In 1957, photographer Richard Avedon had a photoshoot with actress Marilyn Monroe, already one of the most photographed women in history, to take some pictures to help promote the release of her new film with Sir Lawrence Olivier, “The Prince and the Showgirl”, and to some, the results were stunning.
I’ve never seen that film. I would not call myself a “Marilyn Monroe fan” in terms of her films or work. Many years ago, decades, I’m pretty sure I managed to watch the film “The Seven Year Itch” to completion, though I couldn’t tell you how it ends. I’ve seen some of her scenes from the film “Bus Stop”, likewise from her unfinished last picture, “Something’s Got to Give.” Out of something verging on what I guess would be morbid curiosity, I’ve seen the film “The Misfits”, the last film completed by Monroe, as well as being Clark Gable’s last film, and I can only describe it as heart-wrenching. There is a Marilyn Monroe film that I do happen to adore, 1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire”, co-starring Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, William Powell, Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne, and Rory Calhoun. Marilyn Monroe’s comedic performance in this film is brilliant. To me, this performance said everything about Marilyn Monroe in that it illustrated perfectly that this woman was anything but a “dumb blonde.” No, what has interested me about Marilyn Monroe at all isn’t her films, it is her story, it is knowing that despite seeming to have everything or having everything materially speaking, she felt unloved, she was a lonely heart, a lost soul, one who perhaps never quite got the respect she deserved while she was alive. Some people, iconic figures, interest me in that way. Not to digress, but Katharine Hepburn is another whose story interests me, it is because of her films that we know about her and without that her story wouldn’t be as interesting, however, I can take or leave her films for the most part, but she is an endlessly fascinating character to me as a person, as a figure. So, there, we’ve established that I’m not a huge Marilyn Monroe fan in the usual sense.
“For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s – she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.” – Richard Avedon regarding the now-famous photoshoot from May 1957
Some of the photographs Avedon took of Monroe that day are not necessarily flattering by some standards. Monroe was not a skinny supermodel type, she was not a waif. She was curvy and fleshy. Monroe possessed the body of a woman, not a girl. Some of the photographs seem taken from odd angles that accentuate the wrong features. The dress seems wrong, like it was wearing her, and in some of the photos, the dress seems to make her look shorter than her already petite five foot five frame.
And some of the photos captured Marilyn in all her Marilyn Monroe glory…
But then there were these…
These images seem haunted. And though Avedon said he would not take photos of Marilyn without her knowledge of it, and from that one could reasonably assume that these photographs could also be Marilyn playing to the camera in some way, Avedon nonetheless managed to give light to the other side of the coin.
In my opinion, the images that made Marilyn Monroe an enduring icon, even while she lived, were not the perfect images of a glamorous movie star, a blonde bombshell, after all there have been plenty of blonde bombshells and pin-up girls with gleaming images and sparkling sex appeal, but were instead the images that showed the other side of the coin, that showed Marilyn to be an intelligent human being who had a life and heart-breaks and dreams and a depth far beyond what any photograph could ever contain.
Some have said that this photo taken by Richard Avedon in May of 1957, is the most honest photo of Marilyn Monroe ever taken. But I wonder if that’s true. I wonder if perhaps the most honest photograph ever taken of Marilyn Monroe wasn’t just some easy moment when she was relaxed and happy and laughing in her everyday life, that’s what I like to think.
Photos used in this post not otherwise notated or credited are photo credit Richard Avedon, presented for topical discussion, no copyright infringment intended.