Marilyn Monroe’s increasing instability in the early 1960s can be attributed to many causes — soaring use of booze and pills, the final collapse of her marriage to Arthur Miller in 1961, contract disputes with the studio that made her a star (20th Century Fox).
It’s possible Monroe also felt the pressure of aging out of her status as a reigning sex symbol and the impact on her career of major changes that were underway in movies.
What was considered provocative in the mid-to-late 1950s was becoming old hat with the emergence of films that took a more adult approach to male-female relationships and sex.
While Marilyn struggled, just a few months before she died, to make it through a stale romantic comedy concoction called “Something’s Got to Give” (a remake of a 1940s hit), U.S. movie audiences were responding to frank new fare like “The Hustler.”’
European films were also drawing huge audiences here because of their freedom from the Motion Picture Code that kept Hollywood from adding nudity and frank sexuality that made big hits out of such imports as “La Dolce Vita.”
Monroe had a huge French star nipping at her heels from 1958 onward when Brigitte Bardot emerged in the Roger Vadim smash “And God Created Woman,” which broke box office records on both sides of the Atlantic.
The movie created a tremendous buzz for its sexual content and became one of the rare foreign films to do as much business in U.S. theaters as some of the top Hollywood releases — Bardot’s popularity with American audiences was unprecedented for a non-English speaking actress.
As a cultural symbol in her native France, Bardot was peerless. In a 1959 essay, the great writer Simone de Beauvoir called the actress the most liberated woman of post-war France — a “locomotive of women’s history.”
Monroe was so frustrated by what she couldn’t do on screen in 1962 that the actress arranged to have partially nude pictures shot for Life magazine on the set of “Something’s Got to Give,” knowing that the “scene” she had set up would never make it into a Fox theatrical release of that period (the whole affair became a moot point when Monroe was fired from the film and died of a drug overdose a few months later).
Unlike Monroe, who was not taken seriously by critics while she was still alive, Bardot managed to thrive with reviewers and audiences through the rest of the 1960s by varying her film work between sex-tinged romantic dramas (and comedies), and serious pictures such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt.”
Bardot helped to give French films a major foothold in this country, opening doors at art houses in every major U.S. city through which such filmmakers as Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol would walk.
The French star has been retired from the screen for many years, but she is being honored with two events in New York City over the next month — a photo exhibit “BB Forever” at Sofitel New York and a four-week festival of her films, “Brigitte Bardot, Femme Fatale,” at the French Institute Alliance Francaise. The FIAF will be screening “And God Created Woman” and “Contempt” on Dec. 11.
Watching these films now, you can appreciate what a timeless fashion icon Bardot became in France and all over the world, with her “look” copied by countless other actresses and women on the street.
As deBeauvoir suggested in her essay, the performer’s personal aura of liberation eventually filtered down to women everywhere.
For more information on “Brigitte Bardot, Femme Fatale” visit www.fiaf.org