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“My God, I think there have been more books on Marilyn Monroe than on World War II, and there’s a great similarity.”

So said Billy Wilder, who made two classic films with Monroe – and although the great director was prone to exaggerate, he had the battle scars to prove his point. Marilyn Monroe: The Classic Performances is the latest in an ongoing series from the prolific Chris Wade – a musician and filmmaker in his own right, with an admirable DIY ethic – whose past subjects include Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren and Madonna.

“No one has had their life dissected and pulled apart quite as much as Marilyn Monroe,” Wade writes in his introduction. And yet, her film career – “the very thing that made her famous in the first place” – is often overlooked, or else distilled into a few “magic moments,” like the ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the ‘skirt-blowing’ scene in The Seven Year Itch.

Arguing that Monroe’s enduring fame cannot be reduced to “a case of hype over ability, myth over reality,” Wade proposes to “hone in on those iconic pictures, on key scenes, moments, even frames, in a bid to understand what makes her, sixty years after her death, appealing as ever.” The genesis of this book was a November 2020 cover story for cult film magazine Scenes, in which he examined three of her best dramatic performances, so often overshadowed by her comedic roles.

Her offscreen life – which both mirrored and contradicted her public image – is considered in the first chapter, beginning with her unsettled childhood. “Naturally, this shy and retiring girl, who felt unwanted and dissatisfied – if not scared – of her own reality, retreated into make-believe,” Wade says of the young Norma Jeane Baker. Married at sixteen, and working in a factory while her husband fought in World War II, a chance encounter with a photographer led to exciting opportunities in modelling, and movies.

Fame did not come overnight, but Marilyn proved “single-minded in her quest,” determined to improve her acting skills and using her considerable charm to make the right connections in Hollywood. She played numerous supporting roles and secured a long-term contract at Twentieth Century Fox. By the mid-1950s, she was a bona fide superstar.

“In this era Monroe was not only fighting for more pay,” Wade writes, “but against the shallow pin-up roles that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted she take.” After a short, tempestuous marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn left Hollywood behind and moved to New York, where she studied at the Actors Studio and fell in love with playwright Arthur Miller. “Though Miller and Monroe endured a suffocating fame,” Wade notes, she had “finally earned control of her career.”

But her success masked private anguish, and before long, she was taking pills to get through each working day, and her addiction would ultimately destroy her. “One could say this was the great turning point,” Wade reflects, “when the demons which had plagued her for years began to take over. And the more successful and famous she was, the worse her problems became.”

Marilyn in 1957

The first chapter provides an overview of Marilyn’s early supporting roles, from 1947-1952 (which actually comprises around two thirds of her entire filmography.) She began as a jobbing actress, taking any part she could get. Ladies of the Chorus, a low-budget musical, was her first leading role, and her first as a platinum blonde. An “appealingly glamorous” walk-on in the last (and weakest) Marx Brothers vehicle, Love Happy, added another credit to her modest resumé.

1950 was a breakthrough year, in which she won her first significant role in a prestige movie, The Asphalt Jungle. During her audition with director John Huston, she shook with fear. “Marilyn’s own faith in herself did not match what others saw,” Wade observes. “She was a bag of nerves under the beautiful surface.” Strangely, he doesn’t mention her other high-profile performance from that year, in the Oscar winner All About Eve, which led to her being signed up by Twentieth Century Fox.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A string of decorative roles in middling films followed, but she made the most of her limited screen time. The New York Times, no less, judged her work as Harriet, secretary at a printing firm, in As Young As You Feel (1951) as “superb,” and Wade points to a scene when she sticks her tongue out at her boss as a “mini moment of Monroe magic … In some ways it’s proto-ditzy Monroe,” he concedes, “but there is no denying her likeability and openness.” In Love Nest, an enjoyable if lightweight effort, she doesn’t appear for half an hour, but instantly sets the screen alight. “Even at this stage,” Wade writes, “the camera adores her.”

She began to play more challenging parts, holding her own against more established co-stars in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night, and achieving a dramatic ‘tour de force’ as the troubled heroine of Don’t Bother to Knock, a minor classic in the Noir genre. Her subsequent role as another ditzy secretary in Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy, Monkey Business, was less of a stretch, but perhaps more indicative of the bubbly persona that would strike a chord with filmgoers in years to come.

