Saturday, March 20, 2010

Goddess and Genius

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller

By David Luhrssen
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Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were the 20th century’s real-life odd couple. Hollywood married Manhattan when they hooked up, big breasts coupled with big brains, the effervescent sex kitten went arm in arm with the scowling intellectual.

Rather than merely add another book to the Monroe shelf, biographer Jeffrey Meyers decided to focus on her relationship with the great playwright in The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller & Marilyn Monroe (published by University of Illinois Press). But although the book’s original research was based on the author’s friendship with Miller, the gravitational pull of the actress proved stronger than any other force. The biography is mostly Monroe, recapitulating her life with an emphasis on Miller as the last of her three husbands and perhaps her final failed chance at contentment in a relationship.

Although Meyers is not an unfailingly astute film critic (what’s not to like about The Seven Year Itch?), he is not without insight into the human condition as lived out by the subjects of his book. Miller is straightforward enough. The son of a prosperous Jewish family traumatized by the Great Depression, he was in conflict with his father and yet was “stable, purposeful, educated and confident.” Monroe’s childhood was erratic at best and cruel at worst. While Miller’s generalizations are plausible, describing her as feeling fully secure with men only when they desired her, yet she enjoyed being escorted by gay men.

And that’s only one of the apparent paradoxes in Meyers’ account. The Monroe that skulks among the pages is puzzling, an unstable construct of contradictions. She appears to be a self-loathing narcissist, always in need of attention yet cutting out those who paid her the attention she craved. “There is never sufficient explanation for the commotion of her soul,” Meyers quotes one observer. He even hedges on the cause of Monroe’s death. “She may have died of an accidental overdose,” Meyers begins, “she may have been a deliberate suicide or (as some think) the victim of a politically motivated homicide: we’ll never know for sure.”

The Genius and the Goddess is best for its chronicle of Miller’s years with Monroe, and the psychology of their relationship. She actually wanted to be taken seriously, to “improve her mind” in the words of the era, and what better feet to sit at than one of America’s greatest living writers Of course, after spending each other in sex, they had little to talk about. Miller is depicted as trying hard to please her and finally giving up altogether.

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