POSTED August 4 2012

Marilyn, 50 years after

After the tabloid speculations about Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, after every incident, documented or fabricated, of her life was strip-mined, after the considerations, lecherous and learned, by Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem, after Joyce Carol Oates’ Marilyn-inspired novel Blonde, after Elton John’s musical elegy, after Lindsay Lohan’s MM-influenced Playboy magazine spread and Michelle Williams’ biopic impersonation, after the accountants reckoning that 50 years after her death August 5, 1962 that Marilyn is worth more dead than alive, is it possible to say anything more about Norma Jeane Mortenson?

Today, when Turner Classic Movies hosts its Monroethon, I will remember Marilyn’s small step for a woman and big step for apparent airheads on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1953 movie that gave her her signature role. According to her ¬†biographer Donald Spoto, who found the evidence in an annotated script in the vaults at 20th-Century Fox, Monroe resisted the idea in screenwriter Charles Lederer’s adaptation of the Anita Loos satire that her character Lorelei Lee was nothing more than a brainless gold digger.. She wanted it clear that Lorelei was not dumb, just playing dumb.

In the film’s penultimate scene, it was Monroe who suggested what Spoto calls “a crucial bit of dialogue” when Lorelei meets her prospective father-in-law, Henry Esmond. Sr.

Esmond, Sr.: “Have you got the nerve to tell me you don’t want to marry my son for his money?”¬†Lorelei: “It’s true.” Esmond, Sr.: “Then what do you want to marry him for?” Lorelei: “I want to marry him for YOUR money.” Esmond, Sr. does a spit and says, “Say, I thought you were dumb.” Lorelei (in the line Monroe suggested and director Howard Hawks approved) responds, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” ¬†(You can find this on pages 229-230 of Spoto’s Marilyn.)

Monroe’s improvement, much more in the spirit of the Anita Loos original, makes the movie — and makes us laugh at the smart men who so often underestimate the opposite sex. I won’t celebrate the anniversary of her death but I do celebrate Monroe’s spirit. She was neither dumb nor blonde.

Your favorite Monroe movie? Performance? Why? I’m going with Blondes.


  1. Joe says:

    Carrie! For me, “Niagara.” Hands-down. That’s her best performances from where I sit. I agree that “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” offered MM her signature role, but evil Rose Loomis in “Niagara” was her seminal role. I’m watching it on TCM right now. They just showed the “Kiss” sequence, an iconic moment that, I’m convinced, cemented MM’s image in the minds of moviegoers, making her indelible. Rose was a unique fit for her; I just wish she played more villains/vamps.

  2. HENRI says:

    A tie: Howard Hawks’ “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Otto Preminger’s “River of No Return” – a character (and a performance) far more complex and far more subtle than appeared on first viewing. Right behind those two: “Some Like It Hot” and (yes) “Bus Stop”.

  3. wwolfe says:

    A pleasant surprise to see that someone else also thinks “Niagara” was her best performance.

  4. For me, the most underrated MM movie is “Let’s Make Love,” a film of hers that almosy never gets mentioned. While it certainly isn’t her best, I think it’s almost the only one from her post-Actors Studio period that shows her as a thinking, capable grown-up.

  5. Mark S. says:

    Oh, Sugar in ‘Some Like It Hot’, but I also love her as Louis (Uncle Lon) Calhern’s tootsie in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (“You big banana head”).

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