This summer, at least three new books commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death on Aug. 5, 1962. Lois Banner brings to her biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, the dedication of an academic and a feminist, as she is a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California and a co-founder of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.
Read more books about Marilyn.
Here, Banner discusses how her background brought Monroe into focus:
In the preface, you write that before 1990 you “dismissed Marilyn too easily” as “a sex object.” What caused you to take her more seriously?
My students were being influenced by third-wave feminism, which I was teaching. Third-wave feminism looks on fashion and wearing make-up and beautifying oneself as empowering for women. I realized Marilyn Monroe could be looked at as representative of that point of view. I wanted to see if there were parts of her that I could respect as a feminist.
And what did you find?
I saw the power she could attain by using her body to attract men. Of course, her body attracted women, too, which is one of the many ironies about Marilyn. She knew exactly what she was doing. She put together the “Marilyn” character very calculatingly—she realized its power. She’d been getting nowhere. She made herself a star by becoming the sexiest woman in Hollywood. I began to see her as broadening the concept of feminism.
At the same time, I realized she was a great comic artist and that she had great abilities as an actress. Her clown figure is brilliant. The dumb blond character [she played] is a major figure in the western comic tradition.
She became the most complex biographical subject I had ever analyzed. Her complexity is where I found my subtitle, “The Passion and the Paradox.” The paradox is that every time you find some characteristic about Marilyn, you also see she had its opposite. She was fragmented. But she controlled the different parts of her personality. She could bring various characters to the surface when she wanted. She would say, I’m going to bring up Marilyn Monroe and she would shake her body and be Marilyn Monroe.
Reading your account of her childhood, I got the impression it wounded her beyond healing.
I was surprised by the extent of the wounds in her childhood. But Marilyn always tried to fix everything. She was a person filled with energy and drive. She was in analysis her whole life.
[But] in the ’50s psychoanalysis was not all that unsympathetic to male abuse of children, which is what happened to Marilyn. The kind of therapy she needed wasn’t around. She was, in a sense, a victim of her times. Her therapist claimed he had helped her. But every time she hit a crisis, she was back taking the drugs. The drug situation was overwhelming. I don’t know if she could have gotten over it.
It often seems that in life and in her career, people would not let her be the person she wanted to be.
Producers in Hollywood did not want her doing any dramatic acting. She was quite good in [dramatic roles]. She’s amazing in Clash by Night and quite good in Don’t Bother to Knock. But Fox did not want to put her in anything like Niagara again. [In the film, Monroe plays an adulterer plotting with her paramour to murder her husband.] They put her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she was exquisite. Then it went on from there.
Some journalists saw her acting genius and others dissed her no matter what she did. The big problem is that she had no control of the nude photos she had done when she was younger. Even when she was at the Actors Studio in New York and proving her worth as a woman of elegance, those old pinups were running.
Many great stars communicate something special in their eyes. Was this the case with Monroe?
Joshua Logan [Monroe’s director in Bus Stop] said she tremendously resembled [Charlie] Chaplin in her ability to show happiness and sadness in her eyes. Biographers have talked about other parts of her body, but not her eyes. I think [her eyes are] why people respond to her. As she became older, the eyes became mesmeric. She could charm people like Cleopatra.