The reluctant sex symbol

IN A GALLERY shop the other day, surrounded by Banksy prints and street artists that were so cutting edge that nobody but the gallery owner had heard of them, there were several prints of Marilyn Monroe by the pop art god Peter Blake.

There she was, glittering amongst the graffiti art, her face so iconic you almost don’t register it even when you’re looking straight at it.

We never tire of her. It’s been almost half a century since she bowed out, on August 5, 1962, aged 36 — but unlike the other dead icons, who have faded with time, whose images have become sepia tinted in our memory, Marilyn remains bright. The re-release of a book of photography shows her from 1945 to the year of her death, from the lithe, post-war beach girl to the shimmering goddess of some of the world’s most enduring and recognisable images. ‘Silver Marilyn’ features Marilyn close-ups, brunette Marilyn, silver iconic Marilyn, and Marilyn lying on white fur — which decades later would be copied by Madonna. The book is packed with legendary photographers, including Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Henri Dauman, Weegee, Bob Willoughby, Bert Stern and Georges Belmont, who took the famous Silver Marilyn picture of her which Andy Warhol later transformed into one of his most famous (and replicated) pop art works.

The book, reissued from 1989, contains a 1960 interview from Marie Claire with Belmont. “When she was silent, I too said nothing,” he said. “Because when she could no longer stand it and continued talking, she usually revealed something very important and moving.” She was the best subject Eve Arnold ever shot. “I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera,” she said. “She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after.

“She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects.” But while the camera clearly adored Marilyn, the relationship was rather more ambiguous from her own point of view. When someone once asked her what it was like for her doing a photo shoot, she replied “It’s like being screwed by a thousand guys and you can’t get pregnant.”

We haven’t forgotten Marilyn, not just because she looked good. Lots of people look good, but have not retained such a place in our consciousness decades after their death. Our response to her is complicated, because she herself was complicated — she is quoted in Christopher Bigsby’s biography of Arthur Miller, saying: “I want to be an artist. Not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.” She had read Miller’s work before ever meeting him. In 1951, between takes of the movie Love Nest, she read Proust and Rilke; the same year she was voted Miss Cheesecake by US troops stationed in Germany. Yet she never wanted to be a sex symbol.

And she was notoriously difficult on set. Compulsively late, afraid to come out of her trailer, frequently fluffing simple lines through lack of confidence, so that a few words might require dozens of takes, and in constant need of reassurance — she was not an easy ride. But then she was never given one, because people only wanted to see the beauty, the sexuality, rather than the artist with the brain.

“People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person,” she said. “They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.”

Film maker Billy Wilder worked with Marilyn on films like Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch, which gave the world that famous dress-flying-up shot when Marilyn stood on an air vent. “She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her,” he said. “That, I think, was very important. And she automatically knew where the joke was. She did not discuss it. She came up for the first rehearsal, and she was absolutely perfect, when she remembered the line. She could do a three-page dialogue scene perfectly, and then get stuck on a line like, “It’s me, Sugar”. But if she showed up, she delivered, and if it took eighty takes, I lived with eighty takes, because the eighty-first was very good.

“She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. Fright. She was afraid of the camera, and that’s why, I think, she muffed some lines. God knows how often. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.”

We are still mesmerised by Marilyn Monroe because she was not just about blank beauty. She was a complicated, enquiring individual, hungry for acceptance, respect, learning, intellectual fulfilment and to be treated as a mind as well as a body. She read and read, sucking in the minds of others, even as Hollywood tried to present her as someone who had no mind of her own; the disconnect finally killed her. And we’re still fascinated. As she put it herself, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

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