Marilyn and the Rebel Women of Hollywood

If you look carefully, Marilyn can be spotted on the cover of British journalist Helen O’Hara’s new book, Women Vs. Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film. Helen has written about Marilyn for the Telegraph and Empire, and her book has been serialised on BBC Radio 4’s flagship show, Woman’s Hour.

In Chapter 3, ‘The Factory,’ O’Hara looks at Marilyn’s battles with Twentieth Century Fox alongside other trailblazing women, like Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland. who fought back against the studio system.

“Monroe reluctantly took a small role in There’s No Business Like Show Business in return for a promise that she could star in The Seven Year Itch afterwards. Fox finally negotiated a new contract, with a $100,000 bonus. But after she finished shooting Itch and the promised bonus had not materialised, Monroe declared the studio in breach of contract and set up her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP.) ‘I am tired of the same old sex roles,’ she said. ‘I want to do better things. People have scope, you know.’

Initially she was ridiculed. Conservative columnist Hedda Hopper suggested that Monroe was, essentially, aiming too high; others blamed the ‘disturbing influence’ of her business partner. But Monroe saw herself trapped in an existential struggle … When Monroe’s determination became clear, Fox made a new deal with MMP … This was a far cry from the old studio contract model; from now on Monroe would be in control of her own career. In the modern era, she’d probably earn an ‘executive producer’ credit for her work. Time magazine hailed Monroe’s skills as a businesswoman, but she won by doing nothing. In 1955, while negotiations dragged on, Monroe studied theatre in New York with Method guru, and started an affair with intellectual playwright Arthur Miller. Still the media coverage rolled on, and the public fascination with her only increased. With her celebrity at its peak, it was Monroe’s willingness to walk away from Hollywood that gave her the leverage she needed.”

Marilyn during filming of Bus Stop (1956)

By 1962, when Marilyn was fired from Something’s Got to Give, her situation was more bleak. At 36, her days as a sex symbol were numbered, and her last two films hadn’t set the box office alight. She was also struggling with mental health problems and an addiction to sleeping pills, and was publicly slated for unprofessional behaviour. When she overdosed that August, negotiations to reinstate her had been underway, but she would have had to relinquish many of the gains she’d made years before. In Chapter 10, O’Hara considers Marilyn’s tragic demise in the light of today’s #MeToo movement.

“The brutal truth is that not every woman was able to shrug off this kind of harassment. Marilyn Monroe, in her autobiography My Story, talked of being passed around from man to man, and described Hollywood through their eyes as ‘an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.’ Monroe told stories of escaping harassment at the hands of a ‘Mr A’, who is thought to be Columbia Studios president Harry Cohn, a widely acknowledged creep who also spied on Rita Hayworth…

As well as the usual social stigma linked to any sex for women in the twentieth century, some who were invited to use the casting-couch route to success went on to wonder if they were really good enough, and came to doubt themselves … Monroe, the most desired woman perhaps in human history and a genuinely gifted actress, never trusted her own talent. She maintained that she never used the casting couch, though she was widely assumed to have done so because of the way she looked and the roles she played. Her insecurity about her own abilities caused frequent panics before she was due to work, in turn leading to lateness, line-flubbing and a reputation for unreliability. Of course, not all that neuroticism was down to her treatment by her movie studio bosses – she had an unhappy childhood and a history of abuse before she reached Hollywood – but it would be foolish to claim that none of it stemmed from persistently being treated like a sex object, even at the height of her success.”