Marilyn's Earthquake

01.21.2005 | Michael Dorr | Film | 1 Comment

 “Do you want to see me become Marilyn Monroe?”
   —Marilyn Monroe

Tens of thousands of years ago, some ancient ancestor marginally more charming than myself, I’m sure, drew and painted his vision of the upcoming hunt, of his engagement with the gods of fertility and comfort and vicious demands, of mortality and perhaps an afterlife.  Why not, at the very least, gain immortality as a Keith Haring–like figure from a two-dimensional prehistoric dumb show on the rough stone of a cave benighted for thousands of years?  There is always that honeyed possibility of discovery; of being perceived and projected upon simultaneously; of being celebrated and over time, consumed by the eager breaths of examination and exploitation.

Just ask Joan of Arc (she of the Best Buy haircut and dubious benefactors), Poe (who died delirious with only one split shoe and whose destitute mother-in-law sold postcards of him after his death), Elvis (whose daughter married Michael Jackson, a grotesque enough punishment for any even remotely loving parent), or Van Gogh (inquire into his good ear).  Or consider orphan, model, actress, sex goddess, and pop martyr Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean (1926–1962).  (“May I call you, Marilyn?”)  Or reconsider her.  Isn’t that what she’s here for?  Why—across eras, continents, and cultures—we name stars and scratch pornography on temple and men’s rooms walls?

Lately, I have been nefariously haunting the rooms of Brooklyn Museum’s latest exhibition of daring and quality, I Wanna Be Loved by You: Photographs of Marilyn Monroe (from the Leon and Michaela Constantiner Collection, caringly curated, augmented, and reconfigured from its original Tel Aviv incarnation by Marilyn L. Kushner and Matthew Yokobosky).  The show, running at the Brooklyn Museum through March 20, 2005, is scheduled to visit at least three other yet-to-be-announced American cities.  Till then, you may partake of this show and a wealth of other extraordinary art—including a hall of larger-than-life Assyrian reliefs, fifty-eight Rodin sculptures, and the requisite mummy—by paying a suggested donation, no matter how humble your circumstances render it.

Take that Guggenheim and MoMa!

Nearly 200 photographs of Marilyn, from 1945 to weeks before her death, decorate the walls of the exhibition rooms like gems (sometimes baubles) housed in an Art-Deco-Meets-Postwar-America ever-darkening dollhouse design.  The thirty-nine photographers included in the show read like a Who’s Who: Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold, Cecil Beaton, Cornell Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks—as well as two silk-screens by Andy Warhol, who empathized with Marilyn’s celebrity even as he utilized (exploited?) her image.

Viewing these photos requires questioning the dynamic between the observer and the object or one observed; the photos conjure men with egos, libidos, and agendas—even if only a magazine deadline.  Who are we looking at?  Who are we seeing?  Who or what did Marilyn create-present?  Was she selling herself or an image?  What part of the process did she control and—ultimately—how effectively?  What aspects of her have left such a resonant visceral current in the popular imagination, more so than Poe’s child-bride taboo or even Elvis’s seizure-ridden hips?  (True, at the end, the King was more bloated than blistering and shoeless Edgar was more haggard than handsome, but what about that Annabelle Lee?)

The exhibit is—on first encounter only—easily dismissed as an obvious libation to artless males and Marilynphiles, as a desire for filthy lucre, and as the sacrifice museums routinely offer to our Hollywood-ized, merchandized, traumatized attention spans.  At times, it feels as if you’re wandering through the three-dimensional pages of an issue of Photoplay especially devoted to my Marilyn (she has assured me I can address her as such; we’ve been so intimate for so long).
Many of the exhibit’s supplementary features jar the viewer—one of her early commercials endlessly looped, tinny newsreel obituaries, and painfully dated movie trailers.  The exception is the one for The Misfits, an energetic rhythmic spray of stills of its stars interspersed with kinetic clips from the film, written by soon-to-be ex-husband Arthur Miller.  In the film Marilyn’s character tries to convince Clark Gable not to capture wild horses and sell them for pet food.  Marilyn almost seems to be pleading for her own salvation.

