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In this episode of the American Masters Podcast, American journalist and activist Gloria Steinem speaks with the late documentary filmmaker Gail Levin as they take a critical look at the life and career of Marilyn Monroe [Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006)].
Gail Levin: At the time that your book came out it would’ve been Marilyn’s 60th birthday. We now are looking at what would be her 80th birthday. 20 years later, from your perspective, 20 years later from the world’s perspective. And as persistent as you felt she was then, she still is, maybe more so. I sort of would like to start with that entry into her for you.
Gloria Steinem: Well the real entry was George Barris’s photographs because he had these unpublished photographs and my publisher suggested I write the text, but that hit an interest that was already present because I had written an essay about her called The Woman Who Died Too Soon, for Ms. Magazine—which was a cover story—and got a response that told me she was even more of a figure of importance and resonance at that time after her death than she had been even immediately after her death because women were beginning to admit that they saw themselves in her. Up to that time really she had been a creation of male movie goers, mostly male photographers, um male filmmakers, and she herself had always kind of said, “you know I feel like I’m a creation of men and women don’t like me.” But once the women’s movement came along perhaps women were more able to admit that they felt related to her vulnerability, related to her being a sex object. Related to her sexual abuse when she was a child. So though the photographs were the impetus – it fell on very fertile ground of interest.
Levin: Did it surprise you that the response to that article at that time was sort of as ebullient as it was? As big as it was, or did you…
Steinem: Well the response to the article both surprised me and didn’t surprise me. It surprised me because of the length of time since her death and because we had debated whether we should do it as a cover story at all. On the other hand it didn’t surprise me because I also was fascinated with her and just able to admit it because during the time when she was making most movies I felt embarrassed by her. I remember, I never walk out of any movie, no matter how bad. Two consecutive sentences and then I’m saying, “And then what happened?” you know, I get hooked on the story. Yet I walked out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because I was embarrassed by her, because she was a joke, she was vulnerable, she was so eager for approval. She was all the things that I feared most being as a teenage girl. And ultimately I walked out. But it wasn’t until the women’s movement came along much later in my life that I realized that we had to look at the why of those feelings, it wasn’t that we made them up, it was because we lived in a society that made women feel vulnerable.
Levin: And she is almost too pulpy, too ripe, too… She is too much, she’s not real, and even when you see her in photographs with someone like Lauren Bacall, for example, who she had a very interesting parallel with. Here was sort of Betty Joan Pursky and Norma Jean Baker, both of whom become Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. Either side of that coin – one being the very classy, chic sexy image, sexy icon, the other being this, exactly that, it’s just too much. And you do feel that she’s completely in drag herself.
Steinem: Well it’s interesting that men who are female impersonators don’t try to do Lauren Bacall. She was too close to her own human self. But because Marilyn Monroe was so rewarded for creating an artificial self, it’s easier to recreate her. And so they do, do her. And I know when I look at men who are female impersonators, part of the reason that I feel uncomfortable is because I also was trained to be a female impersonator. I fight it, but I don’t completely succeed because I’m a 50’s person, and you know, you’re formed by your childhood, and it’s embarrassing. You know, it’s a verbal version of being a visual female impersonator, or all those times we’ve giggled and laughed and said the equivalent of “How clever of you to know what time it is”, you know just submerged our own intelligence, become an artificial creation, and that’s what Marilyn Monroe was so rewarded for doing, that she could be her own, intimate, personal self, who had been an athlete, who loved to surf, who loved animals who, you know – much more natural person.
Levin: - there’s that, what women are expected to be, reaction, it’s also what she wanted to be and felt she could now not be reaction, and I feel like even that thing you’re- this aspect of her, she was kind of both. Just when you’re saying “how clever of you to know what time it is” at the same time she was also battling in herself this desire to better herself constantly, the desire to not be considered a joke, the desire to be taken seriously-
Steinem: Well there was, there was – the only difference between this state in which many women live, of being a different persona, and multiple personality disorder, is that we are co-conscious, we know what we’re doing in each state. But it is almost as artificial to put on what society wants us to be, and play roles of being a sex object, the perfect mother, the perfect whatever, and the big downside here is we may lose track of who we really are as unique human beings inside. If the artificiality, the role, the stereotype, the sex goddess, is what you are mostly rewarded for, it’s extremely difficult to let it go. You have very little assurance that you’re going to be loved and salaried, as your real self. As your unique, underneath self. There isn’t- even now – much evidence of female human beings being rewarded for that, though there is lots more. But there was much less in the 50’s that formed Marilyn.
Levin: Do you think she was rather canny about all of that too?
