Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe

Norma Jean Mortenson, who became known to millions as Marilyn Monroe before her untimely death at the age of 36, was one of the most famous people the United States has ever produced. While her route to fame was through the films she starred in, her bombshell looks, breathy voice, and personal mystique caused her fame to soar far beyond her talents as an actress. Her typecasting as a dumb, sexy blonde contributed to her unhappiness—some sources report that the actress had an IQ of 160. Her suicide has come to serve as a symbol of the destruction that fame and beauty can wreak. ...

Monroe was born on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. Accounts of her childhood and early years are sketchy, but most agree that Monroe's mother had to be hospitalized for a mental condition when her daughter was very young and that the little girl was shuttled around to a dozen foster families. Monroe also seems to have lived in an orphanage at one point. She received a broken education at various public schools around Los Angeles, the last of which was Van Nuys High School. When she was 16, Monroe learned that her current foster family had to leave California. To avoid going into yet another foster situation, she accepted a proposal of marriage. Her husband soon left for the U.S. Merchant Marine, however, and their marriage did not survive much past the end of World War II. While he was gone, Monroe got a few jobs to bring in extra money, working as a parachute inspector and an aircraft paint sprayer.

The first job Monroe got that capitalized on her looks was as a photographer's model, which she started after attending a local charm school at another photographer's suggestion. By 1946, Monroe had appeared on the covers of several men's magazines and later admitted to posing for a calendar of nudes in 1949 to help pay the rent. Howard Hughes and Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation saw the photos and signed her to a one-year contract for $125 a week. It was at this point that a talent scout gave the budding actress her new name. Her first film appearance, in the movie Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay, never made it to the theaters. No more roles were forthcoming, so the studio terminated her contract when it expired in 1947. Columbia Pictures gave her a contract for six months, during which time she played a small part in the film Ladies of the Chorus. Soon, however, Monroe was back on the streets looking for work.


Returning to freelancing as a photographer's model, Monroe also got a tiny part in a Marx Brothers movie. She made a favorable impression on director John Huston, who happened to catch her walk-on, and he signed her to play a prostitute in his 1950 film Asphalt Jungle. Although she was not even mentioned in the movie's screen credits, the actress received so much fan mail after the film that Twentieth Century-Fox executives asked her to come back to work for them. Monroe accepted and appeared in the hit film All about Eve. Her performance so pleased the studio that she got a new, seven-year contract with options up to $3,500 a week. ... Monroe's movies of this period include The Fireball, Let's Make It Legal, Love Nest, and As Young As You Feel. ...

By 1952, Monroe was starting to become a household name.  ... Several top film critics were describing Monroe as the "most promising actress" and the "most popular actress." At the end of 1953, she had earned more money for Twentieth Century-Fox than any other Hollywood star had earned for their studios. By the time she broke her contract with the studio at the end of 1954, Monroe had starred in such smash-hit films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven-Year Itch, and There's No Business Like Show Business. Despite her skyrocketing popularity and some critical success for her comic timing, Monroe was increasingly unhappy that she could not seem to win any of the more serious roles she really wanted. The breakup of her 1953 marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio after nine months only made matters worse. She left Hollywood for New York to attend the Actors Studio.


In January 1955, Monroe announced that she had founded her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. The next year, the company bought the rights to a play that it would later film under the name The Prince and the Show Girl. Meanwhile, Twentieth Century-Fox signed Monroe to do four films over seven years. The first of these, Bus Stop, came out in 1956 and showed off Monroe's natural talent as a comedienne. Prior to its release, she had married her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, and immediately afterward, the couple flew to London to start filming of The Prince and the Show Girl. Revered British actor Sir Laurence Olivier was her costar and the film's director. Although it did not receive rave reviews, Monroe was once again complimented for her light comic touch. ...

For the next two years, Monroe lived quietly in New York and Connecticut with Miller and did not try to parlay her new success as a serious actress into other roles, although she did continue to study at the Actors Studio. In 1958, however, she returned to Hollywood amid a firestorm of publicity to star in Billy Wilder's film Some Like It Hot. The movie was released in 1959. Critics immediately hailed it as one of the funniest movies ever made and applauded Monroe especially for her "deliciously na├»ve quality." However, that ephemeral quality was starting to come at a higher and higher price. Monroe, who at this point had already been plagued for years by an obsessive perfectionism, began to worry about her future as an actress. Aware that her appeal as a star would probably not outlast her youthful beauty, she studied fanatically anything she thought would help her acting. Miller wrote a screenplay for her, The Misfits, a troubling movie in which she starred as a wandering beauty who falls in with some other drifters. ... She and Miller divorced shortly before the film's release in 1961. The Misfits was Monroe's last film.


Having become involved in drug and alcohol abuse toward the end of her life, Monroe's reputation as a difficult actress become even worse. Twentieth Century-Fox eventually canceled her contract when she was virtually unable to remember any lines or show up for shooting at all. She died of an overdose of sleeping pills at her home in Hollywood on August 5, 1962.

Excerpt from Pop Culture Universe
Harmon, Justin, et. al. "Marilyn Monroe." Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 1 June 2011.


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Additional Resources

Pop Culture Universe
An irresistible and authoritative digital database on popular culture in America and the world, both past and present—in a package as dynamic as the topic it covers.




Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia
By Philip C. DiMare, Editor Philip C. DiMare, Editor
This provocative three-volume encyclopedia is a valuable resource for readers seeking an understanding of how movies have both reflected and helped engender America's political, economic, and social history.

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