• Height: 5’6″ • Date of Birth: June 1, 1926 • Number of (successive) Husbands: 3 • Executive Producer (uncredited): The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) • Golden Globe Wins: 2 (plus 2 other nominations) • Combined Films Box Office Gross: Approx. $2 billion US¹
When she was on her Game, she made it look easy. Yes, there was the substance abuse and the breakdowns, and the overdose at the end. She was a victim of her own success, and much has been written about That.
But she was a Phenomenon – and still is. Her face is as familiar to us as our own: The arched eyebrows, the just-so beauty spot, and a smile that makes it seem she’s having the time of her life.
In some ways, it might feel as though we know her, even though we don’t.
A newly-released documentary, Marilyn Monroe: Beauty is Pain, looks at Marilyn’s career and private life. It draws upon interviews with those who knew her personally, including first husband James Dougherty, method acting guru Lee Strassberg, and Marilyn herself.
It would not be easy to create a documentary about Marilyn Monroe, because so much has been Said. However, Beauty is Pain feels original because all the interviews are with her contemporaries. Despite the age of the footage, the film, overall, feels timeless.
Beauty is Pain reminds us what Marilyn accomplished in her short life, and gives us a glimpse at the making of a Legend.
Before Marilyn, she was Norma Jean Baker, and, although she grew up in LA, she had few of life’s advantages. Her mother suffered from mental illness, and was committed to a hospital when Norma was seven years old. The girl spent most of her childhood being shuffled between family friends/relatives and an orphanage, even though she had a legal guardian.
Memo to Norma Jean: You’re on your own, kid.
In 1942, when she was 16, she was slated to return to the orphanage, but she instead married 21 year-old James Dougherty, at (apparently) the suggestion of his mother. The Doughertys gave Norma Jean a home while James served overseas in WWII.
She began working at a munitions factory. As Luck would Have It, she was photographed for an employee morale campaign, which led to a modelling career. She moved out of her in-laws’ house, and eventually landed a six-month contract with 20th Century-Fox, where she learned the moves of a Movie Star.
She also learned the business of being Marilyn Monroe.
Although her Fox contract wasn’t renewed, she was, according to the documentary, known for being a hard worker. When she signed a contract at Columbia Pictures in 1948, she was cast in small, but notable roles in films such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and All About Eve (1950).
She was a bona fide Star, although she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress.
Beauty is Pain shows us some of the bizarre attributes of stardom.
Look at the time Marilyn was taken to the hospital, escorted by then-husband Arthur Miller. We see footage of Miller helping Marilyn though crowds of fans and into a waiting ambulance. Even while she’s lying on the stretcher inside the ambulance, people are calling to her, and Marilyn is gamely smiling at them. Isn’t it a grand day to be hospitalized?
But stardom does come with power. Look at the press conference when she returns to Hollywood, after forming her own production company, and a reporter asks if she can choose her own directors. (Duh.) Marilyn gives the journalist a long, measured look, and we suspect she learns more about reporter than the other way around.
Unsurprisingly, the media could not get enough Marilyn. Some have argued this was a monster she herself created, but, as we have seen, the media is not easily tamed by anyone.
John Huston, who directed her last film, The Misfits, said, “Marilyn had a strange, startling impact on the world. Even today, her gentle, haunted image continues to appear… We see human despair too late.”
That is true, sadly, and it’s one of the striking observations made by those who knew her. The thoughtful interviews included in Marilyn Monroe: Beauty is Pain make it a film worth watching.
Disclosure: EM Productions sent us a link to view this documentary in exchange for an unbiased review.
Marilyn Monroe: Beauty is Pain – Narrated by Gale Cruz. Written & directed by Danielle Winter. EM Productions, 2021, B&W and Colour, 53 mins.