Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Marilyn Mystery

Marilyn Monroe is such an iconic figure that you almost have to remind yourself that she really did exist.

I suppose if she hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent her.

Next Sunday marks half a century since she died, but, in memory, she is still the young and beautiful woman, the eternal sex symbol, that she was in August 1962. She was, after all, only 36.

Earlier that summer, she went skinny dipping for the cameras — and knocked all the competition off the magazine covers.

In May of that year, she sang "Happy Birthday to You" to President Kennedy in that breathless — and sexy — way that only she could.

It still seems impossible to imagine that vibrant, exciting woman, the embodiment of everything that heterosexual males (well, most of them) find irresistible, could have died in her bed one hot August night.

But it was true.

If people remember Marilyn — and she truly is one of the few people who can be mentioned by first name only and everyone knows who is being discussed — as a "distressed damsel," as Rafer Guzman calls her in Newsday, it's because she really was a damsel in distress.

All her life.

Sometimes the distress was her own doing, other times it wasn't.

I guess she fit the part of damsel in distress so easily in the public's mind because she played one so often in the movies — and that was the lucrative side of her life, I suppose — although Guzman disagrees: "Monroe rarely played sad or tragic roles."

I would argue that is not correct. There was often a tragic side to the roles she played, even if those roles were not "sad or tragic." In fact, when I think of Marilyn, my thoughts often turn to a movie she made 60 years ago — "Niagara."

In "Niagara," Marilyn played a hot–blooded woman whose attempt to murder her husband backfired. There are moments in that movie when Marilyn's face goes from an expression of absolute bliss to one of dread and fear in just a couple of seconds, and her personality, her character's very thoughts revealed in her eyes, shifts accordingly.

The same can be said of many of her other roles, even those that were essentially light and funny. She added an extra layer to the roles she played — layers that sometimes made me wonder if they had been the writers' ideas or Marilyn's.

But she was also a damsel in distress in her private life — failed marriages, failed pregnancies, substance abuse. In hindsight, her life resembles a runaway train — on a self–destructive path and likely to plow through anything and anyone that got in the way.

What a loss it was to movies that she didn't live longer and get the chance to play the kinds of roles that almost certainly would have come her way later in her life.

But perhaps, as Guzman suggests, there might be no place for Marilyn in modern movies. I suppose she would be retired by now, but, like the Beatles, a persona like hers might only have been possible in the era in which she lived.

If she hadn't died 50 years ago, she might have made her last screen appearance before Y2K — perhaps well before.

But just think what would not have been part of the fabric of American life if she had lived — primarily, I suppose, no speculation about a Kennedy conspiracy to kill her to keep her from spilling the beans about her alleged involvement with the president and his brother.

The relationship between men and women changed in many ways in the years after Marilyn's death, and one must wonder if she was versatile enough to keep up with the changes.

And, even if she had lived, Marilyn may well have been as much a relic of the mid–20th century as the "magic red sweater" that Lois Banner of the Daily Mail claims launched her career.

Her own words, in an interview published shortly before she died, offer few clues into how she might (or might not) have been able to cope when the landscape around her shifted.

"If fame goes by, so long, I've had you, fame," she told Richard Meryman of LIFE magazine. "If it goes by, I've always known it was fickle. So at least it's something I experienced, but that's not where I live."

It's all part of that enduring Marilyn mystery.