Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

More than just a week with Marilyn: 14 variations on Marilyn Monroe

Illustration for article titled More than just a week with Marilyn: 14 variations on Marilyn Monroe

1. The Goddess
Portrayals of Marilyn Monroe as a basket case and sacrificial victim were already starting to appear before her death. The Goddess, the first movie to present a fictionalized treatment of her life and career, hit theaters four years before she died, the same year that she made her best movie, Some Like It Hot. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was always on the lookout for some ultimate symbol of the overblown emptiness of American society, and he finds it here in the title character, a lonely, none-too-bright sexpot and pitcher of fits who, renamed “Rita Shawn,” becomes a big movie star, only to learn that fame and wealth cannot buy her friends or self-respect. In her later years, when she took to hanging around the Actors Studio and studying with Lee Strasberg, Monroe seemed to want to become a Method actor, and here you get to see what a full-on Method performance as Monroe looks like: Kim Stanley, physically miscast and making her movie debut with no idea how to adjust her stage technique for the camera, gives a hysterical, hard-to-watch performance that killed off her own film career before it got started. She lines up the tantrums as if they were beer cans and delivers Chayefsky’s worst lines as if trying to light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Chayefsky and director John Cromwell may have thought they were creating a sympathetic portrait of a misunderstood, broken woman, but today, the movie seems far less insightful than exploitative and cruel. (Maybe Stanley came to realize this, because she took to insisting that she thought she was supposed to be playing Rita Hayworth.)

2. Insignificance
Nicolas Roeg’s film version of Terry Johnson’s play is set in a New York hotel room occupied by Albert Einstein in 1954, with a cast of characters that includes thinly veiled variations on Monroe (played by Roeg’s then-wife and muse, Theresa Russell), Monroe’s second husband Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by Monroe’s Some Like It Hot co-star, Tony Curtis). The Einstein figure (credited as “The Professor”) is haunted by guilt over the role his work played in the creation of the atomic bomb and anxious over the threat of being forced to testify before McCarthy’s committee; DiMaggio (credited as “The Ballplayer”) is a lout who can neither understand his wife’s emotional needs nor deal with the lust she inspires in other men; McCarthy (credited as “The Senator”) is McCarthy, and at one point hits Monroe after mistaking her for a hooker. But Monroe is pure sweetness, the friendly sex kitten who thinks that smart is sexy and wants to prove that she has the brains to be worthy of a real man—like Einstein. (She does a kinetic performance piece illustrating his Theory of Relativity.) In its own cerebral way, this movie has about the most worshipful view of Monroe on film: She’s the only reassuring light in a world consumed by bullying and nuclear terrors. Clearly the fantasy that a woman like Monroe could only be happy with a man she loved for his brains managed to survive the outcome of her marriage to Arthur Miller.

3. Mister Lonely
In Harmony Korine’s delicately realized, elegiac movie Mister Lonely, a lonely Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) joins an isolated community of likeminded impersonators living out their lives on a Scottish island. Or rather, living out their characters’ lives, to the degree that they can. In particular, Luna is drawn to a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who embodies Monroe’s combination of vulnerability and sexy coquettishness. While Luna’s character lays out the film’s theme in a speech about his desire to be someone else, someone less ordinary and more admirable and important, Morton’s Monroe is the one who fully follows through. It’s unclear whether her adherence to the darker side of Monroe’s history is part of her Method-acting performance or she chose to impersonate someone who shared her own weaknesses, but her uncomfortable marriage to an abusive husband and her eventual death at a young age parallel Monroe’s, suggesting that Morton is willing to go to any lengths for her art and her sense of non-ordinariness, and that she sees Monroe’s death in particular as an important part of her legend.

4. Titan/Wizard/Demon
Each book in John Varley’s classic Gaea Trilogy embraces a different style and tone: 1979’s Titan reads something like a Larry Niven Ringworld novel, with a focus on science and a small, insular cast in a survival scenario that prompts personal reflection. 1980’s Wizard is a broader, more fantasy-oriented book, full of colorful characters in an action/adventure scenario. And 1984’s Demon is a surrealist farce, particularly given that it ends with a sentient planet going mad and embodying herself in the form of a 50-foot-tall version of Marilyn Monroe. Obsessed with film and Hollywood, the artificial planet Gaea engages in her last stand while surrounded by a traveling picture show of her own creation, including living film cameras that document her every move. She adopts the image of an iconic film star out of a deranged sense of her own importance—she sees herself in terms of Monroe’s public image, as the undisputed center of everyone’s desire, attention, and devotion. But the book has a satirical bent: The actual image she projects is that of a deranged, bloated, egotistical, power-crazed diva who doesn’t realize she’s headed for destruction. Which could certainly be taken as a commentary on Monroe’s career, and the difference between her symbolic status and the uglier reality. Then again, sometimes a Monroe is just a Monroe.


