Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962)
By Estella Shardlow on Thursday 23rd September, 2010
Platinum waves, full red lips, sensual hourglass figure: all this makes up the iconic Marilyn Monroe aesthetic, one of the most recognisable faces of 20th century pop culture. As Clark Gable said: "Marilyn is a kind of ultimate. She is uniquely feminine. Everything she does is different, strange and exciting; from the way she talks to the way she uses that magnificent torso. She makes a man proud to be a man."
Born as Norma Jeane Mortensen in 1926 in Los Angeles, she spent most of her childhood in orphanages and foster homes. During World War Two she went to work in a munitions factory in Burbank, California and there she was noticed by the photographer David Conover, who was visiting to take pictures of women helping with the war effort for Yank magazine. Her modeling career overseen by the Blue Book agency took off and, inspired by celebrated actresses such as Lana Turner and Jean Harlow, she enrolled at drama school in 1946. Later that year she signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and promptly reinvented herself as Marilyn Monroe, bleaching her brunette hair and divorcing her husband Jimmy. The name was suggested by film executive Ben Lyon, taking her grandmother’s maiden name and inspired by the popular 20's actress Marilyn Miller.
She won small roles in a number of movies in her early 20’s with varied commercial and critical success. The Shocking Miss Pilgrim was the first of these, in 1947, but it was not until the Asphalt Jungle (1950) that Marilyn appeared in a consequential part. Over the next couple of years she played an ambitious starlet in the Oscar-winning movie All About Eve, a secretary in both As Young as You Feel and Monkey Business, and a babysitter in the drama Don’t Bother to Knock.
Playing femme fatale Rose Loomis in Niagra (1953) finally conferred star status upon Marilyn. Lead roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire followed, along with the accolade of being named Photoplay magazine’s Best New Actress of 1953.
1955 marked the beginning of Marilyn’s attempts to shed the ‘dumb blonde’ persona for which she’d become famous. She moved to New York to take acting classes with Lee Strasberg at his Actors' Studio and then founded her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. MMP films such as Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl see the actress taking on meatier, more demanding roles and in 1959 she won her first major acting award - a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy for her performance in Some Like It Hot. Director Billy Wilder complained that the actress had been difficult to work with due to her unpredictable moods and tardiness, yet the film was by far the biggest success of both their careers. Marilyn married her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, in 1956 and he wrote the part of Roslyn Taber in The Misfits (1961) for her. This was to be her last completed film, in which she starred opposite Clarke Gable. Her final public appearance, meanwhile, was to sing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy in May 1962 wearing a shimmering floor length dress by Jean Louis.
Behind her glamourous persona, Marilyn’s life was a blighted with broken marriages, affairs, disruptive upbringing and an apparent discontent with the way in which the public perceived her. Life as a living doll was less sweet it would seem.
After her tragically premature death in 1962 (officially classed as ‘probable suicide’ although conspiracy theories abound), her star has far from faded. Enshrined in Andy Warhol’s famous print series, her image is still glimpsed all around us. The American Film Institute ranked Marilyn as the sixth greatest female star of all time in 1999 and she is rarely out of the Forbes list of top posthumous earners, highlighting her status as cinema’s most popular blonde bombshell.
VS Recommends: A new film My Week with Marilyn due out early 2011 tells the story of writer and film producer Colin Clark the week that he chaperoned Marilyn on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl.