This week’s The Way They Were features an actress who is no longer with us, but has nonetheless left an indelible mark on pop culture. From her appearance on the premier issue of Playboy magazine, she, as much as anyone has defined feminine sexuality for generations of women (and men). From pop icon “Material Girl” Madonna resurrecting the pink evening gown from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes showstopper “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” to the deceased Playmate/Guess Girl Anna Nicole Smith, Monroe’s influence cannot be overstated.
Her filmography reflects a woman whose talent was sometimes overshadowed by the projections and expectations others had for and about her. It is my personal opinion that she was a better actress than the movie machine at the time would allow her to be, and that her best material died with her.
Perhaps her train wreck of a childhood left her with underdeveloped skills to drive/control her own persona. That’s a question for the Oprah Armchair Psychologists. For the purposes of this blogpost; however, we’ll just concentrate on the films she made and the contribution they made to pop culture.
Monkey Business is responsible for solidifying the archetype of the sexy, nubile, ornamental secretary possessed of negligible secretarial skills. Anyone who has seen the 1970s sketch comedy of Carol Burnett will at once recognize Monroe’s Miss Lois Laurel in the secretarial stylings of Mrs.W Wiggins. Characterized as a “screwball comedy, the central characters are co-stars Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers (themselves icons), but nonetheless, it is impossible to overlook the comely and curvy Monroe.
As a brunette, I can forgive the war of the tresses established by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. For Pete’s sake, the movie probably is responsible for the return volley: ‘yes, but they marry brunettes…’ But I digress. Shrewd, sexual, irrepressible and just flat out dazzling fun, this is one of my favorite musicals. Monroe is countered by the whip-smart bombshell-in-her-own-right Jane Russell (a woman whose assets caused film censors of the time to do a double take). Rather than being gold-diggers, they liberate willing men of their largesse.
Perhaps How to Marry a Millionaire was the next logical step for Monroe. Paired with legendary pin-up Betty Grable and brainy beauty Lauren Becall, the three, cast as Manhattan models of modest means, embrace the ‘fake it ‘til you make it,’ philosophy in their quest to land wealthy spouses. Monroe’s comedic talent and innate intelligence enable her to easily inhabit the same screen as her co-stars. Cast as the blonde equivalent of Mr. Magoo with boobs, Monroe steals more than her share of scenes. Definitely a product of its time, and although some may argue that it is ‘anti-feminist,’ taken on its own merits, the film is both comedy and commentary on a woman’s choices in the 1950s.
The Girl. Boy if that doesn’t encapsulate Marilyn Monroe in the eyes of some studio execs, I don’t know what would. Cast as the tempting and alluring object of The One That Got Away and/or The One I Gave Up In Order to Be a Married Man, Monroe is the girl upstairs in the movie The Seven Year Itch. Sexual repression is thrumming throughout this film. Also of particular import is the iconic *ICONIC* air-vent shot that sends Monroe’s white skirt heaven-ward.
I could devote an entire blogpost to the film Some Like It Hot. Another Billy Wilder vehicle starring Monroe, this movie is full of slapstick, cynicism, frivolity and gender-bending hilarious deconstructions of all sorts. In terms of pop influence, I think that TV’s Bosom Buddies (introducing a young Tom Hanks) is a direct descendant. Boy-gets-girl; boy-gets-girl-who-is-really-a-boy… but ‘nobody’s perfect.’ This movie comes close. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend adding this “screwball comedy” to the netflix queue posthaste.
Boy I miss her. Thoughts?
MONKEY BUSINESS – MISS LOIS LAUREL (1952)
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS – LORELEI LEE (1953)
HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE – POLA DEBEVOISE (1953)
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH – THE GIRL (1955)
SOME LIKE IT HOT – SUGAR KANE KOWALCZYK (1959)