Stories of Resilience: Lee Grant

“Obsession is the most important thing in an actor or a director or a writer’s life, you know. You have to be obsessed and if you lose that obsession, you know, what are you going to do.”

-Lee Grant, in conversation with Robert Osbourne, 2014.

There is both inscrutability and vulnerability in the face of Lee Grant. An indecipherable cool that draws the audience to her instantly, seeking clarity. She is aloof, her aesthetic a perfect embodiment of the sixties. She is an actor whose career has spanned decades of cultural and societal shift. Hers is the story of a career that almost never happened. But it is also the story of a career revived. Lee Grant could have just disappeared, the powers that be and the standards of the day would have been more comfortable with that eventuality, but she, drawing on a deep well of resilience, persisted and had the most fruitful part of her career after surviving the Hollywood blacklist.

Grant, an actor in the theatre, was not particularly familiar with or interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. She was a New Yorker, entrenched in the ground-breaking work of the Actor’s Studio, Stanislavski, and the Method. For those who are not familiar, the Method was a new type of acting, gaining prominence in mid-century America, where an actor was encouraged to draw on the emotions and events of his or her own life in order to create a compelling portrait, a backstory for the character that was to inform all of their movements. Grant had no interest in pursuing a career in Hollywood, but when she was asked to reprise a role she had originated on Broadway, she went. In Detective Story (1951) Grant played a shoplifter and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But Grant was entering a world that was in the midst of upheaval, one that was marred by fear and apprehension. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been investigating Hollywood for fear that writers, directors, actors, and producers were inserting subversive, communistic messages into the movies. If the committee found a person uncooperative or deemed them “un-American” in their affiliations or ties, they were put on a blacklist and their career was effectively over. The result was an atmosphere of accusation and fear in which careers and lives were lost, and people often turned on one another to save themselves. After a colleague of Grant’s died of a heart attack, it was her contention that his death was the result of the stress of the blacklist and HUAC. She said as much in a eulogy at his funeral. Mere days later, she found her name in Red Channels, a pamphlet that listed alleged subversives. She refused to name names, the only way to appease HUAC at the time. At age 24, she was blacklisted. Luckily for Lee and for many actors, Broadway and the theatre refused to participate in the blacklist. Although she was now unwelcome in Hollywood, she was still able to perform sporadically in the theatre. However, her husband, who she married around this time, now expected her to stay home and take care of his children from another marriage. This, of course, along with the blacklist, stifled her career. She didn’t work regularly for 12 years. Acting, the place that she had thought of as a home, as a source of comfort, was gone. In her memoir, Grant describes her early days of acting as such. It “was to become my religion. A holy, safe place, a process that took place inside of me and that was to be protected at all costs. Nothing ever was allowed to get between me and the process I had given myself, to create in my own way… My truth. I had at last found my holy grail” (56). But just as quickly as she had found it, it seemed to be gone.

When Lee Grant got off the blacklist in 1964, she was 36 years old. It is on the subject of aging and beauty that Grant is incredibly frank. Lee, knowing the beauty and age standards that existed then in Hollywood, and still persist today, refused to accept that her age would hinder her career. She was finally free of the limitations of the blacklist and a dysfunctional marriage but, unfortunately, she was about to find herself in another kind of prison, one made of exacting and unrelenting beauty standards. Knowing that, by Hollywood standards, she had already passed her prime, she had a facelift, a rare procedure at the time, and speaks of being in a constant state of anxiety that her age would be found out or that her face would betray her, that her beauty would fade. In her memoir, Grant is as aware of the impossible standards as she is of her own involvement in them, and her powerlessness before them. “Nobody on TV or watching TV cared about your quality as an actress or your talent. Talent was my secret weapon. But to survive in Hollywood, I had to physically fit the town’s requirements for a young woman. I had to be pretty, and I had to be cute and funny on set” (207). She submitted to the beauty standards, she had to, but in her examination of them and their effect on her life, she denounces them wholeheartedly. She speaks about her obsession with her lighting, how her face was framed in a shot, and how these concerns often put her in a state of constant conflict with others on set as she attempted to achieve a perfection that, for her, was necessary to survival. All of these things, she knew, could make or break her. She would have to be a vision of perfection, always. There was no room for error. In her films of this era, In the Heat of the Night (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Shampoo (1975), she is incandescent, she is captivating. It is hard to believe that she was someone who struggled with the unrealistic expectations of Hollywood, that she was forced to mold herself into a more acceptable and youthful form of femininity. It all appears so effortless. But she did. Grant is aware that, in Hollywood, her acting career and her worth as an actor was tied solely to her appearance, rather than her skill. She used this, she benefited from it, but it ultimately restricted and subjected her to a whole new round of anxiety and fear.

