Marilyn Monroe & Film Noir Pt. I : Her Death was 55 Years Ago This Aug. 5

There are certain shining stars of entertainment and larger social forces throughout the ages who have truly embedded beauty in our collective consciousness because of their physical and emotional traits but also, undoubtedly, because they died tragically prematurely in the prime of their youth. This veneer of premature death, embeds these figures in our collective unconscious precisely because of their youth and the inherent tragedy in their story. All the famous figures named below were undoubtedly profoundly talented on a multitude of levels. Nothing this piece says should be construed to mean otherwise.

It should be noted — however — that death itself adds this very peculiar veneer to their very real accomplishments. This, indeed, may warp how we collectively and even individually view these famous figures: imparting them with a almost supernatural aura of eternal beauty and greatness — imbued on to them by death itself.

Marilyn Monroe’s death certificate.

In politics we have Princess Diana — who died in a now infamous car accident at age 36 in 1997, and President John F. Kennedy, dying in the infamous — and vigorously studied — assassination in Dallas, Texas in 1963 — he was only 46. In music, we have Doors frontman Jim Morrison — dying of heart failure in Paris at the very young age of 27, guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix — passing away from drug related problems at, again, age 27 in London in 1970, Janis Joplin, “the First Lady of Rock n Roll” — passing away at, yet again, age 27 of an accidental heroin overdose in Hollywood, California. Of course, this is far from an exhaustive list.

In film, we have James Dean — dying at age 24 in Cholame, California in 1955 in a brutal car accident, and we have the celebrity who quite possibly eclipsed them all in popularity, eternal beauty, and (sometimes) miss or greatly exaggerated information: Miss Marilyn Monroe, who’s premature death — some call it an accidental barbiturate overdose, others intentional suicide — happened 55 years ago this August 5.

I have often, as has much of the world, been enraptured by Marilyn Monroe’s profound physical beauty: a goddess, ascended to Earth, who’s beauty will last forever in the nitrate on the silver screen, despite the goddess herself being no longer physically with us.

My first Marilyn film was the brilliant, and immortal in its own right, comedy romp Some Like It Hot (1959), where Marilyn starred alongside a reluctantly cross-dressing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Some Like it Hot is still one of my favorite comedies of all time because of its stellar cast and razor sharp wit expressed in the dialogue, and Marilyn’s other comedic work will forever be engraved on the public mind throughout the world.

Still from “Some Like it Hot.”

This series, however, is not meant as a retrospective on the entire filmography of Marilyn Monroe. The intent here is to explore the more serious efforts on film, and how her immortal undying beauty especially has profoundly influenced not just the vintage and retro in American life (although she certainly has done that too), but also how these factors have influenced the trajectory of the historical arc of film noir itself. These films are also, in my view, a better way to look at Marilyn Monroe, who wanted, more than anything, to be treated as a serious artist, and not just a sexpot, on screen and in life.

These films also give air to Marilyn’s sordid and very sad past: She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in the Los Angeles County Hospital on June 1, 1926. Marilyn’s mother would later be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia — this is particularly telling, as it may have meant Marilyn was predisposed to some sort of psychiatric pathology because of her genetics too — and had to cut ties with her daughter when Norma was 16. Gladys Mortenson also outlived her daughter: passing away in 1984.

Norma Jean as a child.

Norma Jean suffered sexual abuse as a teen, and a very volatile existence: being essentially forced by her circumstances to marry neighborhood friend James Doughtery at age 20 (they also divorced in 1946). He was a military man, she was a model.

It was around this time, that along with her modeling, Norma Jean was taking literature courses at UCLA, listening to Beethoven, and reading a wide variety of books from her (reportedly) large library of them. From here, she acquired a contract with 20th Century Fox and begun her path of endeavor in acting, ultimately taking changing her name to her stage name: “Marilyn Monroe.”

She had a few small parts before 1950, but it was director Joseph L. Mankiewicz seeing her and casting her in 1950’s All About Eve that really put her career on a upward trajectory, beginning her development into sex symbol.

Still from “All About Eve.”

This is the most important leg of Marilyn’s evolution because All About Eve brought Marilyn to the attention of director John Huston, ultimately landing her in her first film noir: The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Check back here in one week for our examination of that film to kick off our look at Marilyn Monroe in film noir on the 55th Anniversary of her tragic death.

The Asphalt Jungle will be followed up by a look at Marilyn at her more vulnerable: in a often overlooked B-Noir from 1952, Don’t Bother to Knock. A week after that we will examine her foray into noir with the great Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952). We will conclude our look at Marilyn a week after that with her arguably most famous film noir Niagra (1953).

“The Asphalt Jungle” poster. Marilyn in her purple dress was only added later to the poster, after she became a household name.

Marilyn’s legacy deserves a serious look at her acting ability (not just as a sexpot), free of tired, baseless, conspiracy conjecture surrounding her death. Marilyn yearned to be viewed as a serious actress and artist and not just as eye candy. Marilyn deserves at least that much from us as her grateful audience. I hope you will join me as this 5 week series on her unfolds.