Marilyn Monroe: So Much More Than a Tragedy
Yes, there was something special about me, and I knew what it was. I was the kind of girl they found dead in a hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand. Thats Marilyn Monroe in My Story, a collection of her autobiographical anecdotes dictated to screenwriter Ben Hecht, concluding a particularly humiliating incident with a studio boss when she was just a bit player, assessing her appeal and foretelling her own demise.
My Story was published in 1974, 12 years after Monroes death at age 36 by apparent suicide; it is just one of the scores of books devoted to tracing the actresss grim beginnings: the institutionalized mother, the father she never met, the constant shuttling between foster homes and orphanagesher maudlin allure as eternal victim. But the necrophilic narrative of vulnerable Norma Jeane Baker, of the beautiful dead girl, of the candle in the wind, has threatened to obscure Monroe at her most alive. BAMcinémateks 14-film tribute to cinemas most iconic blonde reminds us why we couldnt take our eyes off her: She generates a charisma, often sexual but sometimes beyond sex, so uncontainable and unclassifiable that it eclipses everything else around her.
Sharing about two minutes with formidable veterans George Sanders and Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Monroe, as Miss Caswell, a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art, refuses to be stung by their poisoned barbs, artfully deploying actionraising an eyebrow, walking with a slight wiggle, parting her mouth just soto make her point heard. In Niagara, the first of her three films to be released in 1953, the year she became a huge star for 20th Century Fox, the camera seems constantly trained on her red, ripe lips. Playing Rose Loomis, a cheating spouse who wants to off cracked-up husband Joseph Cotten, she reveals a thrilling capacity for evil; Niagara doesnt tame or soften the actresss on-screen sexuality, which would be twinned with cuddly naïveté in almost all of her post-53 vehicles.
Cotten, 21 years Monroes senior, was one of many elder male suitors she was paired with. In The Asphalt Jungle (1950), her first big small role, she is the cutie on the side of a corrupt, 50-ish lawyer she refers to as Uncle Lon. (Daddy would be her preferred incest-invoking pet name for her boyfriends; see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  and Lets Make Love.) The most moving of her May-December romances is unquestionably the one her fragile, recent divorcée shares with Clark Gables mustang-wrangler in her last film, The Misfits (1961). The Seven Year Itch (1955), in which she plays opposite grating, pushing-40 schmendrick Tom Ewell as a would-be adulterer, makes us even more aware of what an arresting presence she is; when shes not on-screen, shifting attention away from her male lead with her pink matador pants alone, we have no choice but to wait impatiently, wondering, Where have you gone, Mrs. DiMaggio?
Monroes Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes flirts outrageously with the senescent Sir Francis Piggy Beekman, played by Charles Coburn, in the hopes of getting a diamond tiara or two; she even excites a wolfish seven-year-old. But she would find her greatest rapport with Jane Russell in that musical, one of the few to feature women as the leads. In his blustery 1973 biography Marilyn, Norman Mailer notes that his subject will never appear so fucky again as she does in GPB. The word choice is unfortunate, but theres no denying Monroes intense erotic pull in a film in which men are all but extraneous.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.