Marilyn Monroe Climbs to Stardom

The star of three motion pictures in 1953, Marilyn Monroe went on to become the ultimate Hollywood sex symbol and to capture the imagination of America, defining for a generation the nature of superstardom.

Summary of Event

With the release of The Seven Year Itch
Seven Year Itch, The (Wilder) on June 3, 1955, Marilyn Monroe capped a three-year buildup as Twentieth Century-Fox’s Twentieth Century-Fox[Twentieth Century Fox] biggest box-office star and as Hollywood’s ultimate sex symbol. The filming of The Seven Year Itch had been accompanied by tremendous publicity, including enormous press coverage of the movie’s skirt-blowing scene, which had been filmed on location in New York City in front of a crowd of several thousand people. When the movie opened in New York City, a several-stories-high poster of Monroe with her skirts rising was attached to a tall Manhattan building in the theater district; in subsequent promotional newsreels, people in the street were asked about the image. Hollywood studio system;stardom
[kw]Marilyn Monroe Climbs to Stardom (1953-1955)
[kw]Monroe Climbs to Stardom, Marilyn (1953-1955)
[kw]Stardom, Marilyn Monroe Climbs to (1953-1955)
Hollywood studio system;stardom
[g]North America;1953-1955: Marilyn Monroe Climbs to Stardom[04030]
[g]United States;1953-1955: Marilyn Monroe Climbs to Stardom[04030]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1953-1955: Marilyn Monroe Climbs to Stardom[04030]
Monroe, Marilyn
Hathaway, Henry
Hawks, Howard
Negulesco, John
DiMaggio, Joe
Wilder, Billy

Beginning in 1953, Monroe began to receive awards as the newest, freshest personality in Hollywood, and by the end of that year was the top box-office draw for her studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. In part, her appeal had been created by her studio’s employment of her in a number of small but exploitative roles in All About Eve (1950), As Young as You Feel (1951), Love Nest (1951), and We’re Not Married (1952), in which she played, respectively, an aspiring actor, a secretary, a glamorous girl-next-door, and a beauty-contest winner. Her work at other studios in Love Happy (1949), in which she saunters suggestively past Groucho Marx, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a memorable crime picture that displays her curled up on a sofa, the mistress of a corrupt attorney, and Clash by Night
Clash by Night (Lang) (1952), in which she played a feisty and sexy fish-cannery worker, solidified her appeal as the younger woman about to overtake an earlier generation of sex symbols such as Betty Grable.

It was during filming of Clash by Night that Monroe admitted to having appeared in a nude calendar, confirming a story that a Hollywood journalist was about to release. Monroe explained that she had posed for fifty dollars in order to pay the rent and keep her career alive in the days before her stardom. Monroe’s prompt, simple explanation endeared her to fans, who were already bombarding her studio with requests for her photographs. Throughout this period, still photographs of her perpetuated a voluptuous image often more provocative than her early supporting roles, especially in shots of her by renowned photographers such as Phillipe Halsman Halsman, Phillipe , who helped create the sex-symbol image of dreamy, beckoning, half-closed eyes and half-open mouth, with an hourglass figure swathed in the satiny folds of tight-fitting gowns.

Henry Hathaway was the first movie director to employ the full resources of the cinema to showcase Monroe as a sex symbol. Again, still photography was used—this time in the promotion of Niagara
Niagara (Hathaway) (1953), in which an image of Monroe as femme fatale was almost surrealistically draped horizontally across Niagara Falls to project an image of her sexuality as a force of nature. The movie featured tight close-ups of her face and emphasized the singularity of her rhapsodic involvement with her own sensuality. Using wide-angle lenses, Hathaway followed Monroe across the movie frame as a subject for ogling—as in the celebrated tracking shot of Monroe shambling down a cobblestone street while wearing high heels that accentuated every movement of her derriere. Although the studio and the star received some protests over this flaunting of her figure, most of her audience was taken with her uninhibited relish in the attraction she knew she was provoking.

In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks) (1953), director Howard Hawks capitalized on and accentuated Monroe’s appeal by teaming her with another sex symbol, Jane Russell Russell, Jane , who served as a kind of older sister and chaperon to the emerging star. Monroe, however, went beyond what any director could do for her by showing a distinctive flair for comedy, exaggerating her sexual appeal as a joke and at the same time playing the innocent and unworldly woman with a logic that was simple and direct. As Lorelei Lee, Monroe acts as a nightclub performer whose business it is to be charming and whose uncomplicated nature makes it easy for her to render her roles without taking them too seriously.

