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MONROE, MARILYN (Norma Jean Mortenson, Norma Jean Baker) (1926–1962) Actress

With the possible exception of Elvis Presley, no performer has become a greater American icon than film star Marilyn Monroe. Born as Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, Monroe was raised as Norma Jean Baker in a series of foster homes and orphanages. Her unmarried mother, Gladys, was mentally ill and unable to care for her. Gladys was ultimately committed to a mental institution and diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

Largely to escape living with still another foster family, Baker at 16 married James Dougherty in 1942. He soon left to join the merchant marine, while Baker found a wartime job with the Radio Plane Company in Van Nuys, California. There, she was spotted by army photographers, who chose her as their model for photos to accompany an article about female factory workers in Yank magazine. Her freshness, beauty, and ease in front of the camera attracted other photographers, and she began to model regularly for advertisements and promotions.

Eager for a Hollywood career, Baker divorced her husband in 1946 and convinced Twentieth Century-Fox to give her a silent screen test, designed to showcase her looks while de-emphasizing her lack of acting experience. The studio signed her up, assigning her Marilyn as her new first name. She herself chose Monroe, her mother’s maiden name.

Fox placed Monroe in bit parts in two films before letting her go. She was briefiy picked up by Columbia Pictures, where she made  Ladies of the Chorus (1949). Without a studio, she made an appearance in the Marx Brothers’  Love Happy (1949), but had to resort to posing for nude photographs when no more film work came her way. After she achieved stardom, these photographs resurfaced in 1955 in the first issue of Playboy magazine.

Monroe had better luck after she became romantically involved with Johnny Hyde, a powerful Hollywood agent. Hyde taught her how to handle herself in the film industry, but more important, he found parts for her in two distinguished films, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and All About Eve (1950). The roles were small, but in them Monroe showed herself to be an accomplished scene-stealer. Her enthusiastic fan mail convinced Twentieth Century-Fox to re-sign the actress, this time to a seven-year contract.

Now confident in Monroe, Fox made her the center of a publicity campaign that sold her to the public as a classic “dumb blonde.” Her first starring role, however, was in a thriller, Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), in which she played a psychotic babysitter. The next year, she stayed closer to her image, playing a beautiful gold digger in both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. Also in 1953, Monroe solidified her growing star status in Niagara, in which she played a scheming adulteress. Monroe’s fame was furthered by her marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio in January 14, 1954. Her studio-created reputation as a sexpot, however, soon came between them, as DiMaggio grew increasingly uncomfortable with the unrelenting attention she received from the public and press.

He was particularly repelled by the publicity surrounding  The Seven Year Itch (1955), a comedy that cast her as a young actress who inspired romantic fantasies in her married neighbor. A famous shot, exploited by the studio, had Monroe standing atop a street grating, allowing the wind to blow her skirt up. Although the film showcased Monroe’s budding skill as a comedian, it infuriated and offended DiMaggio, thereby contributing to the end of their nine-month marriage.

Monroe herself grew weary of playing a blonde bombshell. Always embarrassed about her lack of formal education, she became determined to be taken seriously as an actress not by Hollywood but by the intellectual elites of the theater world. Breaking her contract with Fox, she left for New York City to study acting with Lee and Paula Strasberg, the directors of the Actors Studio and leading proponents of the “Method” acting technique.

At the Strasbergs’ suggestion, Monroe began to undergo psychoanalysis to help relieve her personal and professional insecurities. While in New York, she also met playwright Arthur Miller, whom she married in 1956. Eager to keep one of their most popular stars, Fox renegotiated Monroe’s contract. She agreed to make four more pictures for the studio, but only if she could also appear in movies made by her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. The advantageous contract ushered in the most creatively successful era of Monroe’s film career.

Though she continued to play beautiful but dim women, her roles better allowed her to comment on this image. In 1956, she appeared in Bus Stop as Cherie, a saloon singer frustrated by men’s inability to see the woman behind her sexual facade. In 1959, in perhaps her best performance, Monroe hilariously parodied herself in  Some Like It Hot. And in 1961, she had her most complex role in The Misfits as the sensitive and disillusioned Roslyn, a part written especially for her by Miller.

Despite these successes, Monroe grew increasingly disturbed. Her natural emotionalism combined with overuse of alcohol and pills helped brand her as one of the film industry’s most “difficult” actresses. She was unpredictable on the set and chronically late, if she showed up for work at all. While filming Some Like It Hot, director Billy Wilder had to write her lines on furniture to aid her failing memory and focus. It took scores of takes for her deliver the simple line, “It’s me, Sugar.” Contributing to her personal difficulties were a series of miscarriages and her troubled marriage to Miller, which ended in divorce in 1961.

After a brief stay in a mental institution the same year, she went back to work on the film Something’s Got to Give. Her working habits, though, were so erratic that Fox fired her in June 1962. On August 5, Monroe’s housekeeper discovered her body at her home in Brentwood, California. At 36, she had died of a drug overdose. The tragedy invited various interpretations. Many people assumed she committed suicide, while others speculated that she was murdered, perhaps because of an affair she had with President John F. Kennedy. Most Monroe biographers, however, have since concluded that the overdose was accidental.

