Just over 90 years ago now, Norma Jean Mortenson was born. Just under 70 years ago now, Marilyn Monroe had a Hollywood breakthrough. After modeling for years, taking on a stage name, seeing a voice coach, severely bleaching her hair, and acting in several small film roles, Monroe became a star. In fact, she went through a process not unlike other actresses in Hollywood at the time—name changes, surgery, cosmetic enhancements, dangerous diets, and more were the price many had to pay just for a chance at stardom.
In 1950 Monroe’s roles in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ All About Eve brought attention to the actress; but it was her starring roles in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks) and How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco) that helped her rise to the top. The noticeable change in her image across these three years demonstrates a fixing of her star image, the image that is still iconic Marilyn Monroe today.
June 1st marks what would have been her 91st birthday, had she not died from a barbiturate overdose in 1962 at the age of 36. She had just finished work on Huston’s The Misfits the year before. Hers is a raw performance in Huston’s film, but not at all rough. I like to think of it as one of the “truest” of Monroe’s roles—a young divorcée learning how tough life can be, and how much it can break you (by 1961, Monroe would have been 35 and already on the verge of her third divorce). I think her performance in The Misfits demonstrates how much range Monroe actually had as an actress, even despite all of her personal issues that arose throughout the filming (hospitalizations, trouble with her then-husband Arthur Miller—the film’s screenwriter, etc.).
Although she is known for being the 1950s’ sex symbol, a dumb blonde bombshell, I like to think that maybe those blown kisses and those winks at the camera, iconic of Marilyn Monroe, were Norma Jean letting us in on the joke.
The Indiana University Cinema has shown several films starring Marilyn Monroe in the City Lights and Monday Matinee Classics films series: The Misfits (1961) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) in 2016, and Some Like it Hot (1959) in 2014.
Katherine Johnson, currently a third year legacy PhD student in Communication and Culture, studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been obsessed with film since the beginning.