamorized sexuality to the point at which it lost its terrors for us.”)

My Week with Marilyn is in the same desexualizing vein. The film is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, son of the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark. In 1956, when he was 23, he got a job through his family connections as “third assistant director” (i.e. errand boy) on The Prince and the Showgirl. Clark’s first memoir, published in 1995, was a reserved account of the film’s production, which has entered the annals of Hollywood legend as an epic battle between the Method-trained Monroe and the Method-hating Olivier. The second memoir, appearing in 2000, describes one week that was left out of the previous book, during which Clark claims to have squired Monroe around the English countryside. As Clark would have it, he resisted Monroe’s attempts to seduce him, remaining unviolated while skinny-dipping with her in a lake, and later while lying clothed next to the naked siren in bed. He presents himself reconciling Monroe and Olivier, and calming Olivier’s temper toward Monroe, who responded to Olivier’s slights by coming later and later to the set. Her passive aggression drove Olivier and the British crew nearly berserk.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book, but the filmmakers omit some important facts and get others wrong—leaving out, for example, that it was Monroe who hired Olivier to direct the movie after he’d agreed to be her co-star. All this made Monroe Olivier’s boss, an arrangement that was bound to irritate the British star even more than the Method did. The jealousy of Olivier’s emotionally unstable wife Vivien Leigh also might have accounted for his public rudeness toward Monroe. Olivier commandeered the press conference that he and Monroe held at Heathrow upon her arrival in England, answering her questions for her and in some cases rephrasing her replies, as if translating from some foreign language. In the film’s version of the press conference, though, Olivier sits quietly as Monroe (gamely played by Michelle Williams, yet with utter futility) wows the British press corps with quick, sharp, polished wit. She did indeed, as the film portrays it, engage in the following repartee with British reporters: “Do you still sleep in Chanel No. 5?” “Considering I’m in England now, let’s say I am now sleeping in Yardley’s Lavender.” But the laughter that ensued, according to contemporary accounts, had less to do with the embarrassing banality of her reply than with the fact that the sex goddess replied at all.

The part of the film that seems most detached from any plausible reality about Monroe is the aura of chasteness in which the movie envelops her. In the end, she seems relieved not to have sex with the young Clark. Sex becomes just one other of her many afflictions: abortions, miscarriages, abuse at the hands of predatory men, the madness buzzing in her head. In this PG-rated characterization of Monroe, she spent her life trying to escape the nets of sex Hollywood threw over her, only to find that, like belonging to the mob, you cannot leave the Dream Factory unless you are willing to give up your life.

The people who knew Monroe knew better. Cecil Beaton, an astute observer who took the photograph of Monroe that she liked best, believed that she projected “a hypnotized nymphomania.” Saul Bellow meant much the same thing when he said that Monroe—whom he first met through her husband Arthur Miller in Nevada—“was connected with a very powerful current but she couldn’t disconnect herself from it.” She was in thrall to her sexual nature. As she once said: “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it. Everything.” Yet this “gift” had another, punitive dimension. Her preternaturally powerful sexual instincts were her first, her primal addiction. She turned to drugs—just about every imaginable type of drug—and to alcohol in hopes of replacing one type of dependency with another. But the orphan’s need for love seemed too powerful, and sexual gratification was perhaps the only way it could—fleetingly—be appeased. Asked by the fashion photographer Laszlo Willinger, early in her career, why she thought she had such chemistry with the camera, she replied: “”It’s like being screwed by a thousand guys and you can’t get pregnant.”

It was Miller himself who was responsible for desexualizing Monroe. In his film The Misfits, written for Monroe, and his play After the Fall, written about her, he portrayed her as an innocent victim, mostly helpless even in her vindictive furies. Perhaps he had to inflate her into an ideal in order to continue to suppress the rage he felt at the way her insecurities and paranoia had nearly destroyed him during their five-year marriage. By contrast, Joe DiMaggio, her second husband, had been openly infuriated by her very public sexual displays. He refused to be photographed with her on the set of There’s No Business Like Show Business because he thought she was too skimpily dressed. After watching Monroe’s skirt fly up, again and again, as she duplicated for photographers and random onlookers the famous scene on the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch, DiMaggio cried “I’ve had it!” and stormed off. Later that night, guests at the St. Regis, where DiMaggio and Monroe were staying, heard angry screams coming from their room. They were divorced a short time later.