The life and death of Marilyn Monroe have inspired countless books, films, plays, paintings, and songs. Many have attempted to “explain” Monroe, though frequently their interpretations say less about their subject than the authors’ own agendas. She is most often seen as a waif victimized and ultimately destroyed by the film industry and her adoring public. Her movie legacy, however, shows something more extraordinary: a performer with presence so luminous it has rarely been equaled on film.

    * 1975 Tessa Bill-Yield in Adam Darius' ballet Marilyn
    * 1980 Catherine Hicks in Marilyn: The Untold Story
    * 1987 Constance Forslund in This Year's Blonde
    * 1987 Heather Thomas in Hoover vs. the Kennedys: The Second Civil War
    * 1991 Susan Griffiths in Marilyn and Me
    * 1991 Eve Gordon in A Woman Named Jackie
    * 1993 Melody Anderson in Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair
    * 1996 Ashley Judd in Norma Jean & Marilyn
    * 1996 Mira Sorvino in Norma Jean & Marilyn
    * 1998 Barbara Niven in The Rat Pack
    * 1999 Kerri Randles in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
    * 2001 Holly Beavon in James Dean
    * 2001 Poppy Montgomery in Blonde
    * 2004 Sophie Monk in The Mystery of Natalie Wood
    * 2006 Samantha Morton in Mister Lonely
    * 2009 Suzie Kennedy in "Io e Marilyn"


    * 1947    The Shocking Miss Pilgrim
    * 1947    Dangerous Years
    * 1948    You Were Meant for Me
    * 1948    Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!
    * 1948    Green Grass of Wyoming
    * 1948    Ladies of the Chorus
    * 1949    Love Happy
    * 1950    A Ticket to Tomahawk
    * 1950    Right Cross
    * 1950    The Fireball
    * 1950    The Asphalt Jungle
    * 1950    All About Eve
    * 1951    Love Nest
    * 1951    Let's Make It Legal
    * 1951    Home Town Story
    * 1951    As Young as You Feel
    * 1952    O. Henry's Full House
    * 1952    Monkey Business
    * 1952    Clash by Night
    * 1952    We're Not Married!
    * 1952    Don't Bother to Knock
    * 1953    Niagara
    * 1953    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    * 1953    How to Marry a Millionaire
    * 1954    River of No Return
    * 1954    There's No Business Like Show Business
    * 1955    The Seven Year Itch
    * 1956    Bus Stop
    * 1957    The Prince and the Showgirl
    * 1959    Some Like It Hot
    * 1960    Let's Make Love
    * 1961    The Misfits
    * 1962    Something's Got to Give (Unfinished)


    * 1948 -Ladies of the Chorus  : "Every Baby Needs A Da Da Daddy," "Anyone Can See I Love You," "Ladies Of The Chorus"
    * 1953 -Niagara: "Kiss"
           -Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: "Two Little Girls From Little Rock," "When Love Goes Wrong," "Bye Bye Baby," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"
    * 1954 -River of No Return: "I'm Gonna File My Claim," "One Silver Dollar," "Down In The Meadow," "River Of No Return"
           -There's No Business Like Show Business: "Heatwave," "Lazy," "After You Get What You Want," "A Man Chases a Girl"
    * 1956 -Bus Stop: "That Old Black Magic"
    * 1959 -Some Like It Hot: "Some Like It Hot," "Runnin' Wild," "I Wanna Be Loved By You," "I'm Through With Love"
    * 1960 -Let's Make Love: "My Heart Belongs To Daddy," "Specialization," "Let's Make Love"
    * 1962 -"Happy Birthday Mr. President"

Awards and nominations

    * 1951 Henrietta Awards: The Best Young Box Office Personality
    * 1952 Photoplay Award: Fastest Rising Star of 1952
    * 1952 Photoplay Award: Special Award
    * 1952 Look American Magazine Achievement Award: Most Promising Female Newcomer of 1952
    * 1953 Golden Globe Henrietta Award: World Film Favorite Female.
    * 1953 Photoplay Award: Most Popular Female Star
    * 1954 Photoplay Award for Best Actress: for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire
    * 1956 BAFTA Film Award nomination: Best Foreign Actress for The Seven Year Itch
    * 1956 Golden Globe nomination: Best Motion Picture Actress in Comedy or Musical for Bus Stop
    * 1958 BAFTA Film Award nomination: Best Foreign Actress for The Prince and the Showgirl
    * 1958 David di Donatello Award (Italian): Best Foreign Actress for The Prince and the Showgirl
    * 1959 Crystal Star Award (French): Best Foreign Actress for The Prince and the Showgirl
    * 1960 Golden Globe, Best Motion Picture Actress in Comedy or Musical for Some Like It Hot
    * 1962 Golden Globe, World Film Favorite: Female
    * Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame 6104 Hollywood Blvd.
    * 1999 she was ranked as the sixth greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute in their list AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars.
    * Sweetheart of The Month 1953 (Playboy)

Further Reading
McCann, Graham. Marilyn Monroe. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Monroe, Marilyn. My Story. New York: Stein and Day, 1974.
Spoto, Donald. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1998.
The Misfits (1961). MGM/UA, VHS, 1996.
The Seven Year Itch (1955). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1998.
Some Like It Hot (1959). MGM/UA, DVD/VHS, 2001/1999.


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