The Ghosts of Marilyn Monroe
Born on this day in 1926, Marilyn Monroe remains an icon of 20th century America. She's been a subject of unending fascination since her death in 1962, and today we share some of our favorite depictions of her.
Born Norma Jean Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe would live just 36 and appear in only 33 films during her lifetime. But despite her early death (or perhaps because of it), she remains a cultural icon, a constant fixture in the pop culture landscape, be it Lady Gaga referencing her in a song, MasterCard using her image in its ads, Joyce Carol Oates or Norman Mailer turning her into a fictional character or James Franco appearing dressed as her at last year’s Academy Awards.
Here are some of the more memorable of the at least 85 different Marilyns to make their way onto screens big and small over the last 50 years.
Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976)
To cast the role of Marilyn (and no doubt get some free publicity) the director held a national Marilyn Monroe look alike contest. But when the winner, unknown 21-year-old Alexis Pedersen, turned down the role after reading the script, the part was given to Misty Rowe. Rowe’s previous credits included TV shows like Happy Days and Love, American Style, and she would become best known for her appearances in Hee Haw. Footage of Rowe as Marilyn would also show up in 1989’s Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn. Though her career never reached the heights of the woman she portrayed, the two at least had one thing in common – Misty Rowe was also born on June 1st (though some sources list her birthday as June 4th).
Marilyn and Me (1991)
Made for TV in 1991, this movie about the affair between Monroe and writer Robert Slatzer boasts a performance by Susan Griffiths, one of the few Marilyn Monroe impersonators with a SAG card. A native of Utah, her resemblance to the star was first noted when she was only 17 years old – and didn’t even know who Marilyn was. After moving to California, she entered a lookalike contest (and only got 2nd prize), which led to photo shoots and work in a series of Japanese hotel commercials. Soon, being a Marilyn impersonator was a full-time gig, but she vowed to give up after starring in Marilyn and Me. Didn’t work out that way, though – Griffiths would go onto to play Marilyn on shows like Quantum Leap, Cybill, TimeCop, Nip/Tuck and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well in the movie Pulp Fiction.
This CBS miniseries starring Poppy Montgomery (who would later be known for her starring role in TV’s Without a Trace) was based on the 700-page best-selling novel by prolific author Joyce Carol Oates. To date Oates has written nearly 40 novels but stated in an interview that she thought Blonde would be one of the two she’d remain best known for. Less a factual retelling of Marilyn’s life than a frightening psychological portrait of a woman plagued by inner demons and exploited by Hollywood and the culture at large, it grants ‘Norma Jean’ a depth and sadness at odds with the bubbly ‘Marilyn’ persona. The novel also buys into one of the many conspiracy theories about the death of Marilyn, though in the interest of avoiding spoilers, we’ll refrain from saying more. In addition to the American mini-series, as of last May plans were underway to make an Australian feature film based on the book with Naomi Watts slated to play Marilyn.
My Week With Marilyn (2011)
OK, we’re cheating a bit on this one since the movie hasn’t even come out yet, but we have high hopes. The upcoming film is based on two books by Colin Clark culled from diary accounts from his time on the set as assistant director of The Prince and the Showgirl, Monroe’s 1957 film co-starring Laurence Olivier. According to a 2003 memoir by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Olivier detested the actress. He considered her untalented and was annoyed by her constant tardiness, her refusal to socialize with the cast and crew, and most of all her obsession with Method acting. Olivier antagonized Marilyn constantly, not least of all inviting his wife Vivien Leigh – who’d played Marilyn’s role in the stage production of The Prince and the Showgirl – to visit the set during Marilyn’s scenes. My Week with Marilyn was originally to star Scarlett Johansson but producers chose former Dawson's Creek star and two-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams instead. The film also stars Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson and – as is compulsory in British productions – Judi Dench.