It’s too bad that the question of sex is so strangely repressed when talking about Monroe. Instead attention is focused on her love of books, her intense desire to become a serious artist by studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, her attachment to powerful intellectual figures like Miller, Elia Kazan, Strasberg, the poet Norman Rosten, and her last psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson. These mostly Jewish figures seemed to supply to Monroe the paternal wisdom, authority, and family feeling she had never known. Their status as immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who remade themselves seemed to strike a resonant chord in the divided self that was Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe’s intelligence was real, and her wish to flee the temptations and compulsions of the body for the life of the mind poignant, but one thing is certain: her interest in Joyce’s Ulysses or Camus’ The Fall had nothing to do with her longevity on the screen. It was, above all, her sexual allure that made her so magnetizing. This is why the absence of unsentimental discussion about her sexuality is so disappointing. For she was a dreadful actress. No matter what role she played, her voice is breathless and simpering, her physical gestures are undisciplined and out of sync with her character. In films like Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and even The Misfits she seems like she has just been cued or is waiting to be cued.

Even when she graduated from playing floozies and chorus girls to more serious characters, she played the latter like a floozy or chorus girl. No matter how dramatic her role, she seemed always on the verge of becoming a caricature of herself. Her comic turn in Some Like It Hot as Sugar Kane, a big band singer and ukulele player, is such a relief because, in the throes of all the hilarity, she becomes—with knowing self-parody teased out of her by Billy Wilder—exactly who she has always been. Perhaps it took a legendary 47 takes for her to say the simple line, “It’s me, Sugar,” because the double-entendre was so exposing of the self underneath the self-parody that she didn’t find it funny at all. When she says it, she simply oozes sex.

The camera loves Monroe because the camera, a piece of technology far removed from nature, ironically hates artificiality. It adores pure animal-like unselfconsciousness. If, as someone once said, all art aspires to the condition of music, then all acting aspires to the condition of pure physicality. The camera found in Monroe the natural release it needed.

She blended into Hollywood’s sex culture as easily as she reduced the camera to a fawning eye. As recounted by Monroe biographers like Barbara Leaming and Carl E. Rollyson Jr., it wasn’t long after being discovered as a model while working in a defense factory that she combined acting lessons with hectic coupling with anyone who could help her get into film. Hired as a party girl at the house of Joe Schenck, a rich and powerful Hollywood player, she was passed from one friend of Schenck’s to another. In the end-notes to his biography of Monroe, Norman Mailer relates a story that a Hollywood agent told one of Mailer’s collaborators. A producer once asked Monroe to come for an interview at three o’clock. Monroe matter-of-factly told him: “I can’t come to your office at three o’clock because every day at three o’clock I go to Mr. Schenck’s office. But don’t worry, I’m always done with Mr. Schenck by three twenty. I’ll be at your office at three twenty.”

But it would seem too simple to say that she was merely pursuing fame. She also copulated with cabdrivers who drove her home, with painters working on her house, with random men in the dark hallway of Hollywood parties. Sitting with a group of people somewhere, she would strip naked and walk around the room, socializing as if she was still wearing clothes. A photographer recalled: “We’d be doing a still picture in the gallery and I’d be standing right next to her, and she’d whisper, ‘Say something dirty,’ and I would. And you could see it, that mouth was saying ‘Fuck me’ or ‘Suck me.’ It was a turn-on for her.” In films like How to Marry a Millionaire or The Seven Year Itch—to take two examples—she is not merely “sexy”: she radiates the fact of just having had sex. The quality that makes an actor a star, the aura of being universally possessed by the entire world, was, in Monroe, an actuality. Long before the Internet brought pornography into the average American home, Monroe snuck into the ordinary escapism of middle-class movie-watching a pornographic experience.

But people would rather romanticize her sexuality than acknowledge it. Perhaps this is because she flies in the face of our idea of innocence. We like to think that innocence is childlike and chaste, a state of being that exists apart from the instincts and their gratification. Yet Monroe represents a different type of innocence, one that gratifies the instincts without any thought of the social or emotional consequences that, especially in Monroe’s case, are sure to follow. Such a fusion of innocence and corruption is an intolerable condition, best confined to the screen, and hidden under the respectable fiction of a proper American tragedy.

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