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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Goodbye, Norma Jeane

by Philip Martin | September 25, 2022 at 2:03 a.m.

"I don't like to say this, but I'm afraid there is a lot of envy in this business. The only thing I can do is I stop and think, 'I'm all right, but I'm not so sure about them!'"

-- Marilyn Monroe, quoted in Life magazine, Aug. 2, 1962

"She was our angel, the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin."

-- Norman Mailer,

"Marilyn, a Biography," 1973

They say some of us remember things that happened when we were 30 months old. I remember some things from 1962, like the klaxons on the air base going off during the Cuban missile crisis, but not hearing the reports of Marilyn Monroe's death.

I'm not sure when I became aware that there was such a thing as a Marilyn Monroe, though it must have been about the time I realized there were movies, and this dream factory people called Hollywood somewhere in a far-off place called California.

While I was born too late for Marilyn--she preferred older men, and I not yet 4 years old when she overdosed on barbiturates and died Aug. 4, 1962--my cohort was in a perfect position to consume her, to revise the verdict of her contemporaries who might have received her as ditzy and blonde and trashy.

"Sex plays a tremendously important part in every person's life," no less a kettle than Joan Crawford told the columnist Bob Thomas in 1953. "People are interested in it, intrigued with it. But they don't like to see it flaunted in their faces. [Marilyn] should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities; but it also likes to know that underneath it all, the actresses are ladies."

That's a sentiment from a foreign time, isn't it? Some will find the hypocrisy soothing, but nobody expects ladies and gentlemen anymore. In the 21st century, Madonna is quaint.

So we can watch Marilyn's films from a remove, understanding that Billy Wilder hated her and Tony Curtis said kissing her was like "kissing Hitler" and that the Great DiMaggio might have slapped her around. We know how her only meeting with Elvis was a pleasant 20-minute chat on a studio lot and not the one-night stand or secret romance some have peddled to the gossips. ("Elvis and Marilyn," Leon Russell sang, "never fell in love.")

We have context and can see her future, and knowing how the overarching narrative ends in tragedy, in self-murder by overdose (though there are plenty of rumors and conspiracy theories to meet the needs of those unwilling or unable to accept that sadness and depression respect not talent, success or fame). We can reframe her story as one of frustration and abuse--she was a serious person, taken as a joke. She was broken and needy; mistreated by those she trusted until she lost the capacity to trust.

We invented a superseding myth, one that exploded the superficial tabloid version of Marilyn that prevailed while she was alive. We could understand the bifurcated nature of her existence, believe that sweet, frightened, desperate and abandoned Norma Jeane Mortensen could cohabit with the bionic creature that was Marilyn. We could entertain salvation fantasies had only we been around with our elevated sensibilities when she needed us.

But it is a myth.

The way to immortality passes through the grave. James Dean, a tone-deaf bongo player, made three movies and crashed a car and became as important to rock 'n' roll as Buddy Holly. Had Rudy Valentino and Jean Harlow not died young, they might still be remembered, but it's unlikely their faces would be on so many T-shirts. Marilyn was 36 when she killed herself, not young exactly, but still young enough. Still pneumatic, creamy, flouncy and desirable.

Still the angel of sex.

Like Elton John, I never knew Norma Jeane, but I've read Mailer on her. I've read Joyce Carol Oates' "Blonde" and have seen Australian director Andrew Dominik's film version of that--and let's pointedly stress this next word--"novel."

And if I wanted to make a Batman movie I could do worse than hire Dominik. "Blonde" may not be the best movie of the year, but it is one that got to me.

Contrast it to "Elvis," made by another Australian director, Baz Luhrman. "Elvis" has its moments (especially Austin Butler's impersonation of the King) but it's like a Wikipedia entry set to music. It feels safe, assuring and in the grand tradition of the mediocre American musical.

"Blonde" is something rougher and less sentimental, even if the performance by Cuban-born actor Ana de Armas conforms to the now-consensus portrait of Norma Jeane/Marilyn as a passive victim of the unwoke patriarchy of pre-1960s America. (When did the '60s begin? If not on Nov. 22, 1963, maybe Aug. 4, 1962.)

It's not, it should be stressed, journalism, what Carl Bernstein calls the best obtainable version of the truth.

On the other hand, it is a kind of poetry, which Miller Williams called the lie that tells the truth. Or maybe just "a truth," not about the particulars of a life, but about how it is to live a certain way. I know enough about the putative subject of the film to challenge its assumption that Marilyn was almost completely without agency, that she was in fact largely the captain of her own career, but that's the sort of complication that can be safely elided when constructing a myth.

"Blonde" the movie certainly has a right to exist even if we shouldn't rely on it as biography; the only problem it presents is the same one that movies always present: that people will mistake them for life. (No artist is safe from stupidity.)

While we can make arguments against it on the basis of our taste--and those arguments are fair --I don't think the film libels her. It's necessarily reductive, but gives us a Marilyn who read and fathomed Chekov. Whose heroes included Eleonora Duse and Abraham Lincoln.

A pure product of America, William Carlos Williams might have called her.

I suspect that, like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe had more awareness of what was happening to her than she's given credit for having. They were smart, limited-purpose geniuses, perhaps. But she couldn't change, because few of us really can.

I'm not saying her story isn't sad. I just saying she was her own co-author.

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