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Marilyn Monroe as Icon

Marilyn Monroe Biographies

The best of the Marilyn books offer fresh insights                              about her. Some of the others are brazenly exploitative.
The best of the Marilyn books offer fresh insights about her. Some of the others are brazenly exploitative.

It is the job of biographers to sort out fact from folklore and to analyze Marilyn Monroe's significance to our culture. Some biographers take to the task quite readily, while others miss the mark, adding to the mountain of misinformation already in existence.

The best biographies are by authors who have thoroughly researched her life by interviewing former associates and friends, reviewing original publicity articles and news accounts, and assessing the effects of certain films and photographs on her career.


Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles and Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers offer the most detailed and straightforward biographies.

Though some estimates claim that more than 300 books about Marilyn Monroe have been written, very few accounts of her life were authored before she died. The best of these remains Maurice Zolotow's Marilyn Monroe, first published in 1960.

Sometimes a picture is truly worth a thousand words; Monroe: Her Life in Pictures by James Spada with George Zeno, Marilyn: An Appreciation by Eve Arnold, and Marilyn Monroe and the Camera chronicle the actress's career with a selection of poignant and provocative photographs.

Most suspect of all publications on Marilyn Monroe are personal accounts by acquaintances who knew her only slightly or as employees and tell-all stories by male associates who claim to have had a physical relationship with her. (If all those who claimed to have been one of Marilyn's lovers are telling the truth, then she would hardly have had time to make any films!)

As a cultural figure, Marilyn Monroe has inspired important authors and playwrights to analyze her life and career and her impact on our society. Two interesting -- and contradictory -- points of view are offered by Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem in their respective books.

Despite the title, Mailer's Marilyn: A Biography is not a factual, straightforward account of her life. Instead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author took the bare outline of the actress's life and career and filled it in with his impressions, creating what he called a "novel biography."

He hypothesizes about what Marilyn thought of certain events and interprets her feelings about the people in her life. In the end, Mailer tells us more about Marilyn Monroe's effect on the men of his generation than he does about the actress herself.

Marilyn's appeal to magazine editors -- and readers -- is undiluted by time.
Marilyn's appeal to magazine editors -- and readers -- is undiluted by time.

In contrast to Mailer's male-oriented interpretation is the feminist perspective of Gloria Steinem's Marilyn: Norma Jeane, composed of a series of essays on topics related to the star's life and image.

Steinem approaches her subject insightfully, and with a unique point of view that became possible only after the advent of the women's movement. The forces that affected Marilyn's life and career are reinterpreted through a woman's eyes.

Though one might expect Steinem to be critical of Marilyn's persona as a sex symbol, the feminist empathizes with the actress's struggle for success and respect. Steinem's approach emphasizes Marilyn's humanity by downplaying her sexuality.

Playwrights have made use of Marilyn's larger-than-life image in a wide array of works since 1955, when George Axelrod parodied the world's most famous blonde in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?.

Some plays have used Marilyn as a symbol of exploitation, as in Tom Eyen's 1964 off-off-Broadway drama The White Whore and the Bit Player, while others have chronicled Marilyn's life as a tribute to her, as in the 1983 British musical Marilyn!.

Other playwrights evoke the myth surrounding Marilyn Monroe, commenting on its longevity and its cultural significance; notable works of this type include Patricia Michaeis's Marilyn: An American Fable and Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children.

A particularly heart-rending theatrical interpretation of Marilyn Monroe provides the focus of After the Fall, a drama by Arthur Miller detailing the turmoil of their union. Fans have assumed that the 1964 play contains personal references to the Miller-Monroe marriage, making for a gut-wrenching viewing experience.

In 1986, Norman Mailer turned his preoccupation with Marilyn into a play entitled Strawhead, starring his daughter Kate Mailer. It ran for two weeks at the Actors Studio in New York, receiving mostly poor reviews.

More popularized stage productions involving the figure of Marilyn Monroe include the Las Vegas-based revue Legends in Concert, which features convincing impersonations of Marilyn, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, and other show-biz icons.

While stage incarnations of Marilyn tend to be used as metaphors or symbols, most representations of her on film and television amount to little more than two-dimensional impersonations used in superficial retellings of her life story.

One of the most difficult tasks in interpreting Marilyn's life, particularly on film or television, has been the matter of appropriate casting. The actress playing Marilyn must capture all of the legend's signature gestures and poses without resorting to caricature.

At least 30 stage and film actresses have attempted to recall or recreate Marilyn's charismatic persona -- most have failed. Some of the more embarrassing theatrical-film attempts include Misty Rowe's vapid performance in Larry Buchanan's Goodbye, Norma Jeane and Paula Lane's go-round in Buchanan's conspiracy-oriented Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn.

Television biopics run the gamut of quality. The Sex Symbol starred Connie Stevens as a fictionalized Marilyn Monroe. Badly miscast, Stevens could do no better than to exaggerate Marilyn's gestures and voice to the point of parody.

Based on Alvah Bessie's 1966 novel The Symbol, this tasteless drama first aired in 1974. With its lack of sympathy and respect for its title character, The Sex Symbol merely exploited Marilyn; prints that played in theaters in Europe exploited the Marilyn myth further with nude scenes that were not aired on American TV.

Many film and TV actresses have portrayed Marilyn; few have been as credible as Catherine Hicks.
Many film and TV actresses have portrayed Marilyn; few have been as credible as Catherine Hicks.

Catherine Hicks's performance in the 1980 made-for-television biography Marilyn: The Untold Story is generally regarded as the best biographical portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

Produced by Lawrence Schiller, the photographer who took the famous nude photos of Marilyn on the set of Something's Got to Give, Marilyn: The Untold Story was based on Norman Mailer's "novel biography."

The film was enhanced by the participation of three talented directors, including Hollywood veteran Jack Arnold. The impressive roster of behind-the-scenes personnel ensured pleasant entertainment, but the three-hour drama lacks insight into Marilyn's personality and fails to add anything new to the Monroe lore and literature.

Hicks, whose thoughtful performance is the highlight of the production, managed to capture Marilyn's voice and mannerisms and suggest her alluring presence without resorting to caricature.

Hicks received a well-earned Emmy nomination. (In an ironic twist, Monroe "replacement" Sheree North appears in this film in the role of Marilyn's mother.)

A more thoughtful and intriguing depiction of Marilyn Monroe is found in director Nicolas Roeg's Insignificanc, a provocative film version of a British stage play by Terry Johnson.

Released in 1985, the movie is not really about Marilyn but rather is a speculation on fame and the threat of nuclear war. The narrative revolves around the hotel-room liaisons of a group of unnamed characters -- a movie star, a ballplayer, a scientist, and a Red-baiting senator -- who bear striking resemblances to Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Theresa Russell, costumed in a white dress very much like the one worn by Marilyn in the subway-grate scene of The Seven Year Itch, portrays the movie star. Though Russell does not physically look like Marilyn, she successfully evokes her presence and image.

Other portrayals of various Marilyn-like characters include Kim Stanley in the title role of the 1958 drama The Goddess, Faye Dunaway as Maggie in the 1974 television adaptation of After the Fall, and Linda Kerridge as a Marilyn look-alike in the 1980 thriller Fade to Black.

In each of these films, the Marilyn figure was used to symbolize themes and ideas that were larger than the events of the plot.

Marilyn's iconic image has even appeared in works of art. Find out more on the next page.