Marilyn in TIME: ‘She Knew Her Power’

Marilyn in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Bus Stop (1956)

Writing for TIME, Stephanie Zacharek criticises the one-dimensional ‘victimhood’ of Marilyn (as seen in Blonde), and with reference Don’t Bother to Knock, How to Marry a Millionaire, Bus Stop, and Some Like It Hot, argues that Marilyn was a ‘brilliant actor’ who made even her most stereotypical roles believable and sympathetic; and whose life was defined by hard-won agency, although overshadowed by her tragic death.

Even though we’ve had 60 years to figure out how we feel about Marilyn Monroe, no one really knows what to do with her. And so she has become our doll, a naked form to dress as we please: We know all about the sadness of her life, to the extent that her name has become a synonym for emotional fragility, a vessel we can fill with our own fears about loneliness and self-doubt … We love Marilyn so much—as a face, as a symbol, as a bottomless well that will take as much pity as we can pour into it—that collectively we seem to have lost sight of one of the central truths of her being: she was a phenomenally intelligent and gifted actor, a woman whose natural charm and devotion to her craft resulted in work so delightful, and sometimes so emotionally raw, that it’s worthy of any modern actor’s envy … Actors are always more than the sum of their parts, and Marilyn Monroe especially, as both a performer and a persona, is too complex to be reduced to parts in the first place. Her performances are a major component of her story, and the one that’s most often neglected … In the 1950s, once Hollywood had figured out the secret to her bankability, she played so many sex-symbol roles that it’s tempting to lump them together … But even if Marilyn herself longed to play roles that would challenge her in different ways, she made each of these performances distinctive; there’s nothing rote or perfunctory about any of them, largely thanks to the pin-dot precision of her comic timing.

Marilyn knew her power over men, and she worked it on-screen, though never in a way that was cheap or calculating. Perhaps that’s why women love her as much as men do—she glowed with a spectacular and special feminine magic that has always felt generous rather than competitive. In fact, it’s probably men more than women who have perpetuated the idea of Marilyn was ‘a man’s woman,’ the sort of figure who wouldn’t be likely to have many women friends, or who might alienate or intimidate others of her sex … Everyone who has tried to learn about Marilyn—to understand her painful and lonely childhood, to come to terms with the depression and desperation that dogged her, to reckon with the fiery intelligence that so many people around her, particularly men, preferred not to recognise—comes away with a sense of her deep fragility. But is it possible that, without ever acknowledging as much, we stress Marilyn’s fragility almost as a way of making her sexuality, and her own sexual appetites, more manageable? As if to assuage some shame we might feel about her sexuality and desirability? Marilyn fought her own shame all her life, but one fact that Blonde fails to stress—it would muddy the film’s victimisation narrative too much—is that Marilyn didn’t fall into bed with just anybody and, though tragically insecure, she knew when she was being used, and railed against it. Those of us who love Marilyn yearn to protect her, even beyond the grave. But protection is one thing; infantilisation, as a way of feeding our own fantasies or preconceptions, is another.”