While some lucky individuals have already had the chance to see Simon Curtis’ peek into the life of a sex icon My Week with Marilyn at the New York Film Festival, the rest of us plebeians have to wait until November for our own chance. Now, early buzz for the Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe) vehicle has been favorable, however that is not what’s piquing my interest in the project. Rather I’m curious to see the maudlin-looking Williams’ embodiment of the sexpot. Williams is of course a stunning actress when she’s dressed for award season, but we rarely see that beauty on screen as she tends to embrace homely, makeup free characters. Clearly she will add an intriguing element of wistful sadness to the woman many of us wish to be.
But is Williams infusing her own brand of melancholy into the character, or did Monroe always have that just below the surface? Let’s face it, Monroe was a heartbreaking figure. She rearranged her face for fame, long before her abusive husbands would do the same. She fell in love with unavailable men and was destroyed by a pill addiction. She was rewarded with being forever beautiful, but she would never get to know that. That tragedy, above all, makes the queen of sad faces Williams a clever casting choice for the fallen icon. And this brief glance into Monroe’s life could potentially shake up everything later generations thought about the woman, or it could reintroduce us to the films of the flawed yet captivating original Blonde Bombshell.
In the weeks leading up to the My Week with Marilyn release, I’ve been thinking about doing just that. Dusting off old copies (many of them unopened due to impulsive purchases) of Monroe’s iconic films seems like the perfect way to prepare myself for a biopic sure to make me silently wipe away tears. For a woman known primarily as an antidote to the emotional coldness of Cold War America, Monroe actually used that baby voice to make more than just fluffy rom-coms. From Western fair like John Huston’s classic The Misfits to Henrey Hathaway’s noir Niagara, her brief career was spent jumping from genre to genre while she made her name (Katherine Heigl-style) in the sex comedy world.
Monkey Business (1952)
In 1952 Cary Grant was the ultimate sex god. He set the bar for fast talking and oozed charm men wish they could. It only makes sense that Howard Hawks would cast the lothario against Hollywood’s budding young sexpot. While Monkey Business told the story of chemist Barnaby Fulton’s (Grant) research into the possibility of a Fountain of Youth Pill, the standout was the saucy Monroe as Lois Laurel, Barnaby’s boss’s secretary, who tempts the chemist with her curvaceous legs. The film follows the usual Hayes Code rules of suggestion without fulfillment, so Barnaby and Lois never act on their attraction. However audiences do get many lascivious gazes directed at Monroe’s body parts while she helps the science team determine just what caused each person associated with the formula to regress to younger personalities.
Monroe demonstrated an early talent for both physical comedy (see what I did there?) and expelling sexual charisma from her first moment on screen. She had been in other films prior to Monkey Business, but the challenge of acting opposite Grant and Ginger Rogers (Edwina Fulton) pushed her to find her own voice–that voice just happened to be higher pitched and more suggestive than expected.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Later the next year, two films boosted Monroe’s stock in the romantic comedy realm. Both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire provided the voluptuous blonde a leading voice, something Monkey Business did not offer. Gentlemen reunited Hawks with his muse along with the delightful Jane Russell. Dorothy (Russell) and Lorelei (Monroe) are two lounge singers who travel by cruise ship to Paris in hopes of taking the City of Lights by storm. Get your head out of the gutter, these women are not THOSE kinds of performers, however they do take advantage of the men they meet on the way there (oh, the charms of rape-free transatlantic travel).
The film’s most notable moment sees Lorelei donning a pink ball gown and gliding down a laminate staircase lined with adoring suitors while she declares “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Even if you have never seen this film before, that particular scene is so vivid in pop culture consciousness and the sexual prowess Monroe expels captivates both men and women to this day. Even me, a fair-weather Monroe fan can’t help but pretend to be Lorelei Lee every time I descend a grand staircase during gala season. Thanks for that, Marilyn.
Meanwhile, How to Marry a Millionaire takes the gold digging Monroe image to the next level. Switching out director Hawks for Jean Negulesco, Monroe is one of three women who set their sights on finding rich men to take them away from financial insecurity. Each woman looks beautiful and refuses to wear pants until the absolute most necessary moment (oh, freedom!). While the film is squishy offering, there are moments where Monroe, acting opposite power houses Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, allows some of her private anguish peeks out from behind her sensual smile. She is a woman trying to find love and security—two things Monroe searched for in her personal life—but at the same time she must accept that to receive those constructs she has to also give up a bit of herself. Of course the film ends happily, with her finding someone to love her for her, but looking back Monroe was vulnerable in a way she didn’t want us to see.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
I really don’t feel like I need to say more than white dress on a subway grate.
Oh, you want more? Okay, Okay. Director Billy Wilder also wanted her to put on thicker underwear because her lady parts kept showing.
The Seven Year Itch once again put Monroe in the role of a tempestuous beautiful neighbor sent from Sinland to seduce a faithful husband and father. Richard (Tom Ewell) is charmed by The Girl (Monroe), who becomes fodder for his sexual fantasies. While this is Monroe’s most iconic role, it’s also probably her saddest. She was at the height of her fame, a time in any actress’s career when she should get to enjoy the roles she plays, however we once again see her true heartache just under the surface. It later came out that Monroe was plagued with the beginnings of her descent into depression, something she would be haunted by until her death in 1963.
The films she made leading up to her death, including The Misfits and Some Like it Hot, provided her with financial security and the opportunity to live as comfortable a life as possible. She married Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, divorced both of them, and then died alone on a cocktail of barbiturates and booze didn’t. Monroe was lost from the beginning, and it’s unfortunate that she found her peace only in death. But, her films remain reminders of her strong acting, her sensual aura, and her tragic sadness.
I think Williams completely understands that.