Reframing Marilyn: The Female Gaze

In an article for NPR, David Bianculli previews the docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, beginning tomorrow, January 16, on CNN.

“During her career, and for decades after her death, Marilyn was objectified, scrutinized and judged — mostly by male writers, biographers and historians. The 1973 book, Marilyn: A Biography, paired a skeevy, sexist essay by Norman Mailer with pictures of the actress taken by photographer Lawrence Schiller (among others) … Schiller does appear in Reframed, but here he’s talking about Monroe’s acute awareness of the camera — how she posed, what images she selected and how she used them to enhance and leverage her own celebrity status.

But most of the time, the voices we hear in this new documentary are female. Actor Jessica Chastain narrates, and an all-women editorial team headed by Sam Starbuck reexamines Marilyn’s movies, marriages and career moves from her point of view … And peers like Joan Collins, who competed in the same sexist studio system as Marilyn did in the 1950s, reflect on how women were treated in Hollywood back then. It’s a revelatory new take on some familiar ground.

In Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, we learn how, as a young actress, Marilyn outlived and outmaneuvered the potential career-killing scandal of the emergence of some earlier nude photos. We also see how, as a more mature actress, she again embraced nude photographs — this time as a weapon, to gain media attention and bargaining power … We learn a lot more not only about her methods of negotiating, but also her motives. It was not the first time in Marilyn’s life she had fought the studio system and won, but it would be her last. She died in 1962 from an overdose at age 36.

But her films would survive, and Reframed sees them with a fresh set of eyes. There’s the sparkle of her small screen appearance in the 1949 Marx Brothers comedy Love Happy — the brothers’ last film, but Marilyn’s first. There’s the comic confidence of her brilliant work in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, and the subtlety of her portrayals in such later, dramatic works as Bus Stop and The Misfits … And she took those roles seriously. Near the end of her life, when a reporter for Life magazine asks her if it was difficult sometimes for her to crank out her performance, she bristles instantly at the word, saying, ‘I don’t crank anything.'”