5. Ginger on Gilligan’s Island
With the debut episode of Gilligan’s Island airing a mere two years after the death of Marilyn Monroe, there was never any question that Tina Louise’s character, the sultry actress Ginger Grant, was intended as anything other than a slinking, purring, walking, talking tribute to the late Norma Jeane Baker. The red hair didn’t throw anyone off. But what makes Ginger an even more alluring character is her kittenish embodiment of the entire Hollywood bombshell archetype. Rather than a parody, she was a distillation—one squeezed into sequined dresses inexplicably packed for a three-hour boat tour. If one scene from Gilligan’s Island truly encapsulates Ginger’s meta-stardom, it’s the 1967 episode “The Second Ginger Grant,” in which Louise coos “I Wanna Be Loved By You”—a song indelibly associated with Monroe after her rendition of it in 1959’s Some Like It Hot.

6. Marilyn photo shoots
Next to the ol’ “posing with the baby-bump” routine, there are few photo-shoot clichés more tired than young starlets getting their Marilyn on. At least Michelle Williams, who stars in the upcoming My Week With Marilyn, has an excuse for donning Marilyn drag in the October 2011 issue of Vogue. Lindsay Lohan, who recreated Marilyn’s “The Last Sitting” nude shoot for New York Magazine is simply trading on the sex appeal of an icon while apparently ignoring the parallels between her troubled public life and Monroe’s. Drew Barrymore and Nicole Kidman have also succumbed to the allure of posing like Marilyn for no apparent reason—other than highlighting the sad fact that any modern woman who actually shares Monroe’s 36-23-37 measurements is unlikely to appear on a magazine cover, as Marilyn or otherwise, any time soon.

7. Marilyn Munster
You’d be forgiven for not realizing that the so-called “black sheep” of the monstrous Munster clan was actually intended to be a parody of Monroe, as neither of the two actresses who played the part during The Munsters’ original network run—Beverley Owen (1964) and Pat Priest (1964-1966)—went out of their way to do any sort of Monroe impression, overt or otherwise. Nonetheless, the character of Marilyn Munster is regularly referred to as having been inspired by Marilyn Monroe, and it certainly makes sense, conceptually speaking: If beauty is considered horrific within the Munster bloodline, who better to use as a template than one of the most famous sex symbols of all time?


8. Of Women And Their Elegance
Norman Mailer was not a man to treat his obsessions lightly, and after the ’60s ended and the Kennedys, the space race, and the Vietnam war were no longer what they used to be, he latched onto Monroe as one of his obsessions. (In his 1973 coffee-table Monroe biography, he was not shy about implying that one possible reason for it was that he felt she had probably married the wrong famous Jewish-American writer whose last name started with “M” and ended with “LER.”) Of Women And Their Elegance, which he published eight years later, joined a selection of Milton Greene’s photographs of Monroe to a 50,000-word fictional memoir written by Mailer in what he imagined to be Monroe’s voice. It’s hard to figure how anyone could be obsessed with a woman who spoke in the voice he created: This Monroe is pretentious, exhibitionistic, humorless, and spends much of her time trapped in a clammy, violent relationship with a married stud who seems to be her, and maybe Mailer’s, idea of the man of her dime-novel dreams. Lest anyone think Mailer was just picking up a check with this slop, he subsequently adapted the material into a play, Strawhead, which had an unsuccessful run Off-Broadway in 1986. Mailer’s daughter Kate Mailer even took a turn in the lead role, and was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair in her Monroe disguise.

9. The Sex Symbol
Though it was never made available on home video and is scarcely remembered today, this TV movie (which was padded out with nude footage for a theatrical release overseas) marked some kind of watershed event in the use of Monroe and other celebrities as grist for tabloid melodrama. Connie Stevens, who made no bones to the press that she was “unequivocally” playing Monroe, starred as the washed-up, pill-popping movie star “Kelly Williams,” who has gone through two busted marriages (to a football player and an “artist/intellectual”) and a bed-busting affair with “Senator Grant O’Neal,” a character described by TV Guide as “broadly played by Don Murray with a Massachusetts accent and a Kennedy haircut.” The film was all set to air in March of 1974, but pulled at the last minute and rescheduled that September, after six months of re-editing and consultations with lawyers. According to TV Guide, the problem was that the project had been conceived as “a trashy story about Hollywood,” but something had gone wrong, and the finished product had “emerged as a thinly veiled rip-off of the late Marilyn Monroe.” It seems so quaint now that anyone thought those two things ought to be mutually exclusive.