How to Marry a Millionaire
How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco) (1953) added one more element to Monroe’s version of the sex symbol: vulnerability. Her director, John Negulesco, a painter and a well-read man, empathized with Monroe and saw that, though she was ambitious, she was also full of doubt and fragile, with a yearning to be assured of her worth. Negulesco helped her to express such feelings in the role of Pola, an aspiring model uncertain of her intelligence and scared that her wearing of glasses will ruin her physical appeal.

With three huge box-office successes behind her in 1953, Monroe began the new year by marrying Joe DiMaggio Athletes;Joe DiMaggio[DiMaggio] on January 14, 1954. At the height of his fame, having recently retired from a great career with the New York Yankees, DiMaggio had been linked with Monroe in the press for more than a year. Their marriage was attended by stupendous press notices, especially since their honeymoon was spent in Japan (where Monroe was already a big star, and where baseball was popular) and in Korea, where Monroe entertained the troops and received more publicity than any other star had been accorded for a comparable event.

The DiMaggio-Monroe marriage and divorce (after only nine months of marriage), made memorable by a tearful, distraught Monroe’s appearance before newsreel cameras, was more significant than the mediocre parts Fox forced upon her in River of No Return
River of No Return (Preminger) (1954) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). She appeared as an earnest and earthy young woman (a dance-hall singer and a musical-comedy entertainer) in both films—roles that sustained her image as a fantasy figure by combining innocence and sex appeal. In River of No Return, acting opposite Robert Mitchum and the juvenile actor Tommy Rettig (playing Mitchum’s son), she was able to display womanly and maternal qualities that broadened, slightly, the range of roles she could perform while maintaining her sex-symbol image.

In The Seven Year Itch, director Billy Wilder and screenwriter George Axelrod Axelrod, George exploited all the elements of the sex symbol while writing lines with Monroe directly in mind. She did not play a character so much as a fantasy, emphasized by the fact that she is referred to as “The Girl,” never given any other name, and is featured in key scenes as clearly the product of the overheated imagination of her pursuer, played by Tom Ewell Ewell, Tom . She is direct, innocent, and accepts Ewell’s pass at her as normal, for she has had to fend off many interested males. She treats such attentions matter-of-factly while tenderly handling the middle-aged, plain-faced Ewell’s advances. As sex symbol, Monroe’s image is universalized to appeal to virtually any male.


One immediate result of the buildup of Marilyn Monroe as sex symbol was the promotion of a spate of imitators. Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Kim Novak, and others all attempted to copy the sweet, simpering, nonthreatening, fun-loving image that Monroe projected so perfectly, although none of these actors matched Monroe’s grace, sincerity, and comic timing.

For some women, Monroe’s exaggerated rendition of the sex symbol was an embarrassment. Gloria Steinem Steinem, Gloria , for example, has written about how Monroe’s obvious need to please men bothered her; at the same time, Steinem and other women were drawn to Monroe’s energy and to the kind of shrewdness she exhibited in some of her performances. There was a strength, even a daring quality, in Monroe that young actors such as Ellen Burstyn admired.

There is no doubt, however, that Monroe herself worried over the image of women she projected in both her on-screen and off-screen appearances. Like some members of her audience, she wondered whether she was doing her own talent justice in taking on “dumb blond” roles; there is no question that her male audience often equated the blond and the highly sexed with low intelligence, even when films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mocked male stereotyping of women. As Monroe’s character says in that film, she can be smart when she wants to be, but most men do not like it. In retrospect, in an age more sensitive to feminism, the sexism of 1950’s films and those movies’ sly attacks on male chauvinism are more recognizable than they were at the time of release.

In the long term, the process by which Marilyn Monroe became a sex symbol has taken on added significance. From the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s, Monroe’s own talent was insufficiently appreciated, and she was viewed as merely the product and the victim of a studio system that could make and destroy stars. In subsequent decades, however, critics have asked more searching questions about Monroe and the phenomenon of the sex symbol, wondering why she came to so dominate the stereotype. The wave after wave of books on Monroe, of narratives that recount her rise to stardom, suggest the enduring nature of her appeal. What Monroe did for herself as an ambitious but also deeply flawed and vulnerable woman began to dominate discussions of her career. Even her death in August, 1962, is shrouded in mystery.

