Hollywood has beefed up her sexpot image. The tagline, promoting her starring role in Niagara (1953), was full of allusions: “Marilyn Monroe and Niagara, a torrent of emotion even nature cannot hold back”. Her name received top billing and her image featured heavily on most of the posters. “When you’re born with what the world calls sex appeal, you can either let it ruin you or use it to your advantage in the uphill battle of show business. It’s not always easy to choose the right path,” Marilyn told The Chicago Tribune in 1952. That same year, one of her most enduring performances, that of the lovable gold digger Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, cemented her in the dumb blonde role, which Marilyn found so frustrating and limiting. “She fused with Lorelei Lee,” Bolton thinks, “she felt like she was constantly being put into these dumb blonde musical comedies, but even in those roles, she’s smart and smart. There’s something about the Monroe-isms.” Her image may have made her famous, but her talent kept her going. Her desire to be taken seriously led her to New York, to the Actor’s Studio and to Method Acting. Yet even at the height of her popularity, her efforts were ridiculed, and in 1956 a whole book (a whole book!) was published called Will Acting Spoil Marilyn Monroe?. The biopics choose to further disempower her by forgetting the middle part of the story, the part where she became a hugely successful, well-paid actress, challenged Fox for underpayment, and started her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, with Milton Greene . “I’m not sure people even notice her as an actress,” says Nehme, while pointing out that when you look at the actual work, “you start to see how unique and how intelligent her choices are, meeting them as fun as possible”.
The only exception is perhaps My Week With Marilyn (2011), a light take on the difficult making of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the only film produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions, told from the perspective of real life, the set assistant in love Colin Clark, on whose memoir the film is based. Starring Marilyn, played by Oscar nominee Michelle Williams, the film is part of the Marilyn and Me subgenre of books and films – including Marilyn & Me: Memoirs of a Photographer, My Sister Marilyn and on the Screen, Calendar Girls ( 1993) and Marilyn and I (1991). However, this is the only example that even tries to capture Marilyn’s charm, not just her fickle and unreliable on-set antics. Williams captures Marilyn’s sensuality without leaning into the sex pot persona. There are hints of the darkness that will engulf her in the near future, but it focuses on the work and drive, and the crippling uncertainty that somehow managed to turn Marilyn into moments of pure comedic gold.
However, there is hope. Nehme believes there is a generational shift that is inspiring a reappraisal of Marilyn Monroe: “As film critics have gotten younger, they have turned back to work. They are very interested in the role she played in creating her own personality. Dominik may have been surprised, as he hinted in a recent interview with Sight and Sound that people still watch (and enjoy) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — but I’m not. Her image may be common knowledge now, but Marilyn’s performances are Discovering it is always a revelation.Her feline femininity in Niagara, her shy clumsiness in The Prince and the Showgirl, and her knowing delivery of all-time jokes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.Marilyn’s awareness of how she was perceived permeates every performance and influences every decision While it may not capture Marilyn’s star power, the best thing Blonde can do for her is inspire more people to check out her actual work.
Blonde is now in select theaters in the US and UK and will be released worldwide on Netflix on September 28th.
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