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Movie Review: FOREVER MARILYN Showcases the Iconic-Yet-Unfulfilled Cinema Presence of Marilyn Monroe

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The tragedy of Marilyn Monroe’s death at age thirty-six is twofold: that this vivacious screen icon expired far sooner than she should have (than anyone should), and that she passed before she could really start exploring her gifts as an actress.  It’s hard to think of Monroe without conjuring up memories of people like James Dean and Heath Ledger, but with both Dean and Ledger, you got a sense of the rolling, unpredictable imagination motivating each performance.  I have no doubt that Dean and Ledger would have honed their respective crafts to even greater degrees but they had already begun that vital process of discovery prior to their untimely deaths.  Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, Giant, The Lords of Dogtown, Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There, The Dark Knight: these films gave us performers at full attention, ready to engage whatever the screen could throw at them.

In contrast, Marilyn Monroe rarely evinced the same spark; she hit one note extremely well – the brassy, smarter-than-she-realizes dumb blonde – and she seldom deviated from it.  To some, comparing James Dean/Heath Ledger’s improvisatory Method to, say, a finely tuned stage performance calculated for mass consumption might seem like apples and oranges, and normally, I’d agree, except that Monroe herself wanted more than to be the world’s wet dream.  She wanted to study at the Actors Studio; she wanted to focus more on the theater; she wanted people to take her seriously.

The problem was, life just got in the way.

What we’re left with reflects the reality – that Hollywood hamstrung a gifted performer – and this Forever Marilyn collection provides a sobering overview of that stunted creative trajectory.  It’s fitting that the earliest feature is 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; this picture offers the least compromised look at Stereotypical Marilyn.  Director Howard Hawks (he of His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby fame) keeps the film sailing along at a screwball pace, and he gives the heaviest dramatic lifting to Jane Russell, which means that Monroe can have all the fun.  As Lorelei Lee, a ditzy showgirl looking for love in all the wrong places, Monroe is a sustained delight.  She’s sexy, she’s funny, and she gets the best music numbers (the famous “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” setpiece).  We’re a long way from the embittered icon that couldn’t catch a dramatic break – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes gives us a movie star who can’t imagine being anything else.

The feeling didn’t last. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the movie so nice, they made it twice – hence Twentieth Century Fox’s How to Marry a Millionaire, which hit theaters the same year.  Same plot (socialite best friends looking for love), same basic character divisions (Monroe and Betty Grable share the ditz part, with Lauren Bacall filling in for Jane Russell as the more cynical older woman), same upbeat mix of music and comedy (handled by director Jean Negulesco), and to be fair, it all works (again).  Bacall is a delight, and Monroe’s shtick is still magnetic and goofy and wonderful.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t say some of the magic is gone; Negulesco’s splashy use of the Cinemascope camera can’t disguise that this is old business that requires nothing new of Monroe (she’s even saddled with a “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” callback). In How to Marry a Millionaire, we see the beginning of Hollywood’s insistence that she always play to the crowd, a condition that would haunt Monroe the rest of her career.

Want proof?  Look no further than 1954’s River of No Return.  On its own, it’s a solid Western adventure with vivid action staging from master filmmaker Otto Preminger and a dependably laconic lead performance from the great Robert Mitchum.  It also let Monroe stretch – in theory – as an unhappy saloon girl who helps Mitchum track her reprobate husband (Rory Calhoun) after the man steals Mitchum’s only horse and rifle.  However, Marilyn thought River of No Return was her worst film, and you can see why; besides having to endure Preminger’s despotic on-set behavior, Monroe kept seeing her atypical heroine forced into the Stereotypical Marilyn box.  Every time she had the chance to display some uncharacteristic shadings – the muted charm, the cynicism, the heightened intelligence – the film would counter by dressing her as provocatively as possible and throwing a song her way (and if you’re wondering how musical numbers fit in an otherwise gritty Western, I’ll give you a hint: not well).  I’d liken it to if P.T. Anderson felt he needed to spruce up Magnolia by tossing in a scene of Tom Cruise running flat-out to disarm a bomb in order to maintain viewer interest.

At least Monroe gets to try something new in River of No Return, even if the studio stymies her efforts – There’s No Business Like Show Business practically uses her as set decoration.  Monroe’s Vicky Parker barely factors into the main story; she’s an accessory, designed to look great and sing perfect and distract viewers from what is a rote, overlong (117 minutes) musical comedy.  It’s a crass move on Fox’s part, and it makes for the least essential vehicle in the Forever Marilyn set – why did Fox choose this extended cameo over her more substantial work in Bus Stop or Niagara?

The following year’s (1955) The Seven-Year Itch goes a long way towards atoning for There’s No Business Like Show Business‘ sins; directed by Billy Wilder, it’s a sly farce about a bored family man (Tom Ewell) who begins to obsess over his va-va-voom neighbor (Monroe) after his family leaves him for the summer.  Wilder and screenwriter George Axelrod delight in using Ewell’s frustrated libido against him, and Monroe plays a far more game sexpot than she’d ever been previously.  But the film’s many charms can’t hide the troubling fact that it still sees Monroe in as mercenary terms as There’s No Business Like Show Business.  She isn’t a person – IMDb credits her as “The Girl” – she’s a compendium of ribald desires (the lead-ins to so many “Penthouse Forum” tales), and she exists only to illuminate Ewell’s randy neuroses.

Thank God for 1959’s Some Like It Hot, the second collaboration between Wilder and Monroe and her first perfect starring vehicle.  Some Like It Hot still delights (I.A.L. Diamond’s entendre-riddled script is a wonder, and co-star Jack Lemmon walks away with every scene he’s in), not least because Monroe gets her first fully realized character.  Sugar Kane Kowalczyk has the standard Monroe accoutrements (her daffy way around a punchline, her ditziness, her still-provocative clothing), but she’s also self-aware and relatable in ways lacking from Monroe’s familiar on-screen persona.  Alongside the 1960 romantic-comedy Let’s Make Love, Some Like It Hot is the star’s sendoff to Stereotypical Marilyn.

The next step: 1961’s The Misfits.  This project grew out from Monroe’s doomed relationship with playwright Arthur Miller; for all their romantic issues, Miller saw in her buried talent that Hollywood was reticent to exploit, and The Misfits was his attempt to give the world a different Marilyn Monroe.  A modern Western, the film is spare, unforgiving, sad – one could argue that its pessimism makes for a less-than-satisfying movie experience, but Monroe is fantastic.  Without deglamorizing her beauty to a Charlize-Theron-in­-Monster extent, Monroe lets herself look ordinary.  She’s a lonely divorcée who knows she can no longer coast through life on her fading beauty, and that realization terrifies her.  In the part, Monroe wrestles with her own talent versus her physicality, with her own self-image versus the world’s perception of her, and even when the movie lags, she is never less than electric.

And a year later, she was dead.

As pure entertainment, this box set is undeniably underwhelming, but it’s underwhelming because it’s accurate.  Marilyn made more mediocre films than she made good ones, and the Forever Marilyn package reflects the all-too limited range of her career.  Viewed together, these seven films represent an essential part of film history: a potent reminder of how fame can outlast sudden death, and an elegy to a talent still nascent.

Twentieth Century Fox’s Forever Marilyn Collection is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.