The story of Marilyn Monroe as sex symbol can be used to probe the contradictions of popular culture, which simultaneously glorifies individuality—stardom—and yet emphasizes conformity, repetition, and sameness. What excites the audience is that it knows exactly what it is going to get; what satisfies the performer is a socially sanctioned—or, at least, popularly applauded—role. As Monroe showed, however, becoming a symbol, engaging in certain expected, almost ritualistic gestures, takes a toll on a performer’s identity that cannot be recouped by the pleasures of stardom. Hollywood studio system;stardom

Further Reading

  • Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Study of the ideology of stardom, focusing on Monroe, Judy Garland, and Paul Robeson. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Guiles, Fred L. Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe. New York: Stein & Day, 1984. A revision of Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe (1969). Still the most factually correct and comprehensive biography. Based on interviews with Monroe’s closest friends and associates; particularly informative on Monroe’s early years. Guiles does an admirable job of sorting fact from fiction. Photographs.
  • McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Collection of essays by cultural scholars, as well as by other famous figures who knew Monroe, about the actor and her representation. Bibliographic references.
  • Mailer, Norman. Marilyn: A Biography. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973. Controversial but provocative on the subject of Monroe’s acting and her love affairs—particularly with the Kennedys. Mailer is also shrewd on the subject of Monroe’s use of publicity, on how acting appealed to her fragile sense of identity, and on her last completed movie, The Misfits (1961). While Mailer did some important interviews, his narrative relies heavily on the work of Guiles and Maurice Zolotow. Photographs, annotated bibliography.
  • Mellen, Joan. Marilyn Monroe. New York: Pyramid, 1973. A critical, sometimes harsh view of the Hollywood studio system and Monroe’s efforts to surmount it by hard work and talent. Some excellent analysis of Monroe’s movies from a feminist point of view. Photographs, filmography, bibliography.
  • Rollyson, Carl E., Jr. Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. The only biography to analyze carefully Monroe’s development as an actor. Extensive discussion of her roles, her studies as an actor, her reading, and how her professional and personal lives influenced each other. Relies heavily on the work of Guiles and Zolotow for biographical facts, with some new interviews. Monroe’s last important interview is also included as an appendix. Photographs, extensive bibliography.
  • Rosten, Norman. Marilyn: An Untold Story. New York: Signet Books, 1973. The best reminiscence of Monroe, by her friend Norman Rosten, a poet who gives a loving glimpse of what she was like away from the screen—sitting in Rosten’s Brooklyn kitchen, conversing with him and his wife Hedda, reading poetry, dating and marrying Arthur Miller. A sensitive and complex portrait of a divided woman. Photographs.
  • Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn. New York: Henry Holt, 1986. A sympathetic feminist reading of Monroe’s career. Adds little by way of new facts, but probes Monroe’s femininity and the possibilities that her life might have been different had her career and her times not been so dominated by a male power structure. Demonstrates profound empathy for Monroe’s plight and meditates informatively on her significance. Photographs.
  • Summers, Anthony. Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. New York: Macmillan, 1985. The first half of the biography is a rehash of earlier biographies, but the second half brings to light much new information on Monroe’s career, her relationships with the Kennedys, the last days of her life, and the murky circumstances in which she died. Photographs.
  • Wagenknecht, Edward, ed. Marilyn Monroe: A Composite View. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1969. Contains Monroe’s last two interviews, memories by Hollis Alpert, Flora Rheta Schreiber, Edith Sitwell, several of her photographers, Adele Whitely Fletcher, and Norman Rosten; reflections by Cecil Beaton, Lee Strasberg, Lincoln Kirstein, Diana Trilling, David Robinson, Alexander Walker, and Wagenknecht. Photographs.
  • Zolotow, Maurice. Marilyn Monroe. New York: Bantam Books, 1961. Written while Monroe was still alive and based on several interviews with her and her directors. Especially revealing are Zolotow’s re-creations of Monroe’s behavior on movie sets. He is one of the first biographers to take her seriously while still writing within the ethos of her own time. Though Zolotow relies a great deal on secondary sources, parts of his analysis of her character are psychologically acute. Photographs.

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