One chilly winter morning in 1953, a 15-year-old boy took a bus from his home in New Jersey to New York City in search of adventure. His conception of the city then was of Times Square and he roamed the neighborhood until daylight began to fade. As he made his way to the Port Authority Terminal and his bus trip home, he noticed a long black limousine driving slowly toward him. The limo came to a stop and its driver jumped out and opened the back door at the curb. As he did, he motioned the boy to stay where he was so his passenger would have a clear path across the sidewalk. Nearly 60 years later, the man who had been that boy remembered,”…a white-gloved hand reached out for help and it was given. Then came a face of dizzying beauty…” She was blonde and she wore a long gown that appeared to be made of “tiny white pearls seemingly flung at her in wild abandon and clinging to every pore. Around her neck, over her wrists and on her ears were brightly sparkling diamonds.” The boy’s heart was already pounding when, as she turned, the woman noticed him, smiled and whispered, “Hi.”
The bedazzled boy, Frank Langella–who grew up to be an Oscar-nominated, three-time Tony-winning actor–was stunned. He had serendipitously encountered Marilyn Monroe, “the girl” who enraptured the world that year in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire and would soon create pandemonium with The Seven Year Itch. Years later Richard Avedon, one of many famed photographers for whom the actress posed, would comment, “There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe was an invention of hers. A genius invention that she created like an author creates a character.”
The vision that materialized before wide-eyed young Frank Langella on a Manhattan street was the painstaking creation of the former Norma Jeane Baker, but the realization of this fantasy creature had required inspiration and encouragement from others. Not too unlike an orphan on a quest in a folk tale, she rose from humble origins, faced great obstacles and setbacks and, with the aid of others along with her own hard work and desire, transformed her life.
In 1935, Grace McKee, a friend and co-worker of Gladys Baker at a Hollywood editing lab, became her unstable friend’s court-appointed guardian and the legal guardian of the woman’s nine-year-old daughter, Norma Jeane. A childless peroxide blonde with “stage mother” instincts, McKee filled the little girl’s imagination with lavish fancies of one day becoming a bombshell movie star like the one with whom she herself was obsessed – Jean Harlow. When Grace married “Doc” Goddard, Norma Jeane was, for a time, placed in a red-brick mansion that served as the Los Angeles Orphans Home. Grace would take the girl out to lunch and a movie most Saturdays and regularly had the child’s hair styled at a beauty parlor. Norma Jeane would be returned to the orphanage with her hair freshly curled and be-ribboned and, on occasion, wearing makeup Grace had applied to her very young face. The guardian coached the girl on her smile and paraded her in front of friends crowing “isn’t she pretty?” and bragged that the child was going to grow up to be beautiful and famous. It would be little more than a decade after becoming Norma Jeane Baker’s guardian that Grace Goddard would, because her charge was not yet 21, sign the girl’s first contract with 20th Century-Fox.
When Johnny Hyde, a powerful William Morris agent on the West Coast, met 22-year-old Marilyn Monroe on New Year’s Eve 1949, she was a starlet adrift in the wilderness of the “party circuit” looking for a break. At one time known as producer “Joe Schenk’s girl,” she had been under contract to Fox for a year, from 1946 to 1947, and with Columbia Pictures for just six months in 1948. It was during her stint at Fox that she had adopted her screen name with the help of Ben Lyon, the studio’s casting director. “Monroe” was her mother’s family name; Lyon suggested “Marilyn.” He had known and loved Broadway star Marilyn Miller before his marriage to Bebe Daniels, and Norma Jeane Baker reminded him of the talented and lovely blonde, blue-eyed actress who had died young.
For Johnny Hyde, meeting Marilyn led to an enchantment that brought an end to his marriage and the beginning of his tireless promotion of her career. He saw a singular quality in the sensuous blonde and worked to make things happen quickly for her. By the time of his sudden death in 1950, Hyde had negotiated parts for her in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). Her success in these roles led to a new, more generous contract with Fox, an agreement that was secured by Hyde.
