A daily tale from the compounder Marilyn Monroe: Vulnerability

"Say good-bye to Pat, say good-bye to Jack and say good-bye to yourself, because you're a nice guy." With these sleepy words Marilyn Monroe hung up – and in a few hours slipped into that deeper slumber from which we never awaken. On this night in 1962, she was lost to the world.

In a sense, she had always been lost. Bewilderment is the mark of vulnerability, and Monroe had from childhood a beautiful, trusting vagueness that called out for protection. Her stage fright was legendary; older co-stars, who you’d think would envy her rising fortunes, instead escorted her onto the set like mother hens. Notoriously impatient directors would gently shepherd her through scenes, working around her ever-porous memory for lines. Once, after 83 takes, Billy Wilder told her “not to worry.” “Worry about what?” was her wide-eyed reply.

No one formed Norma Jean Baker into Marilyn Monroe; instead the industry, baffled by her elusive qualities, sought vainly for a box to fit her in. She was certainly gorgeous, with an innocent belief that beautiful bodies are meant to be looked at – so the box marked “bombshell” seemed appropriate. It was a waste of her gifts. Sex as marketed in the 1950s was always tinged with burlesque: Marilyn’s early appearances are as brassy as a bowling trophy, all bumps, grinds and moues – the Monroe that agency lookalikes now imitate. Men would make nudging jokes about the “mountains of Marilyn;” catty older actresses, watching her liquid walk, would say “there’s a girl with her whole future behind her.” It seemed she was on the path to join Diana Dors and Mamie van Doren in the pantheon of winking, romping sex queens who, in Clark Gable’s words, “make a man proud to be a man.” Photographers, finding to their surprise that she was not hard and calculating but sensitive and intelligent, would signal their discovery by posing Monroe reading a book – while still wearing a pink chiffon nightie. 

What saved her career was her capacity to subvert her stupefying natural sex appeal in comedy, by letting the technique show as technique, inviting the audience to share her sense of the silliness of packaged seduction. “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in Some Like It Hot is written as the vampiest of numbers, but Monroe’s rendition is not coquettish – it's lovably gleeful. In serious drama, she was most herself when she appeared tentative, rumpled, a little tired. This was not a pose. The director John Huston said, “she had no techniques. It was all the truth. It was only Marilyn."

That did not satisfy her. She wanted (as we all do) to be admired for her craft, to succeed at what she found difficult. She hired drama coaches and haunted the Actors’ Studio – but in fact her art was only herself. “She was good at playing abstract confusion,” the critic Clive James points out, “in the same way that a midget is good at being short.”  

Abstract confusion is not the right attitude to take with drugs. Monroe’s trips around the Los Angeles medical community in search of more effective sleeping pills made every evening potentially her last; there was nothing special about August 5th. We still entertain the conspiracy theories – the President, the Mafia – because, like the industry, we wish to simplify her story and give it a point. The real story, though, was always the same:  a lovely, bewildered woman whom no one could protect.

This article originates from the blog bozosapiens.blogspot.co.uk

Michael Kaplan