Betty Boop, Bus Stop, Comic Book, Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Gothic Horror, Graphic Novel, Humanoids, Life Drawn, Love Happy, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn's Monsters, Sugar Kane, The Seven Year Itch, Tommy Redolfi
Marilyn Monroe has long been an inspiration to artists and writers. Among the many books devoted to her life and image are a number of comics and graphic novels. Kathryn Hyatt’s Marilyn: The Story of a Woman (1996) and Dana Gachman’s recent contribution to the Tribute series both opt for fairly conventional, if sympathetic narratives. It is from outside the USA that more imaginative retellings have emerged, such as Sergio Toppi’s 16-page comic, plus two full-length books: Jean-Francois Charles’ Shooting Star (2006) and Jose Correa’s Dreams of a Butterfly (2012.)
Tommy Redolfi’s Holy Wood was first published in France in 2016, and is now available in English as Marilyn’s Monsters, published by Life Drawn, a literary imprint from comic book publisher Humanoids. The French-born Redolfi now lives in Los Angeles, and has made several films as well as other graphic novels, including a 2007 tome about one of Marilyn’s idols, Mae West. Marilyn’s Monsters comes with an endorsement from cult filmmaker David Cronenberg: “A brilliant, hallucinatory meditation on the phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe. It will alter your understanding of both Hollywood and Marilyn.”
Redolfi offers us a preface of sorts, recreating a Betty Boop cartoon, Dizzy Red Riding-Hood (“You’ve surely heard this story before, of how she tried to keep the wolf from the door.”) The young Norma Jeane Baker may have seen this cartoon; and the Betty Boop persona, both childlike and sexy, anticipates Monroe’s public image (epitomised by her flapper heroine in Some Like It Hot.)
In an ensuing prologue – as in an old-time picture show, Redolfi buffers the big picture with little extras – the iconic Hollywood hills sign becomes ‘HOLYWOOD’ and we enter a forest, the backdrop to Redolfi’s dark fairy-tale. “We all need some kind of recognition,” a magician tells his audience as he pulls a rabbit from a hat. “A look from your mother or father means a lot. But when they’ve never been around, who do they shine for? How many looks can make up for the one you never got?”
Redolfi cuts to a young woman on a bus, clutching her wedding portrait. While Norma Jeane was not one of the countless hopefuls to make the long journey – she was born and bred in the movie capital – she grew up in a series of foster homes, and was already divorced from her first husband when her career began. This girl doesn’t look particularly like her, but maybe that’s the point – she could have been anyone.
Marilyn’s Monsters is divided into three chapters. In the first, ‘Blurred’, we look back to Norma Jeane’s childhood, living with her mother who promises that “No one will ever come and hurt us again.” Redolfi contrasts this sunny dream of life with mundane reality as Norma Jeane lies awake in her bed, afraid of the shadows. Marilyn’s mother Gladys was mentally unstable, and they only lived together for a few months before she suffered a total breakdown. The home they briefly shared was well beyond their means, expensively furnished in a desire to emulate the stars while Gladys laboured as a film cutter.
The Monroe legend is embedded within the mythology of Hollywood. In 1887, the Kansas politician Harvey Wilcox moved to California with his much-younger wife Daieda (‘Ida’) after the death of their child, and founded a ranch west of Los Angeles, which they named ‘Hollywood’. After Harvey died in 1891, Daeida married Philo J. Beveridge, a prominent local businessman. Together they built much of Hollywood’s civic infrastructure, and welcomed the first motion picture company in 1913. Lauded as the ‘Mother of Hollywood’, Daieda passed a year later.
In Redolfi’s ‘Holy Wood’, the Wilcoxes are reinvented as ‘The Founders’, who headed a variety troupe until 1912, when the movie industry ran them out of business. They settled in the forest alongside their ageing performers, including an old man named ‘Sunny’ who tells Norma Jeane, “Without them we might all be dead by now.”
Living among Holy Wood’s undead in a shabby trailer, Norma Jeane begins the usual round of auditions. None of the producers want to hire a “stuttering actress”: but as Sunny reveals, the Founders have chosen her for stardom. The countdown begins with a caption, ’36 Days to MM’ (a significant number, as Monroe would die at 36.)
