Thursday, August 05, 2004

Miss Golden Dreams: Marilyn Monroe

Oates has written in Blonde a class analysis of how the studio exploited Marilyn Monroe, but not a ‘30s literary Marxism such as Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath whose basic plot has the worker hero, at first mistreated, becomes enlightened enough to join a strike against the often stereotypic bosses. Oates' much more sophisticated ‘90s class analysis is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's Marxist exploration of new technology such as photography and film. While Benjamin finds them sources of liberation, Oates elaborates on Benajim, showing how studio bosses marketed poor girls like Norma Jeane Baker as sexpots as part of this new film industry.

Oates’ class analysis of the film industry is new terrain for the working class novel. The author is highly critical of how the studio exploited her heroine, starting with an initiation into her new job as brutal as any factory worker's. The novelist captures the heroine's vulnerability in the heartbreaking "Hummingbird" chapter describing how in her first meeting with the studio boss he sexually assaults Norma like some hummingbird he's impaled. Bleeding and wounded, she limped out of the office to go to her all-important audition. Then she went see her agent meeting with another studio executive Mr. X as the two want to discard her name Norma Jeane which the two men consider too hick. She listened as the two choose "Marilyn Monroe" for the sexy repetitive quality of it, which they thought spelled glamour. They named her as if they were a box of cereal.

Oates goes far beyond 1930s literary Marxism in describing how a person is reinvented in the film industry. The studio bosses marketed “Marilyn” by turning her into an object they had created with the bleached impossibly blonde hair, the Kewpie doll walk and tight clothes. Before premieres of “Marilyn’s” movies the narrator describes how Norma Jeane suffered being turned into an object: during the five-hour make-up and costuming sessions studio employees sewed Norma into a gown and gave her such high heels she could barely walk. There was physical torture for the woman who transformed into eye candy.

The studios objectification of their actresses intensified when one had emotional problems: the studio doctors gave her drugs, paving the way for her addiction to prescription drugs. After all, the studio had an investment in their stars, and drugging them up was a way to protect their investment as if their stars were machinery that could be easily ‘fixed.” The studio bosses, who had extracted sexual favors from Norma Jeane in return for her first jobs, called her a stupid slut, denigrating her all the time. The bosses at the same time collected the millions she made for them and since they had her on long-term contract she had signed when a starlet, refusing her reasonable requests for raises. After ten years of this treatment when Marilyn was falling apart while making a movie, one studio boss lamented to another that Monroe will only last ten years while [Betty] Grable lasted twenty years as if “Marilyn” was, unfortunately, some expensive piece of machinery that was falling apart ahead of schedule.

FBI and anti-Communism are important elements of this novel of the late 1940s and 1950s. Throughout the book Norma is attracted to men involved with the left wing, but the first three betray her. Otto Ose, the photographer, introduced her to Marxism but then told her to shut up and just pose nude for him. Ose was later subpoenaed by the state of California anti-Communist committee and disappeared from the novel. Her lover Cass Chaplin, Jr., who was once a left-winger, loved her but busied himself with drugs and other sexual partners betraying her through infidelity.

Her agent Shinn, who called in his connections to help push her career, was her third betrayer. When Norma expressed to Shinn her anger at the blacklist and admiration of Chaplin Sr. who stood up to the witch hunters, Shinn continually warned her against signing any petitions, saying she doesn’t have to think but only be: "Nobody wants tortured metaphysical crap out of that luscious mouth." Shinn was once a left-winger, but now he was Mr. Fix It, helping actors who were being investigated as Communists convince the witch hunters they’ve reformed. By the early 1950s the Hollywood Left was either on the run from anti-Communists like Ose; drugged, impotent, and depoliticized like Chaplin, Jr.; or converted to the Right like Shinn.

Blonde is quite different from ‘30s proletarian fiction that usually celebrates solidarity. Except for an occasional brave act of defiance, Norma went along with Shinn and the studio bosses, letting them rename, manufacture and market her, her working class feelings going underground. Again, she’s symbolic of America whose working class consciousness went underground in the early 1950s.

In another short but amazing chapter "The Birth” Oates has "Marilyn Monroe" born in the year 1950 when Norma Jeane looked at the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She thought that with such dreadful post-war realities as death camps and Hiroshima people will need an escape, need eye candy even more in that new decade when her persona Marilyn Monroe was let loose on the world. In her nude calendar photos she’s called “Miss Golden Dreams,” so Oates has described the creation of a Miss Golden Dreams, the emblematic heroine of the 1950s. Oates is both masterfully analyzing the film industry but also the psyche of America in the 1950s. She analyzes one working class woman as well as a major American cultural industry. Oates refuses to just write the story of marginalized workers of proletarian fiction but follows Dos Passos in creating an epic that analyzes American culture itself and its iconic heroine of the last fifty years: Miss Golden Dreams.


lizzybee said...

I appreciated greatly your comments on Blonde- I am in the middle of the novel at the moment and happened upon the site as I searched the web to substantiate Otto Ose and Mr. Shinn. I will know that these characters are real people. It is a fascinating insight. form

lux lux said...

Thank you! A skilfully observed but very readable intro to the book and it's issues. I'm studying literature and visual culture and just picked the novel up today at the library on a whim. It took that scene where she poses for Otto Ose for me to realise the allegory at work, the fact that Marilyn is literally a work of art in the 'Age of Mechanical Production':) But your article has really helped, I'm off to write an essay now so thanks for the help!!!