This is the second part of Gerald’s blog Some like it hot, read part one here.
Ironically, the publicity images for these films now seem curiously old fashioned since it was at this moment that her ditzy screen presence in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes defused the predatory glamour that had been associated with film noir. The then waning genre had been associated with the undermining of masculine roles in the depression and the entry of women into the workplace during World War II. The bete noire of such films was the femme fatal, which Marilyn was able to satirise in a sensuous but unthreatening way through her furs, diamonds and plunging neck-lines. Her secret weapon, of course, was her role as the dumb blonde and her deliberate over-playing of the attributes of ‘vampishness’. Such roles were eventually to inspire their own parody in the character purred by one of Marilyn’s last imitators, Kathleen Turner, in Roger Rabbit.
Marilyn’s capacity for self-caricature had always been an essential part of her role as an American icon. In her early photographs she appears upholstered and underwired like a cross between Mae West and the Statue of Liberty. In her final semi-naked photographs with Bert Stern she drapes what he calls ‘a stripper’s scarf’ across her breasts so that the stripes and colours resemble those of the American flag. The comparison to Jasper Johns seems irresistible just as her earlier calendar shots resemble Paolozzi’s Bunk collages based on the WWII pin-ups painted on the fuselage of American bombers. Military cheesecake was something of a theme for her. In addition to her poses in the munitions factory, she toured Korea in a battered flying jacket where she sang for the troops in a sparkly dress and high heels. The photographs, which seem to anticipate the chaotic jungle concert in Apocalypse Now, now seem to sit uneasily beside her later association with liberal politics. The defining moment of the latter was when her lover, Arthur Miller, attracted the attention of McCarthyism and she famously refused to bend to the studios’ pressure to end their relationship.
Sadly, their marriage, like her earlier ones to James Dougherty and Joe DiMaggio, was to end in failure. Yet one of its consequences was to remind photographers of her interest in literature. The exhibition included a photograph of her reading in jeans and an untidy shirt and there are other more famous ones of her with a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses or sitting by the side of the road with a hard-backed book next to her. It is interesting to speculate how many of the three images were stage-managed. For just as 18th century portraitists knew that the inclusion of a book could convey the impression of a sitter’s inner life, so too could photographers use them to suggest their access to an unguarded moment.
A few days after the exhibition, I visited a show about the life of Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum. The exhibition begins with a quote from Emma that she wished ‘to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool‘. The remark from 1791 is a reminder of the fascination that Emma has exercised on feminist cultural historians. They include Susan Sontag who wrote a novel as a tribute to Emma who, even more literally than Marilyn, spent part of her life living on the edge of a volcano. As well as being a charismatic model and actress she also just happened to be, like Marilyn, the lover of some of the most famous men of her age. Both were damaged by early abuse; both led deeply unhappy lives and then went on to become the icons of their generation. Their apotheosis as celebrities was the product of social as well technical changes and the transformation of the relationship between artist, model and spectator. In the case of Marilyn these included the relaxation of censorship, the leap-forward in reprographic techniques and the proliferation of colour photography after the Second World War. In the case of Emma, it is hard to see how she would have become so famous without the industrial revolution that enabled her image to be reproduced or the huge increase in social mobility that enabled her to become the wife of an ambassador and the confidante of a queen. Like Marilyn, she was responsible for helping to redefine the way in which women were perceived in her generation through the tableaux vivants or ‘attitudes’ that she performed. As an actress, she worked with some of the best portraitists of her day and the images that they devised of her combined fine art with popular culture, the tropes of classical imagery with the contemporary and the everyday.
As for Marilyn, we may see her as a creator, like Cindy Sherman, who re-interpreted several of Marilyn’s photographs and who works in a tradition that, perhaps, owes much to Emma’s performances. Alternatively we may see her as a passive object, as Richard Hamilton implies in his collage My Marilyn, which refers to the process through which a photographer might select and hence define her image. What we cannot do is to underestimate her talents, her energy or her determination. For as Marilyn – and surely, Emma would have – pointed out: ‘There are many girls that wanted to be a star, I just wanted it the most.’