Sunday, February 19, 2017

Marilyn: A Biography (1973)

Norman Mailer's meditation on the life of Marilyn Monroe turned out to be one of his most successful books commercially, second only to The Naked and the Dead. That was partly because of its subject—it started life as, and was mainly, a collection of photographs of Monroe—and partly because of Mailer's fanciful suggestion that government agents had something to do with her death. Mailer's text is mostly a kind of book report on three previous biographies, though he also conducted some original research with a dozen or more interviews. The first section is titled "A Novel Biographer," but thankfully he does not borrow any more from The Armies of the Night, with its talk of the Novelist and the Historian. For me, Marilyn is a useful enough primer on the arc of Monroe's career and life. I've never read a biography of her, though most of the basic points were familiar. I know I read portions of this when excerpts were published in Rolling Stone in the '70s. I've been mostly bemused by Monroe and have no particular stake in her reputation. Particularly her turn in Some Like It Hot, where she is often zombie-like, has had some fascination / repulsion for me. More recently, I'm willing to give her her due for much better performances elsewhere  (Bus Stop, The Misfits, and a lot of her early comedy roles such as in Monkey Business). But I was still surprised to learn how highly regarded she was by Lee Strasberg and his many disciples of the Method school of acting. Knowing this, I can see it, but even in her best roles I think she's often hit and miss from scene to scene. Mailer's text is a little lacking in the kindle version without the photos, which can have a vivid impact. Probably better to look at a print version that has them. Mailer is dogged about telling her whole story, relating it anecdotally but at the same time searching for the patterns and larger meaning. So it's good on the basic points, even if they are secondhand from the other biographers. It's a useful way, perhaps, to start thinking about the themes of her life and death. It was taken as controversial in its time for all the suggestions of government malfeasance of some kind surrounding her death. They didn't strike me as particularly out of line, but rather more just as Mailer being Mailer. Pugnacious to a fault (literally) and always willing to entertain conspiracy theories, as far as he thinks he can take them. The liaisons (alleged?) with the Kennedys are woefully under-documented, the best I can tell, and so Mailer's speculations about CIA and/or FBI dirty tricks seem built on frailest reeds. At the same time, I remembered it's J. Edgar Hoover he was talking about with the FBI. I wouldn't put anything past that guy. An interesting read.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I liked River of No Return w/ Mitchum. In that one she plays to the myth but resists it too. There is something both vulnerable and strong in her performance that I can't remember her showing much of elsewhere.