A Book Review by Anthony Uzarowski.
Whenever one sets out to write a book about a real-life person, be it a traditional biography or any other kind of study or retrospective, the question of ethics inevitably comes to the forefront. How does one do justice to a life and work of another human being? When the subject has been written about as extensively as Marilyn Monroe, the fine line between exploration and exploitation becomes ever more blurred. Each year, like daffodils in spring, new books about Monroe pop up. Many of these are pointless and forgettable, some beautifully illustrated and decently written, very few actually standing out as important contributions to the field of Monroe-study. But none of this matters to the legions of Marilyn super fans – more than any other film star, or indeed any celebrity, Marilyn Monroe is a global brand, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue each year, more than five decades after her death. Each new book becomes an instant collector’s piece, something to be added to an already oversized bookshelf.
As a big fan of Monroe myself, although not associated with the super-fan community, I can appreciate this fascination. There is something so unique about her, a seemingly endless depth of emotion, an intoxicating combination of suffering and joy, of strength and vulnerability. In Marilyn we can all see ourselves: our hopes and dreams, our disappointments and pain, the desire to be seen and loved and respected for who we are. Her story has been told to death; the lonely childhood, abuse, arranged marriage. Being discovered by fashion photographers while working in a plane factory during the war. And then more struggle. The casting couch. The men, the loneliness. And then stardom – more glamorous and overwhelming than Hollywood had ever seen before – or since. The desperate fight to be taken seriously, in life and in art. And finally, death. Sudden, unexplained, tragic. We all know, or think we know, every little thread of this all-American story. And yet we want more. With Marilyn, there’s always more – that’s the main ingredient of her magic, the inexhaustibility of her enigma.
Michelle Morgan had written two previous books about Monroe: a traditional, full length biography entitled Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed and the richly illustrated Before Marilyn. One would be justified in feeling skeptical about a third title on the same subject from the same author. But Morgan is unapologetic in her interest – it stems from an authentic, personal fascination with the actress and the woman, and a real desire to explore the various facades of her life, work, and image. Each book is very different, and yet there’s a common thread: a respectful and meticulously researched approach. In her latest, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist (Running Press, 2018), Morgan offers a fresh, interesting, and engaging look at the icon. While feminist theory has been applied to reading Monroe’s impact on culture before, and by such important writers as Gloria Steinem and Jacqueline Rose, what Morgan offers is a vital work, which goes beyond a mere academic interpretation. In 2018, in the era of #timesup and #metoo movements, The Girl’s timing couldn’t be more perfect.
The book focuses on the period around the making of the classic Billy Wilder sex comedy, The Seven Year Itch. The film marked the end of the first chapter in Marilyn’s career – it is the pinnacle of Monroe, the dumb blonde, the cotton candy goddess, the ditzy fantasy woman. What is significant is that Monroe knew she was ready to make a break, to fight the powerful, male-dominated studio, to become her own person. She used her sexual persona to gain power – and she was shamed and ridiculed for it. Six decades later, modern cultural icons such as Madonna, Beyoncé, or Jennifer Lopez are propagating the idea of using one’s sexuality as a way of empowering oneself – but when Marilyn Monroe did it in 1955, she was alone. There was no #metoo movement, no Oprah, no female presidential candidates. It took immense amount of courage to leave Hollywood, establish her own production company, and embark on a legal war path with one of the most powerful movie studios in the world. The Girl aims to stress Monroe’s contribution to the modern women’s movement, a movement which didn’t really gain momentum until after Marilyn’s death.
Yet Morgan avoids agenda-pushing or a one-dimensional view of Monroe as a bra-burning feminist, which the actress never was. Rather, the book brings us closer to understanding what it was like for a woman recognised solely for her physical desirability to fight her way to finding her identity, as well as her dignity and her independence. Marilyn emerges as a sensitive, thoughtful woman, with intellectual depth and curiosity, as well as a shrewd professional, conscious of her cultural impact and image.
The road to respect was long and difficult. Being a female sex symbol with brains or ambition was an alien notion in the 1950s. Marilyn Monroe embodied a male fantasy; she was not supposed to exist outside that constrained dimension, let alone think for herself. The idea that a body suddenly fancies itself a brain was considered ludicrous – and was met with a great deal of hostility. Marilyn left Hollywood at the height of her fame, not because she was fed up with acting. On the contrary, she longed to develop her craft, a phrase which is today pretentiously overused, but which, when put in the same sentence as Marilyn Monroe, was in the 1950s considered a hilarious punchline. She studied acting in New York alongside absolute beginners, while also establishing friendships with artists, poets, and writers, who were astounded by the movie star’s intellectual depth and artistic sensibilities. And yet in her pursuit of intellectual validation and professional respectability, Monroe refused to part ways with her femininity and her sexuality. In that, she was once again decades ahead of her time. She continued to be sexy in films like Bus Stop, The Prince and the Showgirl, and Some Like it Hot, but her maturity as a person and an actor was now also apparent in her performances. By the time she appeared in The Misfits, her last complete movie, her co-star and fellow Actors Studio alumni, Montgomery Clift, called her “the most gifted actress on the American screen.” Not a minor achievement for an actress whose early screen performances consisted of her wearing painfully tight dresses and slowly walking away from the camera.
The Girl is the first book about Marilyn Monroe in a really long time which falls into the “essential reads of the year” category. In order to understand the important social changes which are taking place before our very eyes, we must look back to see what happened before, and meet the people who brought about change. In celebrating the bravery of women who are taking down the ancient social order and the culture of abuse, we cannot leave out Marilyn Monroe. She took on more than a single producer – she fought the entire industry, and through it all was largely alone on the battlefield. You might think you know all there is to know about Monroe, but think again – because you’re about to be pleasantly surprised.
Anthony Uzarowski is a Film Studies MA graduate from University College London. His first book (co-authored with Kendra Bean) is Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press, 2017). He has written for The Guardian, The Gay Times, Queerty, Turner Classic Movies, and other publications. His main research interests are classical Hollywood and star studies in relation to the representation of women in film and queer studies.