50 years on, Marilyn’s star shines bright, her image frozen in time

Only 11 years after her death, Elton John sang his ode to Marilyn Monroe: “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.”

What he didn’t know was how much truer his words would ring a few decades later. Monroe passed away a half-century ago this Sunday, a murky death that remains one of Hollywood’s most tantalising mysteries.

Her last hours have animated conspiracy theorists for 50 years.

The many peculiar aspects to her death — officially a “probable suicide” — include a strange bruise on her lower back, the number of sleeping pills (more than 50) she supposedly ingested without a handy water glass and the disappearance of her phone records.

The star was found dead in her Brentwood home in Los Angeles, naked and still clutching a phone. She was 36. Accidental drug overdose? Suicide? Murder at the hands of a powerful political clan? The Mob?

The story is still fresh today, thanks to Monroe’s magic potion: beauty, sensuality, insecurity and talent, all mixed together with a giant dollop of mystery, a potion that has only grown stronger over the years.

Just look around: Her legend lives on, more vibrantly than ever. In a development this fiercely ambitious actress surely would have appreciated, the 1950s bombshell has become a 21st-century pop culture phenomenon.

Just flip through a celebrity magazine: Some of-the-moment young starlet or pop singer will be channelling (or outright appropriating) those platinum locks, the bright red lips, moist and slightly parted, and that joyously, almost defiantly curvy figure, sheathed in something glamorous.

Was that Monroe on the red carpet at last year’s Teen Choice Awards? No, it was Taylor Swift, wearing a white halter-style dress just like Monroe’s in The Seven Year Itch, in which the actress stood atop a subway grate and let the breeze of a passing train lift her skirts. (Oh and that dress sold at auction last year for $5.6m.)

Magazine spreads have featured Nicole Kidman, Lindsay Lohan, Rihanna, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis and others having their Monroe moment.

Madonna famously appropriated Monroe’s look into her image. On the big screen, Michelle Williams earned an Oscar nomination for her moving portrayal of Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.

But just what is the secret of Monroe’s enduring appeal? It depends on whom you ask — and that’s fitting, really, because Monroe, more than other iconic celebrities, was different things to different people.

Film historian Leonard Maltin laments that many people know Monroe “as an image and an icon”, but not as an actress.

Monroe showed off her dramatic chops in The Misfits, for example, and Bus Stop. However, she is probably best remembered for her delightful comic turns in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee who sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in that classic pink gown; as the sensuous but ditzy girl in The Seven Year Itch; and as sexy band singer Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot.

“Marilyn just leaps off the screen,” says Maltin. “She has a luminosity that transcends everything else.”

Still, an entire younger generation is enamoured of her for something completely different, says Brandon Holley, editor in chief of Lucky magazine, which attracts women in their 20s and 30s.

“I think most women under 40 haven’t seen her movies,” Holley says. “For them, she’s a style type — the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot of women identify with that.”

Christopher Nickens agrees. “Marilyn was the epitome of a certain kind of feminine ideal,” says the co-author of Marilyn in Fashion, a rare look at Monroe’s influence in that field. Her key fashion legacy, he says, was to bring body-conscious clothes into everyday life, with elegance.

Though she wasn’t seen as a fashion icon during her lifetime, Nickens thinks Monroe shared something with other style icons like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. “They didn’t follow trends,” he says.

“It’s about knowing yourself and what works for you, and having that confidence.”

Confidence isn’t necessarily something one associates with Monroe, of course. Elton’s John’s Candle in the Wind viewed her as a beautiful innocent victimised by a terrible Hollywood machine — people who “whispered into your brain” and “set you on the treadmill” and “made you change your name”.

That falls into a familiar victim narrative about Monroe, who was indeed victimised as a young girl, according to multiple biographers. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes, and there are allegations she suffered sexual abuse.

But a victim of Hollywood? Monroe’s latest biographer, Lois Banner, begs to differ. She says Monroe the movie star “was a constructed image” — one the actress herself worked very hard to invent, from the dyed hair to the makeup, that breathy voice, and the famous “wiggle walk”.

And her dumb blonde screen image? Nothing like her, says Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. “She was extremely intelligent.”

But why has Marilyn’s appeal become stronger? “First of all, she died very young,” says Banner, freezing her image for eternity. But another reason is the existence of thousands of photographs of Marilyn, bursting with life. She’s conceivably the most photographed person of the 20th century,” says Banner. The author’s third reason is more cynical: “There’s a lot of people making money off her,” she says.

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