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American Masters: Marilyn Monroe: Still Life

Airs Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: A glamorous Marilyn Monroe in a red dress, photographed by Sam Shaw.

There is an oft-told tale of Marilyn Monroe walking down a New York City street, incognito, turning to her companion and saying, “Do you want to see her?” With that, she threw off all vestiges of Norma Jeane and miraculously transformed herself. There were no grand gestures, no change of clothes, no make-up. It was a simple shift, a slithering out of one skin into the other. The “outing” of Marilyn is something she looked at with both skepticism and awe.

Arguably the most photographed person ever, she once said, “I carry Marilyn Monroe around with me like an albatross.” AMERICAN MASTERS offers a unique take on one of the world’s first superstars by turning to the still photographs that captured Monroe’s beauty, complexity and, ultimately, her own complicated relationship with the star side of herself.

“The vast archive of Marilyn Monroe photographs cemented her in the public conscience like no one before or since,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. “We are telling her story through the iconography of the 20th century. Her relationship with the lens was, perhaps, her greatest and most successful love affair.”

Said program director Gail Levin, “She was brilliantly conceived for the camera and perhaps equally its victim. Almost like Eve she entered the world naked and broke — a potent combination that created her indelible image.”

Career Timeline

Explore the career of Marilyn Monroe.

This film is aimed at the persistence of her image. Through interviews with photographers such as Eve Arnold, Arnold Newman, Elliott Erwitt, George Zimbel and Phil Stern, and especially through the photos themselves, “Still Life” captures moments of great triumph and great tragedy.

From the 1949 nudes — she posed because she needed money — to the classic subway grate photo from "The Seven Year Itch," through one of her final shoots with George Barris in 1962, the photographs remain an ageless memento of her guts, grace and sexiness.

Fearless, Monroe graced the first cover of Playboy in 1953. In “Still Life,” publisher Hugh Hefner recalls the now-classic centerfold. “One has to remember that the 1950s, the post-war era, was a very conservative time, socially, sexually, politically, and to pose for that picture and then to say that all she had on was the radio, to have that attitude in the 1950s, defined her persona and was a liberating force.”

Hefner plans to be laid to rest in a crypt in Westwood Cemetery in Los Angeles, right next to Monroe, who died in 1962 at age 36.

Several celebrated writers have offered their opinions on the Monroe legend over the years. Gloria Steinem ("Remembering Marilyn," 1988) discusses her earliest impressions in “Still Life.” “I was embarrassed by her because she was a joke, she was vulnerable. She was so eager for approval. She was all the things that I feared most being as a teenage girl.”

'Identity' by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer, author of "Marilyn: A Biography," reads an excerpt on Monroe and her identity. Photos by Roy Schatt.

Graphic cover of " Of Women and Their Elegance," by Norman Mailer.

Above: Graphic cover of " Of Women and Their Elegance," by Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer wrote about Monroe in "Marilyn: A Biography" (1973) and in "Of Women and Their Elegance" (1981). In “Still Life,” he recalls her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller:

“When they moved to the country, five miles away, I just assumed that there’d be an invitation from Arthur to come over for dinner. And for a whole year, some of my friends were invited. We never were. And I never forgave Arthur for that. And what was my motivation? I wanted to meet her so I could steal her. Steal her from her husband. And you know a criminal will never forgive you for preventing them from committing the crime that is really in their heart and so I always had an edge against Arthur ever after.”

“Still Life” looks at Monroe from the inside out. Ultimately, it was the camera that was her friend, and the rules of friendship applied — they respected each other. The unremarkable girl with the amazing smile. The sex goddess. The great dame. The movie star in the snapshots taken by the enlisted men in Korea. The worldwide seductress.

She was, as "Some Like It Hot" director Billy Wilder described her, an original. “The first day a photographer took a picture of her,” he said, “she was a genius.”

AMERICAN MASTERS is on Facebook. Marilyn Monroe is on Facebook, and you can follow @MarilynMonroe on Twitter.

Video

Preview: American Masters: Marilyn Monroe: Still Life

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Above: Marilyn Monroe was, arguably, the most photographed person ever. This program tells her story through interviews with photographers such as Eve Arnold, Arnold Newman, Elliott Erwitt, George Zimbel and Phil Stern, and especially through the photos themselves, an ageless testament to her grace, guts and sexiness — her humor and vulnerability. She understood their power and she exploited it. She created, and curated, her own image. Though she died 50 years ago, Monroe persists in her image.

Video

Marilyn Monroe: Street Scenes

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Above: Marilyn Monroe still surrounds us: store windows, building sides, restaurants, art. Voices: Bob Henriquez (photographer), Patty Bosworth (writer), Gloria Steinem (writer/activist), Leon Constantiner (collector) Amy Greene (first wife of photographer Milton Greene).

Video

Marilyn Monroe: All Alone In A White Halter Dress

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Above: George Zimbel was there on the street among several photographers to document what would become Marilyn Monroe’s most lasting image: a blowing white halter dress. More than the dress or the scene, Zimbel remembers a Joe Dimaggio that couldn’t take all the bright lights that night: leaving Monroe all alone in a white halter dress. Voices: Family of photographer Sam Shaw, Norman Mailer, George Zimbel.

Video

Marilyn Monroe: Nude

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Above: Leif-Erik Nygards’ one photograph of Marilyn Monroe. When he met her, Nygards was an assistant to photographer Bert Stern. Following a shoot, Nygards asked if he could take just one picture for himself: he got more than he asked for.

Video

Marilyn Monroe: Sam Shaw Photos

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Above: Sam Shaw’s name isn’t well known, but his photographs of Marilyn Monroe are. Here, Shaw’s children reminisce about growing up around Monroe. Shaw was also the brainchild of the famous white halter dress shot from "The Seven Year Itch."

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