[On the early morning of August 5th, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her LA home, in a moment that quickly became as mythic as everything else about young Norma Jean Mortenson. So this week I’ll remember the iconic and singular Marilyn through posts on her life, career, and legacy as well as her tragic death.]
On three stages of Monroe’s relatively brief but strikingly multi-part filmography.
1) The First Few Years: Monroe was discovered as a model while working at the Radioplane factory, when photographer David Conover shot a number of workers in late 1944 for an army gig. She modeled for a few years and then broke into film with bit parts in 1947 and 48, but it was with two important 1950 films that she began to gain serious notice. Her parts in All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle were still relatively small ones, but the first film would go on to win Best Picture and the second was from acclaimed director John Huston, and their very different genres (a serious drama and a crime thriller) also showcased Monroe’s diverse talents. By the time she was 24, she was thus already making a significant name for herself as a film actress.
2) The “Dumb Blonde” Phase: As that film career blossomed, it unfortunately seemed to do so in one particular direction, with a number of similar roles that Monroe would come to call “dumb blonde” parts and (at a 1955 press conference launching her own production company) “the same old sex roles.” Not coincidentally, these were and remain some of her most famous and popular films, from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire through 1955’s The Seven Year Itch (source of that famous billowing dress photo) and 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl (co-starring Laurence Olivier!). All of those films are distinct and deserve further analysis, and they aren’t the only ones Monroe made during this busy period, but I think it’s telling that the billowing dress image from Itch remains the single most iconic photo of Monroe, and one often divorced entirely from that film and character.
3) The Evolving Final Years: Monroe tragically didn’t live long enough to move too far past that frustratingly limited stage, but in her final few years she did make a trio of films that reflect at least the beginnings of such an evolution. That trend began with 1959’s Some Like It Hot, one of the greatest comedies of all time and a film that (while Monroe was famously difficult on set) allowed her to both riff on and challenge her “dumb blonde” image. It continued with 1960’s Let’s Make Love, a more conventional romantic comedy but one for which Monroe asked her husband Arthur Miller to rewrite the script. And it culminated with 1961’s The Misfits, written from the start by Miller, featuring both Monroe and Clark Cable in their final film roles, and offering a compelling Western revision to her filmography and iconography. While it’s deeply frustrating to think where Monroe’s film career might have gone from there, these final late films certainly remind us of the breadth of her talent.
Next Marilyn memories tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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