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In 1954, Marilyn Monroe was rehearsing ‘Do It Again’ as part of her show for U.S. troops in Korea, when the officer in charge of her tour deemed the Gershwin standard “too suggestive,” and insisted she change the title to ‘Kiss Me Again.’ “People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of as a person,” she remarked in her memoir, My Story. “They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts.” Her comment inspired the title (and epigraph) for a new book, Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe by Amanda Konkle, assistant professor of literature and film studies at Georgia Southern University.

Although Monroe, who began her career as a pin-up, was typecast as a ‘sexpot’, she achieved greater success than predecessors such as Carole Landis and Ann Sheridan. Her box-office power held strong throughout the 1950s, surpassing peers like Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day; and even as she pushed for better parts, Marilyn maintained her sex appeal. Because she died at just thirty-six, her image remains frozen in time and yet has also proved infinitely adaptable to the modern mass media. In this she differs from screen beauties like Hedy Lamarr, whose career suffered as she aged in public view and was only rediscovered many years later.

“Playing ‘Marilyn Monroe’ meant encompassing (at least) two different meanings at once,” Konkle writes, “… And yet many writers, then and now, doubt her acting skill.” Early feminist studies of her career, influenced by Laura Mulvey’s theory of the ‘male gaze’, tend to dismiss her as a vapid product of sexual stereotyping, or even accuse her of colluding in this oppression. This is apparent, for example, in Joan Mellen’s 1973 volume on Monroe for the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series. With auteur theory at its peak, stars were often regarded as mere instruments, blessed with more charisma than talent. Attitudes began to change with Richard Dyer’s Stars (1979), and the advent of star studies. Konkle also cites Adrienne McLean’s Becoming Rita Hayworth (2004) as a model for her own approach.

Monroe studies may well be a genre of its own, and Konkle draws upon previous works including Carl Rollyson’s Marilyn Monroe: A Life Of the Actress (1986) and S. Paige Baty’s American Monroe: The Making of a Body Politic (1995.) Rollyson also explores Monroe’s screen performances, but within a biographical framework. While sharing Baty’s focus on how Monroe posthumously “crosses high and low culture”, Konkle considers how she accomplished this in her lifetime.

How a Star is Born

Although her early bit parts made little impact, Monroe’s brief walk-on in the bizarre Marx Brothers swansong, Love Happy (1949), established her as the sexpot du jour. During a promotional tour for this otherwise unlauded movie, Marilyn caught the eye of columnist Earl Wilson, who dubbed her ‘The Mmmm Girl.’ But while sex appeal got her noticed, it took much more to make a star. In the first instalment of her 1950 series for Photoplay, ‘How A Star Is Born’, Fredda Dudley noted how seriously Marilyn applied herself to lessons in acting, dance and singing.

She was initially promoted as a ‘girl-next-door-type’, and even in the most obviously staged cheesecake photos of her starlet years she rarely stood still, and her joyous spirit seemed to invite viewers to join in the fun. On the other hand, in formal glamour shoots she took on an air of sadness and mystery. Memories of her unhappy childhood and sudden rise to fame were moulded into a classic Cinderella story by studio publicists. Hollywood provided the narrative, Konkle concedes, but Monroe chose some of the details; and when against studio advice she admitted posing nude, the public was won over by her honesty. Later in life, her failed relationships and inability to have children attracted more pity than censure; and as letters to fan magazines show, she was supported by female fans even as she was lusted after by men.

With her first substantial role in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Monroe plays her three short scenes in shifting registers, from pliant moll to wily schemer and finally, a sorrowful penitent. While preview audiences noticed the ‘hot blonde’ and critics praised John Huston’s direction, it was her own painstaking efforts that made the character more than ‘a smiling sexpot.’ Later that year, she appeared among a stellar cast in All About Eve, and stole every scene she was in. As a sexy but limited starlet, she brings a naïve charm to the cynical backstage banter, making her a kind of surrogate for the audience.