When Grant won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Shampoo, she saw it as a bookend. On the one end of her career was Detective Story, on the other, Shampoo. Now that she had proven herself, she could look to new horizons. She had survived. She is the only actor put on the blacklist that managed, once the list had been retired, to build on and surpass her former fame. She had found success after the blacklist. She had proven to everyone that she was worthy. She was done. After her Oscar win, Grant began making documentary films. She chronicled the plight of the homeless and the effect of Reaganomics in Down and Out in America. These were now the stories that she told. And once again, winning awards and acclaim, she was successful.

Lee Grant is the indelible image of cool reserve, an image so related to and of the sixties. She is a woman whose career, as with the careers of so many women, was contingent on her beauty, on her appeal, and not on her talent. But she did have talent. She had so much talent. She had talent and enterprise. Grant was able to continuously reinvent herself. She was not content to disappear. She would survive the blacklist, she would survive a dysfunctional marriage, she would survive the demanding and unrealistic beauty standards of a fickle industry, and she would once again reinvent herself as a director. She is not only the image of reserve, she is the image of survival.

Lee Grant

Grant, Lee. I Said Yes to Everything: A Memoir. New York, Blue Rider Press, 2014. Kindle.

Osborne, Robert. “A Conversation With Lee Grant.” Turner Classic Movies. 2014. Video, 37:02.

Searching for an Idealized Past with “The Swimmer”

A film that begins as a daydream and ends like a nightmare, The Swimmer (1968) is a frank assessment of the vacuity of affluent life and the emotional repercussions of just such a life. It begins as an idealistic reverie and slowly, so minutely it may at first escape notice, it begins to descend into a tormented and claustrophobic reality. Written and directed by husband and wife, Eleanor and Frank Perry, The Swimmer chronicles the afternoon a seemingly untroubled Ned Merrill, played by Burt Lancaster, decides to swim home through the pools of his affluent Connecticut suburb, which he names the Lucinda River after his wife. What begins as an adventurous lark that seems to differentiate Merrill from a mass of dull and indistinguishable neighbors, begins to seem like a hazardous test that is tearing at the very fabric of Merrill’s reality as well as his mental and physical well-being.

At the beginning of the film, Ned seems resplendent and joyful, constantly remarking on the beauty of nature and his surroundings. He is a person apart from the monotony and tedium of suburban life. He comments on the sky, he runs races against horses, and vaults over fences. Everything he does is a physical manifestation of an unbridled joy and possibility. The people around him never seem to understand him, but he doesn’t care, and neither do we. Their materialism and lack of insight render them insignificant. Their identities are so wrapped up in the things they have that they fail to notice the wonder of the world. But Merrill is different and that’s what makes him so wonderful. But ever so slowly we begin to get a glimpse of his life as the insinuations of a recent disaster become more frequent and harder for us, the audience, and Merrill to ignore. Everything is not as rosy as Merrill believes it is and, we realize, the lack of understanding that the neighbors have for him is as much a function of his own self-absorption as it is of their myopic view of the world. But, those few moments before we realize this are glorious, they are freeing, and they make Merrill’s inevitable downfall all the more painful.