Steinem: Well I think canny comes with choice. And her choices were rather limited. She was a survivor I would say, rather than canny. She, under pressure, had to survive and was reasonably well able to do that. But she never really was able to use her persona to get ahead on conventional terms. For instance, she made almost no money in her lifetime. Everybody else profited off the hundred million dollars that the film’s made, even that they had made at the time of her death.
Levin: And even still one can say this. I mean if one could say that you write a book called Blonde, Now. Arthur Miller who contended forever that After The Fall was not about her, I mean even all the many years later, the many decades later, people have been making nothing but money off her-
Steinem: Yes they have but that just happens. It happens to artists who are not recognized during their lifetime, that people after their death make the money. But, what doesn’t happen so often is that while you are alive, everybody else profits off you. And that’s what happened to her, she was a contract player, she was making less than 3000 dollars a movie, when even her own co-stars were making five and ten times that much because they weren’t contract players. So even in her own lifetime, she was not able to use her fame and her accomplishments to gain security, she was still feeling that she could only have security by attaching herself to a man who represented it.
Levin: How much good humor do you think really attended all of this, or do you think this was always constantly a kind of a putting on a very good face, and really battling a constant- because there is a period where you see her where she does appear to be very, very hopeful, very open sort of that whole period-
Steinem: yeah, it seems that she had periods of hope in her life, you know one was where she first entered into the Hollywood mill and perhaps had not quite understood that it wasn’t that different from the war plants she had been working in. Um, and the second was when she came to New York and started to go to the Actor’s Studio and try to do more serious work.
Levin: Did you know her there?
Steinem: You know, I just, I had come from Smith college where I was a student and I had a professor at Smith who, and he sneaked me into the Actor’s Studio, there were not supposed to be any observers, and it just happened to be a day on which she was there too, as an observer. And what was so interesting about it, was that she was the dominant presence in the room, why? Because everybody was trying so hard to pretend they didn’t care that she was there. And treat her casually, even badly, pay no attention to her, show that they were serious actors and this was just some movie star over there. And she was sitting there in this kind of big baggy black sweater and a scarf over her head and what appeared to be no makeup and just luminous. But she, by sheer dint of the power of rejection, in a way, became the presence in the room.
Levin: There’s some very beautiful photographs that Roy Shot took of her in the Actor’s Studio, that are just exactly what you described. And everybody also sort of looks very dingy and dark and there’s this just absolute halo of a person sitting there. And of course no one looking at her.
Steinem: Yeah. I mean she was a halo of a person but she was trying not to be. I mean she had her hair covered with a scarf, she, her body didn’t show. But just the luminosity of her expression, her interest, her intensity, came through. I do think that there’s several reasons why she’s an icon. Why she survives all this time with such intensity. One is that she represents everything that men, at least immature men, want. Which is a woman who is completely sexual, completely childlike, and not threatening in any way. Another is that she represents what women still, though more in the past, fear. Being completely vulnerable, completely childlike, and completely at the disposal of society in general, and men in particular. Another is that her story was not finished, it was ended young. And so I think any story that ends very, very prematurely causes us to try to continue it in our heads. What would have happened. You know, so a person who dies and you know the end of their story at a logical time, no matter what the end is, acquires less obsession, than what might have happened.
Levin: And yet she eclipses a lot of people who can share that, just Dean is a perfect example.
Steinem: Yes, well James Dean you know it’s probably James Dean owes his shorter longevity to the fact that women are not as obsessed with sex objects in general, some are, but, I don’t mean to make judgments about men and women but culturally, women are less likely to be visually obsessed with sex objects than men are. So that’s a big part of the reason Marilyn has continued to be exploited and continued to be seen as an image.
Levin: but it also seems to me that as generations have evolved, that young women today kind of know her, and like her more than perhaps we did or my generation did or your -
Steinem: Well I think that young women today see her differently, and to me, the mark of that difference is Madonna. Because Madonna came to public attention by imitating Marilyn Monroe, by dressing like her, looking like her, singing about her in a way. But there’s, the big difference is that Marilyn Monroe’s fans that created her were young and middle aged men, and who created Madonna’s fans, or who created Madonna, were young women. And the difference is that Madonna was not vulnerable, Madonna was taking these symbols of Marilyn and using them in her own control, she’s nobody’s victim, she’s using them for power. So young women are so relieved to see a woman who can be sexual without being victimized by it. So they loved that. And her fans were mostly young women just as Marilyn’s were mostly older men.
Levin: Let’s talk about the men. There were nothing but male photographers, nothing but male directors, and, but, she was in the hands of some very interesting directors.
Steinem: Well we have to say that that’s like why do black horses eat more than white horses? Because there are more black horses. There were no women directors. And there were hardly any women photographers. So some of it had an inevitability about it. But some of it also was the nature of her appeal.