In 1951, Monroe signed a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, providing little more than ‘window dressing’ in forgettable films like As Young As You Feel, Love Nest and Let’s Make It Legal. Her press coverage was now outstripping her on-screen time. A more challenging role came in Clash By Night (1952.) As cannery girl Peggy, she is tough and independent, but the threat of male violence is never far away. While the other female lead, Barbara Stanwyck, settles for a dull marriage, Peggy at least chooses monogamy. Monroe’s first star vehicle, Don’t Bother to Knock, also allowed her to explore complex emotions. As the disturbed Nell, she is first seen plainly dressed. While babysitting in a hotel room, she puts on a negligee and flirts with another guest (Richard Widmark.) But Nell’s ‘sexpot’ act comes on too strong, and he responds first with bewilderment, then finally compassion.

This was followed by an interesting cameo in the anthology film, O. Henry’s Full House, in which she plays a prostitute accosted by a tramp (Charles Laughton), who hopes to get arrested and spend the winter in a warm jail cell. As he realises his mistake and walks away, she looks on in awe: “He called me a lady!” This yearning for respect would become an important theme in Monroe’s later films; but it was her next film, Monkey Business, that initially shaped her star persona. As a dim-witted stenographer, she is literally the ‘butt’ of sexual jokes. Nonetheless her performance honed her comedic skills, and as her star rose, director Howard Hawks advised the studio to pursue this genre.

Mrs. America

The next chapter was first published as ‘How to (Marry A Woman Who Wants to) Marry A Millionaire’ in the Quarterly Review Of Film And Video in 2014, and thus can be considered the genesis for Some Kind Of Mirror. Now expanded and renamed ‘Mrs. America’ – after Monroe’s segment in another episodic movie – it explores how the rising star, who embodied post-war anxieties about single women, came to appear in four films about marriage, released almost consecutively. As Konkle explains, this was an era when people increasingly turned to marriage advisors and family life educators for guidance on making a happy, and prosperous match.

In the portmanteau comedy, We’re Not Married! (1952), Monroe plays beauty contestant Annabel Norris, who is competing for the Mrs. America title while husband Jeff (David Wayne) stays home with the baby. In a scene when Annabel comes home only to retouch her make-up before hurrying out again, Jeff complains that he has already cooked supper; and when the couple learn that due to a bureaucratic error, their marriage is not legal, ambitious Annabel enters the Miss America pageant instead – with Jeff finally cheering her on. Although like the other couples portrayed in the movie they will ultimately remarry, their reversal of roles upturns gender expectations.

Niagara, the first of Monroe’s three ‘marriage films’ released in 1953, is also the darkest. Rose Loomis, an amoral, adulterous wife who plots with her virile young lover to kill her jealous husband, is the most atypical of Monroe’s starring roles. Interestingly, it was Darryl F. Zanuck – head of Twentieth Century Fox – who suggested Marilyn for the part, though he disliked her personally and had little respect for her talent.

A late example of ‘film noir’, Niagara serves, as Konkle observes, as a ‘how-not-to’ guide for prospective spouses. Rose and her husband George (Joseph Cotten), whose attempted ‘second honeymoon’ goes fatally wrong, are countered by their motel neighbours, who appear wholesome and stable neighbours. And yet Polly Cutler (Jean Peters), who becomes a kind of amateur detective as the story unfolds, also seems unsatisfied with her callow, ad-man husband Ray (Casey Adams.) Monroe gives a sensual, unsettling performance, teasing and taunting George to the point of madness. But Niagara did not chime with audiences as her comedies would, and as an early reader of the screenplay had remarked to Zanuck, Rose’s murder plot is nebulous, seemingly motivated by little more than a desire for physical freedom.

MONROE REFORMS,” studio publicity for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes signalled. Her ‘torrid sex appeal’ would be toned down in accordance with her own desire to be ‘more dignified,’ albeit with an addendum stating that her “nothing will change Marilyn’s contours.” The campaign worked, as Blondes and its successor, How to Marry a Millionaire, were ranked sixth and seventh among the highest grossing films of 1953.

