Skip to content

Review of the Marilyn Monroe Exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

The beautiful Bendigo Art gallery has been hosting an exhibition about the life and the movie career of Marilyn Monroe—co-presented by Twentieth-Century Fox—since March 5, this year. Because the exhibition has created a lot of excitement, it has been extended until July 10, with the last three days remaining open until 7.00pm. When you book a ticket, you have to give an approximate time of your arrival and when you arrive you must line up to be released into the exhibition hall in half-hourly intervals.

So what is it about this fair and funny lady, an American actress who has exerted such influence over our imaginations half a world away and whose popularity has endured to the present day? What still charms and intrigues people about her, when, on August 5 of this year, Marilyn Monroe will have been fifty-four years dead?

There is much more to her, apparently, than the officially-sanctioned stories of her life, which have so many gaps and silences in them, one could be mistaken for thinking they were dreamed up by Twentieth-Century Fox publicists. And this is, of course, the crux of the problem with the exhibition. It is the studio version of her life, and therefore a veneer of a veneer.

For instance, if, as the studio states in the exhibition, Monroe died of an accidental overdose of drugs or by her own hand, surely it would behove Twentieth-Century Fox to ask why either of these possibilities existed. A little self-examination by the studio wouldn’t have gone awry in making the curation a much more intelligent account of this remarkable person. It could have started with the foul-mouthed Darryl Zanuck, the studio boss during most of Monroe’s tenure with Twentieth-Century Fox, who called the star a “c—” when she responded to his invitation to spend some time on board his yacht with him by saying she would only do so if his wife were also present. Zanuck vastly underpaid her. Considering how much money she brought into his studio, the fact that he didn’t even supply her with her own dressing-room until after she had made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,  looks like he was waging a personal vendetta against her. He harassed and belittled her in front of other cast members and crew and wouldn’t even consider her for the role of Grushenka in the film version of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—a role she would love to have played and about which Lois Banner says in Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, was a perfect fit for her. Hell hath no fury like that man scorned, apparently, though also according to Banner, directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Roy Ward Baker, Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger were strutting tyrants ever ready to bully and condemn, rather than to get the best from her on the set, which was, after all, their job.

Banner’s 2012 publication is the best account of Monroe’s life that I have read because it is carefully researched but accessible to the non-academic reader (though I did adore Andrew O’Hagan’s more fictitious version called The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe, which is reviewed somewhere on this website). Unsurprisingly, Banner suggests that Monroe was a feminist, though the term “feminist” was not in common parlance in the actress’s time and one she did not use herself. A main reason for Banner’s suggestion was that Monroe portrayed herself as a sexual being at a time when women were considered ideal as submissive, passive ornaments, mere respondents to male passion rather than initiators of it—something like Ira Levin’s satirical novelistic creation, The Stepford Wives, published ten years after the actress’s death. Monroe also revealed something of the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child in one or several of those many foster homes she found herself occupying when her mother was institutionalised as a paranoid schizophrenic—such abuse being a subject most people were afraid to bring to light at that time. As an adult she may have had a sex addiction—one of the consequences of child sexual abuse. This would explain the “party girl” behaviour that made her notorious. The double-standards of the day allowed the moguls and their friends to exploit her while despising her. The undeniable fact that she started life as a penniless orphan makes her legendary. Born in the charity ward of the Los Angeles County General Hospital, she was put into foster care for the first time when she was just three months old, yet rose to become if not the most famous movie star of all time, certainly one of the very few of those luminaries. This especially makes her  extraordinary—when you consider just how tough it was to survive in an environment like Hollywood during the late 1940s and ’50s, and even more particularly, as a woman, alone, with no family connections or friends in high places to ease her way.

