It is 55 years since Marilyn Monroe died - what makes her a true Hollywood great?
- Credit: BBC TWO
Marilyn Monroe retains a special place not only in the hearts of film fans but also with the public at large. She still has one of the most recognisable faces on the planet. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke asks what makes her a true Hollywood great?
Fifty-five years ago today, the world was rocked back on its heels, completely stunned by the news that the world’s coolest, sexiest film star had been found dead in her Hollywood home.
Marilyn Monroe, who had lit up the screen in such classic films as Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop and Some Like It Hot was dead at the age of 36 – and what was even harder to hear was the news that, according to police, she had taken her own life.
The news had a seismic effect because it was so unexpected. Marilyn had always presented a fun-loving, carefree personality on screen, so how could she have ended her life so?
More than half a century has now passed and Marilyn Monroe remains as popular and as instantly recognisable as she was when she was alive. Time, it seems, has not diminished her.
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Inevitably, there has been an avalanche of conspiracy theories which has been thrown up about her death but that merely reflects her continued popularity and doesn’t explain why she remains a household name while other famous names from her era have faded from sight.
If you look at Marilyn’s contemporaries – Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Audrey Hepburn. Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren – the majority are no longer household names or faces. The only one who could come close to Marilyn’s iconic status would be Audrey Hepburn and she is more of a style icon than a much-loved sex symbol. Even the long-lived Sophia Loren, Hollywood’s resident Italian temptress, has morphed into an elegant elder stateswoman rather than this ever youthful star.
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The fact Marilyn died at the height of her fame may have something to do with her on-going claim to the hearts of the world’s film-lovers but that’s not everything because James Dean died at an equally early age and although he remains a famous face, his fame is not on the same level as Marilyn’s.
The reason that Marilyn continues to be an international star, long-after her death, is a combination of good looks, striking personality and a fine actress. Once she hit her stride she also made some brilliant films, films that have become classics and still entertain audiences 60 years after they were made.
Films like Some Like It Hot and Seven Year Itch remain as bright and effervescent as the day they were made. If you research some of Marilyn’s lesser known films like Niagara or How To Marry A Millionaire with Lauren Bacall then you will find the performance and the material equally good.
As writer-director Billy Wilder has testified, those seemingly spontaneous performances were hard-won but none of that effort shows on screen. Marilyn had the ability to deliver a fresh and lively performance even on the 84th take. The camera loved her and so did the audience.
Examination of her dramatic films such Bus Stop and The Misfits reveals a talented, thoughtful actress who connects with the character and with her audience. In these films, more so than her comedies, she played a character probably more akin to the real Marilyn, a vulnerable, emotionally exposed individual trying to find her place in the world.
While these films were no where near as big at the box office as her two classic comedies, they give her legacy added weight. In all her films Marilyn always delivers a natural performance, you never catch her acting, and that’s the real difference between her and James Dean. Dean had a much more studied, self-aware acting style, and you could almost imagine him throwing a side-ways glance in the mirror while he was working on scene to see how it looked.
Dean starred in his fair-share of classic movies – Giant, East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause – while they are revered and treasured by film buffs they don’t occupy the same place in the hearts of the public as Marilyn’s films do.
The films reflected her fresh and welcoming personality and that is what the public warmed to, along with her innocent sexuality – something Billy Wilder played on in both Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot – this innocence and the freshness of her onscreen personality is what has given her the gift of immortality.