The show houses enough shots of her breasts and buttocks to satisfy connoisseurs of both (though alas there is no catalogue).  If Helen’s beauty could incite an apocalyptic war, then Marilyn’s ass alone, in glorious full color or in grainy freckled black and white, could cause both sides to broker a peace.

But encountering personal relics—including her photo of former husband and life-long friend Joe DiMaggio, aptly enough a page torn from a magazine and framed—is more gripping, and eerie.  Still more disquieting and somehow wrong is to hear her cheery voice, endlessly looped in Stepford Wife–like fashion, from her 1950 Union Oil television commercial: “This is the first car I ever owned.  I call her Cynthia.  She’s going to have the best care a car ever had.  Put Royal Triton in Cynthia’s tummy,” she implores the male attendant.  “Cynthia will just love that Royal Triton.”


“[A salesman] don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine.  He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.  And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake… .  A salesman is got to dream, boy.  It comes with the territory.”
   —Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Like most spectacularly successful starlets, icons, grifters, shamans, politicians—and all right, damn you! even writers!—Marilyn was a salesman, a Willy Loman if he had realized his ambition, if he had sold them as Marilyn had in Korea in February 1954, when she entertained 100,000 troops in ten concerts over four days.  Her uncanny salesmanship made possible her streak of fortune and fame, and later made certain her destruction.  She controlled her image as assiduously as did Walt Whitman, one of the most photographed American public figures of the nineteenth century and one of Marilyn’s favorite poets.

Image is everything to a salesman.

Just ask my father, an impressively un-poetic and far from photogenic salesman who hawked life insurance to the military at home and abroad.  Like Marilyn’s first agent cum courtier and father-substitute, Johnny Hyde (acknowledged in the show in a single photo by photographer Bruno Bernard of Johnny dancing with Marilyn, seemingly riding her shoes while she looks both disconnected and disconcerted in some frozen cliché of a junior prom, a sight aching for Norman Rockwell to portray), my father was also short, balding, and, for a time, a successful salesman.  Although he never stepped on a starlet’s toes, he was able to retire in his early forties with a twenty-plus-room house, a thirty-foot cabin cruiser, six kids, five boxes of thousand-dollar cigars, four country clubs, three cars, two ponies, and a bottle of Chivas in a pear tree.  God bless an America that is no longer—if ever it was.

Over a few beers late in his life but still early in mine, when all success and possibility lay behind him like collapsed bridges and flooded roads, he once tried to express to me the tattered tenets of the attitude, the pitch, the con that doomed him when it became his faith.  He was not an articulate or grammatical man, but what he said resonated:

“A good salesman will only sell what you wanta buy, never what he wants to sell.  To find out what the other fella wants, the salesman’s gotta be right there and gone all at once, all the time.  You can’t have no real personality, opinion.  Take no stand for nothing.  You gotta swallow it, bite ya tongue, rub yourself out till there’s just the buyer, your buddy, filling you up and selling hisself on what he wants.”

This Marilyn understood, at least partially.  Her formidable emotional needs and internal turmoil compelled her to control her own inflated frail public persona—as substantial-insubstantial as a film projector’s beam or a burst of the photographer’s flash—but to what uncontrollable, inexorable end?

Two of the most heartrending and disturbing photos, which co-curator Marilynne L. Kushner hesitated before including, were taken by Bert Stern a few weeks before my Marilyn’s death in 1962 at age thirty-six.  Thirty-nine photos from that final photo shoot, which Stern calls The Last Sitting, are featured in the first rooms of the exhibition.  Marilyn had the contractual right to reject any image by defacing the negative or transparency with an X.  Two of these rejected photos, as attractive and moving as the others yet inexplicably disowned, are not only exhibited but blown up to a scale four and a half feet tall.  Monroe herself slashed these large-as-life full-color Marilyns, breasts beautifully visible, with blood red crisscrosses.

