American Masters: Marilyn Monroe: Still Life
Airs Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV
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.”
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.”
“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.