Two of the most famous women of the 20th century are shaking hands. Perhaps they are the two most famous. The date is Oct. 29, 1956. They’re at the Empire Theatre, in London. The occasion is a royal command performance of “The Battle of the River Plate.” Who cares what the movie is? Joan Crawford and Brigitte Bardot are among the 20 stars in the receiving line at the benefit screening, but they’re all members of the supporting cast.
How best to describe the meeting of Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth: Worlds collide? Opposites attract? Or big sisters (very big) in the sorority of celebrity? The two women might be more similar than commonly supposed: legendary performers, much loved, their abilities frequently underestimated. The actress died 50 years ago Sunday, Aug. 5, 1962, in Los Angeles. The monarch made her debut as the latest Bond Girl 10 days ago, July 27, in London.
Stardom is a strange thing.
Go ahead and laugh at the comparison. But will Elizabeth’s fame endure a half century after her death as Marilyn’s has? Note, too, that her majesty requires a numerical designation. Elizabeth Windsor is Elizabeth II. Another Elizabeth, a ruler of far greater import, preceded her. Another monarch will eventually succeed her. Marilyn Monroe is simply Marilyn. She remains one of those supremely rare individuals who are on a first-name basis with humanity. No one preceded her, and no one has yet to succeed her.
Elizabeth owes her fame to a hereditary title. Marilyn’s came almost entirely from Marilyn. Even the biggest movie stars almost always derive much of their fame from the merit of the movies they have appeared in. Some considerable portion of their output consists of big hits, artistic successes, or, usually, both. Their filmographies are what separate great stars from flashes in the pan. The quality of stars’ movies enhances their stardom even as that stardom enhances their movies.
Marilyn, as in so many other ways, is an exception. She made one flat-out great movie, “Some Like It Hot” (1959). More to the point, it’s a flat-out great movie that’s inconceivable without her (and her ukulele) in the middle of it. She made another comedy that’s right up there, too, “All About Eve” (1950), but it’s definitely not a “Marilyn Monroe picture.” She’s ninth-billed in it. That same year she was 11th-billed in another very good movie, though no comedy, John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle.”
After that, things start to get spotty. People remember “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) because of a single, parodically erotic image: Marilyn standing over a subway grate, skirt billowing up to her waist. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) has “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” but it’s not a Hollywood musical of the first or maybe even second rank. Furthermore, Marilyn, square-cut or pear-shaped definitely plays second banana to Jane Russell. “The Misfits” (1961) has a fine cast (Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach), a fine director (Huston), an intelligent script (by Marilyn’s third husband, Arthur Miller), and . . . it’s a noble failure, best remembered for being Gable’s last picture.
There are moments in some of the other films: being given the once over by an understandably attentive Groucho Marx, in “Love Happy” (1949); getting a very different kind of once over from Barbara Stanwyck, as her sister-in-law, in Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night” (1952 – Marilyn was in five releases that year); giving her most affecting performance, perhaps, in “Bus Stop” (1956); being directed by, and costarring with, Laurence Olivier, in “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957).
Was she a great actress? That’s posing the question incorrectly. Could Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Simone Signoret, or Elizabeth Taylor — the five Oscar nominees for best actress the year “Some Like It Hot” came out — have been anywhere near as touching and funny and memorable as she was as Sugar? Marilyn’s range was limited, extremely limited, but within it she was phenomenal. Part of Marilyn’s legend is her taking up the Method and adopting Lee Strasberg as a sort-of Svengali, at least for a while. But anything the Actors Studio might have given her would have been superfluous — a distraction, really — from what she already had.
So much of what made Marilyn Marilyn happened offscreen. She was like Elizabeth Taylor that way. She married America’s most respected athlete, Joe DiMaggio. Divorcing him, she then married America’s most respected playwright, Miller. (You could argue that Tennessee Williams deserved more respect, but marriage to him was not going to happen.) She may or may not have slept with a president, John F. Kennedy. She may or may not have slept with the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy. She most certainly serenaded that president with “Happy Birthday.” And there was the matter of an aspiring magazine owner named Hugh Hefner buying the rights to a nude photograph she had posed for in 1949. This was 1953, and the magazine was Playboy, thus making Marilyn the first centerfold.
In a way, she’s been the culture’s centerfold ever since: an ideal of uncomplicated desire and sexuality. Yet she’s been a magnet for authors and thinkers, too. Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gloria Steinem have written books about her. Marilyn and literature was a two-way street. She was married to Miller. She spoke of how much she’d like to play Grushenka, in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” Eve Arnold took a famous photograph of her reading Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
Search “Marilyn Monroe” on IMDb.com under character names and you come up with 125 entries. In comparison, no less a figure than Queen Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, gets 113. You know about Michelle Williams, who got an Oscar nomination this year for “My Week With Marilyn.” Did you know that Samantha Morton (“Mister Lonely”) and Mira Sorvino (“Norma Jean & Marilyn”) have played her, too? An actress named Susan Griffiths has played Marilyn no fewer than 13 times. Griffiths must consider her a kind of annuity.
Were Marilyn alive today, she’d be 86, Elizabeth’s age. They were born just five weeks apart. One of the more remarkable things about the queen is how comfortable she’s seemed with whatever age she has been. As she’s aged, so have the public’s perceptions of her evolved. An adorable child, she’s now an adored elderly woman (adored in a dignified, British sort of way, of course). Is it possible to imagine an elderly Marilyn? So much of her appeal was a childlike vulnerability. Would that quality have curdled as she grew older? Certainly she couldn’t have remained marketable as a sex symbol. In that regard, premature death proved a boon. Like Elvis, dying young has contributed no small amount to her mystique — and she died without ever having suffered a fat-Elvis phase.
A better royal parallel would be with another beautiful and troubled woman who died at 36, Princess Diana. Don’t forget that the song that became a posthumous dirge for Diana, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” was written about Marilyn. Conspiracy theories persist about each woman’s death. But if Elizabeth differs so much from Marilyn in owing her fame to an inherited title, Diana differs even more in owing hers to someone else’s inherited title. Marilyn did it on her own. Call that a feminist ideal — or more accurately, perhaps, a democratic ideal. She is a child of Fitzgerald’s “dark fields of the republic.” Like a female Gatsby, Marilyn imagined herself as someone better and made herself into that someone. Also like Gatsby, it ultimately destroyed her. Looking at the photograph of Marilyn with Elizabeth, it’s not the destruction one sees. It’s how breathtaking is the realization of that imagined self. One notices something related to that, too. Elizabeth wears a crown. Marilyn doesn’t need one.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.