Why Marilyn is the World’s Most Misunderstood Icon

Marilyn by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1953

Writing for BBC Culture, Anna Bogutskaya asks: why do biopics always get Marilyn so wrong?

“‘Please don’t make me into a joke,’ Marilyn said, to an unnamed interviewer [Richard Meryman] near the end of her life. But Hollywood’s cruel joke has been to turn her into a trainwreck, reducing her legacy to a series of messy love affairs, daddy issues and addiction. Big-screen and TV biopics have tried to explain her many times over, but they always come back to the same narrative – that of a victim, a tragic beauty. Is there really nothing else worth saying about Marilyn and her cinematic legacy?

Marilyn Monroe’s life was one of extreme lows and extraordinary highs … Marilyn’s mystery is not that of her ascent, but of the extreme contradictions of her life. She was a generational talent, a movie star with undeniable charisma, charm, fantastic comedic timing and an aggressive earnestness about her that was as disarming as it was captivating. Watching her on screen, even today, is to fall under the spell of cinema. She belongs to, and at times feels created entirely for, the screen. Meanwhile, the contrast between her carefree on-screen persona and her supposedly tortured off-screen existence has become the alluring core of her narrative: the woman-girl, the success-tragedy, the self-loathing-beauty, the unlovable romantic. Her untimely death remains a favourite for conspiracy theories that most often include the Kennedys and the FBI, and which Blonde, both book and film, indulge in. ‘People find it hard to reconcile that someone can be so exceptional and meet such a banal end,’ says Dr Lucy Bolton, a reader in film studies at Queen Mary University of London.

But why the endless drive to tear her down, to reduce her to a sad cautionary tale? ‘There is something in the most puritanical part of our nature that says, these people, these Hollywood people, they have so much and they deserve it so little,’ the writer and film critic Farran Smith Nehme tells BBC Culture – and so because Marilyn was the biggest star of them all, it’s as if she deserves these, in Nehme’s words, ‘relentlessly downbeat’ interpretations of her life In the wave of made-for-TV Marilyn biopics of the 1980s and 90s, as well as the TV series about other Hollywood glitterati in which she features, Marilyn is presented at best as a hot mess and, at worst, as a wanton floozy. These films see her only as tragic, or completely disposable.

Every single biopic made of her life zeroes in on the tension between Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe, the woman and the movie star. Some take this approach very literally, by casting two different actresses to play the roles, literally separating the women … It’s an incredible challenge for any actress, no matter how talented, to play Marilyn Monroe, because they’re not only playing the person, but an idea of a person that’s been manipulated and perverted over the years. ‘The biopics and impersonations of her have done more damage to her than the work itself,’ Bolton says. The challenge for any biopic, she continues, is ‘to convince us [its Marilyn] is a real person, because she’s so reduced to a caricature so very often’. Most of the actresses who have portrayed her, from Misty Rowe to Ana de Armas, have focused on the little-girl-lost narrative. Nehme says she would love to see an actress get past ‘the clichés and the mannerisms, the tricksy things that so many people imitating her go for. There’s no way in hell Marilyn Monroe was like that when she was brushing her teeth or making dinner’.

Very few of the films that purport to tell us ‘what really happened’ actually focus on the thing that made Marilyn so successful: her work … ‘If you are born with what the world calls sex appeal, you can either let it wreck you or use it to advantage in the tough show business struggle. It isn’t always easy to pick the right route,’ Marilyn said to the Chicago Tribune in 1952. The same year, one of her most enduring performances, that of endearing gold-digger Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would cement her in the dumb blonde persona that Marilyn found so frustrating and limiting. “She’s conflated with Lorelei Lee,’ thinks Bolton … The biopics choose to disempower her further by forgetting about the middle part of the story, the part where she became an extremely successful, well-paid actress, challenged Fox for underpaying her, and founded her own production company with Milton Greene, Marilyn Monroe Productions. ‘I’m not sure if people perceive her as an actress at all’, says Nehme, while pointing out that if you look at the actual work, ‘you start to see how unique and how intelligent her choices are, to make it as funny as possible’.

The only exception, perhaps, is My Week With Marilyn (2011), a light-touch take on the troubled making of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the only film produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions, told from the perspective of real-life, love-struck set assistant Colin Clark, on whose memoirs the film is based. With Marilyn played by Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams, the film is very much a part of the ‘Marilyn and me’ sub-genre of books and films … However, this is the only example that even tries to recreate Marilyn’s charm, not just her fickle and unreliable on-set antics. Williams captures Marilyn’s sensuality without leaning into the sex-pot persona. There are hints at the darkness that will consume her in the near future, but it focuses on the work and the drive, as well as the crippling insecurity that somehow Marilyn found a way to transform into moments of pure comedic gold.

There is hope, though. Nehme believes there’s a generational shift that is inspiring a reappraisal of Marilyn Monroe: ‘As film critics have been getting younger, they’ve been going back to the work. They’re very interested in the role she played in creating her own persona’ … Her image may be universally familiar now, but discovering Marilyn’s performances is always a revelation. Her feline femininity in Niagara, her coy clumsiness in The Prince and the Showgirl, and her knowing delivery of all-timer quips in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn’s awareness of how she was perceived imbues every performance and informs every choice. While it might not capture Marilyn’s star power, the best thing that Blonde can do for her is inspire more people to watch her actual work.”