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Essence of a Film Fatale

Monroe Show Catches Icon's Lure From Innocent Years to Movie Queen

November 27, 2000|LOUISE ROUG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"There was my name up in lights. I said, 'God, somebody's made a mistake.' But there it was, in lights. And I sat there and said, 'Remember, you're not a star.' Yet there it was up in lights."

Those were Marilyn Monroe's words as she realized, there's no arguing with fame.

Her stardom is the subject of a new exhibition at the House of Photographic Art, featuring more than 50 images of Monroe shot by photographers such as Bruno Bernard, Milton Greene and Phillip Halsman.

The show chronicles her meteoric rise from her first sittings as Norma Jean Baker--a fresh-faced brunet in a beret--to the last sittings as Marilyn Monroe--a weary blond in fishnet stockings.

The exhibition features some of her most iconic pictures, such as her standing on a Lexington Avenue subway grate, gripping her billowing white skirt--a publicity shot for the movie "The Seven Year Itch."

But there are other, less famous pictures, showing Monroe caught off guard at the makeup studio or on film sets.

The show, which has toured nationally, also features an unusual picture by Phillipe Halsman in which he superimposed her image on Chairman Mao's. The result has little of her usual sex appeal.

Other photos show her in bed, on the beach, in the recording studio, even on the back of an elephant. Monroe in a corset, Monroe in a bathing suit, Monroe in a sweater.

"Every imaginable Marilyn makes an appearance," said Maryanne Charis, HOPA director. "She rarely looked the same twice, yet her features are recognizable on an intimate level--a quality that made her perfect for the camera."

The first pictures of Monroe, from the late 1940s, show her shy and hesitant. In the later sittings, she has captured the camera.

"She seemed so innocent, [yet] she was such a sex symbol," Charis said. "Sexy, but not crude." And in the pictures, "you just see the excitement and the charisma, the vulnerability."

The vulnerability, that face--and that body--made millions love her. Among them, baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio.

The two married in January 1954 and divorced nine months later. But it was DiMaggio who in August 1962 claimed her body at the coroner's office after she was found dead in her bedroom, surrounded by empty pill bottles.

DiMaggio, who had been planning to remarry Monroe, instead had to arrange her funeral. And for the next 20 years, he sent roses to her grave at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Today, almost four decades after her death, her crypt attracts more visitors than any other grave at the cemetery, including those of Truman Capote, Natalie Wood or Dean Martin. About 3,000 fans visit annually, making it a 20th century shrine where flowers never wither but are replaced daily by fans.

"Marilyn was like a princess to America," Charis said. "Here we are so many years later and Marilyn is still someone we think about. . . . I really think there's an insatiable appetite for her image."

World-renowned artists Andy Warhol, Willem De Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg have immortalized her. Literary minds--Gloria Steinem, Joyce Carol Oates and others have dissected her--the American princess and tragedy.

Marilyn Web sites proliferate, with fans discussing trivia, theories and trading gossip. When her possessions went on the block last year, collectors and fans spent more than $11 million to buy everything from jeans to cookbooks and that dress--the almost transparent, sequined sheath in which she serenaded President Kennedy on his birthday.

As the neon lights proclaimed, Monroe was a star.

Photographers made her one of the most reproduced images of the century, an icon. Marilyn Monroe--the image--even became an industry. But to achieve fame, Norma Jean Baker had to surrender her name, face and body and become public property. Some say she struck an almost Faustian bargain.

At her grave a couple of years ago, photojournalist George Barris recounted a meeting between Monroe and a fan. "Are you really Marilyn?" the stranger asked. "That's what they tell me," she replied.

SHOW TIMES

"Marilyn" continues through December at the House of Photographic Art, 27182 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $5 (949) 496-5127.

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