The razzmatazz of celebrity endorsements that marked the last days of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign has led me to wonder this morning which performer Donald Trump will now appoint to sing at his inauguration in December. Whoever it is, their performance is unlikely to surpass Marilyn Monroe’s notoriously suggestive rendition of Happy Birthday, which she sang to her lover Jack Kennedy in 1962. Like Bill Clinton, Kennedy was too canny a communicator to risk offending the American public at his own inauguration and chose Robert Frost to deliver a suitably impenetrable poem in an appropriately high-brow tone. Yet I was reminded of Marilyn’s scandalous performance when I visited a photographic exhibition about her that is currently showing in Aix. The exhibition cleverly juxtaposes images from her so-called ‘private’ life with those of her public persona as a model, actress and American sweetheart. Hence in the first room we see her breathlessly mouthing ‘I want to be loved by you’ in Some Like it Hot. A few rooms later she is whispering her birthday wishes to the president and further infuriating Jackie Kennedy by wearing a similarly revealing dress.
One of the delights of the exhibition is that it shows the way in which photographers were able to suggest that Monroe had just stepped away from the artificiality of the cinema cameras for a private audience with the photographer. This is as true of the publicity shots that Lee Strasberg took of her with her co-star Jane Russell on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953 as it is of Lawrence Schiller’s photographs for Something’s Got to Give in 1962. Both deliberately blur the division between Monroe’s role as an actress and the public’s knowledge of her often promiscuous private life. Strasberg shows her as a glitzy, gold-digger as inaccessible as the diamonds that she covets. Ten years later Schiller depicts her as an implicitly naked but slightly dishevelled siren draping her leg over the edge of a swimming pool. The contrast speaks volumes about the changes in social as well as sexual perceptions. In the first she is a glamorous trophy and in the second the sexy neighbour who has dropped in for a pool party. As such, the latter would have been as recognizable to the readers of Playboy as to those of an early John Updike novel.
Marilyn’s ability to move between the image of the Hollywood icon and girl-next-door was apparent at least as early as the mid-fifties. In one of her earliest professional photographs taken in late 1944 she is shown as a fresh-faced munitions worker – all teeth and smiles and name-badge – cradling an aeroplane propeller in a coyly suggestive way. She reprises this natural look in her earliest swimming -costume shoots of around 1946. In one her hair blows gently in the wind. In another she perches slightly awkwardly on the diving board of a public lido.
What is extraordinary about her emergence as a sexual persona is that we can pinpoint it exactly. For it was on the 22 August 1946 that Ben Lyon, the casting director of Twentieth Century Fox, re-branded her ‘Marilyn Monroe’ because of her resemblance to a now forgotten actress Marilyn Miller. At this point it is tempting to regard her as a creature of the studios: as unlike the shy young orphan who had married her first husband at sixteen as the millions of other young women who imitated her. Think of Andy Warhol and his look-alikes and his theory that everyone would have their fifteen minutes of fame. Cue Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle. Press play for Elton John in both the Norma Jean and Princess Diana versions.
Yet to see her as a passive object is misleading for, as Richard Avedon observed, it was she that ‘invented Marilyn Monroe.’ Another of her photographers, Eve Arnold, claimed that she could transform herself in seconds for the camera through a deliberate act of will. This conscious process, which the star herself called ‘putting on Marilyn,’ gave her photographs both an extraordinary presence and an unusual sense of intimacy. It is thus interesting that so many pictures in the exhibition are of her in a liminal stage on the threshold between her transformations. This is true of the numerous photographs taken in her dressing room, with her make-up artists, on the red carpet or in the presidential library just after her 1962 performance. Many of such images from ‘behind the scenes’ deliberately recall art history. Among them are numerous shots of her as a Renaissance Venus with a mirror or in a frothy Degas dress beside a stage-light.
After her reincarnation in 1946 Marilyn exploited the variety of her assignments as a model, actress and pin-up. For example, for the publicity for How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 she squeezed herself into a swimsuit and high heels and presented herself to the camera as a linear silhouette as simple and unforgettable as a Coke bottle. Six years later in André Dienes photographs of 1959 she returned to her natural look while juggling a similar parasol on a beach. Even where she was unable to control the photographs that were taken, such resonances proved good business. For example, in 1949 she appeared as ‘Mona Monroe’ in a nude calendar shoot because, as she later claimed, ‘she was broke and she was hungry’. Their release just as her film career took off in 1952 enabled her fans to make connections between one aspect of her work and another. Hence in promoting her movies of 1953 she only had to raise her arm in a particular way to add a sexual frisson to the pictures.