Posted by Susan Doll on February 6, 2012
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, which is the perfect occasion for a reevaluation of her films and career. There has been renewed attention in MM because of My Week with Marilyn, and there was a retrospective of her films last summer at BAMcinematek in NYC, but, somehow, I expected more. I keep waiting for a bona fide biographer or film historian to put her films and career into perspective and to address her star image in a post-feminist era. For example, no biography has ever adequately discussed her decision to form her own production company in order to take control of her roles and career. During the 1950s, when the studio system began disintegrating, top male stars from John Wayne to Burt Lancaster formed their own production companies for similar reasons, a fact much discussed in film histories. But, Monroe—one of the few female stars to do so—is never mentioned.
Perhaps MM is so iconic as the 20th century sex symbol that it is too difficult to see beyond the facets of her star image—blonde bombshell, dumb blonde, Hollywood victim, tragic personal life. Part of that star image was skillfully constructed by Monroe herself, and she could slip in and out of it as easily as one of her tight white dresses. It is an image that is difficult to strip away or even analyze because it is wrapped in layers of rumors, publicity, scandals, and thousands of photographs.
Thoughts of MM have lingered in the back of mind since I wrote a three-part series on her last year for the Morlocks blog. And so, I was intrigued by a documentary that played at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Bert Stern, who photographed Marilyn just six weeks before she died in what is now called “The Last Sitting.” Titled Bert Stern, Original Madman, the documentary chronicles Stern’s entire career from his days as an apprentice graphic designer to his glory years as Vogue’s most talented photographer. I liked the history lesson on the art of advertising that was part of the documentary, but the film will not endear viewers to the 83-year-old Stern. A chronic philanderer and commitment-phobe, he has made a pathetic mess of his personal life, which he attempts to romanticize with dramatic statements that are self-aggrandizing: “I want them [women]. And, I put them in the camera,” he says with a shrug. His ex-wife has a more accurate view of Stern’s personality: “If someone wasn’t interested, he was determined to get her; if someone wanted him, he was aloof.”
However, I was curious to learn more about the MM shoot, especially straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. When Vogue offered him the opportunity to shoot Monroe, Stern, who had first seen MM in 1955 at an Actors Studio party, realized “it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I knew I’d never shoot her again.” Though she had been photographed by professionals since the mid-1940s, Stern felt the “iconic photo” of MM had never been taken, and he wanted to be the one to do it. The sitting consisted of three sessions over a two-week period at the Bel-Air Hotel, beginning on June 23, 1962. Stern opted for a hotel suite because he wanted to create a personal, intimate atmosphere to put MM at ease. Monroe arrived several hours late, but, according to Stern, she was in a fun, light-hearted mood. He found her to be a free spirit ready and open to anything, not at all like the depressed, out-of-control mental patient described in the gossip columns. He wanted to photograph her draped in jewelry and scarves instead of clothing. Monroe, who had few inhibitions regarding her body picked up some of the sheer scarves and began draping them over and around her nude torso. Her hair became tussled as she sipped her favorite champagne—Dom Perignon—and posed with energy and passion. Stern did not want to shoot her in phony studio settings or in that glamorized gauzy mode of Hollywood publicity photos. Instead, he shot in his usual style—simple concepts arranged in triangular compositions captured in sharp focus. The sharp-focused style with few props or clothes gives the photos a modern look, even today.
Stern sent some of the provocative photos to Vogue, but the editors did not like her tussled hair and the frank nudity. They requested another session with Marilyn. For this second session, she donned fashionable evening wear, including a black Dior gown, and dressed up like Jackie Kennedy, complete with brunette wig and pearls—an ironic guise considering her brief fling with JFK. For the final session, she and Stern opted to return to the semi-nudes and nudes. Stern and Monroe had an immediate rapport that for Stern was based in part on desire. He shot her nude in bed; he stood on top of her with his camera and shot down, reminding me of the David Hemmings character in Blow-Up. In retelling the story of “The Last Sitting,” Stern claimed that there was a “magical force” guiding everything. Monroe was so energized by the shoot that he had difficulties keeping up with her. He shot around 2500 photos during the three sessions, and those selected by Vogue were published in an issue that streeted the day before her death, at least according to Stern.
Given his identity as a lothario with a camera, it is not surprising that Stern describes the experience like an affair or a sexual encounter. He claims he would have gone off with her if she had asked. He tried to kiss the famous star, but MM said, “No.” In the documentary, Stern brags that he didn’t get her, but he got definitive photos of her, which was “better.” Obviously, he equates shooting photos with the act of sex, but the “affair” was one-sided. I don’t think Monroe felt like a notch on his photographic belt.