In this spontaneous adventure, one gets the feeling that Merrill is striving to retrieve something that has been lost. Some sense of wonder or awe, perhaps? A joyfulness in looking at the world around him? An appreciation for all the minutiae that makes up an existence? These all seem like possibilities in the beginning, but as we travel alongside Merrill, we realize that it is more personal than that, something a little darker and more complex. As he traverses the river of swimming pools, Merrill is confronted with the reality of his life; financial and legal troubles, the disdain his daughters have for him, a crumbling marriage. He is attempting to retreat into a wondrous world, idealistic, nostalgic, and beautiful, one where his family hadn’t yet been torn apart, one where he still has a beautiful home and all the trappings of success. This is where he wants to live, but the world, in its unrelenting coldness and reality, will not let him stay there. His home, and the past, is not something that he can return to. And so, as the film ends, Merrill is crouched on the front stoop, unable to enter the locked home. It is clear the house has been unoccupied for some time. The more reality encroaches, the more Merrill’s body weakens, until he and the house are in a similar state of disrepair. As the credits roll, Merrill braces himself against the front stoop, sobbing as the wind whips rain onto his face and body.

The tagline of the film, “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’ will you talk about yourself?”, trite and Carver-esque as it is, seems apt. What the film is and where its power lies is in the recognition of the fragility of human existence. You can live in the fantasy world of the past, a world of your own creation. You can block out the present in favor of this idealized past, the way Ned Merrill does, but, inevitably, the past will come back, rushing over you no matter how hard you try to keep it at bay.

Sal Mineo: Eternal Idol

On January 20, 1965, “Patty Meets a Celebrity” aired on ABC-TV. It was a special episode of The Patty Duke Show that highlighted the fame of its guest star, Sal Mineo. In the episode, Mineo returns to his alma mater to perform in a play with the students. Patty, a stand-in for the typical mid-century, all-American teenager swoons her way to a starring role in the play. It is a testament to the fame and teenage adulation that had followed Mineo since he starred in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. He had become a teen idol for his depictions of juvenile delinquents, depictions that resonated deeply with an adolescent audience searching for new ways to assert their individuality and their identities in a larger, conformist world. It is, to this day, the way that Mineo is viewed, in part due to the fact that he was at the height of a fame that he was never able to replicate.

Mineo’s story ends with a robbery, in which he was murdered at the age of 37. And, as so often happens in tragic circumstances, his death has overshadowed his life, his career, and his personality. It has informed, incorrectly, the tone and tenor of his life and accomplishments. It is a disservice to a dynamic man to reduce his life to one instant, to believe that one tragic moment indicates a lifetime of tragedy. Sal was deservedly an idol, but he was also a complex man who doesn’t deserve to have his legacy reduced to the story of his death.

With a string of releases, including Rebel Without a Cause, Crime in the Streets (1956), and Dino (1957), Sal Mineo cemented his status as the iconic juvenile delinquent. These films, huge successes, catapulted Mineo to stardom. His stardom was so immense that he was mobbed by fans everywhere he went. Mineo recalls a story of landing at an airport in Australia, saying, “‘By the time we got to the Chelsea Hotel I had lost almost every button, had my tie torn off- don’t know why I wasn’t choked to death in the process-and had some girls’ telephone numbers scribbled on my coat, in ink’” (141). As Mineo aged, he became interested in pursuing other stories, other characters. Unfortunately, he had been effectively typecast and although he tried to distance himself from these rebellious yet soulful characters, he was ultimately unsuccessful. This was the only way that producers and directors saw him and, more importantly, the only way they thought the audience saw him. If anything, Sal was able to imbue these somewhat stereotypical, flat roles with nuance and power that make it clear that he was a capable actor. But the role of rebellious icon became an albatross from which Mineo could not escape, an especially hefty burden in a changing cultural landscape. As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Mineo found it even more difficult to get work. Peter Bogdanovich, a friend of Mineo’s sums up the problem, saying, “‘Sal was an anachronistic reminder of the teenage fifties the chic people preferred to forget; that he was a talented actor seemed beside the point’” (206).

But not to be deterred, Mineo decided that telling stories, rather than acting, was his passion. He followed this desire into other spheres, namely that of producing and directing film and theatre, and was constantly optioning rights for films. He had a true interest in telling stories and in finding ways to convey the multiplicity of the human condition and he was not about to shy away from challenging subject matter. He gave Bogdanovich the Larry McMurtry book that would eventually become The Last Picture Show (1971), knowing that he was too old to play the lead but knowing that the story was in good hands. He was interested in getting James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, a book that deals frankly with issues of sexual identity, made into a movie (a notion that Baldwin was very enthusiastic about). Ultimately, he didn’t succeed, but his failures never deterred him. He always continued to work. Mineo interests expanded to include visual art. He posed for the massive painting The New Adam (1962) by Harold Stevenson. It is a multi-panel male nude that eroticizes the male body for a male gaze. It is sensual and erotic and was particularly shocking at the time of it’s unveiling.