“These early films make for fascinating viewing,” Wade concludes. “Her skills are still in bloom, her technique primitive, often creaky, though clearly improving with every picture … the films themselves often fail to conceal the radiant magic which bursts out of Monroe, a true star in the making.”

The remaining chapters cover nine of Marilyn’s performances in detail, starting with Niagara, the first of three hit movies released in her ‘banner year’ of 1953. (The book’s cover shows a wardrobe test photo from the movie.) “The Marilyn here is not the Marilyn the world knows and loves,” Wade writes. Although she would often clash with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, it was he who insisted on casting her against type, while Jean Peters played the ‘good girl.’ Monroe’s simmering sexuality makes her a compelling antagonist, “a force of quiet destruction.”

Niagara also featured the longest walking shot in film history to date, but Wade focuses instead on Marilyn’s opening scene, where she lies nude under a sheet, feigning sleep to evade her husband’s advances. After he gives up and retires to his own twin bed, she opens her eyes again. “It is in that look, half smirking, that Monroe’s part can be defined,” Wade remarks.

With Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes set the pace for Monroe’s string of hit comedies, and her typecasting as a ‘dumb blonde,’ but her quirky, yet sympathetic portrayal of gold-digger Lorelei Lee is, in Wade’s estimation: “a balanced performance, pure film star charisma, magical cinema at its most dazzling. She stays clear of fall-backs and clichés, while still remaining relatable and open.” The film is also notable for her platonic chemistry with co-star Jane Russell, which “seems to radiate off the screen … as if they are two sides of the same coin.”

Marilyn also worked well with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire, and while she doesn’t dominate the film, her gift for romantic comedy is evident. Noting how Monroe’s films riffed on her public image, Wade reviews a scene when her short-sighted character is reading on a plane, but the book is upside-down. “This is a nice visual gag,” Wade comments, “but it also reminds one of the things Marilyn had to endure off-camera … After all, how could she look the way she did and be intelligent too?”

The next chapter, on River of No Return (1954) is one of the book’s highlights, especially as most commentators – including Marilyn herself – are generally dismissive of the widescreen Western. Wade praises Otto Preminger’s “no-frills direction,” and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s “impressive” aesthetic. Producer Stanley Rubin felt that Preminger failed to capture the splendour of the Old West – and his autocratic approach didn’t win him many friends on the set – but in Wade’s view, his European perspective was the driving force behind this “visually beautiful, character-driven piece.”

Whether singing in a rowdy saloon or pulling off dangerous rafting stunts, Wade continues, “Monroe is adaptable to everything the film throws at her.” One of her lesser-known acoustic numbers, ‘Down in the Meadow’ – the lullaby she sings to a young boy while playing guitar – is quite touching. A departure from the glitzy antics of Blondes and Millionaire, the role gave her space to explore “facets of herself and her character”, and this interplay of life and art evokes an “air of melancholia” that pervades all her finest work.

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch (1955) was her first collaboration with Billy Wilder. Wade considers it her “most effective comedy,” and “perhaps the best film for a Marilyn newcomer,” as she was then at “her most vital.” Wilder wanted to make the film in black-and-white, but Technicolor enhances Monroe’s unaffected glamour. “The fact that Marilyn has an innocence about her also makes her a more appealing character,” Wade writes, “a gently naïve sort unaware of the power she has as a sexual being.”

Nonetheless, her subtle skill at fending off her neighbour’s clumsy advances suggests she holds the power. As Wade notes, the famous scene in which she stands over a subway grate to catch the breeze – oblivious to Tom Ewell’s lecherous gaze, even as her skirt blows up – might have been “too sexy for a mainstream audience” with a more knowing vamp.

With Don Murray in Bus Stop (1956)

Monroe’s next film, Bus Stop (1956), came after a year’s sabbatical, in which she renegotiated her old studio contract and set up a production company. It was also her first picture as a method actress. “Aspects of it may be creaky, and it certainly looks of its time,” Wade says of the storyline, but it remains “a hugely engaging comic-drama.” Marilyn’s layered portrayal of the downtrodden Cherie, whose dreams of fame are complicated by a boisterous cowboy, showcases the full range of her talent. “She is definitely internalising her part, becoming the character in a whole different way to other female stars of the era,” Wade observes. “Retrospectively it’s a film star performance that seems ahead of its time, somewhat better than the film which often struggles to keep up with it.”

