TV review: “Reframed: Marilyn Monroe” – A feminist tribute or a work of reframing?
By Daniel Gewertz
The primary interest of Cropped is not the history of cinema; it’s a revisionist social statement and a new spin on the celebrity documentary: star bio-cum-feminist essay.
Cropped: Marilyn Monroe, a “docu-series” on CNN. Part 2 airs Sunday, January 23 from 9-11 p.m.
CNN’s “Docuseries” Cropped: Marilyn Monroe lives up to its bold title in its sheer ambition: it reframes Monroe’s legacy “through an all-female lens.” But he spins the trick by way of an ahistorical overlay that portrays the 20th century’s most famous sex symbol as a proto-feminist commando. The woman long known as weak and lost – in the loving words of her former friend Truman Capote, “a beautiful child” – is now proving to be a cool and savvy paragon of adult strength.
At various points, Cropped substitutes new myths for old ones. But considering the shortness of the years and the wealth of movie magic in Marilyn’s career, she certainly deserves another life. And 60 years after his death, it’s the right time for a fresh and modern vision. It is only the extremity of the current reframing which is doubtful here. The series is heavily dependent on the book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of London. In the competitive academic market, it is not uncommon for a radical and comprehensive approach to a well-rehearsed subject to receive particular attention. But if Marilyn Monroe really was the visionary power portrayed in Croppedshe would have died an old and happy big boss of Hollywood.
There have been many attempts to discover the private side of this most public movie goddess. Cropped is not one. Exploring Monroe’s psyche takes precedence over tilting her image to fit a generation of heroin-hungry young female viewers. She’s a kinder, more perceptive breed of exploitation than the tabloid hysteria Monroe suffered from in the ’50s, but she distorts the real woman. (Calling MM the Kim Kardarshian of his time, for example, is neither laudatory nor accurate.) Older books and documentaries focused on Monroe’s tragic youth and lonely, insecure, and ultimately drug-addicted adulthood – essentially, Marilyn as a victim. Cropped desires nothing less than to erase this image. The doc’s Marilyn is a fearsome superwoman who, though diminished by sex symbol status, has turned everything upside down and changed the world. When there aren’t enough facts to back up the thesis, producers just rinse and repeat.
In what almost ends like a hagiography, all career triumphs are portrayed as brave. When Marilyn entertains the thousands of soldiers in Korea, wearing a barely there dress in cold weather, it’s portrayed as heroism. When she dims her hopes of a long-term studio contract by turning down a particularly indelicate sexual offer from studio head Harry Cohn, the decision isn’t just a bold one, it’s a valiant act of early feminism. (The episode itself needs no ornament: After being offered a long-term contract if she spent the night with Cohn on his yacht, she simply asked if Mrs. Cohn would be on board as well. Witty and principled, the brave remark has become a Hollywood tradition.)
Instead of the passive sex symbol image she was once decked out, Cropped shows Marilyn as a woman full of action and limitless ambition. There is clearly plenty of evidence to support this reframing work. But the doc goes too far. Previous versions of Marilyn’s story were overly influenced by her magical chemistry with the camera: it often appeared that she was a docile starlet brought to the fore by a photogenic accident. Cropped cleverly shows how hard she worked and how many stones on the road she cleared along the way to glory. But that doesn’t pay tribute to the gifted (and loving) photographers she worked with, the savvy screenwriters who saw where her strengths and weaknesses lay, the savvy publicists who recognized what a goldmine they had. Even the studio producers may have done young Marilyn a favor by not asking her to create more realistic characters and expand her brand. The doc tends to make it sound like it was all Marilyn’s genius plan and execution, temporarily taken down by a few bad guys crossing her path. It ignores the context.
I only saw the first half of the four-hour series, which aired on January 16. It ends with a two-hour segment on January 23. I enjoyed the first hour wholeheartedly. I consider Monroe one of the top twelve stars in Hollywood history. She was one of cinema’s most complex and misunderstood personalities, and the camera loved her more than any mortal. Marilyn Monroe inhabited the sensual while deftly poking fun at her own image and our own sexual appetites. It is an unprecedented screen invention. (You could say Mae West preceded her, but by the time West moved from Broadway to Hollywood, she was 90% parody, 10% sex.) That she wasn’t nominated for the Oscar for best actress for Bus stop (1956) and Some like it hot (1959) is criminal, proof that the Hollywood establishment has always been ashamed of her despite all the money she made for them.