Levin: But going further than talking about male, or talking about people that have written about her since, Capote wrote that very lovely little story about her, also, about the interestingly enough I thought that Capote, the image of Capote with Marilyn was sort of like somehow this was the same person.
Steinem: No but of course, just as Tennessee Williams created great female characters, because he could empathize his way into women, as a homosexual, and so could Capote, who especially in his early life wrote brilliantly about women. So, you know that’s very different. I mean, this is a man who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The other men, especially Mailer, but some of the others as well, were not- well to say he didn’t empathize with her would be the understatement of the Western world. He just regarded her as what he needed her to be.
Levin: Which was?
Steinem: Uh, you know which was a completely unthreatening, totally sexual child woman who would never ever with one breath of her being, suggest that she might be equal to him, and therefore damage his masculine image. You know it has to do with possession. So men are, through no fault of theirs, trained to feel they have to possess the women they marry. So they walk off when they’re seen by other people. Marilyn married, kept on marrying her father, which she never had, she never had a father, so even her young husband you know, and especially her first husband, were about protection. And I don’t think that that really Arthur Miller and Jo DiMaggio, are two sides of a coin, they’re the same side of the same coin. You know, which is the macho intellectual and the macho sports guy. But they’re both fathers. Right.
Levin: And neither of whom could stand, really also, to be out-chimed by her. I’d like to talk a little bit about what you felt when you first saw those George Barris photographs, because there is something about those photographs that is very, they’re very sad photographs to me. And I’m not sure, not that it’s critical in any way, but I was interested in the one you say this was the last photograph that was ever taken, at the end of your book. I think there was one other photo session with her which was the life magazine, but I don’t even think-
Steinem: Yeah I think I quote that as the last interview but perhaps I got it wrong, that it was the last photograph. But no I think that what, what was riveting to me about George Barris was that he did regard her as a person, and he is a kind man. That doesn’t mean that she was able to appear as her true self in the photographs. The photographs are rather mannered and female impersonating, and pathetic, and sad, so in some sense, I suppose the text and the photographs don’t exactly match, but I tried to call it Marilyn and Norma Jean, two different people, so that you would see that underneath the Marilyn who was the mannered person inside there was still Norma Jean.
Levin: And you do, you do get that sort of very, that’s it, that sort of sadness and that sort of loneliness, and, Pat Newcombe had a great remark which you quoted about “she never told anybody everything.” And you see that in those photographs. No matter what the persona is, you also know she’s not giving you everything.
Steinem: Well, I think she might have though. I mean what makes her so riveting for women especially since the advent of the modern women’s movement say 35 years ago or whatever, is that we wonder if we could not have saved her by making a place where she could tell everything. Because that’s what we’ve done for each other. And since we didn’t have and especially Marilyn whose mother was in a mental institution, but since a lot of us had mothers who were driven crazy by society, or who just couldn’t be powerful through no fault of theirs, society wouldn’t let them be powerful, in some sense we were motherless, what the women’s movement has done is to allow women to become each other’s mothers. And to support and model and hope and praise and love each other enough so that we can begin to repair the early damage. So we wonder all of us if we could not have saved Marilyn’s life. How we know we have something to say is that we were listened to as a child, how we know that we were lovable, is that we were loved as a child. If those things were absent, it takes a long time to make up for them. And she really didn’t have the, much opportunity to help to repair that early damage. Yes, she was in therapy but a lot of it was kind of Freudian therapy and questionable, and anyway she was living in a society where there wasn’t much support. You know, the head may triumph in life, but it’s not smart enough to invent a heart, it isn’t. And she was all heart and not enough in control of her head. But perhaps that’s what allows her to win in the end.
Levin: And she kind of does doesn’t she, I mean she really does triumph lo these many years later. And there’s something quite lovely about it, it makes me, it actually makes me happy to want to try to do this film in this way with her. It makes me happy that she hangs in museums now, not just peering down from huge billboards.
Steinem: It’s true, I think so and I think that it probably would have made her happy, but I hope they see the person behind the stereotype.
Levin: Do you think she could have aged. And you think she could have come to some peace in all of this?
Steinem: I think she could have. None of us can do that without support and a community, but if she had that kind of a community, which I think many of her friends and the women’s movement is a sea change, and other things, might have provided, then I do believe she could. You can look at Kim Novak, who was reputed to have left Hollywood after Marilyn’s suicide because she thought, I’m not gonna let that happen to me, and I believe that Kim Novak is still alive doing well and has become a great animal advocate, raises animals, rescues animals- I can kind of imagine that happening to Marilyn too.