Marilyn Monroe: A Star
Why Norma Jeane Mortenson Was More Than a 'Blonde Bombshell'
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, is one of the world's biggest stars. Known for her roles as a 'dumb blonde,' Monroe was treated as an object in Hollywood's Golden Age. Her difficult upbringing and fractured relationships fed her depression and anxiety, which led to her premature death at the age of 36. Throughout her career, she hinted at her struggle in playing the role of 'Marilyn Monroe.'
“I’ve spent most of my life running away from myself."
On June 1, 1926, Norma Jeane was born. She endured a difficult childhood—something that was glossed over in The Golden Age for the sake of her reputation and image as a glamorous star. She lived in several foster homes, was separated from her mother (who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia), was sexually abused and admitted to an orphanage when she was 9 years old. Even after such a traumatic upbringing, Monroe reassures us that she is “not a victim of emotional conflicts," rather, her struggles and pain simply make her "human." It has been considered that even after visiting a number of therapists during her adulthood to help with her depression and anxiety, Monroe's inability to heal from her challenging childhood led her down a dark and lonely path...
“I never wanted to be Marilyn — it just happened. Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane.”
At the age of 20, Norma Jeane was given the stage name 'Marilyn Monroe' (she chose Monroe, her mother's maiden name, herself) after signing a film contract with 20th Century Fox. This new name came with a new identity as Monroe began her career as an actress, leaving her troubling childhood behind. Not long after the launch of her career in the film industry, Monroe was one of the most well-recognised movie stars in Hollywood. Soon, her name was up in lights.
“I've never fooled anyone. I've let people fool themselves. They didn't bother to find out who and what I was. Instead, they would invent a character for me. I wouldn't argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn't.”
There are three films that Monroe is most known for—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Monroe often portrayed 'dumb blonde' characters. In 1954, however, she took a stand against her typecast from 20th Century Fox and requested to be assigned to dramas. It's fair to say that the production company did not like the idea of Monroe taking on more serious roles and losing the ability to draw audiences in with her sex appeal (as seen with the 1953 films Niagara and How to Marry a Millionaire), so they suspended her.
“How wrong it is for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself.”
Monroe was not put out by this conflict, instead, she founded her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP), and studied method acting at the Actors Studio to prove that she was capable of more than "sex roles." Henceforth, Fox agreed to allow her to choose her own projects and provided her with a raise. Here, Monroe's influence over the film industry is highlighted, not dissimilar to the powerful effect she had on audiences.
“Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, and fifty cents for your soul.”
Hollywood treated Monroe as a prop. Producers took advantage of her 'sex symbol' label and leapt at any chance they could to promote her sex appeal. They even went as far as to stage a publicity stunt. You know the famous photo of Monroe standing over a grate and trying to hold down her dress? Well, it was staged. All to promote her upcoming film, The Seven Year Itch. This was all part of Hollywood's Star System (1920s-1950s) which involved hiring actors on long-term contracts and making them 'the face' of the production company. Therefore, this publicity ensured fans would be on the watch for films produced by 20th Century Fox. It's a good marketing strategy.
“I’m a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me, because of the image they’ve made of me – and that I’ve made of myself – as a sex symbol.”
Monroe openly criticised her objectification with "boys think[ing] girls are like books, if the cover doesn’t catch their eye they won’t bother to read what’s inside." This relates to the studio's exploitation of her sexy image which invited the 'male gaze' in order to attract audiences to the big screen. It is clear that Monroe assumed the role of someone she truly wasn't or, possibly, didn't want to be. She, herself, stated that "it is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not."
“I have feelings too. I am still human. All I want is to be loved, for myself and for my talent.”
Monroe wanted to be respected and celebrated for her acting—of which she dedicated her life to perfecting. She won three awards in her lifetime, including two Henrietta Awards and a Golden Globe for her role in Some Like It Hot. These awards are a testament to her hard work and dedication to be "wonderful.”
Her desire to be appreciated was not limited to her occupation as an actress but as a human being. Monroe was married three times. First, to James Dougherty when she was 16, then to Joe DiMaggio in 1952 for nine months, and lastly to Arthur Miller (1956-1961). Monroe and Miller's relationship was not celebrated by the public as many questioned why Miller would marry someone who seemed to be nothing more than a 'blonde bombshell.' In response to this, Monroe rebutted, "Arthur Miller wouldn’t have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde."
“When you're young and healthy you can plan on Monday to commit suicide, and by Wednesday you're laughing again.”
Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. There has been much speculation over the years on whether her barbiturate overdose was intentional, accidental or—to another extreme—murder. I do not wish to add to this debate. However, I would like to point out that Monroe, despite her glamorous lifestyle and devoted following, lived a lonely and challenging life. She attests to this by describing herself as "a girl who knew how to be happy even when she was sad." Even so, Monroe fought with her mind in order to deliver award-winning performances that continue to entertain audiences long after the fall of The Golden Age of Hollywood (which, incidentally, came one year after Monroe's death).
“Beneath the makeup and behind the smile, I am just a girl who wishes for the world.”
Today, we say happy birthday and thank you. Thank you for showing the world that even the brightest star can shine through the darkest of days.