Serious books about Marilyn describe the transformation of a ’50s sex symbol into something shockingly urgent.
Cooper eagerly approaches the microphone, and he turns out to be both very young and very handsome, and also to be a man in possession of an evident, touching, and boyishly uncritical respect for his father. (“Heading over to my dads for an early breakfast,” he had tweeted the previous month, and—two weeks later—“Setting up a lemonade stand tomorrow at the back gate of my dads to celebrate the beginning of summer. Come if you’re free.”) In addition, he turns out to be someone with significant difficulty reading aloud to a large audience. He stumbles over several words and mispronounces others, and his reading of the too-long-for-the-occasion essay starts to become uncomfortable, an embarrassment.
Cooper is, in short, exactly the sort of person—a good-looking kid with a complicated past, unraveling in public and on the ugly verge of becoming a joke—to whom Marilyn would have attached her greatest sympathy and encouragement. For all his wealth and privilege, he seems destined to be a person whose pursuit of his father will be largely composed of early breakfasts and back gates: Marilyn’s kind of person, all the way. You could imagine her sitting attentively on the edge of one of the theater’s seats and fixing him with her marshmallow-moonbeam glow, transfixed, as though listening to him deliver a canned and unenlightening movie review were on par with hearing Cicero delivering his speech against Catiline. You could imagine her getting him through it.
Not so the audience at the Marilyn Monroe Film Festival. When Cooper mispronounces Pauline Kael’s name, there are giggles, and for a bad moment it seems he might actually get laughed or even booed off the stage, but then the reading comes to its blessed end, and he scurries away up a side aisle, deflated. It’s a tough Hollywood crowd, and no one wants to get dicked around by an amateur.
And so it is the start of a perfect Marilyn evening: tender, beautiful youth making a go of it against Hollywood the destroyer, starting out hopeful, ending up humiliated, and leaving behind only a monument: Some Like It Hot.
The new biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, is the work of Lois Banner, a historian at the University of Southern California who writes that she was propelled toward her subject because it had never been tackled by someone like her: “an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender.” The book took her 10 years to write, which is about how long it takes to read, albeit for the best possible reason: it is rigorously, at times obsessively, well researched. More appealingly, Banner’s academic orientation did not preclude her from going native. In the course of her work, she joined a Marilyn fan club, became a major collector of the star’s artifacts, contributed to a fund that paid for a new bench outside the Westwood crypt, and published a coffee-table book devoted to items from Marilyn’s personal archive. For those of us who love Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox constitutes an invaluable resource, a compendium of the latest discoveries, a settling of long-festering questions, and a thoughtful and thorough revisiting of the subjects we love most. For the general reader, however, the book will be overwhelming and impossible. How can a civilian be expected to care about the details of a real-estate deal that led to the 1910s development of the Whitley Heights tract in the Hollywood Hills? An introductory note is addressed, casually, to those “familiar with the biographical tradition on Monroe”; indeed, it is this tradition itself, more than any freshly excavated facts about the life, that demands a reckoning. Serious books about Marilyn number in the high hundreds, possibly the thousands; together they describe not just the transformation of a poor California girl into an international sex symbol but also the posthumous transformation of that sex symbol into something shockingly urgent, completely contemporary, and forever bankable.