All this is an attempt to paint a portrait of Mineo that isn’t contingent on his death or that doesn’t deal solely with the beginning of his career and the indelible image of Mineo as rebel. That was just the beginning of Sal’s career, and though it is the part for which he is largely remembered, it was by no means the most fruitful or fascinating era of his life. Sal Mineo was an icon, an emblem of disaffected youth whose death often informs our collective notions of his life. But Mineo was also a dynamic, complex man whose ambitions and interests informed his later career in fascinating ways that absolutely warrant examination. Sal Mineo was a driven creative whose ambitions and projects pushed the bounds of acceptability in a restrictive era, and because of this, his path often crossed with some of the most recognizable and challenging works of art ranging across many mediums. He was truly a visionary and he deserves to be remembered as such.

Sal Mineo

Michaud, Michael Gregg. Sal Mineo: A Biography. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

Origins of a Subtext: Mineo and “Rebel”

     Rebel Without a Cause is the eternal teenage movie. Released in 1955, it is undeniable that there are things that feel dated and melodramatic, but the undercurrent of tragedy and the sense of listlessness has managed to resonate through decades. The adulation that Plato Crawford feels for Jim Stark, played by Sal Mineo and James Dean, respectively, is one of the most striking and contemporary things about Rebel Without a Cause. It borders on obsession, but is tinged with the sweetness of vulnerability. Nicholas Ray, the director, worked with the two actors for weeks at his Chateau Marmont bungalow before filming in order to perfect the contours and shading of the characters and their relationship. The actors mined their pasts and improvised scenes, further fostering a bond between them that would heighten the subtext and the emotionality of the film.

Although a homoerotic subtext is present in the film, it is in a screen test dated March 23, 1955, where this element of the relationship is stressed. The test is a variation on the existing mansion scene from the film, but the actors are left to explore their characters and the dialogue in a way that feels surprisingly fresh and exciting. The first thing we see is Mineo doubled over in a laughter both excessive and frightening. Dean jumps over the railing of a staircase and lands near Mineo. Mineo then pins him against the staircase and falls into him in laughter. They wrestle and touch each other for increasingly prolonged moments. Mineo can’t keep his eyes off Dean. He gazes at him lovingly, hanging on his every word. He is mesmerized. They wrestle and grab at each other until Mineo rests his head on Dean’s shoulder. It is deeply intimate. Natalie Wood, also present, barely registers to the men. According to Michael Gregg Michaud, Mineo’s biographer, “The filmed rehearsal was important to Ray for several reasons. It provided him with an opportunity to explore the erotic tension he wanted to represent in the film, and it set the tone for the challenging and intriguing direction he intended for the character of Plato. Sal didn’t realize what was being asked of him. ‘I couldn’t understand,’ he said later, ‘couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Something was happening to me. I had no idea or understanding of affection between men. And for the first time I felt something strong’” (44). I find this quote extremely compelling. Here Mineo felt the first stirrings of a sexuality that he would explore later in life. The film was, for him, an awakening, a moment of realization, however veiled and unexamined. Maybe therein lies the power and resonance of this film, the thing that makes it so enduring; its ability to reach people where they are, its ability to feel concern and empathy for the outsiders, its ability to hone in on and help people explore their own emerging identities. The power of that is so immense it manages to break through the heightened melodrama of the finished film.

In the end, Ray was pressured by the censors to alter the relationship between the two men. Ray’s interpretation of the bond between Jim and Plato was seen as too overtly gay. The screenwriter agreed, having become horrified at the interpretive liberties Ray had taken with his script. However, in the finished film, Plato’s love for Jim is still palpable and can be charted through a constellation of increasingly subdued but ever present glances, touches, and movements. Throughout the film, Mineo’s gaze and it’s vulnerability highlights a desire and an adoration much more complex and intimate than friendship or hero worship and it is this gaze that makes the inevitable conclusion of the film all the more wrenching.

