The blond bombshell: Marilyn Monroe

Ripassiamo la vita e la carriera della mitica attrice statunitense che è stata vista spesso come una vittima passiva di Hollywood ma che oggi è considerata un simbolo di potere e libertà personale della seconda metà del XX secolo.

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Movie star Marilyn Monroe rose to a position of fame that surpassed that of any other performer of her time. The American celebrity headlined in movies that triumphed at the box office. Her contribution to US culture was more than commercial, however. In a pivotal period in history, between the Second World War and the contraceptive pill, Monroe swept aside the untouchable divas and femme fatales of 1940s film, bringing the ultra-feminine blonde bombshell back into fashion. 

hard times

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles on 1 June 1926, Monroe was the third child of Gladys Baker. Baker, who worked for a time as a film cutter in a movie studio, was an inconsistent presence in Norma Jeane’s life. The child never knew her father, and she lived with foster families and in an orphanage. By sixteen, she’d married a local man, James Dougherty.

MODEL ACTRESS 

In 1944, while Dougherty was stationed abroad with the US Marines, Norma Jeane worked in a munitions factory. There, she met a photographer and posed for morale-boosting pin-up photos for the troops She dyed her hair blonde, and used the name Marilyn Monroe (her grandmother’s maiden name) for promotional appeal. By 1946, she had divorced Dougherty and had appeared on thirty-three magazine covers. She signed with an acting agency and began to attend auditions. 

COMIC EXAGERATION

The 1940s had seen smart, tough actresses Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck appeal to women-dominated audiences. Now the studios wished to capture the men, back from the war. 

When a flood of fan mail began to arrive for Monroe’s minor roles, such as that in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, they knew they had something. Up to then, blonde hair was associated with innocence. Monroe complicated that image, playing up the allure with a breathy voice and figure-hugging outfits inspired by 1930s screen icon Jean Harlow. Monroe was philosophical about her status as a sex symbol: “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,” she said. 

NAIVE AND NAUGHTY

Films such as Niagara (1953) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) earned Monroe star billing. She played irresistible, approachable, yet dangerous women: glamorous showgirls, gold diggers and home wreckers. Monroe became the object of popular adulation, upstaging established actresses Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers and Lauren Bacall. At the height of her fame, Monroe announced her marriage to the most famous sportsman of the day, retired New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio. But DiMaggio was controlling, and the marriage did not last.

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SELF IMPROVEMENT

Meanwhile, Monroe was making waves in the industry itself by negotiating a new contract with Fox Studios that allowed her a degree of creative control of her movies unprecedented at the time. She was determined to be a serious actor, and studied at the Actors’ Studio in New York. Her performance in Bus Stop (1956) led to a Golden Globe nomination. However, her dependence on prescription drugs was out of control. She would arrive very late and forget her lines. Psychiatrists and acting coaches accompanied her everywhere. Hollywood was losing patience. 

A PILL FOR EVERYTHING

By then, Monroe had married playwright Arthur Miller, to much public ridicule. She desperately wanted a family but had many miscarriages. Monroe suffered from endometriosis, a painful condition that can cause infertility. It is likely that it contributed to her dependency on pills. At the time, powerful drugs were prescribed for all kinds of emotional and physical ailments. They were even given to children for bed-wetting.

TRAGIC END

In 1957, Monroe suffered an ectopic pregnancy and another miscarriage. She kept on working —or tried to. The Misfits (1961), her last film, was written by Miller specifically for Monroe, though their marriage fell apart during production. In 1962 Monroe began making Something’s Got to Give alongside Dean Martin and directed by George Cukor. She was so frequently absent that filming was abandoned. In one of her last performances, she sang Happy Birthday to president John F. Kennedy, with whom she was allegedly having an affair. She wore a nude-coloured skin-tight dress that left little to the imagination. Afterwards, Monroe disappeared from public view for the final time. She was found on 4 August 1962 in her Los Angeles home, dead from a massive overdose of sleeping pills.

FABULOUS LEGACY

Monroe’s death propelled her to legendary status. Her image has been appropriated by those who seek to free themselves of gender constraints: the gay and trans communities and independent-minded celebrities, such as Madonna, have seen her as a symbol of resistance to sexual norms through fashion and fun, rather than dry intellectual discourse. The role of women in society was to transform in the 1960s. While Monroe herself wanted a family and was devastated by her inability to have one, her legacy is that of the freedom to choose. In encouraging women to celebrate their bodies, unleash their sex drives and liberate themselves from domesticity, she heralded the sexual revolution that was to come. 

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