Just when you think you’ve read and seen everything that there was to be read and seen about Marilyn Monroe, along comes a new book claiming to “redefine” the star who died 48 years ago.
“Fragments” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) appeared in bookstores Tuesday with some of the most hysterical jacket copy ever written: “An event…(that) will definitively redefine Marilyn Monroe’s humanity…Now for the first time, readers can meet the private Marilyn and understand her in a way we never have before…The easy grace and deceptive lightness that made her performances indelible emerge on the page, as does the simmering tragedy that made her last appearances so affecting.”
The promotion is a smokescreen for a feeble little collection of “poems, intimate notes, letters” that have been stretched out to book-length form through clever design and the use of lots of photographs. There is so little Monroe text to draw from that one page contains only one line of copy.
The poems are a mix of self-pity and ego that are sad to read because they seem to point the way to the dead-end that Monroe’s career (and life) reached when she was only 36.The most affecting lines in the scraps that were written down on hotel stationery and insurance forms deal with Monroe’s fear of aging — the actress was a genius when it came to having good photographs taken throughout her career, so she was probably horrified by the pictures Bert Stern took of her in the months just before her death.
Monroe was fading fast when she ended her own life in August, 1962 — she had just been fired by the studio that shaped her career (20th Century Fox) — and photographs taken during her final months made the actress look “blurry, slugged” (in the words of critic Pauline Kael).
Years of drug and alcohol abuse took their toll on Monroe physically and emotionally. The bubbly, rather cooperative starlet of the mid-1950s turned into a mass of insecurities that led to increasing difficulties on the movies she made after she became a major box-office attraction.
On the set of “Some Like It Hot” it took Monroe dozens of takes to deliver single lines of dialogue successfully. Luckily for director Billy Wilder, the part was much smaller than that of her co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, who had to do all of the really heavy lifting in a tricky script.
“Fragments” is a product of the Strasberg wing of the post-mortem Marilyn Monroe industry. Acting teacher Lee Strasberg and his widow Anna were bequeathed all of the star’s personal possessions when she died. One of the letters in the book reveals that Monroe was trying to start a new production company with Strasberg.
Strasberg was one of the leaders of the cult that formed around Monroe after she died, claiming that the star would have gone on to a glorious stage career that would have seen her playing roles such as Juliet and Lady Macbeth.
But how would an actress who could barely sustain movie scenes for a minute or two have possibly played a grueling stage role eight times a week?
If she had been signed up for a Broadway show in the mid-1960s how many performances would the notoriously unprofessional star have missed?
“The pity is that she didn’t get more of the entertaining roles that were in her range,” Pauline Kael wrote in an early 1970s piece on the actress.
“She hardly had the stability to play a mother or even a secretary and she was a shade too whorey for Daisy Miller or her descendants, but she was the heroine of every porny spoof like ‘Candy’ come to life…,” the critic added.
After she died, Marilyn was built up into a tragic figure — an actress of great stature and great potential, but the acolytes ignore the evidence on the screen in her last few movies (“Let’s Make Love” and “The Misfits,” among them).
The youthful spark that made Monroe so charming and so funny in pictures such as “How to Marry a Millionaire” and “The Seven Year Itch” was gone.
Norman Mailer was just one of many public figures who only became a Monroe cultist after she died, saying the star was a “great” actress capable of playing the classic stage roles.
In 1973, Mailer called “The Misfits” the “fulfillment of her art.”
The brilliant novelist and journalist apparently forgot what he wrote in 1962 — “She was bad in ‘The Misfits,’ she was finally too vague, and when emotion showed, it was unattractive and small.”