Although Monroe’s role as Lorelei Lee has been associated with the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’, her character’s steely pragmatism echoes the era’s marriage educators: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” Lorelei lectures best friend Dorothy (Jane Russell.) From the film’s opening number, ‘Two Little Girls From Little Rock,’ the women work together to lure, and manipulate men; while in ‘When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right)’ they console each other. These sexpots may be objects of the male gaze, but that gaze is returned (as in the scene when Lorelei flirts with an elderly millionaire played by Charles Coburn, imagining a huge diamond where his head should be.)

Jack Cole’s choreography is arguably as relevant to Blondes as Howard Hawks’ direction. At the beginning of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, women dressed in black bondage-like attire form a human candelabra, reflecting the film’s cynical outlook; while the young ballerinas symbolise romantic idealism. Lorelei dispenses hard-boiled advice and beats off her tuxedo-clad suitors with a heart-shaped fan, and resists their offers of diamonds until her triumphant finale. In the film’s closing sequence (a double wedding), the brides exchange winks and their milquetoast grooms are cut out of the frame.

How to Marry a Millionaire offers a toned-down version of husband-hunting, although it also emphasises the importance of female friendship. The emptiness of the three models’ ritzy apartment after they pawn the furniture suggests that even these Manhattanite models need professional men to provide the material comforts they crave. As demonstrated in the ‘fashion show’ scene, Pola (played by Marilyn in a red bathing suit) is willing to comply in her objectification if the price is right. During the ‘powder room scene’, she checks her reflection in multiple mirrors; and for her first meeting with Freddie Denmark (another pairing with David Wayne), she is seen lounging on a chaise longue.

An early Cinemascope movie, Millionaire exploits every opportunity to show off Monroe’s famous physique. Short-sighted Pola is a far more passive character than Lorelei Lee, and when Freddie finally persuades her to wear glasses, her ‘domestication’ is a foregone conclusion. Only one of the three women will ultimately marry money, and the final ‘diner scene’ contrasts with Blondes’ denouement, as the men toast their wives who have dropped out of sight.

The Girl Gets Her Way

In the same year that Monroe’s ‘marriage films’ were released, the psychologist Dr Alfred Kinsey scored an unlikely bestseller with his book, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female – but his findings clashed with the cautious advice of the marriage educators. Offscreen, Marilyn would soon enter a short-lived second marriage to Joe DiMaggio; and in her later movies, she played more liberated characters with complicated desires. “Kinsey says women don’t get started until they’re thirty,” she told reporters in 1956. “That’s good news – and it’s factual, too!”

The Seven Year Itch – a film she fought to make – was Monroe’s most self-referential film to date, albeit based on George Axelrod’s 1953 play. Her character, named only as ‘The Girl’, is a photographic model whose “artistic poses” landed her in the US Camera yearbook. Although the photograph therein appears not to be of Marilyn herself, the venerable journal would repay the compliment, devoting a cover story to the movie upon its release in 1955. The Girl is also seen performing in a TV commercial for Dazzledent toothpaste, and her seductive delivery of inane ad-man dialogue reveals the ‘sexpot’ as an artful fake.

Kinsey’s report is also spoofed here, as hack editor Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is assigned a rather dry psychiatric study, Sexual Behaviour in the Middle-Aged Male, repackaging it in dime-novel style as Of Sex and Madness. And in another meta-textual touch, Richard angrily responds to an enquiry about ‘the blonde in the kitchen’ – “Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”

Sherman’s own neurotic fantasies are also far from reality, and in one dream sequence The Girl becomes a husky vamp in a tiger-print gown. While Richard guiltily lusts after The Girl, she is confident that their situation will never get ‘drastic’, precisely because he is married. She has no interest in marriage and enjoys the freedom of living alone. Her grasp of ‘brinkmanship’ is far superior to Richard’s, and finally The Girl gets her way, spending the summer in his air-conditioned New York apartment while he joins his wife and son in breezy Connecticut. Although director Billy Wilder regretted being unable to show the ‘affair’ being consummated, this minor restriction allowed the film’s sexual innuendo to flourish; thus imbuing The Seven Year Itch with a Hollywood insider’s sly commentary on censorship.

