August 5 marks the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962. Few Hollywood stars have created such a powerful legacy based on such a small, brief output: starring roles in 11 films, released during a nine-year period.
Fox ran an ad in Daily Variety in 1952, the year Monroe starred in “Don’t Bother to Knock,” proclaiming her “a new star.” Studios often took out ads to promote contract players and 20th Century Fox was building her career, so the promo wasn’t unusual. However, in her case, the words sound more factual than hype.
Her big breakthrough occurred in 1953, when she starred in “Niagara,” “How to Marry a Millionaire” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” all for Fox. From that point until her death, at age 36, she was the hottest thing in Hollywood.
In “Conversations With Wilder,” director Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe that he didn’t like working with her. In 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch,” she had a 9 a.m. call, but didn’t show up until 5 p.m., explaining she’d gotten lost trying to find the Fox lot. The director couldn’t understand how she could get lost, exclaiming, “She’d been under contract to the studio for seven years!”
Despite his frustrations, Wilder jumped at the opportunity when Monroe expressed interest in 1959’s “Some Like it Hot.” Wilder said she flawlessly delivered a complicated three-page dialog scene with Tony Curtis, but had trouble with just a few lines: The lines “Where’s that bourbon?” and “It’s me, Sugar!” each required more than 50 takes.
Her final completed film came in 1961 with “The Misfits.” The following year, Daily Variety ran regular updates on the progress of her planned role in Fox’s “Something’s Got to Give,” from which she was eventually fired for not showing up.
Undeterred, she sought other roles. When Grace Kelly, aka Princess Grace of Monaco, dropped out of the Alfred Hitchcock project “Marnie,” Monroe expressed interest in playing the role of the chilly, neurotic kleptomaniac. “It’s an interesting idea,” a noncommittal Hitchcock told Variety’s Army Archerd. It is indeed. It would have been a very different film.
Monroe died on Aug. 5, 1962, and the coroner eventually declared the cause of death was “acute barbiturate poisoning” resulting from a “probable suicide.” Laurence Olivier, her co-star and director in “Prince and the Showgirl,” said “She was a complete victim of ballyhoo and sensation.” An op-ed piece in the Albany Times-Union said, “It’s hard to understand that a girl so many people loved could be so lonely.”
But, as always, the public had the final word. A week after her death, Variety reported a poll by Creative Research Associates of Chicago on public reaction. Men and women liked her equally, describing her as a sex symbol, “having a quality of innocence, an unawareness of her physical endowments.” Of the films she starred in (or had supporting roles in), the respondents predicted she would be best remembered for “Some Like It Hot,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
Public tastes are very fickle, but her fans were on the money, even back then.
Though many of Hollywood’s biggest stars had long careers, like Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and Marlon Brando, two other notable names also had short resumes: James Dean and Grace Kelly, who, interestingly, also rose to fame in the early 1950s.
In the decades since her heyday, Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of documentaries, films, books and TV works (including the recent “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” miniseries), all of them trying to understand her appeal. In the book written by Crowe, even Wilder was confused. “I don’t know why she became so popular. I never knew. She was really kind of …” Then Wilder answers his own question. “She was a star, … a remarkable person and in spades when she was on the screen.”