Marilyn also confided in her assistants and crew, gathering a loose entourage of parental figures, many of whom had worked in Hollywood for decades. When Sunny notices her resemblance to the original ‘platinum blonde’, Jean Harlow, Norma asks if he knew her idol. “My dear child,” he replies, “we were here long before she was.”
When a photographer invites her to his studio, Norma Jeane is filled with hope. This opportunity has been personally arranged by the Founders. She poses nude, in a recreation of Monroe’s notorious calendar session with Tom Kelley. In Redolfi’s hand, she resembles a Modigliani nude, the frames soaked in blood-red (evoking the red velvet she reclined upon in the original shoot.)
The photographer is nicknamed ‘Phan-To-Matic,’ because “he reveals what’s inside … his shots expose the subject’s star quality.” But when he develops the photos, they are “fuzzy” and he writes her off as an “untalented subject.” While Norma Jeane “likes to p-pose,” she believes her future is in acting: “People forget photos, but not movies.”
“Holy Wood is never kind. It runs on passion and nothing else,” Sunny tells the despondent Norma Jeane. “It’s one thing to feel desired,” he warns her, “But it’s another to be loved. Keep that in mind.” With just ‘20 Days to MM’, Holy Wood’s humidity gives way to high winds, with storms expected.
Not to be thwarted, The Founders send Norma Jeane to the Blue Casting Agency (referencing the Blue Book Modelling Agency, where Monroe’s career began.) She later appears in a commercial for Dazzledent toothpaste. This is a recreation of a sequence from The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn played a model named only as ‘The Girl’. (On the cusp of fame, she had also appeared in a television ad, for Royal Triton motor oil.)
As the camera zooms in, we see the distinctive Monroe mouth in close-up. Andy Warhol would later reproduce a publicity shot of Marilyn, her lips parted seductively, as Pop Art. The Founders, pleased with Norma Jeane’s work, summon her directly. They remain unseen but take detailed impressions of her form, even tracing around her fingers with a pencil. (Monroe imprinted her hands in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard; a ceremonial marker which still attracts tourists today.)
As Norma Jeane sits on a stoop, smoking a cigarette and awaiting the storm, a shadowy figure tells her: “They’ve already exploited our ugliness … and soon they’ll be starting on yours.” But she doesn’t believe him. “There’s a monster inside all of us,” he continues, “and soon they’ll find yours.” As the storm erupts, darkness fills the frame and surgeons go to work on MM.
‘YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES,’ a marquee boasts (echoing a tagline used in ads for Monroe’s Cinemascope debut, How to Marry a Millionaire: ‘You see it without glasses.’) The audience awaits the main attraction, ‘THE SEX GODDESS.’ We first see her hourglass shape appear onstage from behind the curtain, and then another close-up of ‘The Mouth’. The time is ’37 Days After MM’, another ominous number (Monroe never lived to be 37.)
A movie clip follows, recreating her famous encounter with Groucho Marx in Love Happy (1949.) Although Marilyn was still relatively unknown at the time, here she is shown as the sum of all her years; her blonde, bouffant bob mimics the style she sported near the end of her life. As Groucho leers, a producer asks, “Who’s the girl in Scene 12?”
She is next seen signing autographs, and making deals with the powerful men of Holy Wood. Some are named after characters from Monroe’s films (McKinley, Kauffman.) Others are based on directors she worked with: ‘Preminger’ is named after Otto Preminger, who bullied Marilyn mercilessly on the River Of No Return set.
She moves into a secluded mansion, with a ‘White Suite’ that replicates her mother’s ideal of a glamorous home; and wears outfits from the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, plus the slinky Pucci fashions favoured by an off-duty Monroe. But not everyone can bask in her fame: mob enforcers break into the photographer’s studio, revealing another powerful force in Holy Wood.
Meanwhile, Marilyn appears on a chat show hosted by a balloon-like man whose proportions parody her own curvaceous form. Billing MM as “the woman of 1000 fantasies,” he goads her: “How’s Norma doing? Know the girl? Tall, plain, brunette …” As the bewildered star answers “No,” the audience bursts into mocking laughter.
