Marilyn Monroe

Icons of the Century

She first came to notice in a couple of 1950 movies, “Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve.” The ripe blonde who was supposed to be both ornamental and negligible — a Hollywood cliche. But the moviegoer’s eye kept drifing her way. There was something about the lushness of her lips, the glow of her skin and hair, and the delicious, post-coital langor of her eyes, that altogether exuded luminous sensuality. It seemed like her voluptuous image ignited overnight: The blonde bombshell!

The chartered course of the establishment ’50s was outwardly set by frosty eminences like Dean Acheson and the Dulles brothers and overseen by a grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower; but its paranoid psychic atmosphere was charged by McCarthyism and the deep anxiety over thermonuclear war and the Red Menace that threatened to wage it. A brittle WASP repression characterized our surface lives. Then Marilyn came along to show us that the fireball wasn’t nuclear, it was sexual.

She became the most voyeuristically photographed and written-about woman in America. She wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. She married one of the nation’s greatest athletes, Joe DiMaggio, and then one of its leading playwrights and public intellectuals, Arthur Miller. In a black-and-white era, she captured radiant light. But she had outed the roiling American id and became its principal sex surrogate. There was no turning back. Though she made some good films and two classics (“Eve” and “Some Like It Hot”) she became her own meta-movie.

There have been any number of screen beauties whose stock-in-trade is sex, and plenty of them have had drug and booze and temperament issues. But there was a horrible, poignant innocence in Monroe’s media-plundered life. Her tender features never lost their covert plea for rescue from the torrential power she’d unleashed.

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