Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner

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Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full life of Marilyn Monroe, sympathetic and critical in turns. Its only drawback is the author's persistent and unashamed drawing attention to her pioneering research and interviews connected with the subject.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 515 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408814109

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With the possible exception of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe is probably the most written-about deceased woman in twentieth-century history. The thirty-six years of her life and the manner of her death will no doubt continue to provide an opportunity for as many writers as they have since her sudden passing. After a decade of research Lois Banner, a Professor of History and Gender Studies at university in California, has added another weighty tome to the relevant shelves. As a self-styled pioneer of second-wave feminism and the new women’s history, she has some interesting insights to offer into her subject’s life as a gender role model.

Marilyn’s career is recounted thoroughly and with frankness. As a film star she was hardworking, but not exactly professional at the best of times, frequently turning up late on the set (her car had broken down, she had lost her keys, she was not feeling well – the usual excuses), fluffing her lines, and needing to put everyone through numerous takes before the right result was achieved. That she managed to pursue a film career when the scandal of her nude photographs early on might easily have killed it stone dead suggests that she was not totally unlucky throughout her life.

She was cursed with a severe stutter, the last problem an actress needed, and numerous psychological problems dogged her. Some of these probably had their roots in episodes of child abuse which Ms Banner asserts, contrary to the opinion of previous biographers, were not fabricated. When accused of narcissism because she spent so much time looking at herself in the mirror, she defended herself by asserting that she was practising facial expressions or redoing her makeup, as she regarded herself as a perfectionist. She once told the press that she liked to be really dressed up or really undressed, and did not bother with anything in between. Such honesty was not necessarily the best policy in a nation which still had its share of prudery and expected people in the public eye to be good role models.

In addition she suffered from endometriosis, and never had the children for which she longed. One cannot help thinking that any family she might have had if things had been different would not have enjoyed a happy childhood. While she was more sinned against than sinning, she was notoriously unfaithful to her husbands and perfectly frank about her readiness to sleep with any man who would advance her career. She never forgave film companies who laid her off, although they were probably justified in doing so. Admittedly she was a huge box office draw, but there is more than a grain of truth in the adage that a star is someone who maintains professional standards and is a pleasure to work alongside, not a prima donna who feels that everyone is out of step except for him or her. Frequent references are made to her dependency on drink and drugs, although there is little detail on these.

She saw herself as a Hollywood misfit, one who did not follow the rules and was critical of the system. In the McCarthy era, her left-wing opinions and outspoken support of the communist struggle against capitalist imperialism did her no favours either, although it is to her credit that she preferred to be true to herself and did not pretend to toe the political line, although she had to accept the consequences. Angry at being seen as a stereotypical dumb blonde, she devoted a certain amount of time to reading books on art, literature, philosophy and self-improvement, although she always read ponderous books – and got them mixed up.

There is a sad inevitability in the closing chapters. Distraught at the constant downward spiral of her personal and professional life, in 1961 she confided in a photographer that her mother and her family had been all destroyed by insanity, that she had been used and abandoned by so many people, and she was confused about who she wanted to be – but she was not merely a sex freak with large breasts. A few months later she appeared at Jack Kennedy’s birthday celebration wearing a gown made from material which left little to the imagination under stage lighting and giving a deliberately provocative, oversexed performance at the microphone. The show had been televised, and although Ms Banner is sympathetic to her subject throughout, she admits that it was a tasteless show which cost her dearly in terms of support and what was left of her reputation.

Less than three months later, she was dead. As in the case of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein five years later, was it suicide or the result of an accidental overdose? Or was it murder, in which the first family of the United States were said to have had a hand? Conspiracy theories abound, and there is no conclusive answer.

This is a very readable account of a tragic figure, admirably sympathetic while not seeking to conceal her faults. The three sections of plates, in colour (including two of the notorious nude shots) and black and white plates are well chosen. My only real criticism is the author’s preoccupation at times with herself, her insistence on showing us how thoroughly she has done her research, and how she is the only person – or almost the only one – to examine a certain item of evidence, or interview a certain person. Frankly one suspects she could have done with a rather more forceful editor to call her to heel. Yet for all that, this is a very worthwhile book on a fascinating and complex twentieth-century icon.

We can also rcommend The Mmm Girl: Marilyn Monroe by Herself by Tara Hanks, a fictitious autobiography.

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