The enduring appeal of Marilyn Monroe

Pin-up. Sex symbol. Star. Andrew Collins hails the icon on his bedroom wall

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When, in 1982, I was on the cusp of turning 17, I had 22 pictures of Marilyn Monroe Blu-Tacked to my bedroom wall.

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Admittedly, they were all pop art variations of the same iconic shot – the one where she’s wearing the William Travilla-designed gold lamé halter dress against a black background, as seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But such mass production was in the spirit of Andy Warhol, whose screen prints had cemented Marilyn’s image into modern consciousness after her tragic death in 1962, aged just 36.

A new British drama, My Week with Marilyn, depicts the Hollywood superstar’s often tumultuous relationship with co-star and director Laurence Olivier in 1956, as witnessed by assistant Colin Clark on the Pinewood set of The Prince and the Showgirl.

Anticipating the film’s release this weekend, one might ask the question: why, over half a century later, are we all still so captivated by the star who founded a ten-year career on acting the “dumb blonde”, and whose most famous moment was standing in a white dress over a subway grate in order to enjoy a refreshing breeze?

Why, indeed, have actresses as diverse as Ashley Judd (Norma Jean and Marilyn), Theresa Russell (Insignificance) and – in My Week with Marilyn – Michelle Williams leapt at the chance of portraying her?

The answer, I think, goes back to my bedroom wall. In the early 1980s, Marilyn enjoyed a renaissance thanks to the boom in posters and postcards at outlets such as Athena, and a broader nostalgia for the classic 1950s Hollywood era.

Alongside images of Monroe in “that” white dress, you couldn’t move for reproduced publicity stills of James Dean in his red jacket from Rebel without a Cause or Marlon Brando in his Wild One leathers.

In 1984, artist Gottfried Helnwein re-imagined the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, placing Monroe, Dean and Humphrey Bogart at the counter of a diner attended by Elvis Presley. Like many before me, I fell in love with an image of Marilyn Monroe.

The former Norma Jeane Mortenson was, after all, a pin-up first and foremost. She’d enjoyed a successful modelling career in the late 1940s, gracing assorted magazine covers before securing her first screen test at 20th Century-Fox.

Nude photos she posed for in 1949 while unemployed came back to haunt her when she broke through as an actress in 1952, but she still made the cover of Life magazine, not as an anonymous model but as herself (“the talk of Hollywood”).

Her magnetic good looks, breathless voice, platinum blonde curls and vivacious curves did her no harm at all, but if this had been the sum total of her appeal, her star might have quickly faded. On the contrary, the run of pictures she made in the 1950s proved Marilyn to be anything but an expendable doll.

She moved with apparent ease from comedy – Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch – through the thriller genre – Henry Hathaway’s Niagara – to musical spectacular – the smash hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks again), in which she stopped the show with her sparkling rendition of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.

She was racked with stage fright, shyness and insecurity, but overcame them when the cameras rolled. She yearned to be taken seriously as an actress, training with Shakespearean grande dame Constance Collier and then Paula Strasberg, daughter of Lee, at whose famous Actors Studio she was accepted in 1955.

Though I had fallen for a photograph, the more I saw her films on television over the next few years, the more I came to appreciate Marilyn Monroe’s talent.

Behind the scenes of The Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier may have been tearing his hair out at Marilyn’s reticence – not helped by her depression and various dependencies – and the spiralling number of takes required to capture her best performance. But I feel she’s more than a match for Larry in the finished article.

Some Like It Hot is not a film whose chorus of approval needs any additional praise from me but, again, she holds her own against the comedy genius of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

And if you haven’t seen her last completed film, John Huston’s black-and-white drama The Misfits (written by her then-husband Arthur Miller) in which she portrays a depressed Nevada divorcee, then seek it out.

It’s a shame that she and co-star Clark Gable had passed on within 18 months of each other, and still sadder to wonder what Monroe’s 1960s work might have been like on this showing. But part of her enduring appeal is, like it or not, the fact that she died (of “probable suicide” according to the coroner) too young.

I have a modest confession to make. On the same 17-year-old’s bedroom wall in 1982, underneath the memorial block of Marilyns, I had put up a photograph of then-current starlet Bo Derek.

Whether I subconsciously meant Derek to underline Monroe’s immortality I can’t say, but she was definitely a pin-up who, for all her best acting efforts – and a brief bid for iconic status in the film 10 – remained a pin-up.

The Prince and the Showgirl airs at 12:05pm on BBC2 (not N Ireland)

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 22 November 2011.