Revisiting Marilyn’s Movies in Zurich

Marilyn is currently being honoured with a big-screen retrospective at the Filmpodium in Zurich, Switzerland. She also the graces the cover of the current programme (see here), with an essay by the German critic Elisabeth Bronfen (who wrote about Marilyn and other iconic figures in her 2001 book, Diva) and summaries of Marilyn’s movies inside.

“The oscillating movement between the star’s two bodies plays an essential role in the transformation of Norma Jeane Baker into the most famous icon of female seduction of the 20th century. For the psychological thriller Niagara (1952), her natural body was transformed into a star body … But although Twentieth Century Fox tried to reduce Marilyn Monroe to her provocative body parts … this sex goddess radiated a very special radiance. She didn’t want to be squeezed into the cultural agenda, instead she dismantled it by displaying her erotic charm to excess. If Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955) stands over a subway shaft so that the wind of the passing train makes her skirt flutter higher and higher, she remains true to her dictum: ‘In truth, I never fooled anyone. I let people fool themselves.’

She never received an Oscar nomination because the contradictions she publicly displayed made Hollywood nervous. On the one hand, she was the sensitive, vulnerable dreamer, unable to defend herself, helpless at the mercy of the studio system’s exploitation. On the other hand, she longed for fame and put all her ambition into being taken seriously as an actress. At the peak of her career, she started her own production company and made The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), exposing her own star image with intelligent charm: Elsie Marina knows full well that the Carpathian aristocrat (played by Laurence Olivier, who also directed) only let her come to him in order to exploit her sexually. When she tricks him into falling in love with her, she is the one who lets him know after two stormy nights: ‘It was only a short affair, but one in which I pulled all the strings.’

So when we look at Marilyn Monroe today, it’s to reconsider the conflict between the star image of the ‘dumb blonde’ and her self-determined handling of it. Her mysterious death on August 4, 1962 continues to bring the tragedy of her life to the fore: drug and alcohol addiction, depression and insomnia, mental breakdowns, miscarriages, failed marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. In hindsight, it is much easier to see how boundless self-doubt and deep loneliness were inherent in her carefree happiness, how much her radiant smile often threatened to tip over into inconsolable sadness … But anyone who interprets her desire for celebrity primarily as compensation for fears and feelings of inferiority overlooks what constitutes Monroe’s enduring charm: her intelligence, her wit and her talent.”

“Monroe has tirelessly pointed out in interviews that she is more than a projection screen that others are free to use. ‘You’re always running into people’s unconscious. It’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies, but you also like to be accepted for your own sake..’ Looking again at Marilyn Monroe today could mean not seeing her as a commodity, seeing her more as her reduction to a cypher. The many film shots that show her from behind with swinging hips could also be understood as an offer to be with her … The tight-fitting dresses do not necessarily have to be seen as an example of the exhibitionism that is part of the star image of every sex goddess. When the seams of her clothes threaten to burst, this can also be read as a sign that her sensuality did not allow herself to be restricted by the tight corset of the moral concepts of the 1950s.

Not reducing Marilyn Monroe to a cipher can also mean drawing our attention to the self-mockery with which she both served and debunked the cliché of the ‘dumb blonde’ – and at the same time knew how to hone her image with clever wit. At the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) a poignant conversation takes place between Lorelei Lee and her groom’s father. The older gentleman, who stubbornly wanted to prevent this marriage, remarked in astonishment that she isn’t stupid at all, as he had been told. She replies wittily that she can be intelligent when it counts, but most men don’t like that. Equally ironic is the self-deconstruction in the final scene of Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Sugar Kane gives herself enthusiastically to a lover who she knows will disappoint her. The gesture captivates us because we know that she is doing this with her eyes wide open … Only an actress who is actually very smart, very demanding and very critical can perform that so lightly. In hindsight, you notice what you didn’t want to see at the time: No other Hollywood star was photographed reading as often as she was, even by Eve Arnold with Joyce’s Ulysses on her lap.

Let’s revisit Marilyn Monroe today, not least because of the unique love affair she had with the camera. Freed from the limitations of her film roles, she allowed photographers to capture her naked humanity. In addition to the inimitable gestures and the unique timbre of her voice, the mysterious charm of her face remains. Her direct look into the camera reveals so much and yet keeps so much to herself. Precisely because Marilyn Monroe can never be fully, never fully understood, her image continues to grip us. What Shakespeare had to say about the ancient Egyptian ruler in his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra also applies to the queen of celebrity culture: ‘She makes you hungry where she has satisfied the most.'”