Howard Hawks had been unimpressed with the starlet when he first met her in 1948. But after seeing her in The Asphalt Jungle, he realized she had something. And when she was cast in a supporting role in one of his films, Monkey Business (1952), he took a closer look at her potential. Hawks became convinced that Fox chief Darryl Zanuck was misreading Marilyn’s appeal, too often casting her in the wrong sort of films. He told Zanuck, “You’re making realism with a very unreal girl. She’s a completely storybook character…” and urged him to produce Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a studio property, and cast her in it; furthermore, he agreed to direct.
In 1949 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had made Carol Channing a Broadway sensation; in 1953, the screen adaptation had an even more powerful impact on the career of Marilyn Monroe. With the film’s tremendous success, Marilyn left behind forever her years as a struggling cheesecake model/rising newcomer and emerged a bona fide superstar. She proved to have a talent for comedy and a fine sense of timing and, with Hawks creating the ideal vehicle for her and overseeing an elegant Technicolor upgrade of her look and style, she embodied to scintillating perfection a funny, sexy, sweet and unique confection that produced fireworks on the screen.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe and top-billed co-star Jane Russell are well-matched as a pair of gorgeous gal-pal showgirls on the loose on the high seas and in Paris. Delectably dizzy/witty blonde Lorelei and droll, down-to-earth brunette Dorothy cut loose in clever comic scenes and dynamic musical routines. Both perform renditions of the centerpiece number, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Marilyn’s version became legendary.
Fox’s next assignment for its new star was not as solid a film as her last, but it was even more popular. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) teamed Marilyn with not just one but two other glittery leading ladies – Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. Another glamor-fest, the story follows three models who rent a ritzy penthouse in Manhattan for a year in hopes of luring and marrying wealthy suitors before their lease expires. Bacall’s is the central storyline and hers is the common-sense character; Grable and Monroe are both ditzy-but-dear dumb blonde types. Marilyn, of course, is the knockout in the trio and, next to her, Betty Grable seems a decade out-of-date. How to Marry a Millionaire was the #5 box office hit of 1953, with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes close behind at #6. As for Marilyn Monroe, she was on top.
By the time Darryl Zanuck conspired with Billy Wilder to adapt the Broadway adultery romp, The Seven Year Itch, to the screen for Marilyn in 1955, there was no longer any need to pair her with another actress or even an established leading man to bolster the film’s box-office appeal. Though it is minor Wilder, The Seven Year Itch is the film that certified Marilyn as a phenomenon. On Broadway, George Axelrod’s play centered on the brief affair of a married man with a gorgeous neighbor while his family is away on vacation. Even though Hollywood’s Production Code demanded that there be no adultery in the adultery comedy, the onscreen presence of Monroe was enough to tantalize and satisfy a worldwide audience. The studio’s enticing publicity campaign – it was all about Marilyn in a billowy white dress – created a furor.
For a while the sensitive but wily star was able to navigate Hollywood’s treacherous rapids. She managed to use the scandal of nude calendar photos to her advantage; she explained away the revelation that she was not, technically, an orphan; and she weathered the outcry stirred by the public remarks of Joan Crawford who implied she was lewd and vulgar. But Marilyn could never cope with her performance anxiety. Billy Wilder, ever outspoken and eminently quotable, quipped about his tribulations in working with Marilyn, “I had no problems with Monroe. It was Monroe who had problems with Monroe.”
Fritz Lang, who had directed her in Clash by Night (1952), remembered that she was “…scared as hell to come to the studio, always late, couldn’t remember her lines…” And Howard Hawks noted, “The more important she became, the more frightened she became.” Whitey Snyder, Marilyn’s makeup artist from her Fox screen test to her funeral, thought her anxiety was connected to her appearance. He said that though she knew every makeup trick there was and used them to marvelous effect, “…it was all an illusion: in person, out of makeup, she was very pretty but in a plain way, and she knew it.” It was more than that, though. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t simply at the mercy of a fantastical physical image that required scrupulous upkeep. Her ever-shifting entourage included more than hair, makeup and massage professionals, she was also closely attended by personal confidants, studio advisors, talent agents, attorneys, psychotherapists, trophy husbands – and drama coaches.
