When Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, her New York Times obituary contained a quote from director Billy Wilder: She had "flesh impact … flesh which photographs like flesh. You feel you can reach out and touch it."
The impact hasn't diminished almost 50 years after her death. A new film, My Week With Marilyn, is based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, a young assistant director who worked with Monroe in 1956 on the Laurence Olivier film The Prince and the Showgirl.
Michelle Williams gives a downy, injured-bird performance that's pure Oscar bait. She appeared on the cover of Vogue with cloud-blond hair in a Marilyn sparkle-gown, chest forward. A book of little-seen photographs called Marilyn: Intimate Exposures has been published; NBC is shooting Smash, a series based on a fictional Broadway show about Marilyn.
But that's all just an amuse-bouche: Authentic Brands Group acquired Monroe's intellectual property rights for a reported $20-million to $30-million. The company promises Marilyn-themed cafés and maybe a movie, presumably some ghoulish thing where her corpse is reanimated via software.
Why does Marilyn endure? Perhaps because no one has really filled the space she left behind. Her most basic interpretation – scorching-hot babe – has been regurgitated and repackaged roughly a jillion times in the past half century, but the icon slot remains empty.
This absence seems counterintuitive: Everything, even (and especially) adoration, can be transmitted faster than it was in the fifties, and celebrity casts a shadow that can cover the globe; a worldwide star should be inevitable. Yet it hasn't happened, and constant exposure is why no one could be as beloved as Monroe.
She was well known, yet still unknown. The unknown is a key to fame; it leaves space for aura and fantasy. The unknown is the difference between erotica and porn.
Of course, that mysteriousness left Monroe vulnerable to conspiracy theories, whispers of murder and espionage. We remain desperate to make sense of her. The recent book Fragments contains photographs of her handwritten notes, poems and personal objects, an attempt to build a whole Marilyn. In these scribbles, she is often anxious, still an orphan left behind by an institutionalized mother.
But the woman who was photographed reading Ulysses and Carl Sandburg is also caught in constant reflection.
Monroe, so scrutinized, tried – desperately – to maintain her own inner life.
Still, the fixed image is the white dress billowing above the grate or the pink gown borrowed by Madonna. But those were her characters. It was the solitary, new-bohemian Marilyn that intrigued Jill Taylor, costume designer for My Week With Marilyn. "I really wanted to get across her simplicity of dress," Taylor says on the phone from London. "When you look at photos of her off-duty, she was ahead of her time. She dressed for comfort – simple lines, nothing fussy. In an era where women were really dressed up in big petticoats and nipped little waists, she was in capri pants, T-shirts, pumps. She was a Calvin Klein girl before there was a Calvin Klein girl."
Taylor was inspired by a story that appeared in a memoir by Susan Strasberg, who wrote that, when Monroe went outside in her flats and cable-knit sweaters, no one recognized her. "Shall I become Marilyn?" she asked Strasberg, changing her walk to that legendary swing.
That's all it took: She was swarmed by fans. (A version of this story appears in the film.) Marilyn was something performative that Monroe turned on and off.
The latest figure vying for the Marilyn slot – blond hair, curves, a plastic-looking pout – is a 17-year-old named Courtney Stodden. In the past few months, Stodden has achieved a level of Internet renown after marrying a 51-year-old D-list actor named Doug Hutchison (Monroe was a child bride, too, but that didn't get a reality show). This depressing feat of insta-celebrity was born of a Twitter feed that includes imagist poems like: "Throwin on a white string bikini, fluffy light up bunny ears, 7in heels, & a rhinestone bow tie while bakin cookies." Yes, she has a single.
Despite the stench of Stockholm syndrome and child trafficking, the sweaty pair has made the morning talk-show rounds and the afternoon ones, too. Stodden is all fame, all the time.
For so many young female stars, no public-private borders exist. Last week, Rihanna released an interactive Facebook app called "UNLOCKED," which includes access to backstage photos of her napping and drinking. (She also appeared on the cover of British Vogue recently in a blond wig, adopting the Marilyn pose that all young female celebrities are asked to attempt.) No celebrity has ceded a life off-screen more than the now-pariah Lindsay Lohan, who will soon appear in Playboy, reportedly playing Marilyn.
Asked if there could be another Marilyn Monroe, Taylor says, "Celebrity has become so huge that it's actually watered down the level of mystique." So much flesh, so little impact.