Fifty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe's star power still shines
Marilyn Monroe passed away a half-century ago, but her legend lives on: The 1950s bombshell has become a 21st-century pop-culture phenomenon.
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Eleven years after Marilyn Monroe's death, Elton John sang an ode to her: "Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."
His lyrics ring just as true a few decades later.
Marilyn Monroe passed away a half-century ago Aug. 5, a murky death that remains one of Hollywood's most tantalizing mysteries. But her legend lives on, more vibrantly than ever: The 1950s bombshell has become a 21st-century pop-culture phenomenon.
Just flip through a celebrity magazine: Some of-the-moment young starlet or pop singer will be channeling (or outright appropriating) those platinum locks; the bright red lips, moist and slightly parted; and that joyously, almost defiantly curvy figure, sheathed in something skintight and glamorous.
On the red carpet at last year's Teen Choice Awards, Taylor Swift wore a white halter-style dress just like Monroe's in "The Seven Year Itch" (which sold at auction last year for $5.6 million, including commission). In a Dolce & Gabbana ad, Scarlett Johansson went with all white-blonde hair and ruby lips. Magazine spreads have featured Nicole Kidman, Lindsay Lohan, Rihanna, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis and others having Monroe moments.
Madonna, of course, has famously appropriated Monroe's look into her image, as have singers Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. On the big screen, actress Michelle Williams earned an Oscar nomination for her moving portrayal of Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn." And one of TV's most popular new shows, "Smash" on NBC, follows a Broadway musical based on Monroe's life, with two actresses competing to play her.
And there are plans for much more, thanks to the purchase in late 2010 of Monroe's estate — which includes her image — by Authentic Brands Group and its partner, NECA. The company's CEO, Jamie Salter, says he aims to upgrade the Monroe brand by moving away from cheap souvenirs and developing themed cosmetic lines, spas and salons, sportswear, swimwear, footwear, handbags and more. There are even plans for — wait for it — the inevitable Marilyn Monroe reality show, in which young women would compete to become a new Hollywood icon.
But just what is the secret of Monroe's enduring appeal? It depends on whom you ask — and that's fitting, really, because she, more than other iconic celebrities, was different things to different people.
There was, most simply, Monroe the actress — a Monroe who often got lost in all the hype, despite her desperate aspirations to be taken seriously. Film historian Leonard Maltin laments that many people know Monroe "as an image and an icon" but not as an actress.
Monroe showed off her dramatic chops in "The Misfits," for example, and "Bus Stop." But she is probably best remembered for her delightful comic turns in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee who sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in that classic pink gown; as the sensuous but ditsy Girl in "The Seven Year Itch"; and as sexy band singer Sugar Kane in "Some Like it Hot."
Still, an entire younger generation is enamored of her for something completely different, says Brandon Holley, editor of Lucky magazine.
"I think most women under 40 haven't seen her movies," Holley says. "For them, she's a style type — the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot of women identify with that."
Christopher Nickens agrees. "Marilyn was the epitome of a certain kind of feminine ideal," says the co-author of the recently released "Marilyn in Fashion," a rare look at Monroe's influence in that field. Her key fashion legacy, he says, was to bring body-conscious clothes into everyday life.
Though she wasn't seen as a fashion icon during her lifetime, Nickens thinks Monroe shared something with other style icons like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. "They didn't follow trends," he says. "It's about knowing yourself and what works for you, and having that confidence."
Confidence isn't necessarily something one associates with Monroe, of course. In that Elton John song, "Candle in the Wind," she's a beautiful innocent victimized by a terrible Hollywood machine — people who "whispered into your brain" and "set you on the treadmill" and "made you change your name."
That falls into a familiar victim narrative about Monroe, who was indeed victimized as a young girl, according to multiple biographers. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes, and there are allegations she suffered sexual abuse.
But a victim of Hollywood? Monroe's latest biographer, Lois Banner, begs to differ. She says Monroe the movie star "was a constructed image" — one the actress herself worked very hard to invent, from the dyed hair (Norma Jeane was a brunette), to the makeup, that breathy voice and the famous "wiggle walk."
And her dumb-blonde screen image? Nothing like her, says Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. "She was extremely intelligent."
But why has Monroe's appeal only grown? "First of all, she died very young," says Banner, freezing her image for eternity. But another reason is the existence of thousands of photographs of Marilyn, bursting with life. "She's conceivably the most-photographed person of the 20th century," says Banner. The author's third reason is more cynical: "There's a lot of people making money off her," she says.