Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox

The exasperating possibility that Marilyn Monroe was trivial is plainly an idea doomed to never get much traction in American culture. In the half century since her death after ingesting too much Nembutal at age thirty-six —  her final pratfall, or was it suicide? Could it have been. . . murder? — she’s probably put in more time getting pawed by theorists on posterity’s casting couch than any actress in history.

For Monroe’s interpreters, it’s never enough to view her as touching, pitiable, gallant, an unprofessional pain in the keister (she was), or even just sexy, her cramping but vivid onscreen calling card. No matter who’s doing the decoding, she has to be made to represent something. And that something has to reverberate, even though the cost to her humanity sometimes doesn’t seem all that different from the way Hollywood used to treat her.

And so much for airing my prejudices. I just figure I’m better off acknowledging that I didn’t approach Lois Banner’s billowy, often irritatingly preening, but ultimately engrossing Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox with the mind vacuumed perfectly free of invidious prior assumptions that reviewers are supposed to aspire to. Still, when Marilyn’s the topic, who can?

Banner’s intent isn’t as unprecedented as she affects to think. She wants to rescue Monroe the “trickster” — self-aware parodist of her own allure, overlooked pre-counterculture rebel, manipulator rather than prisoner of her image, and so on —  from her old gig as a victimized sex object, thereby transforming her into the icon for women she once was to men. In vogue since Madonna turned “empowering” into the ultimate cliché in gender studies, this sort of reclamation job, as Banner herself notes, represents a 180-degree turn away from the attitudes of 1970s feminism’s leading lights. With other priorities in mind — e.g., convincing the rest of us that sexism really existed — they were inclined, you could say, to throw out the interview along with the centerfold.

That Monroe was a parody of midcentury pulchritude isn’t in much doubt. Banner’s contention that it was a conscious and witty one isn’t unilluminating, particularly when she traces its origins to Norma Jeane’s — as she was then — 1946 attendance at a performance by female impersonator Ray Bourbon. “[She] liked Bourbon’s humor; she saw how comedy could be created by exaggerating gender roles, playing with femininity as though it were a masquerade. It was a lesson she would never forget.” Still, that last assertion begs for some kind of documentation, which — as is often the case when Banner makes this kind of claim — isn’t forthcoming.

The same goes for the aspect of The Passion and the Paradox that’s snared the most advance attention — that is, Banner’s revelation of Marilyn’s lesbian tendencies. Somewhat surprisingly for the time, Monroe did acknowledge having them, and yet — the usual Hollywood rumor mill aside — there’s no real evidence she ever acted on them. (Her intimate and somewhat murky dependence on acting coach Natasha Lytess is the best card Banner has to play, but it’s far from conclusive.) Yet that doesn’t stop our biographer from increasingly treating her own guesswork as fact, culminating in the flat statement near the book’s end that Monroe “preferred [my italics] women as sexual partners.” Restraint isn’t her specialty.

Monroe’s sex life with men, which was voluminous, leaves Banner’s analysis riding madly off in all directions. At times, she pushes the argument that Marilyn’s promiscuity came out of a “free love” philosophy that serenely blended sex with friendship, making her a suitably valiant avatar for sexual revolutions to come. Yet at other times, her sexuality is variously — and  somewhat more convincingly — depicted as neurotic, compulsive, and either helpless or calculating. All these behaviors, as Banner notes, fit the pattern for a victim of early sexual abuse, which Marilyn was. All this exemplifies the conflict between propagandizing for Monroe as a symbol and trying to understand her as a human being.

Banner also doesn’t seem to know all that much about movies, aside from Marilyn’s own. I’m not sure where she got the idea that film noir “was an outgrowth of post-World War Two anxiety over the Cold War,” a description that much more soundly fits 1950s sci-fi. It’s silly to say that Cinemascope spectacles like The Robe were made “for conservatives,” as if that were a category separable from the huge audience for biblical epics at the time. Elsewhere, she tries to make Monroe out as a pioneer in taking control of her career by forming her own production company, but that was hardly uncommon as the studio system’s iron grip turned more butterfingered. Even Jayne Mansfield had one.

Banner’s most annoying tic is that she can’t stop boasting. “I am the first to describe. . . Significant among my discoveries. . . Revealing and analyzing [Monroe’s] multiple personas is a major contribution of mine to Marilyn scholarship. . . I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me — an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender — had studied her. . . Throughout my book I present a new Marilyn, different from any previous portrayal of her.” This kind of rodomontade clutters her book’s prologue to the point that you  wonder how you’ll stand spending 515 pages in this woman’s company, and the self-congratulatory tone keeps recurring later on. By way of a bonus, she fills us in on another reason for her affinity with Marilyn: “Blonde and blue-eyed, I had her body dimensions and won beauty contests.” Oh.

Throughout the book, her theorizing about Monroe’s significance can feel like all chalk and no blackboard. But the good news is that Banner is hardly the first writer to misjudge her own gifts. Whenever she gives her various agendas a rest and just tries to absorb us in Marilyn’s never uninteresting life, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox gets a lot better. The research has depth, and the choices about how to use it often have bite. The portraits are vivid. Best of all, Banner’s ample use of fresh and often piquant detail brightens up even the most familiar parts of the story.

Actually, nearly all of it is familiar, thanks in large part to Marilyn herself. Few stars before her had been so ready to treat fame as an ongoing psychiatry session about a  traumatic childhood. Brought into this world minus a known-for-sure dad by a Christian Scientist mother whose mental instability (and, possibly, resentments) plunked Norma Jeane into no less than eleven foster homes, she was married off at sixteen to a dumb but kind lug named Jim Dougherty — the equivalent, in the sexual history of the twentieth century, of early Beatles drummer Pete Best. That their wedding was attended by half a dozen of her foster mothers evokes her topsy-turvy upbringing in a nutshell.

