In our time, fame seldom makes it past the eulogy, and as more and more of us have our Andy Warhol moments of adoration, fewer and fewer of us will ever survive the grave. Celebrity has become commonplace, a devaluated currency, practically worthless beyond the initial public craze. Our society pays little homage to that which has past from its immediate sight. Yet, in a couple of days — Sunday, August 5th, 2012 — the entertainment world is going to be filled with stories, truths and out-and-out lies about a 36-year-old who has been dead for exactly fifty years: Marilyn.
There is no final word on Marilyn. She is the story that we have been footnoting for half a century – with an ever increasing litany of clichés. She took centre stage in the 50s with only a handful of movies and has never relinquished it. Her image is as recognizable now as it was when she was alive. She is as iconic to our world as Coke™ or Apple™. To be compared to Marilyn is still the definitive compliment — and the direst warning.
Marilyn’s legacy is her legend although to call her legendary only diminishes her. No other entertainer has so completely outlasted her time, not even James Dean (whom she is continually paired with) and only Elvis has made a bigger post mortem impact.
We value Marilyn not for her body of work but for the woman herself — an enigma within a riddle. The ultimate “dumb blonde,” she was an astute business woman. A consummate professional, she disrupted every movie set she was ever on. She was frivolous and silly but refused to distance herself from Arthur Miller when he was hauled before the communist witch hunt of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. She drank and abused drugs but had the social conscience to use her celebrity status to guarantee Ella Fitzgerald a job at an LA nightclub called Mocambo which was “white only” at the time.
For the last fifty years, everybody and his friend has tried to explain Marilyn – to define her. She was the exploited female coerced into becoming the personification of 1950s sexuality. She was a light weight who used her obvious assets to make her way in the world. She was a misunderstood artist who never had a chance to spread her wings, a no talent phony who happened to die at the right time, or a strong, independent woman of her time. Was she any of those things or all of them? Of the millions of words written about Marilyn, none of them answers these questions. Even her death is inexplicable. Was Marilyn murdered as the pawn in a massive political power play conspiracy? Did she commit suicide, unable to cope with the constant strain of just being Marilyn? Or was it all big a mistake, made in a half-stoned stupor?
Fifty years later, Marilyn is still Marilyn, but none of us is quite sure just who that is.