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Marilyn Monroe's star still shines brightly, but film legacy is spotty

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On the occasion of the 50-year-anniversary of her death, Marilyn Monroe is everywhere.

Her face has popped up on magazine covers and on the jackets of new and reissued books, including two from the Taschen publishing house: Lawrence Schiller's recounting of shooting MM during the abortive comedy Something's Got To Give in 1962; and a deluxe re-issue of Norman Mailer's book Marilyn Monroe with photographs by Bert Stern.

Michelle Williams is the latest actress to portray Marilyn in My Week with Marilyn, joining actresses such as Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd and Catherine Hicks. (In the train-wreck phases of their respective careers, both Lindsay Lohan and the late Anna Nicole Smith participated in Marilyn-style pictorials in a bid for Monroe's iconic legitimacy; if they were not sisters under the skin, they were at least sisters of the skin.)

But actual Marilyn Monroe movies remain the best way to soak in the MM phenomenon, explaining the recent Blu-ray release Forever Marilyn, a collection of seven Monroe films.

The press release refers to them as "classic" but Monroe never made that many movies worthy of the adjective.

However, the films do represent in cross-section her tumultuous career:

Some Like It Hot (1959)

IF Monroe can be said to have made a classic film, here it is. This broad 1959 comedy from director Billy Wilder casts Monroe as "Sugar Kane," the sexy chanteuse who fronts an all-girl orchestra, circa 1929. Joining the band are Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as a couple of musicians who witness a Mob massacre and don drag to escape the clutches of the hoodlum Spats Colombo (George Raft).

Watch the movie before checking out the extras. This is the kind of comedy that doesn't get old, thanks largely to the antic Lemmon, whose discomfort with the dressing-up-as-a-girl thing transmogrifies into delight upon his "Daphne" being courted by a frivolous millionaire (Joe E. Brown).

Monroe played a hard-luck showgirl repeatedly in her career, but this black-and-white movie plays to her strengths: sweet, woozy vulnerability.

The Blu-ray extras feature archival interviews, with both Curtis and Lemmon describing an actress who is clearly in trouble, presumably under the influence of a cocktail of drugs and alcohol and unable to recite the simplest line of dialogue. The fact that Wilder was able to get a great performance out of her was a minor miracle.

Rewatching the film, one has to wonder if the audience's sympathy for the romantically beleaguered Sugar Kane was not also sympathy for the romantically beleaguered Marilyn Monroe.

 

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

BILLY Wilder again. Tom Ewell stars as a New York guy tempted into marital infidelity by Monroe's "tomato from upstairs" when his wife and son go away on vacation. As "The Girl," Monroe casts such a seductive spell, Ewell can barely admit to having a child. When she asks him if he has kids, his response is: "No. None. No kids. Well, just one. Little one. Hardly counts."

The scene in which Monroe's character enjoys having her skirt lifted by a gust of wind from a subway grate is the film's most iconic image for its titillation factor, but it is also a neat summation of Monroe's appeal: She is sexy and innocent ... but not that innocent.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

THE role of millionaire-seeking showgirl Lorelei Lee was initially earmarked for Betty Grable, but Monroe got the part and made the most of it in this quirky musical from director Howard Hawks.

The gold-digging Lorelei and her more level-headed friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) head to Paris, where Lorelei is going to marry her wealthy, simpering fiancé (Tommy Noonan). But on the ocean cruise, Lorelei gets in trouble flirting with a married diamond magnate while Dorothy falls for the private eye sent to take incriminating pictures of the bride-to-be.

This is an oddball musical to be sure, but an entertaining one, featuring Monroe's indelible performance of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend.

There are no significant DVD extras except newsreel footage of Monroe and Russell planting their hands in wet concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Behind the scenes, Russell was reportedly a supportive and loyal companion to Monroe during the film's production, which was a good thing because this was also the film that saw Monroe get labelled as difficult for what would bloom into a crippling insecurity.

 

How to Marry A Millionaire (1953)

MONROE is a near-blind model who moves in with a couple of other single gals (Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable) intent on bagging themselves some millionaires to marry.

The retro Manhattan setting is appealing, but as a woman fishing for a rich hubby, Monroe's character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was definitive, probably because Lorelei Lee was more articulate in defending her marital ambition: "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty but, my goodness, doesn't it help?"

 

River of No Return (1954)

DIPPING her toes in the western genre, Monroe played a frontier variant of the showgirl -- saloon singer Kay Weston -- in this adventure co-starring Robert Mitchum as a man who drags his son and Kay along on a mission of revenge.

When it came time for this Otto Preminger film to shoot on location around Banff, Alta., Monroe took a train from Calgary, giving Canadians a shot at glimpsing the star of the hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But the experience of shooting the movie was less than happy for Monroe, who suffered abuse at the tongue of the domineering Preminger. Even co-star Robert Mitchum wasn't above slapping her on the butt when her line readings were especially forced and unnatural. Monroe's excessive dependence on her personal acting coach Paula Strasberg (an infuriating relationship accurately portrayed in My Week With Marilyn) proved to be off-putting for all concerned.

You would have thought the macho Mitchum would have been a good match for the womanly Monroe, but the actor generated more sparks with Monroe's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star Jane Russell in the films Macao and His Kind of Woman.

 

The Misfits (1961)

IN Monroe's last film, her playwright husband Arthur Miller wrote her the part of Roslyn, a divorcée who falls for Clark Gable's aging but free-spirited cowboy. Her high-maintenance behaviour off the screen and her distinctly woozy performance on the screen made what should have been a swan song (it was also Gable's last film) into a bit of a dramatic misfire.

 

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

BASICALLY, Monroe plays a hat check girl-turned-showgirl who pulls a Yoko, breaking up a family vaudeville act by falling for the son (Donald O'Connor) of The Five Donahues.

The DVD extras aren't going to mention it, but the only reason Monroe signed on was because she was promised the role of "The Girl" in The Seven Year Itch if she did this movie.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2012 E8

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