Then Jim went off to war in the Merchant Marine, and photographers with an eye for cheesecake began flocking around. (Banner’s brisk explanation of the difference between fashion and pin-up models — and why Marilyn, ill suited for one, was ideal for the other — is a nice piece of quickie cultural sociology.) In 1949, one of them shot the famous nude calendar pics that marked the dawn of Marilyn-the-icon and threatened her future at 20th Century Fox once it became known, some years later, she’d posed for them. Incidentally, it’s kind of a bummer to learn that one of the funniest things she said at the press conference that salvaged her budding career — asked what she had on during the shoot, she answered, “The radio” — was a canned line thought up by columnist Sidney Skolsky. But with the nudie calendar safely turned to her advantage, 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire cemented her box-office appeal while defining the blonde-ditz persona she came to lament.

Banner is often at her best when she’s assessing the men in Monroe’s life — all substitute father figures, to be sure, but also likely to end up tormented if not emasculated when they got recast in her mind as oppressive ones, something they inevitably did. Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees legend who married Monroe in 1954, eludes Banner to some extent, not least because to say that verbalization wasn’t his thing is an understatement. But she’s shrewd anyway about how marrying DiMaggio immunized Marilyn from her mottled past: “Whatever sins Marilyn had committed, Joe’s reputation for virtue cancelled them.”

On the other hand, Monroe’s third and final hubby — playwright Arthur Miller — rates a full-scale, fascinating, frequently unpleasant portrait. Among other acts of caddishness, he had a habit of leaving nasty things he’d written about her lying around where she couldn’t fail to read them: an early version of his play After the Fall, a journal entry reading, “I’ve done it again. I thought I was marrying an angel, and find I’ve married a whore.” (That he was capable of thinking in such categories may remind some of us of our preference for Tennessee Williams as a dramatist.)  Yet since he prized his dignity above all else, it’s hard to stay completely unsympathetic to his distress at being reduced to a glorified gofer even as he strove to turn his wayward wife into St. Marilyn in his screenplay for The Misfits, her last completed film. Both of them, as Banner puts it, were “idealists trying to discipline and refine their emotions as well as narcissists promoting careers that could easily go sour.”

Unsurprisingly, the Kennedys — with whom Marilyn’s legend will be entwined until doomsday — do not come off well. After decades of obfuscation, it’s now widely accepted that she had liaisons with both Jack and brother Bobby. It’s considered possible, at least, that the latter if not the former played some role in precipitating her death. Forty years ago, Norman Mailer’s speculations in his huff-puffing Marilyn that she’d been knocked off to hush her up were universally derided, but clearly times have changed.

Banner’s version of what might have happened on or just before August 4, 1962, is an orgy of hypothetical conspiracies mixed up with some intriguing circumstantial evidence and too many cooks to keep straight, not to mention an ill-mannered digression that takes swipes at a fellow gumshoe on the trail. It’s not quite clear whether she actually believes Monroe’s death was murder or Bobby was involved. But it’s interesting to learn that DiMaggio did think the Kennedys were culpable in some way.

Was Monroe a good actress? Might she have become a great one if the studio had cast her in the dramatic roles she craved instead of pigeonholing her as a comic sexpot? Depending on your point of view, those questions are either vital or gloriously irrelevant. Whatever she had — and it may come down to the simple fact that, faults and all, she was a magical camera subject — I’m reasonably sure we got most of it.

Discounting those heartless enough to suspect it would have been the funniest movie of her career, nobody sane can feel much regret that she never got to play the part she lobbied hardest for: Grushenka, in The Brothers Karamazov. Those lumbering adaptations of classic novels were the bane of Hollywood at midcentury, and Some Like It Hot — the greatest movie Monroe ever appeared in — is for good reason more remembered.

Even granting that defense lawyers have lots of leeway in making their case, Banner’s idea that Marilyn’s troubles on the set of more than one movie were due to her “perfectionism” — pitched  too high for even Billy Wilder or Otto Preminger to appreciate, apparently — is risible. Making movies with her was hell, for the simple reasons that she kept showing up late, disrespecting her co-stars and directors, and flubbing even her simplest lines. Her Brobdingnagian drug intake didn’t help. Why insist that she was somehow in control when every anecdote suggests that she’d have been flummoxed by the difficulties of running a Wendy’s franchise in Sheboygan? Far more intriguing is Banner’s notion that she might have been a better actress in private life than she was on the screen.

It would make better sense to argue that Monroe’s faltering style ended up adding a provocatively human, troublingly vulnerable — and, yes, proto-feminist — dimension to otherwise coarse and sexist one-joke roles. But that Kim Novak gambit has nothing to do with the kind of conscious innovation that lit-crits call agency. In her review of Mailer’s Marilyn, Pauline Kael suggested that Monroe — far from being the last of the classic movie stars — prefigured Andy Warhol’s amateurish zombies. Translation: even her modernity was involuntary.

However — and even though I don’t think it was Banner’s intent — I do owe her for crystallizing an unease I’ve always felt about Monroe’s appeal. The way Shirley Temple’s name keeps cropping up as a point of comparison had me recalling the legendary trouble Graham Greene got into in the 1930s for remarking on the erotic side of Temple’s cutesy posturing. Twenty years later, Marilyn wasn’t Temple grown up so much as a far more infantile and helpless — but permissibly desirable — caricature of childhood. The effect is sharpened by how often her screen persona seems one step removed from abject panic, if not terror. Far be it from me to wonder if American males at midcentury were harboring some secret mass fantasy of sublimated pedophilia. All the same, making the ultimate sex goddess out of someone whose consent wasn’t informed on the best day of her life may be enough to give us the retrospective creeps.