Rebel Mineo

Michaud, Michael Gregg. Sal Mineo: A Biography. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

The Trouble with Elvis

“He taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to apply makeup and wear my hair, how to behave… Over the years he became my father, husband, and very nearly God.” (15)

-Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me, 15.

It was not the music that first drew me to Elvis Presley, but the aesthetic: the pompadour, the wife in excessively dark, mod eyeliner, the bejeweled jumpsuits, and the jungle room at Graceland. Everything about it spoke to an extravagance born of newly acquired wealth, to a pageantry of glamour and overindulgence. The aesthetic was intoxicating. I soon became particularly interested in Priscilla Presley, her hair, eyeliner, clothing; all of it working in perfect orchestration with the overall image and mythos of Elvis. But that, I learned, was the point. It was all an orchestration, built by and to serve Elvis.

Drawn to the excess and wanting to learn more, I looked to the source material, to the story as told by Priscilla. In Elvis and Me Priscilla Presley tells the story of meeting and falling in love with Elvis Presley as well as the process of finding herself, the point at which holding onto that love was no longer tenable. They met when she was a teenager, a cringeworthy revelation that isn’t so much a revelation of fact but a revelation of emotional repercussion. In other words, it is the story from the point of view of the woman. From the earliest stages of their relationship, Elvis exercised control over her clothing and her behavior while she gushes over him like the teenage girl she is. It is an eerie evocation especially for any reader who was once a teenage girl, so visceral is the recognition that it gets under your skin and settles there for the duration of the book. Priscilla, showing herself to be a self-aware woman and not one to shy away from realities, makes statements such as, “I was Elvis’s doll, his own living doll, to fashion as he pleased” (134). The simplicity of the realization is a punch to the stomach. It is the girl so eager to please and the man who is molding her into his idea of a perfect woman. It is horrifying. As the years go on, Priscilla realizes the connection and nuance that is missing from her relationship. She realizes the extent to which the contours of their relationship are dictated solely by Elvis. She exists, for him, only as an extension of himself. As she searches for interests outside of her marriage, she realizes how her relationship stood in for a sense of self, one that consists solely of and is not at all separate from Elvis. And here we face the poignancy of loss, the loss of a love that feels just as gutting even in its inevitability. It is here that we see Priscilla contend with the complexities of identity, of self, of toxic relationships. Priscilla does not write about Elvis with the air of veneration that I expected. She is incredibly clear-eyed about the effect that Elvis had on her life, the overarching control he exercised and the devotion that he required of all within his orbit. She is able to hold two things to be true at the same time: that she was and is in love with Elvis, that he had moments of kindness and generosity, and that he was a tyrant who was obsessive in his need to control those around him. She does not exonerate him, but she does not hate him either. She is able to explore the damage that he did to others, as well as the damage that was done to him, seeming to cite the complexity of the situation, of the people, and to caution us from rendering whole lives and personalities in reductive terms. She promotes this gray area, seeming to say that it is here where all of us reside. The book is a testament to the realization that a person holds both good and bad and that although the bad can outweigh the good, it doesn’t alter or delegitimize the feeling that you once had for them. It is a surprising book that forces you to contend with all of these complexities and all of your reactions to them.

I read Elvis and Me because I wanted to hear what a life that lavish was like, a life so divorced from any kind of known reality, a life so fêted that its particulars have lost definition in the ensuing decades, a life as described by someone who lived it. I wanted to hear stories of grandiose absurdity, like this one, where Priscilla describes a standard evening at Graceland. “Our evening appearance downstairs usually resembled a grand entrance. Even when our only intention was to have dinner, we always dressed for the occasion. Elvis might wear a three-piece suit with a brocade vest and a Stetson hat. Under his coat he always carried a gun. He’d given me a small pearl-handled derringer and I carried in it my bra or tucked it into a holster around my waist. We were a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde” (138-139). What I ended up with was a complicated document where the love a person felt for another didn’t obfuscate the realities of  manipulation, isolation, and control run rampant. Priscilla was able to explore these issues and all their cringeworthy manifestations with an honesty that evokes such deep sympathy. To explore the love she feels and the horrors she experienced simultaneously. It is in those complications, in that honesty, that you really learn who someone is, who Priscilla is, and who Elvis was, and it is that space that is so affecting. Priscilla positions us within these uncomfortable spaces and forces us to confront them. It was personal, it was vulnerable, and it was deeply relatable.

