Friday, November 25, 2011

Mourning with Marilyn

By now, nearly fifty years after her self-inflicted death, Marilyn Monroe is beginning to resemble Jesus Christ. As the people who knew the actual woman underneath the image, who saw her "in the flesh", are dying off, the real Marilyn is becoming more insubstantial.

As the new movie, My Week with Marilyn suggests, Marilyn was an invention of Norma Jean herself. This is not quite a revelation. Others who knew her much better than Colin Clark, upon whose diaries the script of My Week with Marilyn is based, always insisted that Marilyn was just a mask that Norma Jean could put on or take off as the spirit moved her. Billy Wilder, who evidently hated her (because of her notorious antics on and off his movie sets), claimed that she hadn't a thought in her pretty head and had no inkling of the effect she had upon men. That effect was powerful, as her many marriages, affairs, and flirtations attest. Like Rita Hayworth, however, who was another pin-up girl, the various men in her life took Marilyn to bed, but woke up beside Norma Jean, leading to confusion and frustration for all concerned.

Thanks to Andy Warhol and a ravenous and revolting popular culture, Marilyn has become a quite monstrous icon. Even serious and pseudo-serious people like Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer were captivated by her persona. However close they may have got - or indeed however much they were interested in knowing - the real woman beneath, is, by now, as unknowable as she was.

The trouble with this kind of movie is that it isn't in the least interested in who she was, either. Marilyn was perfect for film, which is in love with the surfaces of things. Marilyn was all surface. Nobody is really interested in her depths, assuming she had any. Her devoted fans across the generations, who have seen every photograph and film of her, are fascinated by potentially new angles, new perspectives of her - but only her epidermis. Images are all that survives, really, thanks to her death at the age of 36. Had she not taken a fatal dose of sleeping pills (the official cause of her death), she would've been 85 today. And I think she would be as little remembered as Jane Russell, who co-starred with her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The story, which claimed to be "true" (a word, like "reality", that makes no sense any more outside inverted commas), suggests that Marilyn had an affair with a 24-year-old assistant director from the set of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) in the middle of her honeymoon with Arthur Miller. I don't suppose that this less than flattering imputation surprises anyone, and one of the preconditions for being a sex goddess is that you should have an inexhaustible libido. Whether it's true or not, Clark is just another fantasist who slept with Marilyn. But taking an interest in such things is just another example of the tawdriness of our celebrity-slobbering, grave-robbing culture, that wants to resurrect some people just so they can screw them all over again.

When Alma Mahler left the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka in the lurch, he created a life-sized doll that resembled his lost love, which he took with him to the theater, dined with and - ostensibly - slept with. When I saw film clips of Michelle Williams made up to look like Marilyn for this movie, I thought of that beautiful but lifeless doll - except that Williams is a living, breathing woman and Marilyn is the beautiful simulacrum.

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