10. Anna Nicole Smith
In some ways, Anna Nicole Smith’s public persona stands in stark contrast to Marilyn Monroe’s. If Monroe was classy sexuality embodied, Smith was raw, sticky smut. Born Vickie Lynn Hogan in a small Texas town, Smith only emerged as a Monroe lookalike after years as a stripper and an ill-advised relationship with an octogenarian millionaire. Smith’s transformation came in the form of a 1993 Playboy spread that came 50 years after a topless Monroe tacitly launched the magazine. For her part, Smith went along with the comparisons and make-up, though it’s anyone’s guess as to whether she really grasped just who or what she was modeling herself after beyond just a hot body who sang “Happy Birthday” once. Whereas Monroe was the quintessential “dumb blonde” of her era, Smith, apropos of her heyday, proved herself even dumber, or at least more publicly drugged-up and susceptible to weird hangers-on.

11. Marilyn through Arthur Miller’s eyes
Marilyn Monroe, the damaged movie idol, seems like an unlikely recurring subject for Arthur Miller, the playwright best known for trying to turn the problems of ordinary working-class Americans into the stuff of Greek drama, but Miller had already broken the bank on unlikely by marrying Monroe in 1956. The marriage ended in 1961, a year that the two of them spent working on her last picture, The Misfits. Miller hoped that, by working together, the two of them could save their relationship, and out of a loving, misguided desire to give her what she seemed to want, he wrote a role that was difficult to play and that gave her the chance to fall back on exploiting her neuroses and wounded quality the same way she’d once exploited her sexiness, inviting audiences to love her because she was coming apart at the seams. In 1964, Miller addressed his failed marriage head-on with his Broadway play After the Fall, about an intellectual trying to move on after his ex-wife’s suicide. Monroe had only been dead two years, and Miller took a hammering from the critics for so blatantly hanging out his public laundry. In 1990, Miller seemed to be writing about Monroe again, but with the steadier hand that 25 years’ distance could afford, in his original screenplay for the little-seen movie Everybody Wins. The film features Debra Winger in a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who’s untrustworthy, emotionally unstable, and uses her body to get what she wants, but is genuinely haunted and good at her core.


12. Marilyn Manson
When a budding shock-rocker named Brian Warner needed a moniker for his new band in 1989, he and co-founder Scott Mitchell liked the dichotomy in blending the names of one of America’s iconic celebrity sex objects (Marilyn Monroe) with one of its most notorious serial killers (Charles Manson). In Warner’s mind, the media elevated starlets and killers to the same sensational level, but “Marilyn Manson” also represented other sides of its namesake personalities: “Although she remains a symbol of beauty and glamor [sic], Marilyn Monroe had a dark side just as Charles Manson has a good, intelligent side,” Warner wrote in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell. To drive the point home—and because he was “very literal-minded”—Warner wore a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt with a Manson-style swastika on her forehead at Marilyn Manson’s first show. Eventually, Warner took the name for himself, and members of his band followed its template: Daisy Berkowitz, Madonna Wayne Gacy, Gidget Gein, Olivia Newton Bundy, Zsa Zsa Speck, and Sara Lee Lucas.

13. Smash
“When I say ‘Marilyn,’ what do you think?” In NBC’s upcoming mid-season series Smash, scheduled to première on February 6, Debra Messing plays Julia, a Broadway composer who’s just come up with a fabulous concept for a new musical: the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Setting aside the fact that it’s been done before, it’s hard to tell precisely where this look at Marilyn’s life will lead, but even a look at the preview for the series reveals that creator Theresa Rebeck is having fun with the premise. During auditions for the musical, which results in a sea of blonde wigs, red lips, and pink and white dresses, director Derek (Jack Davenport) declares, “I need an icon!” Later, when potential lead Karen (Katharine McPhee) turns up at his house at his request, he complains, “Marilyn would never come to a man’s house at 10 o’clock at night dressed like that.” Most importantly, however, Hairspray collaborators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are writing the songs for the show, ensuring that, as Monroe’s legacy continues into the future, it’ll do so with some top-notch tunes in tow.

14. “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”
Monroe’s gift to President John F. Kennedy on his 45th birthday—delivered in front of a packed Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962—outlives its singer and its recipient through the immutable power of innuendo. There’s no definitive proof that Monroe’s breathy delivery and coquettish stage presence indicated an intimate relation with the president—but that hasn’t stopped decades of pop-culture reinterpretations from suggesting that Monroe at least wanted to schtupp JFK. And thus we get such disparate versions of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” as the one imagined by The Simpsons’ Waylon Smithers—the cooing image of his employer/eternally unrequited love C. Montgomery Burns emerging from a cake clad in nothing but a “Happy Birthday” sash—or the cold open to Saturday Night Live’s January 16, 1993 episode where Monroe surrogate Madonna takes the stage of Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala to woo the Commander in Chief, before suggesting some funny business with first daughter Chelsea Clinton. Of course, in their rush to sexualize the performance, most of these versions gloss over the innate sadness of Monroe’s original. Jennifer Lopez’s rendition for George Lopez goes as far as to replicate the weathered, black-and-white look of the surviving footage from Kennedy’s party—ironic, given the voyeuristic, fragile vibe that grainy bit of film has picked up over the ensuing decades.