The first clues that there is something wrong with Cropped are purely cinematographic questions of history. The rundown of Monroe’s many small parts and cheesecakes from 1947 to 1950 is well documented. The famous role of extra in Joseph Mankiewicz All about Eve (1950) is convincingly illustrated and commented. (His character’s line about Broadway producers was often repeated: “Why do they always look like unhappy bunnies?”) The asphalt jungle? And, even stranger, why no reference to his first major role in a critically respected and highly talented 1952 film. Monkey business? With Howard Hawks directing and Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers at their comedic heights, the film features a plum role for Monroe, close to a starring role. The fact that she plays a dumb, ogled secretary hired specifically for her physical assets may have convinced the CNN/RAW team to put her in the exploitation category, a movie not worth watching. be mentioned. But it was a breakout role for Monroe.
The answers to these questions quickly become clear. The primary interest of Cropped is not the history of cinema; it’s a revisionist social statement and a new spin on the celebrity documentary: star bio-cum-feminist essay.
While supporting Monroe as a feminist icon is often a bit too much, there are several points where the biographical information fits the claim well. Sometime after the Harry Cohn incident, Marilyn wrote, with the help of a journalist, a Hollywood casting couch talk entitled “Wolves I Have Known”. First a cover story in a movie magazine, it was picked up by newspapers from coast to coast. Remarkably, this action, which seems both cunning and frightening for the 50s, did not harm his career.
The naked calendar scandal was another undeniably fascinating episode with a feminist underpinning. A nude photo, taken in 1949, was sold to a calendar company in 1951. In 1952, the unnamed model was finally recognized as Marilyn, and a deluge of press ensued. His career, barely taking off, was in danger. Studio executives wanted her to deny that it was her body sprawled, with artful grace, on the red velvet. Monroe freely admitted it was her and casually told the press how she was unemployed and behind on her rent at the time. But it was her eloquent, throaty moral defense of the nude shoot that changed everything. “I’m not ashamed of it,” she reportedly said at the time. “I did nothing wrong.” A Monroe audio clip is used twice in Cropped, wisely. It’s a rush, even in 2022, to hear him say those bold words: “We’re all sexual beings, thank God.” Time magazine — whose sister publication, Life, put it on the cover in April 1952 – simply concluded that “Marilyn believes in doing what comes naturally”. As film historian James Monaco wrote many years later of how Monroe combined sex appeal with innocence, “Her sexuality was never seen as a threat, but as something ‘harmless and benevolent.’ (We asked Marilyn if she really didn’t have anything turned on during the photoshoot. Her famous answer? “I had the radio on.”)
This is certainly an example where Monroe turned the social mores of the time upside down. But there again, the doc goes a bit too far.
In 1949, Monroe was paid $50 for the photoshoot. In 1952, bad publicity comes and goes quickly. In late 1953, Hugh Hefner legally purchased the photo for $500 and published it in the first issue of Playboy. Or Cropped goes too far is when one of the talking heads lambastes Hefner, calling him immoral for not warning Marilyn before the release date. At the time, Hefner was no magazine mogul. He was 27 years old and created the first issue of Playboy in his kitchen for change. At first, he didn’t have a distribution deal. The idea that this debt-ridden person might even come into contact with Marilyn Monroe at the end of 1953 – the same year she starred in both Men prefer blondes and How to marry a millionaire – is comical.
Cropped well worth the detour. But there’s a feeling, amid the four-hour documentary, that the company is twisting and simplifying the star and the woman. Monroe was both tenuous and brash, a victim and a goddess, loved, pitied and coveted. The tragedies of her life and her innate vulnerability made her popular with women. Her on-screen persona introduced her as the delicious blonde who loved sex. In 1955, The Seven Year Itch made it clear that she was the only sex siren who wasn’t pretentious or dangerous, the perfect sexpot fantasy for shy, clumsy, unattractive men to fantasize about. In nearly all of her roles, she was both vulnerable and a celebrant of unadulterated sexual pleasure; she was the goddess of accessible sex. She wasn’t a threat, a very good thing in an age that was so easily threatened. She is still the one and only Marilyn, a star big enough to withstand frames and reframes, myths new and old. It’s just good to see her again.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and film for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he has published personal essays, taught memoir writing and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his impersonation of Elvis Presley.