When I was working on The Blonde (in which Marilyn Monroe is coerced into spying on the president of the United States by a mysterious K.G.B. agent), I avoided fictional representations of Marilyn because I didn't want to be influenced or to inadvertently steal another writer's observations. Mostly I read biographies, conspiracy-minded books about her death, watched her movies, and studied the work of the many still photographers who became enthralled by her image and persona. Actually, to meditate on M.M. is, more often than not, to be in thrall -- it's easy to identify fellow travelers, the ones who've been similarly bitten and become slightly crazed with the notion she explains everything about some big theme. Like America. Or Death. To live in Marilyn-land is to feel, by turns, tenderly toward and manipulated by and afraid of exploiting her. To follow in her footsteps is sort of like falling in love. Once I finished my novel I decided I didn't want to think about her for a long time -- but like lots of habits the recidivism rate is high, and I've been drawn back in.
There is a lot of Marilyn out there, but the following are my favorite retellings of the Monroe Myth:
1. Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde
Blonde is the heavy hitter of Marilyn novels, ranging from her fated birth in the city of angels to her weird and untimely death, at thirty-six, just across town. Because this is Oates (a genius and also my favorite person on twitter), Blonde is not exactly the straightforward epic life of -- , but it nonetheless aims for the whole biographical sweep, managing to portray its subject's yearning, violent, scattered consciousness and also her meaning as archetype. Joe DiMaggio is the Ex-Ballplayer; Arthur Miller is the Playwright; Marilyn is sometimes the Beggar Maid and sometimes the Fair Princess. So: Oates is fascinated by what the dark ballad of Norma Jean signifies, but that doesn't mean she's satisfied by the lame conclusion of many others, which is that because Marilyn so effectively drew the male gaze, she -- as a human being -- was somehow unknowable. The inner life, the sensations of her body, are all here, over seven hundred pages of what Marilyn was -- complicated, beautiful, awful, and moving.
2. Andrew O'Hagan, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, And His Friend Marilyn Monroe
Andrew O'Hagan foregoes a trip inside her head, and in The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, And His Friend Marilyn Monroe gives us the goddess through the eyes of her pet. I am usually anti-animal narrator (a cheap trick akin to having your child do your begging for you), but this novel works, in part because O'Hagan's writing is so good (the voice of Maf, a Maltese, is literary and wicked and delicious), and in part because his device speaks to Marilyn's special relationship with the vulnerable creatures of this earth. Her experiences as an un-parented child and a young woman struggling to rise in an abusive, misogynist industry made her sensitive to those who were likewise subject to the violent and stupid whims of the people in charge (see Arthur Miller's flimsy, paternalistic short story "Please Don't Kill Anything," published while they were married). Plus, dogs are the perfect foil to human loneliness, and on some level Marilyn is just the loneliest.
3. Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
If Blonde is the definitive novel, Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn is the virtuoso performance, unafraid to go with the mega star (the film takes place in 1956, when she was already beyond famous) to the places where she was confused, trouble-making, puffy, or sad. Watching Williams giggle and vamp as Marilyn playing the showgirl in "The Prince and the Showgirl" is as much fun as watching Marilyn in the original, but there's an uncanny quality, too, which is that because Williams is doing those familiar mannerisms -- that walk, that voice! -- but could never look exactly like one of the most photographed and reproduced faces ever, it is as though you are seeing Marilyn slant. Not as she was on screen, nor in real life, but as a work in progress -- Marilyn as she might have looked in the mirror.
4. Nicolas Roeg, Insignificance
Insignificance, Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film, is definitely in the Marilyn Monroe Theory of Everything category (or rather Monroe + DiMaggio + Einstein + McCarthy, the other icons who mix it up one loony night in New York City). Theresa Russell does a wonderful and manic, if somewhat campy, job as "the Actress" (the white halter dress leaves no doubt about which actress), but I think this movie is worth the price of admission just for its fake Marilyn Monroe-ism (a wonderful genre, equal parts Lorelei Lee, Dorothy Parker and Mae West, a few of which are actually attributable to M.M. herself): "Ever noticed," says The Actress to The Professor, "how 'what the hell' is always the right decision?" I tell myself that one pretty much every day.
5. Truman Capote, A Beautiful Child
Truman Capote's elegy A Beautiful Child -- in which actress and author hook up at a funeral, then gossip and spar all afternoon, drinking unchilled champagne at a Second Avenue Chinese place and watching the seagulls at the South Street ferry dock -- is perfect. Although Capote probably fabricates some of his remembrances, he delivers what I take to be an honest portrayal of wasting time with Marilyn, of being in the company of her famous vulnerability and moodiness, but also her toughness and wit. She asks what Liz Taylor is really like, and he answers: "she's like you, she wears her heart on her sleeve and talks salty." To which Marilyn replies: "fuck you." Awesome.
6. Sharon Olds, "The Death of Marilyn Monroe"
Sharon Olds' poem, "The Death of Marilyn Monroe," which tells of the ambulance men who removed her body from her home that final time, is plainspoken, but I've found in reading it over and over that it has some of its subject's mystery. The cult of Marilyn is a death cult, as Olds poem states clearly; for some terrible reason, we want the life snuffed out of her. And then there is its depiction of the way she affected people. The last lines, "listening to a woman breathing, just an ordinary woman breathing," are heartrending, and seem to say that Marilyn's performance of lightness, gorgeous and heroic as it was, was too heavy to bear. Not just for her, but for everybody.
Anna Godbersen is the author of The Blonde (Weinstein Books, $26.00).
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