Norma Jeane Mortenson's chances of achieving fame and fortune were pretty much slim to none. Perhaps this is why the public embraced her so ardently. Overcoming the seemingly insurmountable odds that would have erased anyone else's will, Norma Jeane had enough courage, hunger, and imagination to transform herself from a social castaway into the world's biggest superstar. She became the strutting, purring, giggling personification of the American dream-- beautiful, powerful, famous, desired, alluring-- all while remaining somehow approachable. She was a dream girl, but she was a real girl. Her history-- being tossed from foster family to foster family, her mother's mental illness, her nude photos-- were secrets that Twentieth-Century Fox tried to keep but that Marilyn refused to deny. What her fans latched onto, therefore, were not her perfections but both her beauty and her flaws. Why? Because the kid was so damn lovable. Inhumanly beautiful and oozing sensuality, she should have been seen as a threat to womankind, but there was such a profound sweetness and innocence in her demeanor that the gals loved her as much as the boys, if only because she introduced feminine sexuality as something that was not forbidden, but fun. The love fans gave her was heartily returned, and Marilyn always treated her admirers with kindness and respect, remembering far too well what life had been like on the other side of the movie screen.
But in looking at Marilyn, one sees more than her almost perfect physical attributes. She is intriguing, bewitching, and fascinating for what she is doing and not simply for how she looks doing it. This was not just some dumb blonde out to get rich; she was seriously interested in doing good work. This is visible in every performance she gives, no matter how early, though the payoffs of her dedication are certainly more apparent in her later roles. She tried to make everything real, and you can witness this and the effects of her acting education over the course of her 15 year career. In Clash by Night, when she rises from bed and lazily puts her clothes on, she looks genuinely tired. When she makes a call to her lover in Niagara, she reveals her character's vanity by wiping the lipstick from her teeth. When she blindly nearly walks into a wall in How to Marry a Millionaire and is corrected by a watching elevator operator, she shows legitimate embarrassment. These subtleties and nuances added great layers to characters that could have been otherwise easily forgotten, dimwitted roles. In any other hands, the movies themselves may have disappeared into non-existence. Because of her, they are instead classics. But, it was her work after she attended acting class in New York with Lee Strasberg that really started winning her critical approval. Humbling herself by stepping off her fame pedestal to go to acting school, she was able to erase her token gestures, lip curls, and wide-eyed stares for portrayals with real depth and insight. She outgrew the sexy girl image for the mature woman, playing thereafter women of all kinds: the heartbreaking yet hopeful "Cherie" of Bus Stop, the sexy but savvy dancer of The Prince and the Showgirl, and the loving and graceful wife of her final film, Something's Got to Give. Critics were enthralled! Where had she been hiding this talent!? It had been there all along, but few people in the male-driven Hollywood money machine paid much attention to a girl outside of her looks. Marilyn made them pay attention, and finally won herself some respect.
Sadly, the pressures she put on herself to rise above her humble beginnings, the demons of her past, the stereotypes thrust upon her, and her professional criticisms, still took their toll, despite the successes she accomplished. Marilyn's blessing was also her curse. People were drawn to her, first wanting to be near her, then wanting to possess her. She would have few true friends, because people could not be selfless in her presence. She was too vulnerable, too desperate to be loved; people chose to be a savior instead of an ally. Instead of instilling in her the strength and will to take care of herself, they took control: "Let me help you," "I'm here for you," "I care about you," "Here, take these, they'll make it all better." No one told her, "Marilyn, you can do this," "You're better than this." If she became a strong enough person, she wouldn't need her leeches anymore, and her leeches needed her. The "help" and "aid" of people like her therapist Dr. Ralph Greenson, her acting coaches the Strasbergs, or her agents and publicists who pumped her with drugs-- as initially innocent as their concern may have been-- turned to power-hunger, greed, and manipulation, perpetuating in Marilyn a co-dependent child and not a self assured woman.
The men in her life were the same. One sought not to love, but to possess. The honest affection felt by Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller in time became merely the precursor to their own "Marilyn addiction." Physical abuse, mental cruelty, condescension... They married the movie star and then resented her for being one. They were drawn in by her fragility, and then tried to smother instead of nurture it. The woman couldn't catch an even break. With all these voices in her head, she was being driven mad, convinced that perhaps she had indeed inherited the paranoid schizophrenia from which both her mother and grandmother had suffered. At her weakest, she found herself steeped in drugs and alcohol and forcibly detained in the Payne Whitney psyche ward of New York Hospital. Her nightmares had come true.
These descriptions are used to explain her "suicide." She was held down, and down, and down, until she was buried in her own misery. However, Marilyn at the end of her life was quite different from the victim history has tried to make her. After her last film, Something's Got to Give, was temporarily shut down and she fired, she bounced back with an intensity and spirit that she had not shown for some time. She was focused, determined, and finally taking control. She too was making plans to weed the insincere people out of her life, including the Strasbergs, whom she was about to remove from her will. (Unfortunately, that didn't happen, so they are still bleeding her dry). Some theorize that after the double humiliation of her career flub and her crumbling and sadistic relationships with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, she had had enough. She had been walked on, lied to, used, passed around, blamed, and shamed for too long. Taking the reigns, looking more beautiful and more mature than she had in her life, Marilyn seemed to be on her way back to the top. Then, suddenly , she was dead. Her death was ruled a suicide, but evidence from the case actually pointed to foul play. Between the contrived death scene, her toxicology report, the stifled testimony of those present at her death, and the enraged proclamations of friends who knew her best, the only thing tragic about Marilyn Monroe's suicide seems to be the fact that it was no suicide at all, just another lie devised to confuse our understanding of her; to pigeonhole her, as she herself would say, as an "erotic freak" who had it coming. So much mystery surrounds her sudden demise that the truth may never be known. Some blame her doctors, some the Kennedys... In the end, it seems that it was Marilyn Monroe alone who was innocent.
What remains of her is legend, myth, iconography, and our unending fascination. In dying, she transformed instead into an immortal deity and finally and fully delivered herself into the hands of her public, her fans, the only ones who truly loved her. For, in the end, all the girl wanted was to be loved. Who is Marilyn Monroe? Whoever you want her to be. That was her great sacrifice. She didn't care how or why the camera fixated on her, as long as it maintained its gaze. As long as it held her in place, kept her in a warm and safe embrace, and gave her at long last a place to belong. The great attention it paid her was returned in full as she sent waves of her own indescribable light back onto us. For this, we too are grateful, and so we continue to rally around her and hold her up as one of our own, one of our brightest, and one of our most beloved. There will never be another Marilyn Monroe. There never was a Marilyn Monroe. But there was a shy and lovable woman who lived inside a manufactured armor, sometimes enjoying its sheen and sometimes suffering under its incredible weight. Hopefully, in her death, she has emerged from it as from a cocoon, existing freely in and melding to the things she always felt she belonged: "...to the ocean and the sky and the whole world."