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

By Sue Gillett

What did Marilyn mean?

“One of her great gifts was to distil suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else. And just doing that is enough to throw a spanner into the cultural works.” [6]

Marilyn Monroe reading

Marilyn frequently complained of the limited and limiting roles she was given to play. Early in her career she was type-cast as a dumb-blonde bombshell. She quickly tired of this straight-jacket, and yearned for roles that were serious and dramatic, for characters with depth and complexity. “I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac”, she wrote in My Story. “It was all right for a few years. But now it’s different.”[7] But she fitted the gendered Hollywood formula so perfectly – she was a natural beauty, her curvaceous body conformed to the feminine ideal of the times, she wore make-up well and was incredibly photogenic – that the production studios refused to offer her more nuanced, human roles. “I wanted to be treated as human being who had earned a few rights since her orphanage days”, she declares in her memoir.[8] Even in the few dramatic roles she did star in, such as Niagara (where she plays an unfaithful, murder-plotting wife), the camera, framing, lighting, posing, editing and costuming all present her primarily as a spell-binding figure, deliberately arrayed for visual pleasure, dominating the screen, distracting and absorbing the viewer’s attention. Her determination to cast off these limitations was so sincere that in 1954 she abandoned 20th Century Fox to form her own film company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP).

Laura Mulvey’s diagnosis of the male gaze goes a long way towards explaining how difficult it was (and arguably still is) for a female actor to be seen as anything more than a material body, a delectable – and disposable – body. Marilyn was acutely aware of the way Hollywood’s sexual glorification of her body also reduced it to a fetish, a sex object, which, as Jacqueline Rose describes “she both hated and played to.”[9] Marilyn seemed to shrug it off in an interview for Life in 1962, but the critique is all the more incisive for being witty:

“I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of.” – MM [10]

For Marilyn, acting was a verb – and a dynamic one at that. She didn’t simply want to be an actor – a noun, a thing, a state of being – she wanted to act, which meant doing: working, studying, improving, developing. Fragments of her notebooks provide ample evidence of the seriousness with which she approached the art of acting:

“I can and will help myself and work on things analytically, no matter how painful- if I forget things (unconscious wants to forget – I will only try to remember). Discipline – Concentration … Actress must have no mouth, no feet, shoulder, girdle hangs light, hanging so-o-o loose, everything, focus my thought on the partner – feeling in the end of my fingers. Nothing must come between me and my part – my feeling – concentration. The feeling only, getting rid of everything else, my mind speaks, no looks, body only, letting go – face feeling mind spirit.” – MM [11]

But Marilyn was a woman, forging her career in a chauvinistic medium, industry and society where the rule was that men did the acting and women did the looking gorgeous. On the set of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956 her co-star and director Laurence Olivier deeply insulted her with his comment that all she needed to do was “be sexy.”[12] Her desire to act, while also being beautiful to look at, was not only a subversive desire, it was almost incomprehensible to the cinematic language and the patriarchal culture of Hollywood. As Lois Banner writes:

“No matter how hard she tried, Hollywood and its men refused to consider her as anything more than a party girl and in the end they treated her like a slut they could use with impunity.”[13]

Marilyn Monroe’s death from barbiturate poisoning in 1962, whether it was accidental, self-inflicted or the result of murder, is the ultimate testimony to the price she paid for her subversiveness in being such a subtle and glorious gender contradiction. Both on and off the screen she was the object who did what an object is not meant to do: she exposed the double-edge of men’s glorification of the female body, discomforted their authority and entitlement, and – even worse – she demanded to mean more than they wanted her to.

I will give the final word to Marilyn. In her black notebook, circa 1951, she wrote following self-instructional note. Her words, so poignant in retrospect, suggest how very differently Marilyn’s body could have been appreciated:

“no attitude

listening to the body for the feeling

listen with the eyes” – MM [14]

Works consulted:

[6] Jacqueline Rose (2012).

[7] Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (2007), p. 174-5.

[8] Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (2007), p. 176.

[9] Jacqueline Rose (2012).

[10] Sarah Churchwell (2004).

[11] Marilyn Monroe (2010), p. 37.

[12] Lois Banner (2012a), p.312.

[13] Lois Banner (2012a), p. 429.

[14] Marilyn Monroe (2010), p. 37.

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