50 years ago today Marilyn Monroe left us. You've undoubtedly noticed that her lovely ghost is more active than ever, always haunting popular culture. In the past ten months alone, we've been inundated with Marilyn resurrections and references: My Week With Marilyn, Smash, that Dior commercial with Charlize Theron, James Franco and Channing Tatum in Marilyn drag at the Oscars and in Magic Mike respectively. You could call that a symptom of this major anniversary or the current Mad Men inspired 60s fanaticism were it not for the fact that Hollywood is always attempting Marilyn resurrections in one form or another.
Strange then that the actress who is most comparable to her these days in terms of über charisma, sex appeal and body type, the great Christina Hendricks, can't manage to excite Hollywood enough for them to give her showcase movie roles. She's a hell of an actress and the only thing she hasn't yet shown us that's Marilyn-related is superb comic timing.
Marilyn Monroe is like Hollywood's Jesus. If they actually came back to us the people who blab on and on about them the most (Hollywood and Christians respectively) would be the first to reject their reality. Hollywood doesn't really want actresses to be as powerfully voluptuous as that!
Marilyn is now only a fantasy, and paradoxically perhaps that makes her closer to the "Marilyn" that Norma Jean intended all along given that she was (to some extent) fictional to the woman playing her. People have always preferred the fantasy to the reality with Marilyn and now moreso than ever I think. But she seems so real from ubiquity that her spirit verges on the corporeal. [Actresses, Memories and Fashion after the jump]
Consider the actresses and stars who give over their bodies to channel her: Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn), Madonna ("Material Girl" and other photo shoots), Theresa Russell (Insignificance), Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino (Norma Jean & Marilyn), Poppy Montgomery ("Blonde"), Carla Gugino ("After the Fall") and that's literally just scratching the surface; she's been played by hundreds of women since her death.
To celebrate this historic anniversary today I thought I'd share two tidbits from books.
The latest that I'm aware of is called "Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla" which is written by Andrew Hansford and Karen Homer.
Travilla was a key player in Marilyn iconography, designing many of her classic looks when superstardom hit in 1953. You don't hear his name often anymore so the book should do a lot to give him the proper credit. He was nominated four times for the Oscar, twice for Marilyn films (There's No Business Like Show Business, How to Marry a Millionaire --which we just discussed) and winning on his first nomination for The Adventures of Don Juan). His last nomination came for The Stripper (1963) which he thought would be his reunion with Marilyn. But she died before filming began and Joanne Woodward won the lead role.
One of the most interesting stories involves the production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. After her pre-fame nude photos made their way to the public eye the studio was furious and ordered Travilla to redo all the costumes:
Cover her up, we are not selling her body"
He had to chuck the original "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" dress, a work of diamond studded couture art which took months to create, and design the new pink gown in a matter of hours! Believe it or not that silky sexy looking dress has the stiff green felt you see on billiard tables as its lining! Bizarre, right?
Any other girl would have looked like she was wearing cardboard, but on screen I swear you would have thought Marilyn had on a pale, thin piece of silk. Her body was so fabulous it still came through."
The book has a ton of neat photos of her gowns in various states of design and reality and a lot of behind the scenes stories about the way Marilyn approached her look.
Marilyn is also the subject of the first chapter of Frank Langella's "Dropped Names," which we've discussed once before, he tells a lovely story of a chance encounter with Marilyn when he was a boy of fifteen wandering the streets of New York unsure of what he was looking for or why he was wandering. A limousine stopped in front of him on a side street...
From inside the darkness a white-gloved hand reached out for help and it was given. Then came a face of dizzying beauty, the head slightly lowered to avoid disrupting the spun gold blond hair caressing a white fox collar clutched close to a milky white throat.
As she emerged fully, a long white coat emerging with her like hot steam freeing itself from inside an open shower door, my heart began to pound. Once fully standing on the street, she let go of the collar, allowing the coat to fall free, exposing a body encased in a full-length skintight gown made of what looked like tiny white pearls seemingly flung at her in wild abandon and clinging to her every poer. Around her neck, over her wrists, and on her ears werre brightly sparkling diamonds.
She lifted one of her gloved hands, felt for the necklace, and with the other reached for the side of her coat, pushing it back to reveal still more of her. My pulse raced faster. She turned briefly to her right, saw me standing there, smiled like a sunbeam, and said in a soft whisper:
Then she glided up some steps into a building and flashes of light obliterated her from my sight. I returned to the Port Authority and sat tremblingon my bus as it transported me back home.
An indefinable yearning to free myself from a life I instinctively felt was killing my soul had caused me to venture forth that day without guidance or direction: not so much from bravery as from desperation. I was a small skinny kid in horn-rimmed glasses, born into a middle-class Italian family, feeling always as if I didn't belong. As if I were in prison, incarcerated for crimes unknown to me. At twenty-seven years of age, Marilyn Monroe had, I'm certain, awakened that morning yearning for something she too could not define; a tortured soul that I saw only as a beautiful woman and a Movie Star.
What were the odds of this chance encounter? Had I turned the cornery sixty seconds later or had her car caught a light and been delayed it would never have happened. She was my first. Someone existing outside my prison walls. An ineffable creature stopping for an instant, smiling, looking directly into the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy and speaking just one word. One was enough. Lightning had struck."