If you thought Marilyn Monroe was just a dumb bombshell, Lois Banner has news for you. Her new biography presents the classic sex symbol as a protofeminist, writes Deepanjana Pal.
If you look up Marilyn Monroe on IMDb, you’ll see that her last film credit was in 2010 (her song ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ was in the soundtrack of the film Burlesque). It’s been 50 years since Monroe’s mysterious death in 1962, but when it comes to glamour and sensuality, she’s still the first name that comes to our minds. A few years ago, Lindsay Lohan copied Monroe’s last photo shoot when she posed for Playboy. Michelle Williams won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Earlier this year, when Cannes Film Festival turned 65, it chose as its Face of the Festival a black and white photo of Monroe blowing out a single candle on a cake. Not bad for a woman who was known to her cattier contemporaries as “the girl with big tits”.
Monroe worked with some of the most critically-acclaimed directors of her time, like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Laurence Olivier and Billy Wilder. The legendary British actress Sybil Thorndike, who worked with Monroe in The Prince And The Showgirl, said, “That little girl is the only one here who knows how to act before a camera.” In case you were wondering, Monroe was acting opposite Olivier himself in The Prince.... Even though there are legions of dedicated Monroe fans who insist that she was not a bimbo, the image of Monroe that has persisted is that of a blonde bombshell, the ditz whose lips are perpetually pursed to O and whose one qualification is that she’s hot.
The latest attempt to change our perception of Monroe is Marilyn: The Passion And The Paradox (Bloomsbury Publishing India, Rs499), a biography by Lois Banner. The reason why Banner might just manage better than others is that she is one of the more eminent feminists of our times. When the author of a textbook titled Women In Modern America: A Brief History depicts Monroe as a protofeminist, it’s an argument you can’t dismiss.
Monroe made her debut as an actress in 1947 but it was her performance in The Asphalt Jungle in 1950 that made critics and audiences sit up. Yet for all the serious cinema in her filmography, Monroe was held in contempt by many in Hollywood. She was known for her nude photo shoots, frivolous comedies and the breathiest rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ ever. Banner says that for decades, she herself had dismissed Monroe as “a sex object for men”. “By the 1990s, however, a generation of ‘third wave feminists’ contended that sexualising women was liberating, not demeaning, for it gave them self-knowledge and power,” said Banner, explaining what made her reconsider Monroe.
The woman who emerges from Banner’s carefully-researched biography isn’t just a beautiful face on a stunning body. Rather, Monroe comes across as a woman who knew how to play the hand she was dealt and that too skilfully enough to make everyone from John F Kennedy to Marlene Dietrich pant. Born Norma Jean Mortenson, Monroe lived in 11 foster homes as a child, the first of which she was placed in at the age of three months. The first of her three marriages was at age 16. She was molested as a child, suffered from endometriosis; was bipolar and a sex addict. And as if all this wasn’t salacious enough, she was probably murdered, if Banner is to be believed.
There are a few novel insights that Banner brings to the world of Monroe scholarship. Banner contends Monroe had a number of lesbian affairs, most notably with her acting coach Natasha Lytess. Perhaps one of the more disturbing images that Banner suggests coyly to her reader with is a threesome consisting of playwright Arthur Miller, director Elia Kazan and Monroe. The biography also contains analyses of Monroe’s dreams and her spirituality. While all these have novelty value, what is most arresting about Monroe is her determination to not be weighed down by the darkness in her life.
The term protofeminist refers to those who anticipated feminism by living according to its principles before the term was coined. Monroe is one of them. The popular perception is that she was used and abused by men, both personally and professionally. Banner shows how valiantly Monroe overcame a childhood that was in equal parts traumatic and loving. Monroe is a fighter, unwilling to back down, and she carves an identity for herself in a male-dominated Hollywood.
Rather than a damaged victim, Banner’s Monroe is a consummate puppeteer. The persona she builds for herself is a careful balance of innocence and sexuality. Monroe was hyper-aware of her body, her facial flaws (What? You didn’t notice the upturned nose and the weak jawline?) and her charisma, which is why she spent up to three hours in make-up to ensure that the persona that emerged would enthral the audience. She named the men who molested her. She fought Hollywood moghuls for her rights and she had no qualms using her sexuality to control men.
There’s more than one Hollywood blockbuster in this life story.