NEW YORK » Only 11 years after her death, Elton John sang his ode to Marilyn Monroe. "And I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid," went the lyrics. "Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."
What John didn’t know was how much truer his words would ring a few decades later.
Monroe died a half-century ago today, a murky death that remains one of Hollywood’s most tantalizing mysteries. But her legend lives on, more vibrantly than ever. In a development this fiercely ambitious actress surely would have appreciated, the 1950s bombshell has become a 21st-century pop culture phenomenon.
Just flip through a celebrity magazine. Some of-the-moment young starlet or pop singer will be channeling (or outright appropriating) those platinum locks, the bright red lips, moist and slightly parted, and that joyously, almost defiantly curvy figure, sheathed in something skin-tight and glamorous.
Was that Marilyn on the red carpet at last year’s Teen Choice Awards? No, it was Taylor Swift, wearing a white halter-style dress just like Marilyn’s in "The Seven Year Itch," in which the actress stood atop a subway grate and let the breeze of a passing train lift her skirts. (Oh, and that dress? It sold at auction last year for a mind-boggling $5.6 million, including commission.)
Was that Marilyn in the Dolce & Gabbana ad a while back? No, it was Scarlett Johansson, all white-blond hair and ruby lips. And there was Charlize Theron in a Dior ad last year, meeting up with the real Marilyn, not to mention Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, via CGI. Magazine spreads have featured Nicole Kidman, Lindsay Lohan, Rihanna, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis and others having their Marilyn moment.
Madonna, of course, has famously appropriated Monroe’s look into her image. So have singers Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani. In June, on what would have been Marilyn’s 86th birthday, Lady Gaga tweeted "Happy Birthday Marilyn — They’ll never take our blonde hair and lipstick," along with a picture of herself, Monroe-like. Nicki Minaj says she’s "obsessed with Marilyn Monroe."
On the big screen, actress Williams earned an Oscar nomination for her moving portrayal of Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." And one of TV’s most popular new shows is "Smash" on NBC, which follows a Broadway musical based on Marilyn’s life, with two actresses competing to play her.
Heck, there’s even been a giant Marilyn traversing the country. The 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound statue of the actress, white dress billowing and undies showing, by artist Seward Johnson, is now resting in Palm Springs, Calif.
There are plans for much more — thanks to the purchase in late 2010 of Monroe’s estate, which includes her image, by Authentic Brands Group and its partner, NECA. The company’s CEO, Jamie Salter, says he aims to upgrade the Marilyn brand by moving away from cheap souvenirs and developing Marilyn-themed cosmetic lines, spas and salons, sportswear, swimwear, footwear, handbags and more. There are even plans for the inevitable Marilyn Monroe reality show, in which young women would compete to become a new Hollywood icon.
BUT JUST what is the secret of Marilyn’s enduring appeal? It depends on whom you ask — and that’s fitting, really, because Monroe, more than other iconic celebrities, was different things to different people.
There was, most simply, Marilyn the actress — a Marilyn that often got lost in all the hype, despite her desperate aspirations to be taken seriously. Film historian Leonard Maltin laments that many people know Marilyn "as an image and an icon" but not as an actress.
Monroe showed off her dramatic chops in "The Misfits," for example, and "Bus Stop." But she is probably best remembered for her delightful comic turns in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee who sang "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend" in that classic pink gown; as the sensuous but ditzy Girl in "The Seven Year Itch"; and as sexy band singer Sugar Kane in "Some Like it Hot."
"Marilyn just leaps off the screen," says Maltin. "She has a luminosity that transcends everything else."
Still, an entire younger generation is enamored of her for something completely different, says Brandon Holley, editor of Lucky magazine, which draws women in their 20s and 30s.
"I think most women under 40 haven’t seen her movies," Holley says. "For them she’s a style type — the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot of women identify with that."
Christopher Nickens agrees. "Marilyn was the epitome of a certain kind of feminine ideal," says the co-author of the recently released "Marilyn in Fashion," a rare look at Monroe’s influence in that field. Her key fashion legacy, he says, was to bring body-conscious clothes into everyday life.
Though she wasn’t seen as a fashion icon during her lifetime, Nickens thinks Marilyn shared something with other style icons like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. "They didn’t follow trends," he says. "It’s about knowing yourself and what works for you, and having that confidence."
Confidence isn’t necessarily something one associates with Monroe, of course. In that Elton John song, "Candle in the Wind," she’s a beautiful innocent victimized by a terrible Hollywood machine — people who "whispered into your brain" and "set you on the treadmill" and "made you change your name."
That falls into a familiar victim narrative about Monroe, who was indeed victimized as a young girl, according to multiple biographers. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes, and there are allegations she suffered sexual abuse.
But a victim of Hollywood? Monroe’s latest biographer, Lois Banner, begs to differ. She says Monroe the movie star "was a constructed image" — one the actress herself worked very hard to invent, from the dyed hair (Norma Jeane was a brunette) to the makeup, that breathy voice and the famous "wiggle walk."
And her dumb-blonde screen image? Nothing like her, says Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. "She was extremely intelligent."
But why has Marilyn’s appeal only gotten stronger? "First of all, she died very young," says Banner, freezing her image for eternity. But another reason is the existence of thousands of photographs of Marilyn, bursting with life. "She’s conceivably the most photographed person of the 20th century," says Banner. The author’s third reason is more cynical: "There’s a lot of people making money off her," she says.
WHICH brings us back to Salter, whose company is also using social networking to court a young consumer base for the Marilyn brand.
On Facebook, Marilyn has 3 million-plus fans, 70 percent of them under the age of 24. She also has some 53,000 Twitter followers. Salter’s brand vision? "To seduce the world with products that capture the iconic personality, style, glamour and elegance of the legendary actress," according to the promotional materials.
"Look at what Marilyn was," Salter says in a telephone interview. "She’s a total fashion icon. She invented the red carpet. She knew her brand."
"I’ve got the best model in the whole world."