Saturday, November 24, 2012

Blonde on blonde: a new biography of the many Marilyn Monroes

[Did a shorter version of this review for The Sunday Guardian]

“She looks both triumphant and afraid,” writes Lois Banner, describing a nude photograph that a young model named Norma Jeane posed for in 1949, “With one arm extended and a hand in her hair, she looks as though she might be climbing up a wall – to achieve an exciting future or to escape a threat.” The photo – “A New Wrinkle” – is included in Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox and her description is spot on: framed against a lush red velvet curtain that seems like it might swallow her up, Norma Jeane – the future Marilyn Monroe – could be from one of those classical paintings of rape where the subject is presented (invariably by a male painter) as both seductress and quarry. But of course, Banner’s words also suggest Monroe’s tempestuous push-pull relationship with her own myth – with the stardom that made her universally desired as well as conflicted and depressed.

“A New Wrinkle” was an early version of Marilyn the ethereal pin-up girl (the picture – which she posed for because she needed money – caused a stir when a conservative, early-1950s Hollywood learnt of its existence), but Banner’s grounded approach is more accurately reflected in the first two images included in the book, which are atypical for a Monroe biography. One is a drawing of witches and other grotesque figures that Marilyn
said she saw in recurring nightmares; the other is an autopsy sketch, which coldly depicts the scar from a surgery to remove endometriosis, a gynaecological condition that afflicted her for much of her life. Bald, flat-chested, anonymous, mannequin-like, the figure in the autopsy drawing is a morbid reminder that the Marilyn Monroe persona was often a blank slate, a repository for other people’s fantasies – and that the woman behind it has remained an enigma for generations of fans, critics and biographers.

“I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me – an academic scholar, feminist biographer and historian of gender – had studied her,” Banner explains, admitting that she had once dismissed Marilyn as a sex object for men but later felt impelled to re-evaluate her, and to wonder if a proto-feminist lay beneath the dumb-blonde image. Her book emphasises the many contradictions in the life of a girl who had low self-esteem and a speech impediment, but who succeeded in “manufacturing” a confident alter ego. (In high school, Norma Jeane described herself as “the mmm girl” – a play of words that encompassed both her stuttering over the letter M and the effect her physicality had on the boys in her class.) It is a portrait of the sex symbol posing for the famous subway-grate photograph with her skirt billowing up, but also the story of the woman who, later that same evening, had a violent argument with her husband Joe DiMaggio, who was incensed by the sight of “several hundred men looking at her crotch”.

Among other paradoxes, Banner notes that while Marilyn was a “goddess” on the outside, universally desired for her body, on the inside she had a hormonal disorder that caused extreme menstrual pain and may also have made it difficult for her to have a child. Though a symbol for unbridled female sexuality, she may have learnt how to perform an exaggerated version of femininity by watching a man (the female impersonator Ray Bourbon). She often played po-faced characters, the butts of other people’s jokes, but was known to have a wry sense of humour in real life (someone as wacky as Jerry Lewis was impressed by her knack for absurdist comedy, and even Groucho Marx, with whom she worked in a lesser film titled Love Happy, described her as a combination of Mae West and Little Bo-Peep). Marilyn modeled herself on earlier movie temptresses such as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich, but also strove to haul herself out of her ditzy image by turning to high literature (from Thomas Wolfe to Dostoevsky and Balzac), performing Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from Ulysses on stage, and stating a desire to play Lady Macbeth and Grushenka in The Brothers Karazmov; and in the process she sometimes resorted to the intellectual poseur’s strategy of reading selectively rather than reading well. (“When she browsed the shelves in Pickwick’s bookstore, she’d find an interesting paragraph in a book, memorise it and then go on to find another book.”)

It’s a fascinating story, with enough material to fill dozens of books – as indeed it has over the decades. The Passion and the Paradox has all the essential biographical information, from a childhood that was spent being shunted around foster homes (Banner gives more space to Marilyn’s early life and to the personalities of the many women who raised her than most previous biographers have done) to the final years: the bouts of depression, the overdependence on painkillers, the liaisons with the Kennedy brothers and the build-up to her mysterious death. But the “psychological” Marilyn is here too. Banner analyses her actions and choices and how they intersected with the larger world around her. In an effective structural decision, she includes a ruminative 30-page midsection titled “The Meaning of Marilyn”, which temporarily breaks the narrative as well as the fourth wall between author and reader.

In so doing, she situates the Monroe persona in the context of its time – “the ultimate blonde in a nation both fascinated by sexuality and uneasy about it, involved in both an ongoing sexual revolution and a conservative reaction against it”. (As one of Marilyn’s husbands, the playwright Arthur Miller, once wrote, America at the time “was still a virgin, still denying her illicit dreams.”) She makes special note of the function that Marilyn’s star-making roles may have served in a diffident, post-WWII era – the fact that she was regularly paired opposite older men or unremarkable Plain Joes may have been a subliminal ego-booster for the “regular” American guy. And she presents a nuanced view of the apparently all-American girl who could – perhaps due to her own troubled childhood – relate to marginalised people: reading Leftist literature during a time of the Communist witch-hunts; identifying with the black hero of Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson.