“It’s like I’m lost somehow,” she tells a psychiatrist. “Like the whole world knows all about a woman I barely recognise.” We see her walking a small dog down a New York street, which could almost be a scene from Monroe’s own life after escaping to the city. However, she then goes inside a brownstone house and starts climbing the stairs, but the cable from an electric fan she’s carrying gets caught inside the front door. (This was Marilyn’s opening scene in The Seven Year Itch.)
Her director (Billy Wilder) praises her work although “she thought it felt fake,” and as she sits in her robe reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he advises her to “keep those hips swinging.” She strips off for a ‘bathroom scene’, earning wolf whistles from the crew. Unable to concentrate, she fumbles over a simple line (“If I were your wife …”) The director tells her to “go over her lines with Dorian” – presumably her acting coach, though the name alludes to Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. A menacing producer berates her for wasting time, and dismisses her self-improvement quest as “intellectual bullshit.”
While lying on her sunbed reading fan mail, Marilyn notices a ball game playing out between her movie crew and an all-star team. One of them, Joe, is a baseball star – like Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio. He shyly gives Marilyn a necklace (“I thought it might be yours”), and she responds with a passionate embrace. By winter, though, their ardour has cooled.
When Marilyn excitedly reads a “glowing” review, Joe snatches the newspaper and glares accusingly at a photo of her in that famous pose from Itch, when she stood over a subway grate and her skirt blew up in the breeze. “It’s only for the part,” she protests. Crimson with rage, Joe shouts, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
Marilyn seeks refuge in an illicit affair with a bespectacled man who respects her ambition, but is already married. (In 1956, playwright Arthur Miller left his wife for Monroe.) She prepares a speech for a prestigious awards ceremony, but is aghast to learn she was only invited to “entertain” the male guests. “This magnificent creature needs no introduction,” one of the men says, in one of several allusions to Monroe’s last major public appearance. (At President John F. Kennedy’s birthday gala in 1962, MC Peter Lawford described her as “a woman who needs no introduction.”)
But as she refuses to do his bidding, the man hisses: “You flaunt yourself for the public every day, but you’re a goody-goody to those who made you?” He then pulls down her strap, and spills wine on her dress.
After driving her home, Arthur invites her to another party, for his daughter’s tenth birthday: “You’re her role model,” he explains. She returns to the set of her next film, Bus Stop, with a sympathetic director (Joshua Logan.) On the way home again, she sees a dead horse lying in the road and gets out of her car. (Monroe’s empathy with animals began in childhood, and is a theme of her last film, The Misfits, written for her by Miller.) She follows two children to Arthur’s house in the country, but after playing with them happily, is overcome with guilt and leaves a note (“I’m no role model for anyone.”)
Having spent the night in a log cabin, Marilyn is woken by a yelling child. “That’s Sugar, Ma’am,” a workman tells her. “Mr. Kimmel’s little lodger … A tad too noisy when she’s playing, but normally she’s real adorable.” She is named for Sugar Kane, Monroe’s character in Some Like It Hot. With her long brown hair and love for movies, ‘Sugar’ suggests a younger Norma Jeane. More ominously, ‘Mr. Kimmel’ was a lodger in Monroe’s childhood home who molested her, as retold in the unfinished memoir, My Story.
At a poolside wrap party for Bus Stop, Marilyn confides in ‘Josh’ about the child in the forest. “I’m sure you’ll think I’m silly,” she whispers, “but in the simplest of ways, often without knowing it, she helps me to see things differently.” When Josh asks if she wants to be a mother, Marilyn replies, “No, I think this goes beyond that. She makes me feel alive.”
There follows a series of charcoal doodles of Marilyn and Sugar playing hide-and-seek, rather like the childish drawings which adorn her psychiatrist’s wall. Their game gives the final chapter its title, and in the same hand-drawn style, Marilyn tells Sugar the story of the three billy goats gruff – although other fairytales, like the three little pigs and the aforementioned Red Riding Hood also shape its denouement, with the wolf entering their house in drag, and devouring the kid goats.
