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Entertainment

Eternal flame

Liza Power
January 6, 2012
Marilyn Monroe at Miami International Airport en route to Mexico.

Marilyn Monroe boards a Pan Am flight Miami International Airport in 1962, the year she died.

Fifty years after her death, the world can't let go of Marilyn Monroe. Books, blogs, conspiracy theories and, next month, a new film feed our fascination with the woman who bewitched paupers and presidents, academics and authors. Amid rarely seen photographs of a fresh-faced Norma Jeane, the inscrutable screen goddess continues to captivate.

IN A cultural landscape littered with pop princesses, ageing rockers, Hollywood superstars, supermodels and red-carpet fly-by-nighters, it is difficult to fathom how an actress who died almost 50 years ago could retain anything but a cursory appeal. It was Marilyn Monroe herself who once said: "Fame will go by and, so long, I've had you fame. If it goes by, I've always known it was fickle. So at least it's something I experienced but that's not where I live."

Yet Monroe's fame has proven anything but fickle and in the half century since her death, she has been recast as a cultural icon, a precursor to feminism and a symbol of a lost era — Hollywood's golden age. She has been immortalised in the art of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Shepard Fairey. Search Amazon online and you will find thousands of titles bearing her name.

It is not that Marilyn was not a star during her lifetime — at the height of her fame, an issue of Life with her picture on the cover sold 6.3 million copies and she regularly received 20,000 fan letters a week. But in death she has become something different: the subject of umpteen biographies, films, documentaries, musicals, fan clubs, blogs and cultural studies readers. For many, she is an "everlasting star" (the name of one blog that tracks her legacy on a daily RSS feed), whose influence on contemporary culture will never diminish.

Early Marilyn Monroe modelling shot by Richard C Miller 1946.

A 1946 modelling shot by Richard C.Miller.

Yet for the average punter, for whom she remains the coquettish blonde who strummed a ukulele in Some Like It Hot (1959), the "MM" phenomenon remains a mystery. They see a sassy seductress with batting eyelashes mimicked by everyone from Lindsay Lohan in Play-boy and Nicole Kidman in Harper's Bazaar to Christina Aguilera, Kylie Minogue, Gwen Stefani, Scarlett Johansson, Madonna and Britney Spears.

Next month, Michelle Williams stars in My Week with Mar-ilyn, based on two books by Colin Clark. At the same time, Smash, a Steven Spielberg-created TV series on a Broadway show about her life, will premiere in the US.

Nary a week goes by without the release of another book or unfathomable auction result: her Seven Year Itch subway dress sold in June for $US5.6 million. Which still leaves the question of how she continues to wield so much influence and why — a subject that has kept academics busy for decades.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of Some Like it Hot, Richard C Miller 1959.

On the set of Some Like It Hot, 1959. Picture by Richard C. Miller, reproduced with permission of Margaret Miller.

One man who is never surprised by the star's longevity is David Wills, an Australian-born curator and archivist who published his own photographic tribute to her, titled Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis, in November. Wills calls his book a celebration of "Marilyn's relationship with the camera and the way she evolved over a 20-year period from 1942, the year she was first married, to 1962, the year she died".

Arranged in five chapters — Chrysalis, Transfiguration, Sirius, Renaissance and Icarus — the book unfurls in a spill of rare and unseen images. Matched to quotes from people who knew her, they map the evolution of a lass born Norma Jeane Mortenson, from girl next door to screen goddess.

Wills was born in the Queensland town of Caloundra. He moved to Los Angeles when he was 20, following a friend who made life in Hollywood sound like "the most glamorous thing in the world". After two years working on sets, sleeping in his car, finishing work at 4am and being back on the job at 7am, with no union or overtime payments, he decided "it was the hardest, most horrible work imaginable. I remember being on a Burger King commercial and having to help someone cook 50 pieces of bacon and then pick out the best one."

