Elvis Presley Challenge No. 52 – Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes tone dramatically when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and great performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on Some Like It Hotmood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe biographyMonroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe and Miller

Monroe and Miller

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We Happy birthday, Mr Presidentimagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for Elvis resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie, ‘Niagara’, her sexiness is overplayed and absurd and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

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4 comments

  1. So many similarities between Elvis and Marilyn, both eventually had untimely deaths, I think Joe DiMaggio really loved her and did not exploit her, there was a chance they could have remarried before she died.

  2. A very interesting piece which reflects both Elvis and Marilyn as flawed icons. Also interesting were the comparisons drawn on the ‘treatment’ of both in the film and media industries. Howard’s view is that both gender and class differences played a role, but was Elvis shortchanged in the process.

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