These photos confront viewers with a multiplicity of questions and transgressions: not only are we enjoying images explicitly prohibited by Marilyn, but like tactless voyeurs we are also beholding a person’s conscious (and unconscious) obliteration of the self.  These two photos raise central questions about Marilyn as Salesman; about the public’s role as buyer of product (from two-dimensional soup cans to platinum starlets); about self-annihilation in the guise of self-actualization.

As the Egyptian pharaohs who defaced their predecessors’ statues knew, there is a cost to capturing one’s image and a price for destroying it.  


Inez:  Dead!  Dead! Dead!  Knives, poison, ropes—all useless.  It has happened already, do you understand?  Once and for all.  So here we are, forever.  [Laughs.]

Estelle [with a peal of laughter]:  Forever.  My God, how funny!  Forever.

   —Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

Throughout the show, quotes from Marilyn adorn the walls, but mostly underscore her distorted perspective rather than offer any hint of self-insight:  “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else” and “With the arc lights on and the camera pointed at me, I suddenly knew myself.”

A person can never truly belong to something as amorphous as “the public,” to a place as indifferent as the world.  To know oneself only when the camera clicks, when ensnared in the thrall of others, in the narcissistic pools of their eyes, is to forsake oneself, to never know oneself at all.  Oh my Marilyn, Hell is other people.

The exhibition’s kinetic equivalent of self-erasure as salesmanship must be Marilyn regaling President John F. Kennedy with her inimitable rendition of “Happy Birthday.”  Simultaneously, she is everything and nothing, spotlighted and subjugated, an emptied shimmering vessel exquisitely wrought. And that voice, an aural equivalent of the Little Match Girl and Madame Bovary, hometown sweetheart and world-class whore.  At essence, her performance is a truly oral and public blowjob sung rather than merely delivered—the dimensions of which Bill Clinton could never appreciate. 

Other iconic moments from Marilyn’s career-life (was there a difference?) are in the show, from Playboy’s inaugural centerfold, a Tom Kelley nude shot of Marilyn on red satin, to three photographers’ telling takes on the subway-grate, skirt-raising publicity shoot for Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch that helped end her marriage to Joe DiMaggio.

But blatantly absent from this exhibition are photos capturing the private, personal moments of her life.  Even the few that might qualify are tainted, biased, by the eyes of others, whether it be the engaging contact sheet sequencing her attempt to learn how to smoke or the single shot of her emerging, garbed and garbled in bulky clothing and head scarf, into the night—even then helplessly pinned onto a photographer’s negative like one of Nabokov’s incomparable butterflies.

Her personal demise culminated in her public veneration, her international immortality.  It started as soon as she began believing her sales pitch—that the masses adored her for who she was rather than desired her for who they wished her to be.  She could control her image, slashing hundreds of negatives, but never how it would be perceived, needed, exploited.  A salesman who begins selling what he or she wants to sell rather than what men wish to buy is fated for failure, loss.  A salesman who believes that the buyer cares about him (or her) is doomed.

Marilyn deceived herself into believing that the public cared about her, adored her, and would embrace her even as she changed the terms of her hand-shake deal.  Her late-career bait-and-switch only burnt her.

Marilyn sought the public’s acclaim by subsuming herself in the role of starlet, then late in the game, without warning, sought to reclaim herself as a “serious” actress.  The backlash was to be expected—by everyone but my Marilyn.  Her intensive studies at the Actor’s Studio; her immersion in the New York theater world; her fraternizing with Brando and Strasberg; her divorce from DiMaggio and marriage to Miller; her establishing her own ephemeral production company; her choice of Laurence Olivier (who disdained her) as her costar in The Prince and the Showgirl (the only Monroe-produced film of her career and a box-office failure)—none of it was part of her implicit agreement with the public, who responded to all of it with indifference or derision.  People wanted a pin-up, not an actress, a personal goddess, not a wounded person exposed by spotlight and flashbulb.

Something had to give.  In the end that something was Marilyn.

Only in death is she truly ours.

Our images of her live on forever.


My God, how funny!

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12.21.2010 | Annh

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