Wills' passion had always been photography, namely original prints and negatives. He recalls: "Everyone celebrated the printed image [back then] but when you mentioned the negative, no one really saw the value in it. You could buy original negatives from the 1930s, '40s and '50s by great photographers like Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell for $100 or less. You'd get to know the other collectors and everyone would help each other out."

Somewhere along the way, Wills fell for Monroe. From her early modelling shots to magazine covers, paparazzi shots, set photography and portrait negatives, collecting her face became as much an exercise in adoration as photographic history. From basements in the Bronx to garages in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, New York and elsewhere, there was nowhere he wouldn't go if he thought "there was a chance of finding something interesting".

Knowing that many photographers from Hollywood's golden era had died, Wills traced their children and grandchildren, many of whom had images gathering dust and mould in their garden sheds. With the advent of the internet, his search expanded around the world.

"What you would find was that back in the '50s, a freelance photographer would be hired to photograph someone like Marilyn for a newspaper or an event. So they would rattle off 20 shots, lay them on the lightbox, cut the film up and one would go to Britain, Paris, Japan and so on." It was a matter of having the patience to find them.

From '30s nitrate negatives to Kodachromes, rare carbro and dye transfer prints, Wills' collection also tracks changes in photographic styles. "Marilyn arrived at an unfortunate time in many ways," he says. "In the '30s and '40s, you had Kodachrome, the spectacular saturated colour of which still looks exactly the same today. You also had this emphasis on light and shadow, those beautiful, atmospheric portraits of Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth.

"But the '50s brought cheaper film stocks and smaller formats. Portrait photography turned into passport shots: blank backgrounds, front lighting. Faces like Marilyn's were cut out, stuck on a poster and lettering added. Not very creative."

Last month, Wills presented his book to the toughest crowd he is ever likely to meet: members of Marilyn Remembered, a Los Angeles-based fan club that has met once a month for the past 30 years to share their love of the star. From teenagers to octogenarians, they include writers, historians, teachers, impersonators and film buffs, many of whom are immersed in their own research.

It was here that Wills met Lois Banner, who published her first book on the actress, MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Mar-ilyn Monroe, last year, with a second, Revela-tions: The Passion and Paradox of Marilyn Monroe, due in June. Drawing on more than 100 interviews with people who knew, worked with or courted Monroe, the latter promises yet another mysterious portal into her life.

Banner is a professor of history at the University of California, where she first taught a course on Monroe close to a decade ago. She came to Monroe after publishing biographies on Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, anthropologists who studied tribes unassociated with Hollywood.

Banner began researching Monroe when a fellowship brought her to the national library in Canberra, where she found letters from Monroe fan clubs in Melbourne and the US. When she returned home, she joined Marilyn Remembered, founded by Greg Schreiner in 1982, and attended meetings.

"When I was young, I lived in New York and was very involved in second-wave feminism," she says. "[Back then] I looked on Marilyn simply as an object for men."

Yet as Banner's research deepened, her opinion shifted. "I'm a historian and I'm drawn to eminent women. I was trying to figure out what her life was about; how she both reflected and shaped the times she lived in."

What she found was a paradox: a woman who defied convention as much as she embraced it and a life story that unfurled like a Hollywood script — the absent father, psychologically ill mother, a childhood spent in orphanages and foster homes, marriage at 16, being "discovered" on a factory line during the war, the modelling jobs that led to a screen test. Her first film roles, her famous lovers, her personal torment, her tempers. Her screen magic.

Monroe became a riddle: an abandoned child, a ruthlessly ambitious woman, a clever courtesan, a shrewd player of the Hollywood field, a party girl, a recluse, an advocate for social justice.

"In the '50s, Ella Fitzgerald became the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood after Monroe lobbied the owner for the booking. She had no sense of the rules. If she wanted to do something, she just did it. And often she suffered the consequences," Banner says. For many conspiracy theorists, Monroe paid the highest price for her liaisons with the Kennedy clan: her life.

