Until last night, I was not a Marilyn Monroe fan. I had gawked at her photographs, sure. I was aware of the living icon adoration thing much of the world has going on with her of course. But I was not fan. I used to think it must have been something that was in the air then. It probably was too. Actually I don’t even know if I can say I’m a fan now. But my attitude to Monroe has changed. Because I watched her best films last night. All night. Going to sleep at five in the morning.
I know I can never consider Monroe dumb again. Despite all the reams of print I had read before and I’ll read after this. Monroe was no fool. Niagara nearly made me think she was one. Until I saw the production date of the movie. 1953. In 1953 for a beautyface there were only two available roles. Ask Ava Gardner. A beauty face was either a whore or the Virgin Mary. Monroe was a whore. An adulterous social climbing whore tired of her husband and not going to divorce him. There would be no movie then. No, instead she was pressing the right biceps on her beefcake boyfriend to bump him off. In that little red number she flowed into, even you would have gone on all your fours and barked like a dog if she had asked you to too.
And I didn’t like her. Which is a compliment. In Niagara Monroe was acting not to be liked. On my DVD copy, the movies to fawn guiltlessly over Monroe were Some Like it Hot and The Misfits, not counting The Seven Year Itch. But I’m a Catholic so there’s no pleasure without guilt. Maybe The Misfits is the one movie to completely enjoy Monroe because she is herself in the movie suffering. As much as a pleasure to the eye and ear as Some Like it Hot is, it’s an insult to Monroe’s abilities. But that doesn’t mean I hate Some Like it Hot.
The Seven Year Itch is the one Billy Wilder I failed to like. But it does have in one scene I can never forget. No, it’s not the Monroe-over-a-subway-dress lifted scene. It’s the sitting on the piano bench scene playing chopsticks with Tony Ewell. Overwhelmed by Monroe’s perfume, her fanny (they use the word in the film!), her lips, Ewell knocks her and himself off the bench as he tries to kiss her and get on top of her. “What happened? This has never happened to me!” Ewell mumbles straightening his crumpled clothes and concealing a hard on. “Why, this happens to me all the time,” Monroe breathes unflustered. It’s a funny scene at first and then it’s an ugly scene. The innocence of this scene quickly seeps away re-watched. And an unnerving foreboding slowly grips you. It must be terrible to live like this, expecting all the time to be jumped. Never quite sure who is going to jump you. Always alert, always on the lookout, never once relaxing your guard. Is this how all women live their lives? A predatory male in my time I never ever stopped to think about it like this before.
It was with The Seven Year Itch that it began to strike me as I watched her films over a ten hour burst how for a persona memorialized for happy insouciance, Monroe consistently played unhappy characters that with hindsight seem like terrible revelations of the best place to hide a secret is in public. In Bus Stop she is abused, in Niagara she is an unhappy housewife, in Some Like it Hot she is self abusing, in The Seven Year Itch she is part prey. Monroe made me think for the first time that maybe actors, even Hollywood ones, do put as much foresight into the work they do as any writer, any painter, any architect. That the work actors do, that she did, was no mistake, that every film she ever starred and the character she was playing, were intended to be viewed when her life was over and the whole body of her work was viewed as a cipher with a message of its own. Her own take on life, her life and the world she lived in. That for Monroe and maybe for the best actors ‘my work is my diary.’ That maybe Monroe was not such a fool.
Some Like It Hot is a perfect film I don’t want to ruin for you by talking about. With Some Like It Hot I realized that Billy Wilder worked like a still life painter setting up images as miniature worlds of meaning.
Like when Sweet Sue’s jazz band with Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis arrive to check in the hotel they’ll be staying in while playing in Florida. A rich man’s hotel. Where the millionaires Monroe is hunting flock to pass the winter.
The millionaires are there to greet them on the porch. They are all in a line in rocking chairs: first mental image, helpless old ladies in retirement home porches, then the newspapers come down, immediately mental image changes; these are lip smacking birds of prey drooling over this season’s food. The rich shall have their fun.
The Misfits is irresistible. And that’s not just because this was Monroe’s last completed film. Is it possible to watch The Misfits objectively? Impartially?
The Misfits was shot in black and white. This is in 1961. And a movie with three of the world’s most famous film stars is shot in black and white?! Were they crazy? Then it starts to make sense. A lot of sense but firstly aesthetic sense. Shooting this movie in black and white was a kindness to Clark Gable. Clark Gable is a dead man walking in this movie and it shows in his face. In The Misfits, the acting is so nuanced it is much better than the script.
There’s lots of drinking in this film. The time doesn’t matter; bring out the whiskey the bourbon the scotch a glass and poached eggs. But the drinking that stands out is the drinking in the bar after the rodeo where contrary to all his boasting Montgomery wins nothing and nearly shatters his skull. 40 years later thrown off the bull and lying flat on his back a thin steady stream of blood seeping out of his mouth it still doesn’t seem like he was acting or the blood not real. But the drinking, it is what is of interest here. Lost another round in the category he says he is very good in, let’s not talk about how Gable soothes him by lying to him he’s done fine. The drinking. The drinking is really what is of interest here. Drink does not fortify them to be finer, braver men in a crass world of no values. The drinking lets the plastering of hard boiled wisecracks moulder off and reveal the cracks. The scoffing of real knuckle down nine to five jobs is not because they are driven by this great yawning need for independence but because they are afraid to try for long and prove again they are no good like they have failed at their marriages, their relationships with their children or even comprehending their world, finding their place in it. Drinking that was at first puzzling.
Then all of it clicking into place. The reason why after classes on Friday evening leaving the university grounds we would run laughing and joking to go into reed palaces in the shittiest slums you can get in Kampala, five of us, to go drinking. Drinking hard until coffee tables broke under your stumbling figure and you did not feel any pain at all, drinking until you could not see or feel the glass in your shaking hand. Drinking until with your tot glass in one hand held as far away from you as you could vomiting your lungs out outside in the back, a whimpering dog for company at 1 in the morning before going back in for more. Drinking until we lost each other in the room. Drinking and drinking they were doing the same thing.
Gable on the porch bar yelling for his children who came to visit him during the rodeo only in his mind and out of his mind. Elias Wallach drunk speeding the car in terror of the dreams he’ll have when they get home and he closes the door behind him and has to sleep. Clift the abandoned son talking of the mother he spoke to not less than four hours ago as if she is dead. All men through the alcohol squinting to understand the new woman who are the women in their lives. And Monroe, Monroe in this tempest, disquieting. In the performance of a lifetime.