Marilyn Monroe. An icon

Marilyn Monroe was much more than just a dumb blonde.

Questions:

1. What is the main reason Marilyn Monroe reached the iconic status? Was it mainly her life, her career or her mysterious death contributed as well.

2. Was she really so outstanding actress or was it something else that made her icon of her age?

3. Does Marilyn Monroe influence even the present? How? Or is she definitely only a glamorous myth of the past?

Answers:

Rich Hanley, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Quinnipiac University

1. Icons secure that status when they perfectly reflect and advance a moment in cultural history. Monroe did just that in the 1950s. American found her sexually charged energy on the big screen and her serial relationships off it to be both appealing and threatening, representing the cultural conflicts then percolating throughout America. She became famous more for her fame than her work on the screen. Her suicide transformed her from a celebrity into the tragic figure of mythic proportions who could not survive what she had wrought.

2. Audiences and critics applauded much of her work but her enduring fame was amplified by her unintentional role as a global celebrity. She transcended her screen roles as the global marketplace for celebrities and celebrity news expanded in the 1950s.

3. Monroe is the benchmark by which contemporary celebrities are measured. Almost 50 years afte rhe death, Monroe is still the reference point for celebrities who are famous simply because they are famous. She is the archetype.

David Lubin, Professor of Art, Wake Forest University

1.  She reached iconic status for at least four reasons:  the famous men to whom she linked, either by marriage (baseball great Joe DiMaggio, the era’s leading playwright, Arthur Miller) or rumor (President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy); her notorious, sometimes outlandish behavior on the film set; her tragic/pathetic/mysterious (pick one) death; the posthumous attention to her given by Pop Art (Andy Warhol) and pop culture (Elton John, among others).

2.  She was a good, talented actress, especially in comic roles (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Some Like It Hot).  Serious roles were more of a stretch for her (for example, The Misfits), but she worked hard at her craft.  Those who knew her said she was a very intelligent, articulate, and quick-witted woman, despite the “dumb blonde” parts she played.

3.  She’s a huge influence on the present.  Certainly in the US, but probably around the world, young female entertainers (Madonna being the best example) have modeled themselves on her and attempted to parlay their female sexuality into real-world power, using it in a creative, self-aware manner–to exploit their sexuality for themselves, that is, rather than be exploited by it by men and the culture industry, which, finally, is what happened to Marilyn.  So she’s been both a model for young women in using sexuality in an empowering way but also a reminder to them of what happens when a woman allows herself to be used.  In that regard, she’s one of the enduring mythic figures of the modern era.

Joan Mellen, Professor of English and creative writing, Temple University, Author of the Book: Marilyn Monroe

When I wrote my biography of Marilyn Monroe, the women’s movement here in the United States was just beginning. Mine was the first feminist biography of Marilyn Monroe. Others followed in the next decade. There were other blondes with big chests during the 1950s, in retrospect a last desperate attempt of Hollywood even then to remind women that they were sex objects first.

Marilyn Monroe was not that person, and got away from those who would turn her into an emblem of raw female sexuality: Yes, she spoke in that baby voice, and showed her breasts, but she was winking all the while (unlike, for example, bimbo blondes like Jayne Mansfield, also of that historical epoch, who never made any pretense of being able to think). Marilyn signalled that she knew better, was better, and had a brain, even if the culture wasn’t permitting her to use it. She entered into a complicit relationship with the audience. It was exhilarating to see her on the screen.

And, it turned out, Marilyn Monroe did have serious artistic ambitions. I remember that one of her goals was to play Grushenka, a character from your world, no? It’s unusual even today for an actress to admit that she has read “The Brothers Karamazov,” which, coincidentally, is my favorite novel of all time, although I recognize the superior artistry of “Anna Karenina.”

It was Marilyn Monroe’s life as much as her appearance that began to interest people, the aspirations hovering beneath the surface of her campy portrayal of women who sell or use their bodies to purchase rich men. She was very beautiful and many went to see her films for that alone. But she was more. Sometimes she showed that she was smart by playing comedy where she could reveal that she was so much more vibrant a person that she seemed. Sometimes it was a knowing look, and an intensity that let us know how much she longed for better roles, roles it would take at least a decade after her death even to be imagined in the United States.

What became interesting about Marilyn Monroe’s death was her association with the Kennedy brothers, John and his brother Robert. The evidence seems to be that she had sexual relationships with both of them. As I wrote in “A Farewell To Justice,” about the assassination, quoting a soldier of fortune of the time, Kennedy was the last president who thought he could take power. Kennedy believed he had, shall we say, prerogatives, including his right to sleep with the sexiest woman of the time, Marilyn Monroe. He passed her on to his brother, apparently, treating her as she didn’t want to be treated, and the evidence suggests that she was angry about it.

I have no reason to know that Marilyn Monroe was murdered, or that Robert Kennedy shut her up because she was threatening to talk about their relationship. It could be true. Her room was locked from the inside, however. I don’t know.

When we think about Marilyn Monroe today, I fear it’s in relation to the Kennedys – in this culture of the expendable what we remember about Marilyn Monroe is her singing “Happy Birthday” in a skin tight dress in her tiny baby voice to the doomed President.

Elayne Rapping, Professor and pop-culture expert, University at Buffalo

1. I think MM was iconic because of several things. She was sexy but also innocent –and actually very funny– and that made her both irresistible and unthreatening.

2. She was a better actress than she is given credit for–a born comedian. The problem that she was sold as a dumb blonde. In those days the studios owned the stars under contract and she would have been suspended or worse had she fought–in fact she was increasingly suspended for being increasingly late as she had more and more trouble doing her job–but the short answer is  that stars in the old Studio System had no control over their careers at all.

Her real talent –at that playing role–was overlooked. She was far from dumb and in fact had string views n politics, etc.

3. I dont think her influence will ever die–like other iconic celbrities: James Dean, Bob Dylan, John Wayne , etc–she is a part of our collective consciousness and references to her aboubd–as in Madonna’s constant refernences to her in updating her image to show what her work could have been if she lived now.

Clearly her life story is fidder for the gossip mills and she was a truly tragic figure. But still, it is her image onscreen that keeps her alive

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