Banner became friends with Schreiner, the star of French filmmaker Laurent Morlet's With Her, a documentary following the lives of five Monroe fans in Los Angeles. She also met Mark Bellinghaus, who, at the time, lived in a replica of Marilyn's Brentwood house filled with her furniture. She watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Misfits (1961) and Bus Stop (1956) and met people who could recount firsthand encounters with her.

"Marilyn was one of the greatest comic actresses of her age but she was also a trickster, a person who satirised herself at the same time that she was putting over this intensely feminine image," Banner says. "Noone created Marilyn Monroe or her career in Hollywood; she did. She created this charismatic persona that mesmerised everyone around her."

Like Gloria Steinem, who saw Monroe as a feminist — even though the term did not exist during her lifetime — Banner saw Marilyn as a rebel. "She founded her own film production company and she wanted equal pay and access to roles outside her ‘dumb blonde' typecasting. It was a bold move for a woman of that period. She wouldn't play the Hollywood moguls' games; she wanted to play on her own terms."

Banner's MM-Personal sought to reconstruct the star's life from the contents of two private filing cabinets: fan letters, clothing receipts and correspondence, including thank-you notes from the likes of Somerset Maugham, to whom she sent birthday cards. Its introduction describes Monroe as the "avatar of the American dream", whose rags-to-riches tale neatly ties into the American mantra of "being in charge of your own destiny".

Unlike Banner, Wills was never interested in excavating the star's private life but, like every fan, he has a theory for her enduring appeal.

"When you get to know any actress in LA, and if you live here long enough you do, you realise they're all obsessed with Marilyn," Will says. "It's like they're trying to crack a secret code. Actresses are incredible narcissists, they're fascinated by her because they want to know how she did it. But unfortunately, everyone who tries to imitate her comes off looking second best. It's like putting on drag."

Schreiner, who regularly fields interviews about his club and memorabilia — his site features photos of him with Monroe's co-stars, hairdressers, body doubles, costume designers and even the police officers who investigated her death — attributes her appeal to the unique set of qualities she exuded. "She has this vulnerability, innocence and childlike quality but also this huge sex appeal and wit. Plus, she was extraordinarily photogenic.

Wills adds: "People perceive that time [the '50s] as being softer and gentler but I don't know if it necessarily was. For them, images of old stars are like old friends. Now, we're so saturated with celebrity, we've come full circle and people resent it. Back then, actors had a bit of mystery. Marilyn still has that allure."

Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis by David Wills is published by HarperCollins, see ultimatemarilynbook.com.

My Week with Marilyn opens on February16.

 

Keeping the legend alive

FRENCH filmmaker Laurent Morlet came up with the idea of a documentary about Marilyn Monroe 25 years ago after his first trip to Los Angeles.

''Hollywood, to me, was above all the city of Marilyn Monroe,'' he says. ''She is still everywhere there - on the walls of buildings, impersonators on Hollywood Boulevard, her house in Brentwood, her grave site and at 20th Century Fox.''

He was fascinated by the question of who keeps her alive and why. ''I was curious to learn about the lives of those who fight daily to preserve and perpetuate Marilyn's legacy,'' he says.

Through Marilyn Remembered, he began meeting fans - from the club's youngest member, 16-year-old Monica Shahri, to an avid collector of the star's belongings, Scott Fortner, Monroe impersonator Susan Griffiths and club founder Greg Schreiner. He asked what she offers them in their day-to-day lives. ''There is something unexplainable about their love for her,'' Morlet says. ''She is a confidante, a friend, a guide, a support for them, usually since a very young age. I don't think they 'see' specific things in her as much as just feeling a need for her, often without knowing why.''

Morlet's film became less about Marilyn and more a portrait of contemporary Los Angeles, seen through the eyes of Monroe's devotees. ''Although they all say similar things about Marilyn, and what she means to them, they are all different as human beings. That's what interested me the most.''