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Oscar Profile #97: Marilyn Monroe

Born June 1, 1926, Norma Jeane Mortenson’s father abandoned her mother before she was born. Her mentally ill mother abandoned her to foster care resulting in her almost being smothered to death at two; nearly raped at six and put to work at nine for which she was paid a nickel a month for kitchen work while one penny per week would be deducted for Sunday church services. At sixteen she worked in an aircraft factory, marrying a fellow worker who would soon join the Armed Services during World War II. They would divorce in 1946.

Now a swimsuit model, she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and was given a studio contract by 20th century-Fox which put her in several 1947 films unbilled. Fox dropped her contract, which was picked up by Columbia who gave the young actress her first billing in a co-starring role in Ladies of the Chorus. A small but important part in 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle led to her casting in that same year’s All About Eve and the re-establishment of her contract with Fox.

She won a Photoplay award as Fastest Rising Star of 1952 for a number of films she made that year and another as Most Popular Female Star of 1953 on the strength of her roles in Niagara; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. Married and divorced from baseball legend Joe DiMaggio in 1954, she had two major screen successes that year, first opposite Robert Mitchum in River of No Return, then as part of the all-star ensemble of There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Her iconic role in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch earned her a BAFTA nomination, but tired of her sex symbol image, she went to New York to study acting at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio and emerged with a new husband, playwright Arthur Miller, and a new personal acting coach, Strasberg’s wife Paula.

Her performance in 1956’s Bus Stop stunned the critics, earning her some of the best notices of her career and a Golden Globe nomination, but no Oscar nod.

After that, it was off to England and The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Laurence Olivier as chronicled in the recent My Week With Marilyn, which earned for Michelle Williams the Oscar nomination that always eluded the real Marilyn. She did, however, receive her second BAFA nomination for her performance.

At the height of her popularity now, she was a sensation in 1959’s Some Like It Hot opposite Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, receiving her second Golden Globe nomination and this time a win as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

An affair with Yves Montand while making 1960’s Let’s Make Love while he was married to Simone Signoret and she was still married to Arthur Miller caused tongues to wag.

In their last year of marriage, Miller wrote the script for the ill-fated 1961 film, The Misfits which caused the death of co-star Clark Gable from a stress caused heart attack weeks after filming completed. It also proved to be Monroe’s last completed film.

Her constant no-shows on the set of Fox’s Something’s Gotta Give caused the studio to fire her, after which she died of an overdose of sleeping pills on August 5, 1962 at 36.

Fifty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe’s legend remains strong as ever. Today she is better known than most of the actors and actresses who won the Oscars she never did.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), directed by Howard Hawks

Originally intended as a vehicle for Betty Grable, Fox decided to film it instead as a vehicle for the fast-rising Monroe, but hedged their bets by making it a co-starring vehicle for the more proven Jane Russell.

Anita Loos’ famous novel had been turned into a play and a lost 1928 film, but is best known for the 1949 Broadway musical that made a legend of Carol Channing as the mercenary Lorelei Lee. Hawks’ film scuttles the story set in the roaring twenties as well as most of the great Jule Styne-Leo Robin score. It does retain “Bye, Bye Baby” given to secondary character Dorothy Shaw to pump up Russell’s part; “A Little Girl from Little Rock” changed to “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” and sung by both Russell and Monroe in the opening and Channing’s signature song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” which for a time became better known for Monroe’s rendition. Two songs by Hoagy Carmichael are added as replacements for the remainder of the score.

Monroe’s dumb blonde act wears a bit thin, but the laughs keep coming in Hawks’ re-written farce which also features Charles Coburn, Elliott Reid, George “Foghorn” Winslow and the U.S. Olympic team.

HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953), directed by Jean Negulesco

The first film filmed in Cinemascope, but released after the more prestigious The Robe, Monroe’s dumb blonde act is more endearing here as her character suffers from near-sightedness.

Top-billed Betty Grable, Monroe and Lauren Bacall are three gold-diggers on the prowl. Potential suitors include David Wayne, Rory Calhoun, Cameron Mitchell and William Powell in his next to last film.

THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954), directed by Walter Land

This musical about a show business family was conceived as a showcase for Irving Berlin’s vast repertoire of songs. Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey head the cast as the matriarch and patriarch, respectively, of a show business family whose three children grow up to be Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray. Monroe is a fast-rising showgirl whose romance with O’Connor takes up much of the film.

Merman gets to sing several renditions of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, a song she wasn’t given to sing in the 1938 film of that title which starred Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche. She also gets to sing this film’s title song, the show biz anthem she introduced in Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun. Monroe sizzles in a big production number built around “Heat Wave” which Merman had sung in Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

BUS STOP (1956), directed by Joshua Logan

William Inge’s 1955 play was a vehicle for Kim Stanley whose best-known screen role was as a fictionalized version of Monroe in 1958’s The Goddess., revenge for Monroe getting to play Stanley’s most famous stage role on film?

As the saloon singer who is the object of cowpoke Don Murray’s affections, Monroe proved she could act with her multi-layered portrayal of a woman who just wants her man to say “please”. Her plaintive rendition of the standard “That Old Black Magic” is the film’s highlight.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), directed by Billy Wilder

Wilder and Monroe had worked together before on 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, best known for the scene in which Monroe’s dress blows in the air as she is standing over a subway grate. With only Tony Curtis attached at first, the producers wanted Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor, Monroe’s There’s No Business Like Show Business co-star, fresh from her success in South Pacific, but Wilder, hell-bent on casting Jack Lemmon in the other male lead, held firm, especially after Sinatra was a no-show at a planned luncheon with Wilder. Monroe’s desire to work once again with Wilder succeeded in getting the producers to back off and she and Lemmon, the film’s greatest assets, got to do their thing.

Curtis’ off-quoted remark that kissing Monroe was like kissing Hitler is meant to convey the actresses’ long held reputation of being difficult, but Curtis has said that he meant it as a sarcastic rebuke to a reporter’s stupid question. Whatever the difficulties were on set, the finished product reveals none of them. Monroe has never been breezier, Curtis and especially Lemmon are terrific, and veteran actor-comedian Joe E. Brown gets to say the film’s immortal last line. It is easily Monroe’s best film and Monroe’s best on film.

MARILYN MONROE AND OSCAR

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