Lois Banner’s exhaustive study of the life of Marilyn Monroe reveals details of her fractured childhood, multiple foster homes, early sexual abuse, family mental instability and the fragile sense of self she parlayed into international stardom. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is not a pretty story. It begins in illegitimate hardship, burns periodically into iconic photographs and celluloid and ends in a confusion of drug addiction, cover-up and possible homicide. In between, a passably pretty girl with no prospects or education launches herself at Hollywood, determined to become the biggest possible star.
What Marilyn paid to purchase her unstoppable celebrity is difficult to evaluate. She grew up in an era when child rape was unreported and untreated. She had no stability at all throughout her entire life, birth to death. She turned herself into a hot pin-up, blonde bombshell, babycakes-come-hither seductress and she perfected that persona in real life and on film. It seems as if real life wasn’t any more real than the films to her. She was ambitious, canny, smart, savvy, fighting an uphill battle against a misogynist society and an even more sexist Hollywood system, using the only coin she had–her body and her mastery of the lens–to scale the heights.
Banner writes parts of this account in an irritating “I did this” and “No one else has ever uncovered that” style that is somewhat reminiscent of a research paper and somewhat just plain distracting. But most of the text seems meticulously referenced, assertions are extensively footnoted and the story is very readable–Marilyn is still good copy. The marriages to DiMaggio and Miller, the affairs with nearly everybody, including Sinatra, Yves Montand, several women and a couple of Kennedys, the brushes with overdose, the manipulative behavior on movie sets–it’s all in there in detail. So are the acts of kindness, memories of a bubbly, funny and winning personality, the perfectionism, the hunger to learn that drove Marilyn to read, study classics, music and art, the obsessive acting, voice and dance training that helped her to become an accomplished performer, the numerous physical problems, personal slovenliness, casual nudity and strategically unleashed scandalous behavior.
This Marilyn orchestrated much of her life and success, even as she was helpless to defeat the dark depressions, nightmares and insecurities that kept her restless and frightened. Was it fame or was it Norma Jeane Baker who was cracked? Did she ever have a prayer of overcoming her demons? Was she so far ahead of her time that she was destined to fail? Did she blaze a new trail for women or did she succumb to the endless traps set for people who challenge the status quo? And, most intriguing, what really happened the night she died? Banner has come up with evidence, copious but not definitive, that Marilyn Monroe may have paid with her life for crossing paths with the deadly Kennedy brothers.
There is certainly enough to question in the official accounts of her death and enough motivation to make the case for a possible hit. But there isn’t much in her life to argue for a happy ending in any case. She knew every angle of the camera and tilt of the head that would ensure her immortality as an image. In the end, an image is all we have, part or wholly mnaufactured from the bits and pieces that Marilyn assembled and reassembled all her life to create her most enduring character, Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox Lois Banner | Bloomsbury 2012