“I don’t like the wood,” Sugar says, peering outside. “It’s full of monsters.” Although Marilyn tries to reassure her that “monsters aren’t real,” the child knows what the woman wants to forget.
The story returns to its panel format as Marilyn attends another party. The host announces that Holy Wood is approaching its 50th anniversary, and it’s striking that Monroe’s tragic death occurred half a century after the movie industry arrived in California. When the host introduces “a woman whose human qualities have often been maligned, her talents woefully underused,” Marilyn is wide-eyed, expectant.
However, it is not MM, but Elizabeth Taylor who is cast as “the most respected Egyptian queen of all.” This parallels Monroe’s humiliating return to her home studio in 1962, while her brunette rival filmed Cleopatra in Rome. As Marilyn sips champagne wanly, blood spreads across her dress. She flees the party and takes to her bed, and slips into a drugged haze while the telephone rings and Sugar screams.
Marilyn staggers to the bus stop, but the driver leaves her on the roadside, and she returns home to a despondent Sugar. Blood drips from between little girl’s legs, suggesting she has been raped. The doorbell rings, and Marilyn crawls toward it, ignoring Sugar’s hysterical pleas. She is driven to Dr. Greenson’s office, but refuses to talk: “When I really needed you, doctor, you were never there!”
He opens a manila envelope containing the photographer’s discarded shots of Norma Jeane. “The Founders know your weak spot,” he tells her. “Clearly they must have recognised her …” This recalls Monroe’s stand-off with her studio bosses after the discovery of her nude calendar. But whereas she was able to turn that scandal to her advantage, the Founders have dug much deeper, tracing the abused child of her past, and a mother driven to madness.
The marquee that once heralded MM is now trumpeting Holy Wood’s 80th birthday gala, suggesting she is lost in time. She appears onstage to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ before overdosing on pills. As voices predict her demise, she wakes and runs through the wood. Sugar is waiting for her, but it’s too late; the ‘president’ (aka the demonic ‘Preminger’) has found the little girl and ravished her.
She comforts Sugar and tells her to hide in the wood. The boundaries between mother, child and woman finally collapse as Marilyn frenziedly chops her hair, and cowers hysterically while a man knocks on the door: “It’s daddy.”
“Perfect nobodies have become true legends here,” an unseen narrator reflects. “Raw materials don’t matter, only finished goods.” A bloated parody of Monroe in her white halter-dress from Itch auditions onstage, and is rejected. “Norma’s stitches mostly come undone at night,” the narrator continues, “and the nights grow longer each day.”
Marilyn appears on another TV talk-show, speaking loudly “as if to cover up the tiny voice that was murmuring inside of her,” and we recall the slightly eerie audio clips of Monroe’s last interview. A bereft Sugar, naively drawn, appears as the narrator concludes, “the worst thing about playing hide-and-seek is knowing there’s no one coming to find you.”
In a more precisely drawn postscript, entitled ‘Bonus Material’, the circus freaks of the Wilcox Variety Troupe are shown in all their timeless glory, and this tableau is accompanied by a handwritten poem, in which a sleepwalker finds the spirits of the house “standing angel-stern and tall,” and is overcome by “a fear unspeakable/As the sobbing wind …”
Through A Glass Darkly
Tommy Redolfi is not the first author to reimagine Monroe’s life as Gothic horror: Joyce Carol Oates attempted this in her literary novel, Blonde (2000.) But while Oates’ technique had the effect of rewriting history, Redolfi is more judicious, threading real events through his narrative framework, and bending reality at will.
The graphic novel format is also more conducive to allegory. Marilyn’s Monsters gives a nightmarish spin on the Monroe myth, as well as the dream factory which both nurtured and destroyed her. Since its release, French cartoonist Luz has published Hollywood Liar, inspired by The Misfits.
Marilyn Monroe was her own work of art, and it is the tension between that lovely facade and her inner torment which still fascinates. In 2018, filmmaker Marie Di Razza unveiled an animated short, Goodbye Marilyn, at the Venice Film Festival. In the end, perhaps only artists like Redolfi will come close to capturing Monroe’s elusive aura. “I always had too much fantasy to be a housewife,” she once told a reporter. “I guess I am a fantasy.”