“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.” That’s 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 Monroe’s death at age 36 by apparent suicide; it is just one of the scores of books devoted to tracing the actress’s grim beginnings: the institutionalized mother, the father she never met, the constant shuttling between foster homes and orphanages—her 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. BAMcinématek’s 14-film tribute to cinema’s most iconic blonde reminds us why we couldn’t 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 action—raising an eyebrow, walking with a slight wiggle, parting her mouth just so—to 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 doesn’t tame or soften the actress’s on-screen sexuality, which would be twinned with cuddly naïveté in almost all of her post-’53 vehicles.
Cotten, 21 years Monroe’s 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 Let’s Make Love.) The most moving of her May-December romances is unquestionably the one her fragile, recent divorcée shares with Clark Gable’s 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 she’s 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?”
Monroe’s 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 there’s no denying Monroe’s intense erotic pull … in a film in which men are all but extraneous.