Glamorous Marilyn Monroe focus of Great Lives Lecture
By LAUREN OLSEN
The playful and charming “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” a song that will forever be associated with Marilyn Monroe- played through Dodd Auditorium’s speakers on the evening of Feb. 26.
Baruch College-City University of New York professor Carl Rollyson, a “serial-biographer” and author of Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, came to the University of Mary Washington for the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series to discuss Monroe’s life and its endless mystique.
Rollyson wore a traditional suit at the lecture, but shortly after beginning, he delighted the crowd by opening his coat and revealing his tie: a bejeweled Marilyn Monroe in a red strapless dress, with one of her arms thrown up in a sultry pose, her lips parted and her eyelids heavy.
Joking aside, Rollyson explained that many times when writing biography, the author chooses to write about someone they look up to and admire, but once their research is completed, more often than not, the biographer ends up disappointed.
But for Rollyson, Monroe was different.
“I have never fallen out of love with Marilyn Monroe,” he said.
Rollyson provided many insights and details about how the frizzy, brown-haired Norma Jeane Mortenson became the silvery-blonde Marilyn Monroe. The lecture ranged from the growth of her acting career, her personality’s fascinating paradox of childlike naïveté and sensuality, to the childhood stammer and stutter patterns that followed her into adulthood and contributed to her difficulty in delivering her lines on set.
But, according to Rollyson, the primary thing that set Monroe apart from her peers in Hollywood was her “Napoleonic ambition.”
“She came to conquer,” Rollyson said.
He pointed to an image of Monroe and a group of other hopeful Hollywood starlets posing. Rollyson pointed out that, even though all of these girls wanted the same thing, we can’t identify any of them now. Yet we immediately recognize Monroe.
“Take a look at that dreamy look on her face,” he urged.
He referred to an autobiography that she collaborated on with screenwriter Ben Hecht titled, My Story, in which Monroe explained why she succeeded.
According to Rollyson, she said, “I was just dreaming the hardest.”
He explained that she understood that people wanted her to play dumb, and so that is what she did.
He pointed out a line in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” which was not in the original script but added in by Monroe, in which Monroe’s character says, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.”
Rollyson said that, while Monroe “was treated like a product—like a piece of meat,” she also played a substantial role in creating her Hollywood image.
“She wasn’t simply a victim,” he said.
Rollyson also discussed Monroe’s love for the literary world. He said that she read poems by Rainer Maria Rilke on set, that there are photographs of her reading Ulysses and that she was a writer herself.
He explained that, while she may not have been an intellectual in the traditional sense, Monroe was always curious.
“Some people thought she was dumb, others knew she wasn’t,” he said.
Rollyson also drew an interesting parallel between Monroe and Sylvia Plath.
According to Rollyson, Plath was the first person who recognized Monroe’s overarching social significance at a time when Monroe was considered really no more than a male fantasy.
Rollyson described Plath and Monroe as both ahead of their time in the sense that they were rebelling against 50’s culture and breaking out of stereotypical roles.
In discussing whether Monroe was a talented actress, Rollyson asked the audience to question the idea that if somebody plays the same role over and over again, and does so with such incredible nuance without the public tiring of them, does that not make one a talented actress?
Trailer clips for “Bus Stop,” “The Prince and The Showgirl,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Misfits” were played on screen and were followed by a Question and Answer session where Rollyson discussed the emotional toll growing up as an orphan took on Monroe, his belief that her death was a suicide and how she used sexuality to advance her career.