Madonna Goes Back to Marilyn

From the ‘Material Girl’ video to her 1991 Vanity Fair layout, Madonna has referenced Marilyn frequently during her career. The latest homage is for V Magazine, with photographer Steven Klein talking about their collaboration.

“This photo essay was inspired by a shoot that Marilyn Monroe did with photographer Bert Stern titled ‘The Last Sitting.’ They shot at the Bel Air hotel in 1962, before she passed away. What was supposed to be a three-hour sitting, turned into a three-day whirlwind, working night and day. Drinking, laughing, shooting photos, editing, sleeping, and then taking more photos–a private affair between two artists which rarely happens anymore. We were not interested in recreating the images exactly but more importantly, we wanted to explore the relationship between photographer and subject. Both the friendship and the artistic process, and how art can imitate life and vice versa. When I sent Madonna the photos she was really taken by the incandescent fragility of Marilyn at that moment in her life. We decided to find a hotel suite and try to capture the liaison between a star and the camera, the mystery, and magic of this creative collaboration. We hope we have done justice to the great work of Bert Stern and Marilyn Monroe.”

However, these portraits seem to reference other Marilyn moments – and echoes from Madonna’s own past – as much as the Stern photos. This paparazzi-like image could be a Warholian simulacrum of Peter Mangone’s home movie showing Marilyn on the streets of New York.

Reflecting on the pressures of fame, these photos reminded me of Marilyn’s rather tense costume fitting for the 1955 circus benefit at Madison Square Garden.

This image of Madonna in black jacket with a fur stole (below, at centre) conjures both Stern (right) and Marilyn’s 1958 shoot with Carl Perutz (left.)

This bedside nude recalls Madonna’s earlier recreation of a Stern image, while her fishnet tights evoke Milton Greene’s ‘Black Sitting.’ Her evening gloves and bracelets remind us of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,’ and her performance at the 1991 Oscars.

Another of four alternate V covers (below, at centre) suggests a Greene shot from the Bus Stop set (left), as well as Marilyn’s ‘chinchilla sitting’ with Stern (right.)

The Klein photo at left conjures another Greene shot from The Prince and the Showgirl (centre), and more explicitly, a 1990 photo of Madonna by Helmut Newton (right).

The white furs worn by Madonna mirror Marilyn’s ‘white fur coat sitting’ with Greene. She also posed in furs for Stern.

Interestingly, Madonna doesn’t mention MM in the accompanying interview, although her parting words made me think of Marilyn’s equally dramatic life.

“I think when you start off in your life with a very big slap in the face you have a different view of the world. You just do. The slaps are going to come anyways to everybody. Everyone’s going to get slapped. And probably several times, especially if you are an artist  … because that’s the nature of the game and it’s the getting back up, falling, and then getting back up … Either you have that mentality that you get back up and keep going, or you sit around, thinking about what people are thinking about you all the time. The challenges that I’ve had, since I was a child, are the things that make me realize how precious life is … in the blink of an eye, everything could change. I’m not wasting one second of it …”

At 63, Madonna has lived for almost twice as long as Marilyn did, and as always, her own personality comes through strongly. Whether or not you appreciate this layout, it never seems like mere impersonation and at times, it does hint at the bleaker side of Stern’s work with Marilyn. Over at the Crazy for You blog, a longtime fan of both women shares a critical, but insightful perspective.

“I am disappointed. If the pearl photos and the nude from the back on the bed are sublime, the rest is … uninteresting or even ugly. I find that Madonna winks at Madonna more than anything else. The wandering in the corridors of the hotel are undeniably a reference to her music video ‘Justify My Love’. And I even find the furry photo on the single bed with the pills on the bedside table vulgar … An allusion to Marilyn dead on her bed and the famous photos of her bedside table filled with pills. Yuck.

For the first time in my fan life with Madonna, I really don’t like what she reflects through the lens of the camera. She is absent. Her eyes are sad, almost extinct … something I had already noticed many times in the pictures she posted on her Insta feed. There is something pathetic about this shooting but which is not due to the star’s play in front of the camera but something deeper, more personal. Never has she seemed so fragile, lost. Also physically, she looks more like Kim Kardashian than Madonna as if she ended up losing her identity.

Finally: STOP photo editing! It becomes heartbreaking. Of course the passing of time, the surgery, the make-up change her face but there, no, it’s no longer Madonna.”

UPDATE: A short film recorded during the photo shoot…