One of the most iconic scenes in movie history features a woman in a white dress standing over a subway grate. That scene has been memorialized in many forms like statues, posters and paintings. That iconic white dress is still sold every October as a popular Halloween costume. The scene is from a 1950s movie called “The Seven Year Itch,” and that actress was one of the greatest legends in Hollywood history, Marilyn Monroe.
In chapel last week, the Student Assosiation presented some questions to prompt conversation. One of those questions asked if there was something you could give a 40-minute presentation on without any preparation. I answered it by telling the guy next to me that I could easily talk about Marilyn Monroe for at least that long. In fact, I could tell him her whole life story. I have always been fascinated by her complexity and her ability to captivate the world despite the personal struggles that are often forgotten or overlooked when remembering her.
She acted in well-known films during her career and became famous for playing the “dumb blonde.” She also sang and modeled, but most people remember her simply as an icon that set the standard of beauty for the 1950s and beyond. What she really did during her short time in Hollywood was make the world fall in love with her. Of course, her determination and hard work contributed greatly to her success, but there was something undeniably special about her character that would allow her to catch and keep the world’s attention.
Marilyn’s birth name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, and she spent her childhood moving from orphanage to foster home and back again. She never knew for certain who her father was, and her mother was in and out of mental hospitals after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Marilyn was neglected and abused until finally marrying at 16-years-old in order to get away from foster care. It wasn’t long before she divorced her first husband and found her face on the silver screen. It may sound like a sort of happy ending, but being famous didn’t make life better for her. Quite the opposite, in fact.
During her time in the entertainment industry, Marilyn was taken advantage of often. She was overworked and prescribed medication to keep her awake and working longer. Eventually, she was even prescribed medication to counteract the other just so she would be able to sleep. She had difficulties within her second and third marriages and dealt with depression as well as other health issues, such as endometriosis and infertility. She also had many difficulties handling negative publicity and critics throughout her career.
Marilyn’s struggle with drug abuse worsened in the early 1960s and so did her health. In 1962, she died of a drug overdose and her death was classified as a probable suicide.
Throughout all of that, the world watched as she fell apart. Even through all her personal struggles, she continued her career. People saw Marilyn’s signature smile and fancy dresses, but she didn’t share her struggles openly. In fact, she thought of “Marilyn” as someone separate from herself, a perfect persona that she had built for the public.
I wonder if people could see that she was in pain. During interviews or photoshoots, could they not hear the sadness in her voice? Maybe people just couldn’t look away from the delicate, hurting woman that, at the same time, was often described as charming and unapologetically bold. I think that was the beauty of Marilyn. She contradicted herself in the most humane way. The world fell in love with this tragic being and they loved her tragedy. Her beauty caught their eye, but it was her subtle vulnerability that kept their attention. People noticed her confidence and ambition, but could also see her pain.
I think everyone has an internal struggle between hope and fear. Marilyn Monroe was the embodiment of those contradicting emotions. “The Guide to United States Popular Culture” states, “No other star has ever inspired such a wide range of emotions — from lust to pity, from envy to remorse.” Those emotions are what created a connection between Marilyn and her audience. She was tragic and real. They could feel her pain, despite her beauty.