Astute scrutiny of “the perilous and fascinating lines between fact and fiction, between desire and contempt, between knowledge and doubt,” as demonstrated in critical and biographical treatments of the iconic sex goddess.
Monroe is a brutally oversold image, writes Churchwell (Literature and Culture/Univ. of East Anglia), “an icon of desirability and a stereotype of pathological femininity.” On the one hand, Monroe is a myth, relecting and sanctioning our cultural values; on the other, as Churchwell makes clear, her symbolic relationship to femininity, sexuality, Hollywood, and celebrity has become what the author calls a dead metaphor, “a metaphor that has lost its figurative power, and gets taken literally.” Churchwell wades into the various biographies, biographical novels, plays, and photo-essay, from Fred Guiles and Barbara Leaming to Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and the truly weird Frank Capell, staunch anticommunist and hater of all things Kennedy. With sparkling clarity, she analyzes how these works feed our notions of spectacle, commodity, and representation. Worst of all, they just don’t get it right: Churchwell, who can be coruscating, dubs one psychological profile “stupid to the point of incomprehensibility.” She’s an author of the if-it-looks-smells-and-tastes-like-an-apple-it-is-an-apple school of thought. Writing about Leaming’s comment that the skin-tight gold lamé Monroe wore in 1952 to an awards ceremony showed that the actress was “hell-bent on self-destruction,” Churchwell dryly adds, “rather than the more obvious goal of self-promotion.” She would like to liberate Monroe from such glib characterizations, especially those that use the name the actress discarded to make sentimental assumptions about her “real” personality. “Marilyn Monroe was a real person,” she writes. “It is Norma Jeane who is the fiction, the cultural figment, the ghost of the real invoked as a death sentence.” Speaking of which, she also stirs up serious dust in examining Monroe’s death. Churchwell claims she’s not out to paint a new portrait, but to understand the genesis and purpose of the stories that swarm around Monroe. Turns out she does quite well on both fronts.
Pumps a lot of bilge overboard. (13 b&w illustrations)