MARILYN MONROE: THE GREATEST MODEL?
The Camera Loved Her Like Nobody Else
By Bill Dobbins
There is no doubt that Marilyn Monroe has become one of the major iconic figures in our celebrate-oriented world. As time goes on her celebrity seems to grow rather than diminish. Not her status as a movie star necessarily, although she was undoubtedly successful as a film star. Her films are still viewed on cable and services like Netflix and her ability as an actress is recognized. But Marilyn was no Meryl Streep. It is more her attractive, physical presence in movies and her ability to project the persona of “Marilyn” that continues to fascinate.
Her evolution from the young Norma Jean Mortensen Baker to the world-famous Marilyn Monroe involved quite a journey. She spent most of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage and married at age 16, no doubt to try and establish some kind of a normal life outside of the “system.” This may also somewhat explain why she seemed too insecure and needy throughout her career – exhibiting a kind of vulnerability that was a large part of her sexual appeal.
Norma Jeane began modeling in 1944, signed a couple of short-lived contracts with movie studios in the late 1940s but her career really took off when she signed with Fox in 1951. Soon she was one of the most bankable stars in the industry and during her short 10-year career as an actress her movies grossed some $200 million (equivalent to many times that in today’s dollars).
But while Marilyn’s movies still have an audience, it is her still photos that continue to make her so relevant. There have been few models in history whom the camera seemed to love so much. I first became aware of this when I saw a documentary in which four photographers talked about their experiences shooting MM. They all agreed that her face was so expressive that it was almost impossible to shoot the same photo of her twice. She would look sexy, sad, angry, pouting, fearful and so forth with one expression following the other in rapid order. All a photographer had to do was keep shooting and try to capture the magic.
Marilyn was beautiful and sexy but she was able to manifest personality like almost nobody else. The ability to express on the face the thoughts and feelings going through the mind is a hallmark of particularly talented actors and models. And Marilyn Monroe was incredible when it came to this ability. This is why she was able to take the character of the “dumb blonde” and give it a dimension no actress had ever achieve before. The dumb blonde persona appeals to men because she appears vulnerable and submissive, totally non-threatening. But watch Marilyn in a movie like Bus Stop and she comes across as endearingly innocent while also worldly and experienced. Men want to sleep with a character like this but also protect and take care of her.
With Marilyn Monroe, you saw the dumb blonde evolve in the more impressive “blond bombshell.” Still dumb for the most part, but larger than life and much more emotionally complex in her appeal.
There have been other blond bombshells before and since. Jean Harlow was one of the best. No Shakespearean actress, but a wonderful movie star whose personality and sexuality exploded off the screen. Once Marilyn was on the scene, she inspired a lot of imitators. Such as English actress Diana Dors, a walking advertisement for the tight sweater and uplift bra. And Mamie Van Doren, another actress with ample curves who was groomed to be the new Marilyn with only marginal success.
The one Marilyn-clone who really did achieve some success was Jane Mansfield. She was gorgeous, with a spectacular figure and a definite talent for light comedy. But she limited herself by developing an almost comic-book bombshell persona that restricted the kind of roles she would succeed in. Unfortunately for her, when Marilyn died Mansfield’s career mostly died with it.
A more modern counterpart to Jane Mansfield is Loni Anderson who had a successful run in WLRP in Cincinnati. She had a similar appeal to Mansfield but her on-screen persona was smarter, more controlled and less over-the-top so she has had a longer and more varied success as an actress.
But none of these women had the acting talent of Marilyn Monroe and none anywhere near her ability as a model. Marilyn was able to shoot with many of the best photographers in the world because she was so famous and also such a great model. For example, she formed an ongoing professional relationship with photographer Milton Green that resulted in a number of her most memorable photographs.
Of course, as Norma Jeane, she was very much in demand as a pin-up model. Hungarian-Romanian photographer Andre de Dienes began photographing her when she was 19 years old and continued to work with her off and on until just before her death. In his work, we see both the fresh-faced and innocent Norma Jeane and the somewhat tired and worn Marilyn near the end of her life. He also had a romantic relationship with his model and published a book of photos and a memoir focused on their time together called Marilyn Mon Amour.
Of course, Marilyn’s fame was accelerated when she posed nude for a calendar in 1955, and Hugh Hefner published a photo from that session as the centerfold in the first issue of Playboy.
Marilyn Monroe was tremendously ambitious as an actress, attending the Actor’s Studio in New York and as an intellectual, eventually marrying playwright Arthur Miller. She also married baseball star Joe DiMaggio, a relationship that generated one story I am fond of. Marilyn made an appearance in Time Square surrounded by thousands of cheering fans. She went back home and told DiMaggio how exciting it had been. “You have no idea!” she exclaimed. DiMaggio, who was one of the most famous athletes of all time and was accustomed to adoring cheers from a sold-out Yankee Stadium, is supposed to have replied simply, “Yes, I do.”
But people who knew Marilyn, especially when she was attending The Actors Studio, often remark on how deliberately she could “turn on” the Marilyn persona and turn it off again. With such an incredible ability to project her personality, she could be sitting unnoticed one minute and then make “Marilyn” appear and take center stage just with posture, attitude and facial expression. She may not have known exactly how she was able to do this – so much of personality is innate and instinctive – but she could definitely do it on purpose.
Which was a major factor in making her such an incredible model?
Unfortunately, many who are chameleon-like and able to assume so many guises so easily have trouble being themselves when not on stage. Like Zelig as played by Woody Allen. Or like Peter Sellers the way so many describe him. Certainly, a psychologist might suspect that growing up as an orphan and foster child Norma Jeane might well have become desperate to find ways to find acceptance and be noticed. Perhaps even with an excessive reliance on sexuality. And it seems likely the word “desperate” might well describe why Marilyn was always so uncomfortable with success and relationships, was so needy and unreliable both personally and professionally and tended to question both her intellectual and acting ability.
But one place she apparently never questioned her ability nor felt uncomfortable was in front of a still camera. The camera loved her and she loved the camera. And that relationship resulted in thousands of photos of Norma Jeane/Marilyn that continue to appeal to generations of fans and have made her one the most iconic of all celebrities of the modern age.
Marilyn Monroe is everybody’s amour.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY
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