After Blonde, I’m going right to the source—Marilyn Monroe’s movies.
Ever since reading the book Blonde and then watching the Netflix adaptation, I’ve been on a Marilyn Monroe kick. The book, a highly fictionalized imagining of Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates, piqued my interest about Marilyn’s real, actual life. The Netflix movie, on the other hand, gave Marilyn short shrift, reducing her to trauma, a lot of which wasn’t even based on fact. It offered little to nothing about her ambition, skill, and artistry. So, I’m working on watching (or rewatching) all of the Marilyn Monroe movies I can get my hands on.
Niagara is one of the movies mentioned in the book Blonde, and one that I had never heard of before. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I was logging into my Hoopla library app one night and saw that one of the movies they had available for the month of February (for free with my library card!) was Niagara. I borrowed it, hooked up my computer to my television screen, and settled in for a Saturday night of some old school noir Hollywood deliciousness.
Set against Niagara Falls, Marilyn Monroe portrays Rose, a femme fatale possessing two of the most powerful weapons: an erotic body and an evil mind.
Niagara Falls was its own character in this movie. It permeated everything. It was setting, soundtrack, and mood. Events were driven by the Niagara Falls location and setup as a tourist destination. Characters were often outfitted in thick rain slickers to protect them from the Niagara Falls spray. The Falls were beautiful and dangerous, serving as a metaphor for not only the femme fatale herself but also the danger inherent in the passions of relationships. Thematically, it’s a place where people go to honeymoon, but also a place where the dark and tragic side of coupledom plays out.
Scriptwriters back in the day really knew what they were doing. I’ve watched a few movies over the past months that came from Hollywood’s golden age, and was struck by the skill of the storytelling. I’m talking about structure, foreshadowing, effective use of secondary characters, bookending. The dialogue is sharp and natural, explains stuff and reveals character. One example of this in Niagara is the introduction of the second couple vacationing at Niagara Falls. They were both mirror and foil to the unit of Marilyn Monroe and her troubled husband. They also served as a stand-in for the audience, and embodied the stakes as the intrigue increased. Who hasn’t had the experience of just trying to relax and mind your own business, yet end up getting sucked into somebody else’s drama?
An ex of mine once described Marilyn Monroe as effervescent. I hate to give him credit for anything, but I get it now. Despite strong performances from the other actors, whose characters had weight and heft, Marilyn’s a scene stealer. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her; she’s like a sunbeam.
It was fun to see her playing a femme fatale, someone with edge and layers of deception. This role was different from the “clueless blonde”. Marilyn got to be cunning and proactive and direct. She had this range of masks: one minute she’s lighthearted and affectionate, the next she’s plotting behind someone’s back, the next she’s soulful and yearning. All the while she’s deploying her physicality to great affect, while somehow above it all at the same time.
She also displayed a range of raw emotion. In one scene she’s having a visceral reaction to something, but she can’t let on to the person who’s with her how affected she is. These warring instincts played out across her face beautifully.
I think that because Marilyn embodies the blonde bombshell icon so brilliantly, people assumed that’s who she really was while dismissing the skill and artistry that went into it. That which she made look effortless was taken for granted. Then there’s the double edged sword of sexism, where women are defined by, reduced to, and reviled for their sexuality, often at the same time. Marilyn’s striking physicality underscores her femme fatale role yet also makes her ethereal, not quite of this world. It was fun to see her get to play with the role. Really chew on the darkness and the deception.
A friend of mine once said of Marilyn Monroe, “That’s acting. All that sex symbol stuff, people think she’s really like that. No. She’s acting. She’s an amazing actress.”
Have you seen Niagara? What are some of your favorite Marilyn Monroe movies?
For another perspective on Marilyn Monroe‘s artistry and legacy, check out this recent podcast from “It’s Been a Minute.”