A sinister feature of those times was the House of Un-American Activities Committee investigations into people in the movie industry who supported left-wing politics. Senator Joe McCarthy brought many actors and other creative people before the Committee, blacklisting some and making it impossible for them ever to work in Hollywood again. (The wonderfully talented George Chakiris who appeared in Westside Story was one such victim). Yet Monroe had openly praised Fidel Castro and Communist China for looking after ordinary workers, the people for whom all her life she seemed to have the most sympathy, if you don’t count the world’s orphans. Was she just too big a star to be placed before the HUAC? Would such a move by the American administration prove too unpopular or even counter-productive to the anti-Communist movement in the US? Monroe’s third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, depicted the Salem witch hunts of 1692-3 in his play, The Crucible, (1953), as a thinly-disguised parallel of what was going on in Hollywood at the time. He was brought before the House in 1956, but his wife was not at any time interrogated in this way. Did Monroe suffer a more unforgiving punishment for expressing sympathies that were deemed left-wing—considerably pissing off J. Edgar Hoover—as Banner suggests? Interestingly another writer, James Ellroy, said in his novel, The Big Nowhere,  (1988), that the anti-Communist witch hunts were just a ploy to frighten people working in Hollywood into not joining unions that would represent their interests because the studio heads did not want to pay their extras. When you consider the epic films made in this time with casts of thousands, this would no doubt have represented massive savings for them. Yet Hoover and McCarthy seemed fixated on the Communist menace, which, in the hindsight of the fall of most of the Communist regimes and the stories that have come out about them, seems somewhat overwrought.

Certainly the costumes on display at the Marilyn Monroe exhibition pleased a lot of the people looking at them. Yet the soiled cardigan I found a bit tacky. Others of the clothing exhibits had been dry-cleaned and pressed—for God’s sake, they’re over fifty years old and had potentially been worn by countless other actresses! What was the grubby cardigan saying, then? I believe it was that Marilyn, like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, was distrait, and ultimately mad enough to take her own life. And there was another glaring anomaly in the exhibition: the two books. Monroe, mindful of her limited and frequently disrupted education, became a voracious reader. As an adult she read the great novelists (this is why she was aware that she should have played Grushenka), history, psychology, philosophy—anything to “improve” herself. Were the two books on display implying that  Marilyn didn’t read much—as one would expect of a blonde bimbo. They and the cardigan seem to reinforce the studio’s official version of Monroe, diminishing the woman’s genuine worth.

Jane Russell, Monroe’s co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has said in a television interview that while she tried to introduce Marilyn to a belief in Christianity on the set of that film, Marilyn tried to introduce, her, Russell, to the writings of Freud. She added with an ironic smile, “She was no dumb blonde.”

Another co-star, Robert Mitchum, has stated that no woman who ever worked with Monroe has criticised her. This would seem  an amazing accomplishment in an industry so cut-throat. It is also an accomplishment that women all over the world have seemed to have loved Monroe, rather than feel she was a rival. This I hazard to put down to the light-hearted way that she presented herself as the sex goddess that men adored. She parodied it and them. . . but in the nicest possible way.

A documentary recently screened on our redoubtable SBS television channel, claimed that Monroe neither died accidentally nor suicided, but was murdered. The perpetrators, it said, were Ralph Greenson and Bobby Kennedy. Greenson was Monroe’s analyst who had allegedly broken the rules of professional conduct by having an affair with her. The documentary claimed that Greenson feared she would reveal his indiscretion to the world, costing him his livelihood and possibly his marriage. Bobby Kennedy was apparently afraid that she would reveal the details of his own affair and that of his brother, JFK, with her. Whereas the Kennedys had a great deal to lose over such exposure, Greenson seems to me a possible patsy. For a start, Banner says that all the members of the Greenson family were close friends of Monroe, who had had numerous affairs with a number of men—married or otherwise—and who didn’t feel the need to reveal them to the general public. According to both Banner and the documentary, the impasse with the Kennedys was far more bitter. Monroe felt that they had mistreated her.

Whatever the verdict about her demise—which may or may not emerge over time to give everybody closure—we know that she challenged the hypocrisy of a turbulent time in history. The Civil Rights movement, which Monroe instinctively supported, was gathering momentum; the Korean War had just ended in 1953; the Vietnam War was ramping up. Though it clearly had its heroes, it was a time dominated by dangerous, unreliable men both inside and outside the movie studios, men with too much power and too few ethics.


Published inUncategorized

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.