The intensity of Marilyn’s approach to acting sometimes alienated her co-stars, and as her reliance on pills developed, her work habits became unpredictable. The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which she co-produced, is mostly remembered today for her conflict with leading man and director, Laurence Olivier. On seeing the film again, however, it’s clear that she almost steals the movie. “In some ways Marilyn offers him a doorway into a looser style, a less rigid, ordered form of screen acting,” Wade reflects. “Monroe brings out the fun, the life and energy … between them they formed a most unlikely bridge and crossed it toward one another.”

Wade makes an interesting comparison between The Prince and the Showgirl and Charlie Chaplin’s The Countess from Hong Kong (1966.) Just as Marilyn’s method training diverged from Olivier’s more traditional style, Chaplin was irritated by co-star Marlon Brando’s emphasis on psychological realism. Their palpable unease was offset by leading lady Sophia Loren’s powerful charisma, which probably saved the movie. While both films earned mixed reviews, Monroe’s blend of Loren-style allure with Brando-esque naturalism elevated her earlier project into something more than drawing-room comedy.

As her tangled life plunged her into depression, Marilyn conjured up not one but two late-career masterpieces, in comedy and drama. Some Like It Hot (1959), her second film with Billy Wilder, is one of the best-loved movies of all time. “Even though Marilyn no longer wanted to play dumb ditzy blondes,” Wade writes, “that is exactly what Sugar was in the script. Against all expectations, she saw something in the part she liked.” With brilliant writing from I.A,L. Diamond and Billy Wilder’s stylish direction, plus the inspired casting of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, it has all the elements of a comedy classic.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

“Again though – and this is a credit to Monroe and her quest for perfection – her performance is without fault,” Wade continues. “Even with other top-drawer comic efforts around her, Monroe sparkles in her own divine way … In ensuring Sugar becomes a multi-dimensional woman, a character we care and feel for, it is Monroe who gives the film a centre, some poignancy to hang the film’s gags on.”

Written by her soon-to-be ex-husband, Arthur Miller, The Misfits (1961) would become Marilyn’s last farewell, and as Wade writes, the production was troubled and its release clouded by the sudden death of leading man Clark Gable. “Despite the various issues, the whole cast are fabulous, and it may even be due to their real-life demons that the film is as poignant as it is,” he reflects, adding that “the film belongs to Marilyn … She is haunted, sad, tormented even, and the weight of her life is behind her eyes. Her almost otherworldliness gives the role and the whole film a strange spookiness, but the tragedy is beyond poignant … something close to dark magic.”

The Misfits (1961)

“Occasionally a film arrives which gives the cinema a new dimension,” one reviewer wrote in U.K. newspaper The Observer. “It is not going too far to say that The Misfits is in this class.” For the most part, though, critics and audiences were bemused by the film’s slow pace and outcast characters. “I do believe the main problem was that critics mistook Monroe’s weariness for blankness,” he remarks, highlighting two scenes in particular.

In one memorable sequence, she leaves her drunken friends and dances around a tree outside, her graceful, yet aimless movements expressing a despair only hinted at until then. “It’s a beautiful scene, but also suffocating in its hopeless darkness,” Wade writes. In another scene, she silently observes the interaction between Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift from her car-seat as they meet for the first time. “There is something in her eye, a combination of wonderment and weariness,” Wade comments, “which elevates the whole scene, even if she doesn’t utter a single word throughout.”

Two more of her starring roles – in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), and Let’s Make Love (1960) – are omitted, being somewhat lacklustre beyond their striking musical numbers. Given that her career ended so abruptly, perhaps some of her earlier films deserved more attention – Don’t Bother to Knock could merit a full chapter. A deceptively easy read, Marilyn Monroe: The Classic Performances nonetheless contains many insightful observations, and is illustrated with publicity shots and film stills. Whether you’re new to Marilyn or a long-time fan, Chris Wade proves a worthy guide to a body of work often overshadowed by her own shining light.