Determined to be more than a pretty on-screen face with a voluptuous body, she took acting seriously. Teacher Natasha Lytess, employed by Fox at Marilyn’s insistence, coached her even as the actress performed in front of the camera. Howard Hawks balked at this and successfully barred Lytess from the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Billy Wilder referred to her as “that creature Lytess” but put up with her on The Seven Year Itch.
By the mid-’50s, Marilyn was studying with “method” guru Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. Julie Newmar, a member of the Studio at the time, remembered her performance of a scene from Anna Christie with Maureen Stapleton. She recalled that Marilyn’s hand actually shook as she lifted a drink from the bar. In her view, Marilyn reflected precisely the essence of Strasberg’s teachings – she had become Anna Christie. Of Lee Strasberg Newmar mused that he favored three kinds of artists, “the highly gifted; the injured, tortured souls; and the beauty queens. He adored Marilyn.” Soon Lytess was replaced as Marilyn’s personal acting coach by Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife.
Billy Wilder happily agreed to tackle another project with Marilyn in 1959; her natural luminosity was “something extra, something special” that he believed no one else could bring to the film. He would struggle mightily with her on the comedy masterpiece Some Like It Hot and was critical of the effect method acting seemed to have had on her. Before she took up Strasberg’s approach, he said, Marilyn came before the camera as if she were about to walk a tightrope over a pit. After adopting “the method” it seemed to him that she focused her full concentration on only the pit…
Over the years, perhaps in an attempt to deal with her terror of “the pit” and other personal woes, Marilyn became dependent on drugs – pills that lifted her up or calmed her down or put her to sleep – and alcohol. Her reputation for being unreliable and difficult grew to epic proportions. Those who worked on her later films reported that she sometimes appeared on the set as if in a daze and, during the filming of Some Like it Hot, screenwriter Izzy Diamond recalled that she sipped liquor from a thermos that ostensibly contained coffee.
When Marilyn returned to Hollywood in 1960 after years of making her home in New York, she sought the care of Freudian analyst Ralph Greenson. The doctor, who treated her until her death, diagnosed her as “a borderline paranoid addictive personality.” Norma Jeane Baker had endured a confusing and chaotic childhood, passed from home to home among friends and family – to an orphanage and back – until she was handed off in marriage at just 16. Young Marilyn Monroe was also passed around – among the powerful men of Hollywood – during her years as an aspiring starlet. From a psychological standpoint, then, it’s no surprise that her relationships were intense and volatile, her identity unstable, her emotions erratic and her actions impulsive. Greenson, who viewed her as a perennial orphan, discarded traditional therapeutic methods and took up a highly unorthodox approach in treating her. In a misguided attempt to “save” her, he welcomed Marilyn into his home and family and took on the role of “father” as well as therapist. He had set for himself an impossible task.
Even at the peak of her popularity, Marilyn was considered risqué, a sex symbol, and was not taken seriously. Her film roles changed little over time and became, for her, a deadly repetition – the artless, often giddy showgirl, or ex-showgirl. Cherie in Bus Stop (1956), Elsie in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Sugar in Some Like it Hot, Amanda in Let’s Make Love (1960) and even Roslyn in The Misfits (1961) are variations on a type the actress wanted to break. With her final, unfinished film, George Cukor’s Something’s Got to Give, she was cast in a role that might have helped her broaden the “Marilyn Monroe” persona; Ellen Wagstaff Arden was beautiful but she was also married and the mother of two small children. Had she been able to finish the film, Marilyn might have gone on to romantic comedy roles à la Doris Day or Shirley MacLaine. It’s also possible she could have moved into mature dramatic roles as Ava Gardner, Lee Remick and others did. But this was not to be. Life as a cultural metaphor and brand-name commodity may simply have been too much for a woman already consumed by an array of insecurities.
50 years ago Marilyn Monroe stepped out of the dream and into eternity. Her extravagant fulfillment of a childhood guardian’s fuzzy fantasies had taken her on a journey both harrowing and exhilarating, but her life would come to no fairytale ending. Only with death would come transcendence, and the mythical being she so carefully fashioned and brought to vibrant life lives on, unforgettable and bewitching.
The Lady Eve lives in Northern California and works in TV. Her blog posts have won CiMBA Awards from the Classic Movie Blog Association and been reprinted in newspapers and magazines. You can read more of her movie musings at http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com.