This photo made available by ABC in 1986 shows a...

This photo made available by ABC in 1986 shows a 6 photo combination of some of Life Magazine's Marilyn Monroe covers, including Philippe Halsman's image at top right. Credit: AP

MARILYN: The Passion and the Paradox, by Lois Banner. Bloomsbury, 515 pp., $30.

Had she lived, Marilyn Monroe would have turned 86 on June 1, making her four years younger than Betty White, and nine older than Dame Judi Dench. But she has been dead much longer than she was alive: Aug. 5 marks the 50th anniversary of the actress' passing, at age 36, an apparent suicide caused by barbiturate poisoning.

Over the past five decades, the attempts to understand the woman who still remains pop culture's most iconic sex symbol -- and one of its most tragic figures -- have often been misguided, as in last year's feeble biopic "My Week With Marilyn" or Norman Mailer's overheated "Marilyn" from 1973, one of the scores of biographies written about her. Lois Banner's "Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox," the latest of these studies, may be best remembered for its frequently leaden, inelegant prose and its firm grasp of the obvious.

Banner -- a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California and the author of, among other works, a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- overweeningly states what led her to the project: "I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me -- an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender -- had studied her." Yet Banner's expertise rarely yields fresh insights into a life picked over so many times before; worse, her book is cluttered with platitudes such as "Marilyn was nothing if not complicated, and in ways that has sic] never been revealed." Too often, Banner relies on long-outmoded academic terms: Analyzing the famous still of Monroe, her skirt billowing upward above a subway grate during the filming of "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), Banner deploys the unfortunate term "the male gaze" twice in two pages and refers to the "phallic subway train."

The gaze wasn't always male, however: Banner unconvincingly argues that Monroe and her acting coach Natasha Lytess were lovers. The author's research about her subject's "bisexual impulse," however, does yield the bizarre nugget that an admiring Greta Garbo wanted to do a film version of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in which the Swedish legend would play the titular role and Marilyn "one of the young women he seduces."

"Marilyn" dully, dutifully proceeds chronologically, divided into four parts and an "entr'acte" entitled "The Meaning of Marilyn," in which Banner attempts "to delve into [Monroe's] psyche and her historical resonance." Yet this chapter does little more than list the minutiae of Monroe's makeup preferences and dress (in the process mistakenly identifying legendary costumer Edith Head -- who worked at Paramount for 43 years -- as an "MGM designer"). Also included in this section is Banner's redundant parsing of the quite-clear lyrics to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953): "Thus women should be cynical and get diamonds from these men, since their money can suddenly be lost in stock market crashes."

When Banner analyzes Monroe's performances in her too-brief screen career, words fail her again. The inert, broad adjectives "funny and fey" are used to describe one of cinema's greatest comic geniuses, unintentionally diminishing the actress' incredible charisma in front of the camera. Repetitions abound, as do wholly unnecessary, narrative-interrupting explanations such as "insomnia -- the inability to go to sleep and the fear of doing so."

As an epigraph to her "entr'acte," Banner quotes one of her subject's first biographers, Maurice Zolotow: "Monroe was an infinity of character and mystery that was impossible for me, or anyone else, to explore, because it was so vast. There is always more and more and more." In two sentences, Zolotow eloquently sums up Monroe -- her contradictions, her impact, her allure, her unspeakable tragedies -- far better than Banner does in 400-plus pages.

The Marilyn files: New book releases


THE EMPTY GLASS, by J.I. Baker (Blue Rider Press, $25.95)

A paranoid conspiracy thriller about Marilyn's death -- but of course! In J.I. Baker's novel, a deputy L.A. coroner comes across the star's diary -- and a host of secrets linking her to the Kennedys, the CIA and the Mafia.

MARILYN IN FASHION, by Christopher Nickens and George Zeno (Running Press, $30)

We wish this oversized photo book looked a bit more sumptuous, but we love the in-depth look at Marilyn's dresses, hair, makeup and accessories, and her relationships with different designers, from Norman Norell to Jean Louis.

MARILYN & ME, by Lawrence Schiller (Nan. A. Talese /Doubleday)

The memoir of a Look magazine photographer who shot Marilyn on the set of her 1960 film "Let's Make Love" and created classic nude shots of her. "Marilyn was a photographer's dream subject with her clothes on," writes Schiller, "and even more stunning with them off."

THE LAST DAYS OF MARILYN MONROE, by Donald H. Wolfe (William Morrow, $18.99)

For the first time in paperback, this 1998 account by a former Hollywood screenwriter details the goings-on at Marilyn's house the day of her death and argues that it was a homicide.

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