Marilyn Monroe Symposium at ACMI

November 12th, 2016. Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Conveners: Dr Sue Gillett and Dr Kevin Brianton, La Trobe University.

This Symposium created a further outcome for the research undertaken by ten La Trobe University academics from the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce in preparation for the subject Exhibiting Culture: Marilyn, which ran at the Art Galleries in Bendigo and Albury in May 2016.

Our interdisciplinary approach to the topic of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic status is unique. In this Symposium our intention was to go beyond nostalgia, to offer a genuinely contemporary perspective on performance, celebrity and artistic response, as well as to make Marilyn provocative for us in our times.

We were delighted to have secured, as our keynote speaker for this Symposium, the very distinguished teacher and writer, Professor Lois Banner.

Banner-1-by-Mark-Anderson-use-this-one.jpgAs one of the founders of the field of feminist teaching in the US, Banner spent thirty of her years in academia as a history and gender studies teacher at the University of Southern California (USC). Here she helped popularize and expand the gender studies program, mentoring innumerable students in feminist history.

Professor Banner is the author of the most scholarly, authoritative and popular biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn:  The Passion and the Paradox (London and New York, Bloomsbury, 2012). This book received impressive reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Boston Globe, and newspapers throughout the United States, Great Britain and Australia.  It featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as on best seller lists for Los Angeles Times and London Times, where it was honored as one of the best books of 2012. Professor Banner has also written many journal and magazine articles on Marilyn Monroe and her previous book, MM Personal (Harry Abrams, January, 2011) was judged by the Western Association of Women Historians as the best illustrated collection of original documents.

Other speakers at the Symposium included Bendigo Art Gallery Curatorial Manager, Tansy Curtin, La Trobe University scholars and artists, Sofia Ahlberg, Kevin Brianton, Edgar Burns, Felicity Collins, Sue Gillett, Margaret Hickey, Terrie Waddell, Francine Rochford, Kristian Haggblom and fashion expert and author, Nicole Jenkins.


Symposium spotlight: Was Marilyn property?

Marilyn Monroe

Dr Francine Rochford provided insightful food for thought in her most recent op-ed piece, in which she spoke on the concept of “people as property”. Far and wide she has since sparked mass interest , most recently appearing on ABC radio Wednesday morning.

We know that the relationship between Monroe and the studio was ‘mediated’ by contract.  When she signed a contract, she was in selling aspects of herself – her labour, her image, her time. 

Does this make her ‘property’? Modern law would say no. Even not-so-modern law would say no.”

Dr Rochford brought forth compelling cases to her audience, such as the worth that an individual’s portrayed image can coerce in our world.

“One and a half inches of Norma Jeane Mortenson’s hair was offered at auction recently. As an offcut of Norma Jeane, a piece of hair would probably not be of much value (or use) to anyone other than a bereft boyfriend or perhaps a DNA analyst. 

Labelled as a piece of Marilyn Monroe, however, the peroxided lock can be transferred at a high value.”

Dr Francine Rochford will speak in depth on the curious topic at the Marilyn Monroe Symposium at ACMI in Melbourne on November 12.

To purchase tickets, head to the La Trobe University event page.

Session 2: Matters of Performance


This panel comprises experts from the fields of cinema, drama, literature and fashion – Felicity Collins, Margaret Hickey, Sofia Ahlberg and Nicole Jenkins. Together they will explore the rich and diverse cultural legacy of Marilyn’s performance history and her imitable style.

My Week With Marilyn, Associate Professor Felicity Collins: For many historians empathy is what renders historical fiction deeply suspect: like memory, empathy corrupts historical truth and the only antidote to this corruption is fidelity to the historical record. When it comes to popular cinema and the recent wave of biopics,  the suspicion of empathy intensifies. Keeping in mind LaCapra’s proviso (2001) that hyperbolic acting out resists closure, cure and mastery of the past, I want to compare Michelle Williams’ performance of Marilyn and Kenneth Branagh’s performance of Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. The question raised by such memory films is the power of cinematic performance to make affective and ethical claims on the spectator in ways that confound both historical memory and nostalgic re-vision.

Marilyn and Broadway, Margaret Hickey: In 1951, four years before they married, Arthur Miller encouraged Marilyn Monroe to pursue a career on the stage. It was something she never forgot. I want to consider the possibility of a career in theatre rather than film for Marilyn Monroe. With her academic training in ‘the method’ and encouraged by Lee Strasburg and other luminaries in Broadway, Marilyn worked hard to improve her dramatic skills. Restricted by a Fox contract and the image that bound her, she was ultimately unable to act on her dreams. Using reviews from her contemporaries, her teachers and by comparing stage and screen methods, I ask whether, for Marilyn, a career on the stage could have garnered her the respect she so desperately craved and the image that we have come to recognize as Marilyn would have been markedly different.

Miller’s Muse, Dr Sofia Ahlberg: I read Arthur Miller’s reflections on his relationship with Marilyn as his attempt to understand twentieth-century American loss of faith. I begin with The Misfits, a film that portrays heroism undermined by rampant consumerism and loss of credibility prevalent in 1960s America. Roslyn played by Marilyn represents an innocent prelapsarian Eve. I then bring another rendition of Marilyn from Miller’s autobiography Timebends into the conversation. Miller gives the reader a Marilyn anxious in the role of the great actress. I argue that through this portrait of Marilyn, Miller offers grounds for belief in an understated heroism that struggles despite the odds. Finally, I suggest via the character Maggie in Miller’s After the Fall that the questions that remain in relation to Marilyn can be interpreted within existentialist frameworks. As such, this presentation sees perennial existential questions arising in the wake of Marilyn and confirming Miller’s faith in the literary imagination.

Marilyn’s Style, Nicole Jenkins: Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass figure defined the feminine fashions of the ’50s and was shown off to great effect in the gowns of Hollywood designers including Edith Head, Billy Travilla and Orry-Kelly. In this presentation I discuss some of the most iconic, flattering and valuable dresses in the world and what they reveal about the complex woman who wore them.

Nicole presented her first talk, on “the loneliness of Marilyn Monroe” to an appreciative English class, aged fifteen, and since then has read almost every book and film available on this fascinating and elusive woman. Nicole is a Melbourne based fashion historian and award winning author of books “Love Vintage” and “Style is Eternal”.  Her online emporium “Circa Vintage Clothing” (opened in 2004) offers the largest selection of Australian fashion in the world, providing thousands of authentic costumes for film, TV and theatre. She combines this with lecturing on the history of fashion and presenting talks and workshops around Australia as well as restoring historical garments by hand.

Subject attracts students to the Border


May 1, 2016, 3 p.m.

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IN THE SPIRIT: Marilyn students John Miller and Gabriella Raetz and La Trobe University humanities and social sciences senior lecturer Sue Gillett explore the exhibition as part of study. Picture: ELLEN EBSARY
The first subject of its kind to come from partnerships between La Trobe University and MAMA has attracted students from as far as Perth.
Gabriella Raetz travelled from Melbourne to be one of 46 participants – including 10 members of the public –  in Exhibiting Culture: Marilyn.

“I’ve really loved the cross-disciplinary nature of it and I’ve also never been to Bendigo or Albury,” she said.

La Trobe University Humanities and Social Sciences senior lecturer, Dr Sue Gillett, said more exhibition-based subjects were in the pipeline after two successful trials before the Marilyn course.

“One of my aims is to get Melbourne students out to the regions,” she said.

“We’ll be teaching in relation to the Write Around the Murray writers festival in Albury in September, and we have plans for next year as well.”