This is a compendious biography – reflective, scrupulously researched, moderately well written – though it isn’t aimed at the reader who is principally interested in Marilyn’s films. I get the impression Banner isn’t much of a cineaste: there is a formalness in her descriptions of even major movies (The Asphalt Jungle “fits into the genre of film noir, a postwar category generated by Cold War fears and influenced by German Expressionism that highlights social corruption and often features an evil, seductive vamp”). But otherwise, her distinct voice is a reminder that good analytical biographies can tell us much about the personal concerns and biases of the writers. “I was intrigued by similarities between my childhood and hers,” she writes; she was born a little over a decade after Marilyn, grew up in a geographically and culturally similar milieu, won beauty contests as a young girl and (according to her) had the opportunity to aim for movie stardom, but chose a different career path. Consequently, there is the hint of a doppelganger perspective (or at least a “what if” perspective) here – one that offers a thoughtful counterpoint to some of the earlier biographies and theses.

For example: in a capsule review I recently read of Some Like it Hot, David Thomson – an intelligent, sensitive critic – proposes that Marilyn was naive, unaware of how her screen persona was being used by director Billy Wilder; but this book presents evidence to suggest that Marilyn didn’t like the fact that her character Sugar Kane was a foil for the two male characters in the story and that she wanted Sugar to have a more distinct personality. (Years earlier, while shooting Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she had insisted that her character speak the line “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” By the time Some Like it Hot was made, she definitely had her hackles up when asked to play a stereotype.) And as Banner herself notes, because Marilyn’s first husband Jim Dougherty said she was a virgin when they married, some male biographers dismissed her claim of being sexually abused as a child. This is a non-sequitur – sexual abuse doesn’t necessarily entail penetration – but it tells us something about the simplistic way in which a certain kind of man may view sexual assault or women’s “purity”.

I had a minor problem with the occasional bombast of Banner’s claims. Her Prologue is characterised by sentences like “Significant among my discoveries about Marilyn...”, “Revealing and analysing her multiple personas is a major contribution of mine...” – and later, “I will excavate the layers that lie underneath [her childhood], probing the texts and counter-texts...” Stretched beyond a point, this is tiresomely self-aggrandising language, and these claims – suggesting grand epiphanies and solutions – turn out to be contrary to the spirit of the book itself. For instance, Banner makes much of the question “Was Marilyn a feminist?” and then addresses it in a perfunctory, open-ended way in her Afterword. There is nothing wrong with this open-endedness – in fact, it affirms the author’s honesty, her willingness to acknowledge that a complex life cannot be easily explained – but why make the question sound so central in the first place? Especially when this book’s real strength lies in the attentive, well-rounded way in which it raises questions about Marilyn’s life and psyche, examining them from various angles but also permitting them to hang in the air if necessary – much like the girl in that photo, frozen on the cusp of becoming one of the great icons, and sacrificial lambs, of a cultural zeitgeist.

[An old post about MM is here]


  1. Was Marilyn a feminist?

    Atleast from her screen persona, there is no hint of her being one.
    She always struck me as an intelligent girl comfortable with her gender and comfortable with the idea that men and women play specialized roles in society (despite there being a significant overlap).

    The whole basis of feminism is a denial of that notion that men and women have inherent differences entailing different roles in society - something that doesn't come across in Marilyn's films.

  2. the ultimate blonde in a nation both fascinated by sexuality and uneasy about it, involved in both an ongoing sexual revolution and a conservative reaction against it

    I don't think the sexual revolution started in a big way in the 50s. The 40s/50s was a period of increasing marriage rates, higher birth rates, decrease in the age of marriage among other things. There are some studies that indicate that homemaking was more fashionable among women in the 50s than it was in the 30s.

    It was in the 60s that the sexual revolution took off. And this revolution accompanied by the rise of feminism inevitably meant a reduced fascination with "opposites" and a drastic de-glamourization of several aspects of life including showbiz.

    To me Marilyn doesn't herald the sexual revolution. But she stands out as the last symbol of the old order. The old order that accepted the distinct roles played by men and women as a way of life. An order that did not regard faith and domesticity with distaste. And an order that accepted the need for "inhibitions" and "fascination with opposites" to keep the human race ticking.

  3. The whole basis of feminism is a denial of that notion that men and women have inherent differences

    No, Shrikanth, I don't think it's that simple. But I'm long past trying to argue at length with your views on any of the subjects that have come up in the past few posts!

  4. Um, no Shrikanth, I don't think it's that simple

    Well, you didn't quote my whole sentence there. I said "denial of the notion that men and women have inherent differences entailing slightly different roles in society".

    This denial is implicit in the feminist argument. Otherwise rhetorical questions like "why on earth do women on average earn less than men" would never have become such raging issues in the feminist debates of the 70s.

    These so-called "issues" would cease to be issues if one keeps reminding oneself of the inconvenient truth that woman have babies while men don't! A fact of biology that explains a lot of these anomalies that feminists bring up.

    At any rate, my comment was not to trigger a debate on feminism but to express the view that Marilyn did not betray any feminist tendencies at all in her performances.

    If anything Kate Hepburn seems more of a "feminist" than Marilyn.

  5. If anything Kate Hepburn seems more of a "feminist" than Marilyn.

    Why would that be a surprise? It would conform to any mainstream definition (and most of the non-mainstream definitions) of feminism. The possibility that MM may have been a feminist (even at a subconscious level) is explicitly set out here as a controversial idea.

    And of course Monroe didn't show feminist tendencies in her performances - that is a given, and it's beside the point in this discussion.

  6. I am actually very intrigued (and confused) by some of the quotations in the last paragraph of the post . How does the biography writer ever "excavate layers that lie underneath her childhood". How could anyone? I liked the last para a lot for this precise reason.

    Also , you guys need to check this out

    though my liking is based on my belief that Lindsay Lohan(I'll probably earn some sneers here) was/is actually a very talented actor.