Monday, August 18, 2014

Books: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

The 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

Last week's suicide death of Robin Williams has reminded us once again that the life of a movie star, or any rich and famous celebrity, really, is no refuge from hidden mental anguish. For the record, I thought he was a world-class talent whose best roles fused his maniacal comic skills with his capability for deep drama. (I doubt any of us will be able to watch Dead Poets Society the same way again, that's for certain.) 52 years ago this month, however, another Hollywood legend surrendered to mental illness in an equally tragic manner. 

When Marilyn Monroe reached the end of her road, she spent much of her adult life fearing that she would end up like her mother and grandmother before her, both of whom had histories of mental problems. It was a struggle that would hamper her career and impair her business and social relationships, but because she was so beloved by those around her, and so determined to pursue her career in Hollywood despite her issues, her story comes across as more heroic than one would think.

The portrait J. Randy Taraborrelli paints in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is that of a woman emotionally scarred as the result of a difficult childhood, yet eager to love, and to be loved. The author conducts new interviews and does extensive research in putting together a more comprehensive look at the iconic glamour queen of the movies who strove to become a serious actress. Throughout the biography, he refers to books others have written about Monroe, including Monroe's autobiography, and in many places, he sets the record straight about her through his own resources and inquiries. According to Taraborrelli, Monroe spread many fabrications about her life that were taken as fact for years.

The former Norma Jeane Mortensen is presented in Secret Life as a beautiful young woman who was born the daughter of a promiscuous woman with paranoia issues inherited from her own mother, and grew up in a variety of different homes with different guardians. We see the circumstances that led Monroe to a modeling career at first, and then the life of a movie star. We see Monroe in three difficult and trying marriages. We see her attempts to both connect with the father she barely knew, and to protect her mother from total insanity as her condition worsened over the years. We see her doubting her own sanity in later years. And of course, we see the making of the films that made her who she was, and we learn that "Marilyn Monroe" was as much a construct as the roles she played.

J. Randy Taraborrelli
I never knew a great deal about Monroe's personal history, so reading about all this came as quite a revelation. All the juicy stuff is in Secret Life, of course: the marriage to an abusive and possessive Joe DiMaggio, the battles with 20th Century-Fox for more than just glamour-girl roles, the relationship with the Kennedy family, etc., but what emerges from the controversy and the afflictions is the Marilyn Monroe that often gets lost underneath all of that: a self-made movie star who went to great lengths to better herself in her career, when she could've just as easily settled for being what the public adored her as: a sex symbol. She didn't even make that much money during her lifetime, at least not compared to contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor.

Even today, little is known about how to treat mental illness and depression. In Secret Life, we see Monroe go through a battery of doctors, take a pharmacy's worth of different pills, and drink herself into stupors, all in a frantic attempt to combat what she believed was the slow deterioration of her mind. Taraborrelli's account has her clinging to hope that something, some combination of the right doctor and the right pill, would work. 

She never found it... but she was able to not only persevere despite this ongoing battle, but she left behind a legacy matched by very few in Hollywood history, which is why we cherish her memory, even today, and likely always will.

Main Street
Silent Stars
Three Fingers

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