When Graceland, the Presley home, was opened to the public in 1982 it had been redecorated. Gone were the garish reds and gaudy golds of the late 70s that had prompted people to comment that it looked like a brothel. Priscilla had returned to Graceland and restored it to the home that she remembered (Marling, 103). Although, to a degree, the restoration was an attempt to lend the house an air of respectability, I can’t help but feel that, on some level, Priscilla had returned to the past and recreated the site where, for better or worse, she had felt an overwhelming and enduring love.

Marling, Karal Ann. “Elvis Presley’s Graceland, or the Aesthetic of Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven.” American Art 7, no. 4 (1993): 72-105.

Presley, Priscilla Beaulieu with Sandra Harmon. Elvis and Me. New York: Berkley Books, 1985.

Women of Horror

“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. All you have to do…is keep writing. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.’”

-Shirley Jackson, quoted in Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 389.

Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, and Daphne du Maurier reside at the summit of horror. Few writers, male or female, were able to create such compelling portraits of unease that drew from the foibles and cruelties of humanity. The macabre was cultivated in the minuscule, to show us all how vulnerable we are to enacting or becoming victim to it. These women defied cultural and societal norms in order to create visions of unease and panic, drawn from and dashing the conformity to which their gender in their various eras cursed them.

Shirley Jackson’s work relentlessly explored and thrived upon female interiority and its tremulous relationship to the external world. She was a woman who believed in the ability of superstition to keep psychic disturbance at bay, if only for a short while. A woman who translated all of her frustrations at being a woman, a wife, and a mother who couldn’t quite subsume herself into these traditional roles into visions of horror. She metamorphosed the grief that she felt at her ostensible shortcomings into a vision of panic and supernatural destruction, writ large upon the female psyche. Her most powerful and haunting metaphor, that of the malignant house that fed off the female psyche until it’s destruction, was one inextricably linked to mid-century constructions of womanhood. And this was where Jackson really shone, in her ability to transfer common anxieties and unease onto a supernatural landscape that rendered it both unspeakable and highly relatable. As her biographer, Ruth Franklin explores all the contours of Jackson’s rebellions and her conventions and thus creates an all-encompassing account of a complicated woman whose work was fueled by the world around her.

Similarly, the work of du Maurier and Shelley rendered the danger of the supernatural more human and thus, more threatening. In their lives, they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of femininity while at the same time reconfiguring the whole of horror fiction and what it could accomplish. Their biographers, listed below, prove themselves to be more than up to the task of exploring the complicated and nuanced lives of these women and the dynamic work they produced, forcing us to acknowledge their works as unparalleled in their significance.

  1. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
  2. Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay
  3. Mary Shelley: A Biography by Muriel Sparkshirley-jacksonjpg

Marilyn or Norma Jeane?

Before beginning this piece, please search “Marilyn Monroe real voice” and listen to it for a moment just to set the scene.

There has, in recent decades, been a push to recognize Marilyn Monroe as the exceptional comedic actress that she was, a move to resist the narrative of “dumb blonde” and “sexpot” that were designed for her. However, the image of Marilyn as a “dumb blonde” and a tragic, young actress have been incredibly resilient to any kind of reassessment. It doesn’t help that the most enduring image of Marilyn is her swooning in delight over a subway grate as wind rushes up her white dress. But this was not what Marilyn wanted. It could be argued that this was, in fact, what she most feared; she once ended an interview by pleading with a reporter, “Please don’t make me a joke” (Steinem, 38). She was, in contrast to this image, an ambitious and driven woman who was always striving for more. I believe that to remember her in a reductive way is to further compound the suffering that she experienced during her life, to be, in a way, complicit in it. To look at her life and her construction as an icon is a difficult task, but a more rewarding one, it is one that acknowledges the complications and depths of a life and seeks out the realities that the widespread diminishment of her ability and accomplishments had on that life.