In researching Monroe over the years, I have always thought she was more confident and in control of her image when shooting still photographs than she was on a movie set. She enjoyed being photographed, even for those publicity photos that her studio contracts required. Most stars hated posing for them, especially when they were unrelated to a specific film. Generic shots of stars holding Christmas presents, wearing Halloween costumes, or posing in ridiculous or cutesy settings were part of the grind of the star system, but MM took it in stride.
MM began her career as a magazine-cover model. Most male biographers emphasize her work for men’s magazines—precursors to Playboy—in which she posed in bathing suits or other scanty attire. Publications like Foto Parade advertised their “anatomical art,” while Scope offered such scintillating articles as “How the Reds Use Sex.” However, Monroe actually appeared in a variety of publications, donning costumes that helped her create a female archetype to convey the image the magazine wanted to project—a kind of “acting” in its simplest form in which she collaborated with the photographer to get the concept across. For Family Circle, she posed in a farm girl’s gingham dress while holding a lamb; for US Camera, she looked outdoorsy in capris as she waded through ocean waves; for Personal Romance, she dressed as an innocent young bride.
After becoming a major star, MM continued to regularly pose for photographers, including Milton Greene, Eve Arnold, George Barnes, Cecil Beaton, and finally Stern. Each photographer had a different concept in mind for capturing Monroe, and she not only cooperated but contributed. Greene was her business partner in Marilyn Monroe Productions, and she trusted him implicitly, so his photos are those of a trusted ally. They show her in candid moments relaxing on and off the set; they come the closest to capturing the MM behind the image. Beaton was an old-school photographer for Vogue who became a costume and production designer for the stage and screen (Gigi; My Fair Lady). In his photos, the subject was not the center of attention but one element in an overall decorative composition dominated by striking backgrounds. Beaton was taken aback by Monroe’s energy and free-spirited persona and was inclined to “contain” it. Though he shot a few light-hearted photos, he preferred a series of high-concept shots of MM in a white gown lying on a bed of decorative sheets holding a long-stemmed carnation. Though Monroe liked the classiness and visual sophistication, I find the series to be cold and the least revealing of her personality. My favorite photos are by the only woman photographer to shoot MM—Eve Arnold. Arnold, an agency photographer who had known Monroe since 1952, shot the star during the production of her last completed film, The Misfits. Though Arnold did her own version of sexy Marilyn shots, MM allowed the photographer to capture other sides of her as a woman who was going through a difficult period in her life.
After becoming a star, MM had final approval over all photos. Shots that did not meet her standards were discarded. In the case of Bert Stern’s photos, she marked the rejects with big black or orange X’s. Asked why she rejected certain shots, Stern speculated that they did not “reflect her image of herself.”
MM had learned about still photography early in her career and what constitutes a good photo—not only in regard to lighting and angle but also in terms of content. She understood the potential potency of the right photograph by the right artist. Photographers respected her, and she exhibited a confidence for their cameras that was notoriously absent when she acted in films. She collaborated with photographers, or at least interacted with them, to produce an image or persona over which she had a large measure of control. In general, she was more mature, funnier, more mysterious, and more self-assured in her photographs than onscreen. In Hollywood, studio producers exercised control over her image and turned her into a variation of the dumb blonde, which she detested. The hierarchical nature of filmmaking made it certain that directors were uninterested in her opinions and suggestions. Directors and costars who did not understand her insecurities unwittingly made them worse with their behavior toward her. On a film set, she was insecure in her abilities, convinced she was not respected, and unable to concentrate on her lines—behavior made worse by drugs. Photographers have praised her skills and instincts, while directors and costars have criticized her or painted her as vulnerable and pitiable.
In this light, MM’s efforts to launch her own production company to control her star image seem a bigger part of her story than generally assumed.
Considering how impressed Stern was with Monroe and her ability to “collaborate” with him, it is surprising that he attempted to recreate “The Last Sitting” for Vogue in 2008 with Lindsay Lohan. Though I don’t think Lohan is without talent, and I have nothing against her, she is dead weight and completely without charisma compared to MM. Stern admits in the documentary that “I knocked myself off,” demeaning himself in the process. And, worse, the Lohan photos “infringed on another soul.” The Lohan photos force a comparison with the originals, and Lohan pales in comparison. But, the comparison also attests to Monroe’s special talent in still photography and proves that she was integral to the photographic process.
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