I wasn't yet born when Marilyn Monroe died, on Aug. 5, 1962. I knew who she was because the men in my family -- my father and his father -- were fans who decorated their walls with Monroe photos and Monroe portraits. Those 1949 nude shots, with her platinum-blond hair spilling against a bordello-red background, were household favorites, which means that at a very young age I had seen just about everything there was to see of Marilyn Monroe.
Still, I used to wonder: Of all the beautiful women in Hollywood, why her?
Nearly 50 years after Monroe's death, the question is still worth asking.
Decade after decade, Monroe keeps showing up in popular culture in different guises. In the 1960s she was Andy Warhol's silk-screened muse; in the '80s she inspired Madonna's career-defining "Material Girl" video. More recently, she's the calculating seductress in last year's drama "My Week With Marilyn," the glitzy subject of a Broadway musical ("Bombshell") in the NBC series "Smash" and the emotionally charged alter ego of pop singer Nicki Minaj in the single "Marilyn Monroe." The notion of Monroe as a sex symbol doesn't explain such enduring fascination. Whatever Monroe had, new generations keep going back to her to get it.
Part of her appeal, of course, is purely genetic. Movie cameras love a beautiful woman, but they went absolutely gaga over Monroe. In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), she was cast opposite no less a figure than Jane Russell, who's taller, leggier and raven-haired but virtually evaporates next to Monroe's shimmering blond aura. In "Don't Bother to Knock" -- a fine, tough little B picture from 1952 with Monroe cast bizarrely but effectively as a psychotic baby-sitter -- you'll barely even notice the debut of another radiant young actress: Anne Bancroft.
There's also no denying Monroe's body: "It's JUST like Jell-O on springs!" marvels Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot" (1959). Monroe often pretended to be unaware of her effect on men: In "The Seven-Year Itch," she never notices that Tom Ewell is hypnotized by her billowing white skirt. But Monroe the actress knew what she was doing: She tended to walk so that her bust entered the frame just a beat before the rest of her, drawing attention away from anything and anyone else in the frame. I like to think that director John Huston, who cast her as a rich man's side dish in 1950s "The Asphalt Jungle," concealed her curves in black so that viewers could concentrate on the plot.
If people remember Monroe as a distressed damsel, that's because of her personal life -- failed marriages, failed pregnancies, a sorrowful death by drug overdose at the age of 36 -- and not because of her movies. Monroe rarely played sad or tragic roles; her final film, 1961's "The Misfits," written by her soon-to-be ex Arthur Miller, is an exception. Rather, Monroe specialized in versions of herself: a regular girl from Little Rock or Colorado (though she was born in L.A.) who has grown up to be an actress, model or showgirl, all bubbles and energy and good cheer.
People also remember Monroe as a dumb blond -- but again, she rarely if ever played dumb. Frequently in her movies, some poor chauvinist suddenly realizes there's an intellect inside that hourglass figure. "That's a very interesting line of reasoning," Ewell admits in "The Seven-Year Itch" after Monroe explains why she prefers married men. "Say, they told me you were stupid!" says a spluttering businessman after hearing Monroe's Shakespearean soliloquy on love and wealth in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." In "All About Eve" (1950), a snobby theater critic corrects her manners, only to find himself corrected. "You have a point," he says. "An idiotic one, but a point."
Despite the frequently condescending attitudes, there's something wonderful about the way men interact with Monroe on screen. They tend to be Average American Males, a now-extinct species recognizable by their fedoras and enormous confidence. These fellas knew how to approach a girl, as long as she knew how to be approached; there were rules about these things. There's a line that Richard Widmark uses on Monroe in "Don't Bother to Knock" that men today can only dream of using: "Are you doing anything you couldn't be doing better with somebody else?" It worked, too!
As AMC's "Mad Men" keeps reminding us, there were problems with this era, and we should probably all be glad for the Equal Rights Amendment and decades of sensitivity training. The downside, though, is that there's no longer a place for a Marilyn Monroe. Where would she fit in today? Smoking pot with Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill? Constructing works of postmodern self-commentary with James Franco? Trying to choose between the werewolf and the vampire?
What Monroe really represents, beyond sex and beauty and glamour, is something that was disappearing probably even in my grandfather's day: romance. Monroe was an ideal of womanhood at a time when men still valued such a thing. That era may be gone, but it seems like we'll always have Marilyn Monroe.
TCM's Marilyn marathon and more
Put a camera in front of Marilyn Monroe, and she would sparkle brighter than those diamonds she sang about in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Need proof? Just catch these Marilyn movies and documentaries that will be shown over the next week to mark the 50th anniversary of her death.
NIAGARA (1953) -- It's hard to say which sight is more breathtaking -- Marilyn or the falls -- in this thriller that features a rare villainous turn by Monroe. It will be shown at Huntington Public Library, 338 Main St., Aug. 2 at 1 p.m., 631-427-5165, thehuntingtonlibrary.org. Admission is free, and a discussion will follow. (Monroe's 1956 classic "Bus Stop" will be shown Aug. 16 at 1 p.m.)
TCM'S MARILYN MARATHON -- It's 24 hours of Marilyn starting at 6 a.m. Aug. 4 on Turner Classic Movies with this 12-film lineup. First up is John Huston's 1950 caper "The Asphalt Jungle," featuring Marilyn at her slinkiest as a crooked lawyer's mistress. Other highlights: "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) with Marilyn's showstopping "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (4:15 p.m.); her signature film "Some Like It Hot" (8 p.m.); "Bus Stop," where Monroe gives a touching performance as a saloon singer pursued by a rowdy cowboy (10:15 p.m.); and "How to Marry a Millionaire" (midnight) with Marilyn getting a wealth of laughs as a bubbleheaded (and bespectacled) gold digger.
MARILYN MONROE: STILL LIFE -- This 2006 "American Masters" profile (Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. on WNET/13) focuses on how photographers Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Inge Morath and painter Andy Warhol captured their images of Monroe.