Bus Stop was Monroe’s first film after winning her contractual battle with Twentieth Century Fox. She worked closely with director Joshua Logan and eschewed the usual glamour girl trappings. As ‘Cherie’, a singer in a shabby nightclub, she is still a ‘sexpot’ of sorts, but the emphasis is more on her weariness at being exploited. In her first scene, she is accosted in her dressing room by drunken customers, and dragged onstage by the club manager, where her wobbly performance is mostly laughed at. Her dream of Hollywood stardom, and friendship with motherly waitress Vera (Eileen Heckart) cushion her against life’s indignities.

Many viewers today find her romance with cowboy Bo (Don Murray), who stalks and bullies her, somewhat improbable. But as she confides to a fellow bus passenger (Hope Lange), Cherie is more experienced than the virginal Bo, and she resists his advances until he learns to satisfy her desires. Cherie’s yearning for respect can be compared to Marilyn’s own wish to be taken seriously as an actress, and while Bus Stop brought her critical acclaim, reviewers tended to credit her performance to Logan’s direction, reassuring filmgoers that the sexpot still retained her physical allure.

Monroe reunited with Wilder for her most successful movie, Some Like It Hot (1959.) The Roaring Twenties setting allowed Wilder to revisit a more licentious era, and his outrageous humour anticipates sexual revolution of the Swinging Sixties, and the demise of the infamous Production Code. As singer Sugar Kane, Marilyn gave her most uninhibited to date, clad in designer Orry-Kelly’s diaphanous gowns which were as daring for the Fifties as the flapper dresses of the 1920s.

While Sugar claims to be “not very bright”, she is subtly assertive in her relationship with saxophone player Joe (Tony Curtis), whom she first meets in his guise as ‘Geraldine’. After Sugar tells him she is tired of dating faithless musicians, he creates another persona – that of the shy, bespectacled billionaire that Sugar hopes to meet. Unashamed of her sexual past, she will spend the night with ‘Shell Junior’ on a yacht; and when he feigns impotence, Sugar takes the initiative. While Sugar was arguably Marilyn’s most liberated heroine to date, her ‘gentle, nurturing’ persona means she never seems aggressive or threatening.

Marilyn and the Method

In the penultimate chapter, ‘The Actress and Her Method’, Konkle observes that far from the untrained ‘natural’ of legend, Monroe had studied every aspect of her craft. In her 1950 profile for Photoplay, Fredda Dudley reported that studio newcomers were given classes in acting, diction, dancing, dancing, riding and gym. Marilyn also attended sessions at the Actors Lab and did ‘private work’ with Michael Chekhov, and prepared for her roles with acting coach Natasha Lytess. Nonetheless, other journalists preferred to focus on her knack for attracting publicity, while many critics assumed she was simply ‘playing herself’. “Contrary to claims that she couldn’t act,” Konkle writes, “Monroe gave a performance so convincing in all realms of her public existence that her ability to maintain this type in her films was believed to be not a performance at all.”

Following her successful ‘marriage films’, the roles assigned to Marilyn in 1954 were mediocre at best. Whereas in Blondes, Jack Cole’s elegant choreography allowed her a degree of professional distance from the audience, her musical numbers in River Of No Return and There’s No Business Like Show Business are more crudely objectified. After a year’s self-imposed sabbatical, she returned to Hollywood with a new contract that was hailed as a victory, but she would more accurately describe it as a compromise on both sides. While she had gained director choice, she still lacked script approval.

