She sauntered through life as the most delectable sex symbol of the century and became its most enduring pop confection
How much deconstruction can one blond bear? Just about everyone has had a go at Marilyn Monroe. There have been more than 300 biographies, learned essays by Steinem and Kael, countless documentaries, drag queens, tattoos, Warhol silk screens and porcelain collector's dolls. Marilyn has gone from actress to icon to licensed brand name; only Elvis and James Dean have rivaled her in market share. At this point, she seems almost beyond comment, like Coca-Cola or Levi's. How did a woman who died a suicide at 36, after starring in only a handful of movies, become such an epic commodity?
Much has been made of Marilyn's desperate personal history, the litany of abusive foster homes and the predatory Hollywood scum that accompanied her wriggle to stardom. Her heavily flashbulbed marriages included bouts with baseball great Joe DiMaggio and literary champ Arthur Miller, and her off-duty trysts involved Sinatra and the rumor of multiple Kennedys. The unauthorized tell-alls burst with miscarriages, abortions, rest cures and frenzied press conferences announcing her desire to be left alone. Her death has been variously attributed to an accidental overdose, political necessity and a Mob hit. Her yummily lurid bio has provided fodder for everything from a failed Broadway musical to Jackie Susann's trash classics to a fictionalized portrait in Miller's play After the Fall. Marilyn's media-drenched image as a tragic dumb blond has become an American archetype, along with the Marlboro Man and the Harley-straddling wild one. Yet biographical trauma, even when packed with celebrities, cannot account for Marilyn's enduring stature as a goddess and postage stamp. Jacqueline Onassis will be remembered for her timeline, for her participation in events and marriages that mesmerized the planet. Marilyn seems far less factual, more Cinderella or Circe than mortal. There have been other megablonds of varying skills, a pinup parade of Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and Madonna--but why does Marilyn still seem to have patented the peroxide that they've passed along
Marilyn may represent some unique alchemy of sex, talent and Technicolor. She is pure movies. I recently watched her as Lorelei Lee in her musical smash, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." The film is an ideal mating of star and role, as Marilyn deliriously embodies author Anita Loos' seminal, shame-free gold digger. Lorelei's honey-voiced, pixilated charm may be best expressed by her line, regarding one of her sugar daddies, "Sometimes Mr. Esmond finds it very difficult to say no to me." Whenever Lorelei appears onscreen, undulating in second-skin, cleavage-proud knitwear or the sheerest orange chiffon, all heads turn, salivate and explode. Who but Marilyn could so effortlessly justify such luscious insanity? She is the absolute triumph of political incorrectness. When she swivels aboard a cruise ship in clinging jersey and a floor-length leopard-skin scarf and matching muff, she handily offends feminists, animal-rights activists and good Christians everywhere, and she wins, because shimmering, jewel-encrusted, heedless movie stardom defeats all common morality. Her wit completes her cosmic victory, particularly in her facial expression of painful, soul-wrenching yearning when gazing upon a diamond tiara, a trinket she initially attempts to wear around her neck. Discovering the item's true function, she burbles, "I always love finding new places to wear diamonds!" Movies can offer a very specific bliss, the gorgeousness of a perfectly lighted fairy tale. Watching Marilyn operate her lips and eyebrows while breathlessly seducing an elderly millionaire is like experiencing the invention of ice cream.
Marilyn wasn't quite an actress, in any repertory manner, and she was reportedly an increasing nightmare to work with, recklessly spoiled and unsure, barely able to complete even the briefest scene between breakdowns. Only in the movies can such impossible behavior, and such peculiar, erratic gifts, create eternal magic--only the camera has the mechanical patience to capture the maddening glory of a celluloid savant like Monroe. At her best, playing warmhearted floozies in "Some Like It Hot" and "Bus Stop," she's like a slightly bruised moonbeam, something fragile and funny and imperiled. I don't think audiences ever particularly identify with Marilyn. They may love her or fear for her, but mostly they simply marvel at her existence, at the delicious unlikeliness of such platinum innocence. She's the bad girl and good girl combined: she's sharp and sexy yet incapable of meanness, a dewy Venus rising from the motel sheets, a hopelessly irresistible home wrecker. Monroe longed to be taken seriously as an artist, but her work in more turgid vehicles, like "The Misfits," was neither original nor very interesting. She needs the tickle of cashmere to enchant for the ages.
Movies have lent the most perishable qualities, such as youth, beauty and comedy, a millennial shelf life. Until the cameras rolled, stars of the past could only be remembered, not experienced. Had she been born earlier, Marilyn might have existed as only a legendary rumor, a Helen of Troy or Tinker Bell. But thanks to Blockbuster, every generation now has immediate access to the evanescent perfection of Marilyn bumping and cooing her way through that chorine's anthem, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Only movie stars have the chance to live possibly forever, and maybe that's why they're all so crazy. Madonna remade "Diamonds" in the video of her hit "Material Girl," mimicking Marilyn's hot-pink gown and hot-number choreography, and the sly homage seemed fitting: a blond tribute, a legacy of greedy flirtation. Madonna is too marvelously sane ever to become Marilyn. Madonna's detailed appreciation of fleeting style and the history of sensuality is part of her own arsenal, making her a star and a fan in one. Madonna wisely and affectionately honors the brazen spark in Marilyn, the giddy candy-box allure, and not the easy heartbreak.
Marilyn's tabloid appeal is infinite but ultimately beside the point. Whatever destroyed her--be it Hollywood economics or rabid sexism or her own tormented psyche--pales beside the delight she continues to provide. At her peak, Marilyn was very much like Coca-Cola or Levi's--she was something wonderfully and irrepressibly American.
Paul Rudnick, author of "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," writes for stage and screen