Men of a certain generation could say of her that she was Marilyn, their Marilyn. She stood at the center of an unabashed adolescent fantasy, a dream of ecstasy so pure it would somehow never leave their consciousness: not just the pulchritude, not just the little girl voice, not just the penumbra of blondness, not just those two red pumpkin lips and, behind them, the tidy rows of pearly-perfect teeth. To see her was to moan a little, to squirm a bit, perchance to dream.
And she will not go away, appearing before us once again in slow and languid strokes on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of her troubling death. To commemorate that anniversary, the Senator Theatre has resuscitated two of her most interesting films so that, for a week at least, in the full majesty of her regal presence, Marilyn Monroe once again holds court at the center of a very large screen.
"Some Like It Hot" may not have been her best film, but it was the best film she was ever in. A break-neck farce directed by the mordant Viennese cynic and genius Billy Wilder -- he also did "Stalag 17" and "Sunset Boulevard" -- it's expertly constructed to flirt with troubling notions of perversion and yet never quite face them. It feels very, very risque but it's as innocent as apple pie, a delicacy of tone completely beyond today's filmmakers.
At the center, of course, is Marilyn, objectified as "Sugar Cane," dumb girl and pushover for tenor sax men. We'll never know to what degree Marilyn resented and to what degree she collaborated in what was essentially her own exploitation; it is nevertheless a fact that no feminist structure of theory existed at that time (1959) that might have enabled her to see how she was being used. Wilder, for example, had no qualms about zeroing in on her fanny, so much so that it seems as big a co-star in the film as Joe E. Brown.
Still, she was wonderful, however ill she was used. It doesn't matter if this was "acting" or if in some weirdly chemical way, the camera read depths and vulnerabilities in Marilyn that were truly there. What matters is only her considerable presence, which is the engine that makes this complex plot work. Because Marilyn is so achingly, palpably real, one can believe in the extraordinary effort Tony Curtis puts into bedding her, which in turn yanks the movie through hoop after hilarious hoop.
Curtis and Jack Lemon, at his demonic best, hide from mobsters in the Twenties by cross-dressing and seeking refuge in an all-female band. This conceit takes some setting up -- the movie gets to its main plot point much more slowly than any '90s film -- but it yields a continuous bounty of laughs as complication unfolds into complication, each more frenzied and frazzled than the last. At one point, Curtis has splintered into two roles -- his female disguise and a drop-dead imitation of Cary Grant, while Lemon has discovered that he enjoys being a girl and at the same time is the object of desire being chased by Brown. Through it all, Marilyn is just Marilyn.
"The Misfits," a lesser vehicle from 1961, boasts probably the best cast that ever made a bad movie. Monroe plays a divorcee in Reno who finds herself at the center of a gang of losers, including the lionesque Clark Gable (his last film), Eli Wallach, a soulful Montgomery Clift and the peppery Thelma Ritter. The guys are all beat-up cowboys, who capture and slaughter wild horses; such is her spirit of gentleness that she cannot abide their work.
The movie was written expressly for Marilyn by then-husband Arthur Miller, and it's a work of such condescension it's a little revolting: Miller seems hellbent on summing up the mythical goddess he was married to, and he sees her as an archetype: the girl-woman, used and trashed and in some ways a victim of her great beauty and yet now and then able to feel some joy out of it. It's full of an intellectual's version of "working class English," which is to say a kind of absurdly overbearing mock poetry and the whole affair is desultory and somewhat deadening.
'Some Like Hot' (1959)
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Directed by Billy Wilder.
Released by Turner Entertainament Co.
'The Misfits' (1961)
Starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.
Directed by John Huston.
Released by Turner Entertainment Co.