Marilyn was the first in a long line of lost rock boys that includes Presley, Cobain and Jackson: overwhelmed by fame and drugs and so thoroughly doomed it seems etched upon their faces like a birthmark, among her many accomplishments, Marilyn set the the bar high for manic depression and a warm sort of fragility.
The fragility Marilyn exudes comes across as a hot sensuality if not straight up sexuality on screen and her singing is always used as a complement to that projection. At MSG she sang “Happy Birthday” to the President and even without what we now know about their relationship it is a breathy, hot charged whisper: as if she has her lips in your ear and every word is a promise and a vow of ultimate release. It is hard to imagine somebody singing it just so and impossible to imagine this slowed down seduction as more drug than desire induced. In “Some Like It Hot” the slur and the slow, the sensual purr, is due to the hootch as much as it is due to the winding down tick tock of her mind: by always being off a beat a song like “I Want To Be Loved By You” with its boh–boh–de–boh hook, becomes both Wilderish funny and Monroeish self-revealing.
Except of course it wasn’t MONROE at all -it was ‘Sugar’ Kane Kowalczyk and while the real Monroe was studying her reflection until it broke her down Sugar Kane was being conned by two musicians impersonating women and in her music was a cheerful, easy going, sweetheart float chugging and laying back. Tony Curtis once claimed kissing Monroe was like kissing Hitler; watching her play her banjo down the aisle of the train and sing in that mix of Betty Boop and Apple Pie with a side of sauce you can dream dreaming her into any song.
Although Monroe only acted in three musicals, all three are indelible fixtures on Western imagination. Madonna, to name just one, based her video career on channeling Monroe’s blonde ambitions but for all of Madonna’s material girl who wants to be loved videos the truth is Madonna exuded cool and not heat and though Madonna’s musical career has been exemplary it has not made her close to the national icon MM’s must shorter career did. Madonna lost her mother at six years old and it hardened her, MM was raised in an orphanage and it caused her to lose her sense of who she was. For MM identity was always the crises. So as a singer, she wore the role of actress, and in role after role, she was always on some level MM: even in a play like “Bus Stop” she made the role her own to such a degree that whenever it is performed on stage the actress in the role is playing Monroe and not the role as written. When she sang, from 48 to 60, she was just about always in an acting role, and she was just about always portraying Monroe. If you watch her last movie The Misfits based upon the Arthur Miller script, even there, she is Monroe.
This leaves her in the tricky position of never being herself: listen to Clooney or Doris Day, any of those 50s actors/singers -they always get the chance to sing it straight but Monroe could never drop the mask, she was always a reflection of a reflection of herself and her singing never came close to being harmed for that. In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” -as big as big time musicals get- only Monroe could make the gold digging “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” charming and innocent even within the corrupted showgirl idiom (Madonna has spent a career completely unable to pull it off). At the start of the song she repeats “No” in a mezzo-soprano before jumping from octave to octave and launching into the song proper: “A kiss on the hand might be quite continental BUT…” It was her 23rd screen role and made her an overnight sensation. Everything in place, even the sound, even the voice, the movement of her hips as she dances down the stairs, the movement of her lips as she purses them and the flicker of her eyebrows as she raises them: fifty odd years later Kanye West would continue taking diamonds from Monroe’s mine… Don’t believe me: Check MM out yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PluRW3_FEt0
With Marilyn it is too sad to play “what if”… she is like an ex you think about every now and then and wonder how things would be if only she hadn’t left. Then you shake it off and keep on living. Because, who knows what if? Perhaps Marilyn was so damaged by her life nothing could have saved her. People always say,”oh there was MM and then then was Norma Jean” but that’s not true even vaguely –MM’s sense of who she was was distorted much earlier then the birth of the Norma jean persona. There was no Norma Jean, no Marilyn Monroe, no sexy actress, there was just a lonely fucked up orphan in way too deep. BUT if she could have pulled herself out of a tale spin, she could have had a singing career that would have mirrored and surpassed any of her contemporaries because she could sell every song she sang completely -she became the song and the song became her. Boh-boh-de–boh.
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