While in New York she had attended classes at the Actors Studio, and studied privately with Lee Strasberg. With the support of her new on-set coach, Paula Strasberg, her final performances were guided by the Method. While the Strasbergs came from a theatrical background, their introspective approach was well-suited to screen actors. Nonetheless, Marilyn’s new technique was taken far less seriously than that of her male counterparts, Brando, Dean, and Clift. In fact, method actresses were often regarded as hysterical and unfeminine. Method historian Foster Hirsch believes that Monroe’s beauty protected her from such criticism, while a more sceptical Rosemary Malague has noted that Marilyn was still cast in sexpot roles which emphasised her vulnerability. Konkle takes a more positive view of her late career: “Maybe she chose those roles because she felt she could bring emotional depth to the stereotypes.”

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which Monroe also produced, pitted the method actress against that paragon of the classical theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier. Her performance as Elsie Marina, an American in London, draws on aspects of Marilyn’s biography: most obviously the scene when her dress-strap slips as she meets the Prince Regent backstage, an incident which had occurred during Monroe’s first press conference with Olivier. But the subplot of political intrigue in Edwardian London also reflects on Marilyn’s own stance in her new husband Arthur Miller’s ongoing battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Elsie champions democracy and her sympathies, in art as in life, are staunchly with the common people.

The film reflects on Elsie’s experience as a showgirl, as she quickly recognises that her invitation to dinner with the Prince Regent is merely a prelude to another kind of casting couch. She treats his seduction routine as a dance in which she is always two steps ahead. Left alone to sip champagne while the Prince talks business, she imitates the tipsy starlet he supposes her to be, and unmasks her own public image as a masquerade. At all times, the film is a study in opposites: Old World versus New, working girl versus aristocrat. And when the prince and his showgirl do fall in love, it is the unsophisticated American who realises their romance cannot last. Many years later, Olivier would acknowledge that Monroe stole the film, the stiffness of his performance contrasting with her naturalism.

By her own estimation, Let’s Make Love (1960) was one of Marilyn’s weaker films. Faced with a hackneyed script, she struggled to summon her usual spark – except in the opening number, ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’. Reunited with choreographer Jack Cole, she bats away unwanted suitors with a wink to the audience. This sequence recalls ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, swapping gown and gloves for the rehearsal garb of a bulky sweater over a leotard. With her commitment to learning and self-improvement, Amanda Dell is another version of Monroe. As in Some Like It Hot, she is the victim of deception – her co-star (Yves Montand) is really Jean-Marc Clement, a womanising billionaire who is the subject of her fringe company’s satirical revue.

Without the levity of a Wilder film, Let’s Make Love comes close to ridiculing its star. But Marilyn, as Amanda, shows her growing maturity as an actress by making Montand her pupil, effectively directing his performance in the show. And in the title number, she takes charge of her role in ‘making love’ to Clement. After she discovers his identity, Amanda lets out her rage. As he tries to deny it, she turns away and brushes her hair with furious strokes. “I can’t stand anyone who makes fun of me,” she rebukes him, foreshadowing what Monroe would later tell journalist Richard Meryman at the end of her final interview: “Please don’t make me a joke.”

In her last movie, The Misfits (1961), she played ‘Roslyn’, a pen-portrait of sorts by husband Arthur Miller, and explicitly stated in publicity materials as “the character Marilyn has always sought to play.” Her columnist friend, Sidney Skolsky, hailed it as both “her best dramatic performance” and a glimpse of “the genuine Marilyn.” Choosing a role with so many biographical resonances proved fatal to her marriage, and the film’s reception was decidedly muted, with some critics claiming the Method had dulled her shine. Caught in a double bind, Monroe used this vehicle to show audiences that the sexpot was a performance. Here, more than in previous guises, she is a contemporary woman; principled and independent, albeit rendered in soft-focus through the male gaze of Miller, director and cinematographer Russell Metty.

