The Immortal Marilyn: The Depiction Of An Icon, by John De Vito and Frank Tropea, offers new insight into the cultural significance of Marilyn Monroe. As the title suggests, it is not a biography, but an iconography of the star, charting the various representations of her on stage, screen and in documentaries.
This book will primarily be of interest to diehard Monroe fans and media students. It is well-researched and informative, covering obscure works related to Monroe as well as the more celebrated ones. The authors analyse her both as a character and an archetype. Versions of Marilyn range from inventive to hackneyed, and it becomes apparent that the legend has long outlived the woman behind it.
While Marilyn may now be described as one of the immortals, some of her humanity has been lost. This paradox is only lightly touched upon here, and at times the authors’ assessment of the films and performances she has inspired are perhaps too glowing for me. With a few notable exceptions, I find most portrayals of Monroe to be mere impersonations, some more adept than others. She is still familiar to us in the multi-media age, not just for her beauty but also her warmth and wit, and recapturing her magic is a daunting task.
Theresa Russell played ‘the actress’ in Insignificance, the 1985 surrealist comedy in which she meets her idol, Einstein; in the same year, Madonna revived Marilyn’s ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ number for her ‘Material Girl’ video. Jessica Lange won an Oscar as the army wife who yearns for glamour and excitement in Blue Sky, while Just A Dream incorporates a Misfits-era Marilyn into the tale of a Nevada boy’s coming of age.
Straightforward biopics have so far been less successful, perhaps because the facts of Monroe’s life, and especially her death, are so widely disputed. This book does not evaluate how accurate such depictions might be, or if they really shed new light on what Marilyn means to us. Conspiracists and sceptics alike bring their own beliefs and value systems to the table. Perhaps it is right that the authors suspend judgement when considering the mythology of Marilyn. But if our understanding of her is based on fable, then we risk compounding our own illusions rather than learning from her life and art.
Facsimiles generally lack the substance of the original, perhaps because Marilyn Monroe was herself an invention. Norma Jeane, her creator, was never far from the surface. Her imitators can only scratch the surface of who she really was. It is that paradox that makes Monroe such a unique historical figure.
Nonetheless, the image of Marilyn remains a vivid one – and each replica challenges us to regard her in a different light. The authors briefly mention her influence on still photography, the medium she enjoyed most. Today it is almost a rite of passage for actresses, models and pop stars to recreate one or more of her famous sessions. She has also been a popular subject in music, most memorably Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’.
Marilyn’s youth and beauty are now frozen in time, endlessly marketed and recycled. It has often been said that she craved love and respect above all else, and finally achieved it by dying young. But Marilyn spent much of her adult life in conflict with her own fame, searching for a real identity. This quest is far from over.
Other critical studies of Marilyn Monroe include Marilyn Monroe: A Life Of The Actress by Carl G. Rollyson;The Many Lives Of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell; Marilyn Monroe: The Body In The Library by Graham McCann; American Monroe: The Making Of A Body Politic by S. Paige Baty; and All The Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader, edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough.