Listen with the Eyes: The Making of Marilyn Monroe (Part II)

By Sue Gillett

How was Marilyn made?

“What’s the use of being a star if you have to play something you’re ashamed of?”
– MM [3]

Marilyn at beach

Norma Jeane Baker eagerly embarked upon her Cinderella transformation into Marilyn Monroe through strategically using her looks. In her co-written autobiography, My Story, she recalls her excitement and sense of power when, as a blooming adolescent, her appearance in a tight sweater caused male heads to turn:

“At recess a half dozen boys crowded around me. They made jokes and kept looking at my sweater as if it were a gold mine. I had known for some time that I had shapely breasts and thought nothing of the fact. The math class, however, were more impressed.”[4]

She loved to receive wolf whistles and frequently courted them. The intense gaze of the camera, especially the still photography camera, she experienced as a kind of devotion, and she gave herself over to its attention with generosity, sensuality and openness.  She never doubted that she had the raw material, the talent and the determination to continue provoking men’s gazes, and to exploit this ability in her quest for stardom. In that belief she was correct. But she also believed – as the movies and glossy magazines encouraged millions of other American women to believe – that she would find power and happiness by being the brightly shining candle around whose light fascinated moths would cluster, loving and adoring her. Her dream of being a great star came true – in her lifetime and beyond. Being Marilyn, however, did not bring the fulfilment, contentment, and security the dream had seemed to promise. Why not?

Given the poverty and traumas of Norma Jeane’s childhood, the lack of a secure family, being passed from one foster family to another and experiencing sexual abuse as a young girl, perhaps she never would have found fulfilment. But the answer also lies in this paradox: that her chosen means of escape from being “no-one” to being “someone” was not only paved with obstacles; it was also an enormous trap. Marilyn was completely invested in her image: it was the source of her work, her success and her misery. The tragedy of any image is that it lies: it is empty; it is a thief; it promises everything – wholeness, satisfaction, perfected identity – all mirages. Marilyn gave herself to the image but her image did not give back herself. The pleasure she felt in posing, smiling and parading for the camera, and, by extension, for the eyes behind it, was not symmetrical to the pleasure that others took from looking at her image. As she was to discover, there was neither equality, nor reciprocity, between what she provided and how her image was received and exploited.

And yet there seemed to be no other way to become a great female actor than to use what worked – her sensual body and feminine charm. The women’s liberation movement didn’t become a major force for change until after Marilyn’s death in 1962. This means that Marilyn was working her way to the top during the sexually and politically conservative 1950s, when American patriarchy was reasserting its dominance by boldly redrawing those lines between men and women that had been crossed during the unsettling war years. Marilyn had neither the language nor the sisterhood of feminism to help her as she fought to be respected as a working woman in possession of her sexuality and destiny.

In her ground-breaking analysis of Hollywood’s portrayal of women in films of the 1950s and 60s, film theorist and feminist, Laura Mulvey, describes the ways in which the act of looking – associated with the pleasure of watching films – is structured into the very fabric of a film. In other words, what the audience sees depends upon, and is shaped by, a number of other looks: first is that of the invisible camera (on which we utterly rely) as it frames objects, focuses in, pulls back, tracks, pans and creates lines of sight; and second are those of the on-screen characters, the actors, as they gaze at or away from each other, at other objects, or into the misty distance (but almost never back at us). According to Mulvey, the structure of looking that dominated Hollywood’s productions in the period when Marilyn sought and achieved fame, creates an unequal division of power between the sexes. Woman is confined in her representation as the object of the gaze while man is empowered to be the bearer of the gaze. The man looks; the woman is there to be looked at. The man drives the action forward; the woman arrests action by the pulling the gaze into her image. The man is the actor, the active one; the woman is the spectacle, the fetishized sex object.[5]

We can see this structure at work most clearly in the many show-girl scenes in Marilyn’s movies where her character’s role as a performer to be looked at by other characters within the fictional world of the film, and her appearance as an object for the gaze of the real-life audience sitting in the cinema, coincide. Watch the elaborate song and dance routines in films such as There’s No Business Like Show Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bus Stop, Let’s Make Love, and Some Like it Hot and you will see Marilyn’s face and body on centre stage and centre screen, spot-lit, radiant, drawing all eyes to her, transfixing the eye of the camera, along with the eyes of the men she is dancing and singing for. Figure hugging, sequined dresses are designed for maximum erotic display of her hour-glass figure, revealing while concealing, outlining the contours of her breasts, hips and buttocks.

But there is also something else going on, signs of resistance against the negating power of the objectifying gaze. In her casting and representation as an erotic object, Marilyn imbues her performances with subtle excesses, exaggerations of feminine stereotypes (think of her the flirtatious fluctuations between the gestures of wide-stretched and half-closed eyes; the pouty, parted lips; the hip-swinging walk; the way she wore her revealing clothes) that reveal its artificiality while also reflecting the masculine fantasies behind her masquerade. These excesses and exaggerations are played with just enough knowingness to discomfort that gaze by making it visible – too much knowingness and the fantasies, along with her image, would collapse into parody – as if she is throwing back a challenge to her viewers: “is this what you’re looking at, is this what you want, is this what you think I am?” Marilyn’s genius as an actor is to work this line between parody and naturalism, knowing and not-knowing, giving and withholding, being the object par excellence and hinting that there is so much than what meets the eye.

Works consulted:

[3] Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (2007), p. 178.

[4] Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (2007), p. 22.

[5] Laura Mulvey (1989).

 

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