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50 years after Marilyn Monroe, the spell remains

Last updated on: August 2, 2012 17:36 IST

50 years after Marilyn Monroe, the spell remains

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Raja Sen in Mumbai

August 5, 2012 marks half a century since Marilyn Monroe died.

Such is her impact on our lives, our aesthetics and popular culture that it's impossible to imagine a world without Monroe. And it is, equally, impossible to imagine Marilyn without celebrating her.

Here then, are ten facets of Marilyn. They aren't the definitive ten things about her life, but they are things that -- to me -- begin perhaps to sum up the ineffability of that tremendous icon.

The blonde

She couldn't cut it as a brunette.

First snapped while she worked in a munitions factory -- when US Army magazine Yank was looking for pictures of young women aiding the war effort -- none of Marilyn's pictures were chosen for print.

Allured instantly by the lens, however, she joined a modeling agency and, after researching Jean Harlow and Lana Turner and realising that there was a demand for women with lighter coloured hair, dyed her dark curls into the now iconic shade of golden blonde.

Her cloud of golden hair -- highlighted further by artistic black and white cinematographers -- acted as a wispy, breathy halo, a voluptuous vixen softened by her candyfloss hair


Image: Marilyn Monroe
Photographs: Baron/Getty Images

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The rear

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The first time Monroe truly made an impact on the big-screen, she wasn't facing the camera.

Henry Hathaway's Niagara, where Marilyn played a femme fatale scheming to murder her husband, was a noir that concentrated less on plot and more on Monroe's exquisite body, reaching its zenith with a long shot of Marilyn walking away from the camera and towards the Niagara Falls.

'Perhaps Miss Monroe is not the perfect actress at this point,' said The New York Times, reviewing the film. 'But neither the director nor the gentlemen who handled the cameras appeared to be concerned with this. They have caught every possible curve both in the intimacy of the boudoir and in equally revealing tight dresses. And they have illustrated pretty concretely that she can be seductive -- even when she walks.'

'There's a broad with her future behind her,' said quippy actress Constance Bennett, and much as the line is great, it proved anything but true.


Image: Movie poster of Niagara


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The front

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She wasn't a shy girl, you see.

A skin-tight gold lame dress made onlookers hold their breaths at an awards show, and women like Joan Crawford -- no paragon of virtue herself -- went at lengths to criticise Marilyn's vulgarity and unbecoming behaviour.

At the Miss America Pageant in 1952, Monroe wore a dress with a perilously low neckline, nearly grazing her navel, and received significant disdain from society types in the press.

Jealousy could, of course, have played a part. A picture of Marilyn from the pageant, wearing that infamous dress, became the cover for the first issue of a magazine launching in December 1953. It was called Playboy.



Image: Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Playboy magazine


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The laughs

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'We were in mid-flight, and there was a nut on the plane.'

Those were words spoken by Billy Wilder, one of the most influential American directors of all time, who directed Monroe in two of her most resounding successes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.

Frequently exasperated by the actress' whimsy and unpredictability, the director couldn't remain unaffected by her disarming on-screen naivete and her magnificent timing.

Monroe's comedies charm and surprise, the actress flightily and assuredly conquering both screen and punchline with unexpected flair.

Wilder, looking back, agreed, calling Marilyn an 'absolute genius as a comic actress.'


Image: Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot


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The smarts

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Like Raymond Chandler novels taught us, the blonde is never as dumb as she seems.

Monroe, as a matter of fact, was a cannily clever actress, one knowing what worked about her 'dumb blonde' comedies and milking the audience while well aware of the need to evolve.

Teamed alongside the considerable presences of Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, Monroe made the biggest splash in How To Steal A Millionaire, later saying audiences loved her because it was the first time her character had "a measure of modesty about her own attractiveness."

Unafraid to criticise heavyweight talents like Otto Preminger and Sir Laurence Olivier, she eventually won the respect of both men and was one of Lee Strasberg's favourites.

"I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of actors and actresses," said the legendary acting coach and founder of the Actor's Studio, "and there are only two that stand out way above the rest. Number one is Marlon Brando, and the second is Marilyn Monroe."


