I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw a picture of Marilyn Monroe, but it’s probably a safe bet to say it was when I was a teenager. It’s also a safe bet to say that I found her extremely gorgeous, sexy and fashionable. And if you were to risk your money on the presumption that I understood her true significance on American society; well that would be a sucker bet. It wasn’t until I read Marilyn Monroe, a biography written by Barbara Leaming, that I began to see past the glamour, couture, and Hollywood influenced “dumb-blonde” facade that she was pigeonholed into. Though I realize I do not yet possess a full understanding of who she really was (a book cannot encompass the full depth of a human life), I do feel that I am on the right track to realizing her world impact on popular culture.
After completing the book, I embarked on a mission of ransacking the public library’s vault of DVDs in search of every Marilyn Monroe movie I could find. I’ve worked my way through half a dozen so far, and with the help of Turner Classic Movies and the Retro movie channel, I have been able to watch some of her films that I could not find at the library. I’ve even purchased a couple of her movies: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like it Hot. I shared the same reactions men in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s must have experienced when Ms. Monroe appeared on the silver screen; an incremental increase of the heart rate at seeing her name in the opening credits, a slight steadying of the breath during the required patience it takes for the plot to develop leading into her first scene, the ecstasy of seeing her finally materialize, the euphoria of listening to her sing and watching her dance, the catharsis of her comic relief and sensuality, and the desire to see it all again the next time one of her movies comes to the theatre. Only I don’t have to wait 6 months to a year for the studio to finish the production and release of her next film…oh what suffering that must have been for the 20th century Marilyn Monroe fan!
And who was this woman that could turn big, brawny, brainy men into puddles? Unbeknownst to me, she was the owner of Marilyn Monroe Productions which produced one of my favorite of her movies; The Prince and the Showgirl. She was an artist who valued respect more than money, and who labored to perfect her craft at The Actors Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg. She was a wife who risked blacklisting by publically supporting her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, during his HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings during the McCarthyism era. She was a person intent on being in control of her own destiny and career, and faced studio suspensions in the process. She was/is an iconoclastic symbol of sexuality in puritanical American society. She was a survivor of abandonment, neglect, attempted rape, and sexism.
And it turns out, in that funny way that life can imitate art and vice versa, that she, or more appropriately a character of hers, was an activist of sorts. In the film The Misfits written by Arthur Miller, set in Reno Nevada, Roslyn Tabor portrayed by Marilyn Monroe, prevents the slaughtering of wild horses for the manufacturing of dog food with a soul-scaring scream of protestation. As chance would have it, I stumbled upon an article in which the heroic tale of a group of real life activists saved 172 wild horses from a similar fate in Reno.
“There was a bo tree, a descendant of the sacred Indian fig tree beneath whose branches the Buddha gained enlightenment.” (Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Leaming, Pg. 396) I returned to this passage in the book after watching The Misfits because I remembered reading about how the Buddha had advocated for the rights of animals. I thought it was so interesting that a bo tree was planted in the garden of Dr. Ralph Greenson, Marilyn Monroe’s psychiatrist. I wonder what effect it may have had on her during her frequent visits at his home with him and his family. Could it have been the power of this sacred tree, which in somehow even if subconsciously, helped to inspire her performance in that pivotal scene from the movie? Maybe the film had already been completed before her stays at the Greenson home? Who knows? Yet the power of nature is an awesome mystery – as were the events surrounding her eventual, untimely death. But thankfully we have a treasure of film and literature to continue the exploration of the career and legacy of Marilyn Monroe. And from what I can see, it is a journey that will doubtlessly be filled with pleasant surprises for all who are up to the challenge.