The construction of Marilyn was not merely that of sex symbol for its own sake. One of the more virulent, if subconscious, constructions of Marilyn is explored by Jacqueline Rose in Women in Dark Times. To Rose, in Marilyn’s sexuality there was a symbol for post-war America, of all it wished to forget and of all it wished to be. A society haunted by the revelations of a violence run rampant and dominated by a desire to return to normalcy needed a body to project this onto. And thus, Marilyn became Marilyn, her body serving as America’s distraction from itself. Of course, this left her no options. Her image was all-consuming and it was cemented. Because of the importance placed on it, she was not allowed the growth available and necessary to a person. She was not allowed to become other than her image. That was painful to her and, or course, it eventually became untenable. Marilyn was to become a symbol of a new, safe, abundant postwar America, she was to subsume all of the atrocities of war within her image, within her body and it left no room for the actual person inside. Speaking of Don’t Bother to Knock and later, Niagara, two of Marilyn’s dramatic roles, Rose comments, it is “As if in these early films, America can offload on to a crazy and/or murderous woman’s sexuality, without let or inhibition, the violence it cannot reckon with in itself… I counted no less than five earlier images where she is lying prone-whether asleep or fainted-splayed out, to all intents and purposes already dead (one stage instruction in the script describes her pretending to be asleep in ‘angelic peace’). It is as if the woman whose sexuality is meant to redeem the horrors of history-the woman who is being asked to repair a nation emerging from a war it already wants to forget-owes her nation a death. America is denying its own pain. Who pays the price?” (123-124).

To further complicate dominant notions of her, one can look to the stories that detail Marilyn’s dedication. Numerous accounts from her early days as a model have her questioning photographers about the processes necessary to create a quality image. She was interested in learning all of the facets of a discipline in order to make the most compelling or successful product. Similarly, in acting school, she was always interrogating scenes; how they worked, why they worked, breaking them down into pieces so that she could assess them for their successes or failures. Her fervent adherence to interrogating her life through psychoanalysis as well as her consistent attempts to examine every step of the systems with which she worked in order to learn the most effective ways of performing and being a star illustrate for us not a vacuous bombshell, but a determined woman, intelligent, alert, and savvy.

But her desire to be understood as more than just a sex symbol was not allowed by the desires that she evoked in others. She wanted to expand and hone her acting, she wanted to study, to educate herself and the public mocked her for this striving. This would have given her image depth, contour, and shading of which she would be in control. But, of course, this is not allowed of a symbol, whose purpose is to be flat, static, uncomplicated. It would have confused her essence, that of, as Gloria Steinem, in Marilyn: Norma Jeane, writes, “a magical, misty screen on which every fantasy could be projected without discipline or penalty, because no clear image was already there” (161). The avid studying and the learning could have been her way out, a freedom from the pain she had suffered and the strictures that bound her. Her inability to have any depth beyond her image was a damaging proposition. The larger society wouldn’t allow her to cultivate or explore an identity that could have been all her own. No wonder she was wracked with mental and emotional pain. No wonder she kept running into herself.

I asked you to listen to Marilyn’s real voice at the beginning of this in order to illustrate the degree to which Marilyn was a construction. I could repeat this again and again, but hearing her real voice and the way it contrasts with the breathy, simpering voice she used in her films, is to really, fully and viscerally, understand that Marilyn was not a person. Norma Jeane was a person and Marilyn was the ready-made construction, cobbled together of the hopes and desires of a nation hellbent on concealing its pain. Marilyn was the symbol that eventually consumed her and, in a painful piece of irony, still lives on. To understand this distinction is to finally, in some minute way, change her story. I want to end with an anecdote that Steinem recounts in Marilyn: Norma Jeane. “By the time she had become a star, this artificial creation of a woman called Marilyn Monroe had become so complete and so practiced that she could turn it on or off in a minute. Actor Eli Wallach is one of many colleagues who remember her walking down the street completely unnoticed, and then making heads turn in sudden recognition by assuming her famous mannerisms. ‘I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,’ she would explain” (241).


Rose, Jacqueline. Women in Dark Times. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn: Norma Jeane. Open Road Media, 2013. PDF.