Image: Marilyn Monroe
Photographs: Baron/Getty Images

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The itch

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And yet what we will remember most is that fortunate subway grate.

Shooting for The Seven Year Itch, Monroe made New York City gape as she stood on a 52nd Street subway grating, the air from it blowing her skirt upwards. It is a spectacular flight of fancy, and director Billy Wilder, enjoying the attention, shot the scene over and over again as the crowd got stronger.

The finest and most fantastical expression of Monroe's powers of arousal, the film cast her as a male dream, the most unbelievably sexual character there could be. She's a girl who keeps her 'undies' in the refrigerator icebox to save herself from the New York heatwave, and also one who goes to pieces when she hears Rachmaninoff. Far more than 'just elegant,' that girl.



Image: Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch
Photographs: Baron/Getty Images

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The birthday

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'I can now retire from politics.'

In her last major public appearance, Monroe took to the stage at the Madison Square Garden in 1962 to belt out a breathy, sultry rendition of 'Happy Birthday Mr President' for John F Kennedy.

The President came on stage to laugh that after having that song sung to him in 'such a sweet, wholesome way', he had clearly achieved enough and could call it a day.

Monroe's version of the song -- her scintillatingly, scandalously hot delivery, sung with her squeezed into a rather bold dress -- might not be the definitive version of the age-old birthday song, but it is the one that inspires the most breathtaking envy.


Image: Marilyn Monroe
Photographs: L J Willinger/Getty Images

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The nudes

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'Let's push Liz Taylor off the magazine covers.'

In 1949, while struggling to find work, Monroe posed nude for photographer Tom Kelley. She was paid $50 for the shots, most of which featured her laid out on red silk, and the release was signed under the name Mona Monroe.

A few years later, with Marilyn turning into a star, one of the pictures was featured in a calendar and there was fervent speculation in the press about the model's resemblance to Monroe. The studio wondered what to do while Marilyn decided instead to admit it was her, but that she'd only posed in order to pay the rent.

She gave an interview of such striking candour that the photographs elicited more sympathy than outrage. Later, when increasingly erratic and craving more of the spotlight than her films were earning at the time, she allowed Life magazine to publish several nudes in order to outshine current stars like Elizabeth Taylor. Her final photoshoot was for Vogue magazine by Bert Stern, and included several nudes.

Published after her death, this set of pictures -- referred to as The Last Sitting -- remain the most memorable in the magazine's history.


Image: Marilyn Monroe
Photographs: L J Willinger/Getty Images

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The men

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In the end, nobody proved man enough for Marilyn.

She was married and divorced thrice -- to James Dougherty, baseball great Joe DiMaggio and the playwright Arthur Miller -- and there were whispers, some louder than others, about her affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy.

Brando, in his autobiography, claimed to have had dated her, as did Tony Curtis, the latter saying their affair happened during the filming of Some Like It Hot. And outside of the romantic entanglements, legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, Milton Greene, Andy Warhol, Edward Murrow, Truman Capote and Clark Gable -- who, she frequently joked, was her father -- were all men of great stature besotted by Monroe. It was clearly hard not to be mesmerised.


Image: Marilyn Monroe with her husband Arthur Miller
Photographs: Evening Standard/Getty Images

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The death

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Nobody knows how it happened.

On August 5, 1962, Monroe was found dead in her Los Angeles home. The recorded cause of death was 'acute barbiturate poisoning', and the death itself was marked as a probable suicide. She was 36.

The conspiracy theories included everyone from the CIA to President Kennedy to the Mafia, and there was never any evidence found conclusive enough to keep tongues and tabloids from wagging.

On August 8, she was interred in a crypt, her casket lined with silk the colour of champagne, Marilyn wearing a favourite green Emilio Pucci dress.

Lee Strasberg delivered her eulogy. Joe DiMaggio made sure fresh-cut roses were delivered to the grave for the next 20 years. Hugh Hefner bought the crypt immediately next to hers. Even in death, Marilyn's spell remains.


Image: Monroe's body is wheeled out of her apartment
Photographs: Keystone/Getty Images

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