A lifelong Monroe fan, the French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis has collaborated with filmmaker Anton Corbijn on an homage to The Misfits for Madame Figaro magazine. The images remind me of the Magnum photographers who documented the original shoot, and especially Eve Arnold’s.
“Madame Figaro – How was this passion for Marilyn Monroe born?
Vanessa Paradis. – I must have been 5 or 6 years old when I stumbled upon a book in my parents’ library, it was a biography, the kind of book with a few pictures in the middle pages. It was as if I were struck down by the hallucinogenic beauty of this woman of whom I knew nothing. Photos led me to films, then films to records. Marilyn Monroe never left my mind again. I watched her films over and over, then later I read every biography, saw every documentary. It’s an adoration that cannot be explained. She has beauty, femininity, grace, delicacy and, at the same time, something tragic that we feel, that we sense. Everything about her attracts me, everything pleases me, her looks, her smiles, the way she moves. And this incredible modernity for the time. There is something about her that we had never seen elsewhere: this relationship to the body, this freedom of the body without ever being vulgar, a totally assertive body, but which has not given up on innocence either.
Do you remember the first movie you saw with her?
Probably Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , I’ve always loved musicals, and Howard Hawks’ movie is a little girl’s dream, with its Technicolor, costumes and songs. I have also seen River of No Return a lot and obviously Some Like It Hot. Later, I discovered The Misfits and lesser-known films, such as Don’t Bother to Knock in which she is already an extraordinary, fair, powerful and totally disturbing actress in the role of an unbalanced babysitter. And then there’s the singer of course, she revered Ella Fitzgerald and you can hear it: she’s a divine jazz singer, with a velvet voice and a marvelous vibrato. When I listen to her Lazy, by Irving Berlin, I am bewitched.
What does the dark side of Marilyn Monroe evoke for you?
I am thinking of Fragments, a collection of intimate writings published long after her death, a terribly intrusive book, but one that sheds light on her mind and her thinking. We discover her depth, her sensitivity and her distress too, her fears, her doubts, the fear of madness. She was a tormented soul who never stopped progressing and fulfilling herself.
They say you have a lot of things that belonged to Monroe.
I’m not a collector, but I have a few things that were given to me. A pair of shoes for example, sublime white pumps. We have the same shoe size, I sometimes put them on, take a few steps and put them away, because I’m too afraid of deforming them. I also have a jacket, a cape, a hat that I wear sometimes, but very infrequently because they are invaluable to me. Once I went prowling around the villa she owned in Brentwood and where she died. It took me a long time to decide to go there, and I was very moved to discover this modest hacienda from the outside, her only home, where she did not live long, the poor darling.
You lived in Hollywood, the home of cinema. Is it something that brings you closer to her?
When I lived there, I led a very family life: the children, the school. There was nothing Hollywood in my lifestyle, I went to dinner very little, and I attended the Oscars only twice. It was wonderful to see so many famous actors, it was my dream of American cinema but not at all my American dream, because I never aspired to be part of it. Perhaps because it requires too much of oneself, it means being available only for that and, probably, shooting films that you don’t want to make in order to be able to reach those you are targeting. There was no reason for me to embark on this obstacle course. When I was younger, however, after the shooting of White Wedding , my first film, I did some improbable castings like that of Indecent Proposal, for the role of Demi Moore! It made absolutely no sense, and in retrospect I find it very odd. I quickly put the kibosh on this kind of experience, and I have no regrets about it: I am fulfilled in France.
Monroe was manipulated and, according to some, manipulative. Is there a way to properly handle the excesses of fame?
Manipulative, I don’t like that word; what is certain is that she was a good communicator, but I don’t know if that was part of a strategy. She was smart and she knew how to use her image. Her image was a weapon, but also a call to be seen and loved. And then there is a context, the 1950s, and a country, America. Actors belonged to studios, they were stuck, emancipation began the following decade. Marilyn, she started her career at the end of the 1940s, and probably her body and her sexuality allowed her to confound the critics and, in a certain way, to be heard and to exist. She nevertheless managed to achieve something very exceptional at the time: a freedom to be oneself…
When you started out, you yourself were cataloged as a woman-child…
The context is really different, it’s not the same era, not the same culture, not the same difficulties. But Monroe’s problem remains a problem today: the place of women in society and in the workplace. As far as I’m concerned, it’s true, when I started out I was first considered a woman-child and a singer without really any talent. They were wondering what I was doing there. The success was so overwhelming that it had nothing to do with what I could offer. It took time for me to prove that there was something worthwhile in me. Marilyn Monroe, she did not know during her lifetime the recognition she deserved. It happened afterwards. However, she did everything to progress, she left to live in New York, she […incomplete]
Have you had to suffer image distortions?
The image, they certainly take it from you, but we also give it, we play with it. It’s an exchange. I’m from the generation of music videos and record covers, everything went through that, it was a way of presenting yourself to the world. At first it might have been painful, you can’t stop people from talking, judging, being unfair sometimes, yes I was hurt at times, but in the end what remains is your work, the heart and essence of your work. To succeed, I had to cling to concrete things: music, concerts, films. The rest is part of the game: to be loved, or not to be loved. As for recognition, it is essential, but not only in the artistic professions. All work deserves attention and, if possible, appreciation.
You like Marilyn Monroe and Romy Schneider, two actresses who, it is said, were burned by the cinema…
By life, rather, even if the cinema did not have to arrange things. They are two women who have lived complicated lives, childhoods and loves. And, in the case of Marilyn, an aggravating circumstance, it was the time when actors became totally dependent on drugs without the disastrous effects on health being known. What I do know is that I had incredible parents, who gave me love and confidence, who loved me, surrounded me, accompanied me. I’m not saying that you can’t get by without this prerequisite – you can choose families other than your own – but it’s much easier to start out in life feeling supported. Being an actress is terribly destabilizing, you are scrutinized on a giant screen […incomplete]
Anything else that touches you about Marilyn?
In the dramas of her life, she lost all the children she bore. As a mother, she probably would have lived another life. Me, without children, I would have been someone else. I don’t think women have to have children to be fulfilled, but I always wanted to have them, and they shaped the woman I am today.
How do you imagine Marilyn Monroe if she had lived?
I can’t imagine her as a mature woman, let alone an old lady. She would be 96 years old. In 1962, at the time of her death, she had projects, a production house. She was a woman ruled by her heart: perhaps she would have met a man who would have loved her for what she was?”