In her first scene, Roslyn rehearses for a divorce hearing, but the ‘script’ is all wrong. “Why can’t I just say he wasn’t there?” she pleads. Despite her ambivalent feelings, people – especially men – are drawn to Roslyn as a ‘happy girl’, and all her energies are focused on pleasing others. Among the jaded cowboys, Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach), and her cynical friend Isabel (Thelma Ritter), Roslyn seems idealistic. When she talks about finding Isabel’s long-lost love, the others laugh at her for believing she could transform their lonely fates. The camera shows a humiliated Roslyn looming above the rest, until she finally assumes a brighter mood.

Having paired off with Guido in a frantic foxtrot, she wanders outside and dances alone by a tree, as if reclaiming her sensuality for herself. In another haunting scene, Guido glimpses old glamour shots pinned up inside her closet. Dressed down in jeans and pigtails, the flesh-and-blood Roslyn firmly closes the door on her past.

After a wearying jaunt to the rodeo and a saloon bar, the group returns to the desert cottage where Guildo once lived with his now-dead wife, now the backdrop for Roslyn’s fledgling romance with Gay. With Isabel gone, and the drunken cowboys joined by a wounded rider, Perce (Montgomery Clift), Roslyn is the only woman left, caught between the men’s desires for her and their need to be mothered. After putting them all to bed, she steps away and with an exhausted gasp, gazes up at the night sky, whispering “Help.”

As Konkle observes, few critics have remarked on this pivotal moment, which merited its own short theme from composer Alex North. While Roslyn’s desperate cry may go unanswered, she will later summon the strength to call out Guido on his hypocrisy, and crucially, to thwart the cowboys’ venal mission to round up wild horses for slaughter.

Monroe to the Nth Power 

While her early death made her a legend, Marilyn Monroe was already an icon of American popular culture in her lifetime. Among her first impersonators was comedienne Lucille Ball, in a 1954 episode of the hit television show I Love Lucy. George Axelrod, who wrote The Seven Year Itch and adapted Bus Stop, spoofed her bombshell persona in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), another stage-to-screen crossover, in which Jayne Mansfield shot to fame as over-hyped actress Rita Marlowe. And fellow method actress Kim Stanley (who first played Cherie onstage) made one of her few film appearances in The Goddess (1958) as Rita Shawn, a troubled sex symbol whose story paralleled Marilyn’s own unhappy childhood and turbulent private life.

A question often posed by fans and critics alike is how Monroe’s career would have progressed if her life had not been cut short so abruptly. Konkle does not cover Something’s Got to Give, the film she was unceremoniously fired from shortly before her death. Many hours of footage have survived, but its incompleteness defies easy analysis. Nor does Konkle consider how Marilyn might have fared in Hollywood as she approached middle age. Instead, she turns to a project rejected by the actress towards the end of her life.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), loosely based on Truman Capote’s novella, became a defining vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. In George Axelrod’s adaptation, the casual promiscuity of its free-spirited heroine was toned down, focusing instead on her platonic romance with a young gay writer. Marilyn was Capote’s first choice for the role of Holly Golightly, and had she accepted the part, the film would likely have been grittier (and racier.) By casting a stylish European ingénue, the film became less of a study in modern sexual norms than an old-fashioned ‘princess narrative’ in the vein of Hepburn’s breakthrough movie, Roman Holiday.

“Many people felt, and still feel, that Monroe spoke to their concerns,” Konkle concludes. “As women negotiating between their homes and careers, as lonely people who long to feel attractive and witty, as victims of exploitive labour conditions, as inwardly fragile beings with tough exteriors.” Konkle’s lively study succeeds on its own terms, without ever pathologizing its subject. Rather than dwelling on her perceived victimhood, Konkle shows how Marilyn resisted being merely a sexpot by holding up ‘some kind of mirror’ to her audience. “To really say what’s in my heart, I’d rather show than to say,” the star told a reporter in 1960. “Even though I want people to understand, I’d much rather they understand on the screen.” Within the scope of Some Kind of Mirror, that wish is fulfilled.