Marilyn Monroe: Misery into majesty

Towards the end of the film, “My Week With Marilyn” about the 1956 production of “The Prince and the Showgirl” starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, Olivier sits alone, in a dark theatre, as a scene of Monroe dancing flashes across the screen.

She is whimsical, self-possessed, incandescent.

Barely averting his eyes when his assistant enters the room, Olivier remarks that the same quality that makes Monroe a revelation to watch is also what makes her “so profoundly sad.” It reminded me what the book critic Dwight Garner said of the recently deceased novelist Wilfrid Sheed: “His pain fed his prose like an underground well.”

If “My Week With Marilyn” is about anything at all, it is a window into a star’s disconsolate emptiness. An emptiness, it suggests, that stems from a loveless childhood.

“Do your parents love you?” Monroe asks the same 23-year-old assistant, Colin Clark, whose personal account of the film’s production and his relationship with its star provides the basis for the film. “I’m sure they do,” he replies.

“You’re lucky,” Monroe says, her face full of sorrow.

History, as well as the film, suggests Monroe tried to reconcile the unrequited needs of youth with adult love affairs. During the period in which this film is concerned, Monroe had just married the playwright Arthur Miller, and although they feigned love for the cameras, there was deep discord between them. In one scene, Monroe weeps over Miller’s journals, in which he supposedly limned terribly hurtful things about her. Later, Olivier confesses to a conversation in which Miller more and less confided that he felt emotionally terrorized by Monroe.

Of course, she is well aware of her effect on men.

One night, after swallowing too many pills, she dolefully tells Clark (who is smitten with her) that the men she loves fall in love with Marilyn Monroe, and soon as they discover who she really is, abandon her. That narrative, played over and over in her head at night, blighted by pills and intensified by alcohol, overcame her rational sense.

Overwhelmed by despair and self-doubt, Monroe’s pain fueled her performance. She could be miserable one day, majestic the next—her career, the most stable force in her life. When Clark proposes she marry him and give it all up, she knows she can’t; the spotlight is her only safe space. Love can not be counted upon.

As Roger Rosenblatt, the journalist-turned-memoirist wrote in a recent book about his daughter’s death, “All I have to keep me afloat, all I ever had, is writing.” Pain sometimes has nowhere to go but to art. Even after suffering humankind’s greatest loss, the loss of a child, Rosenblatt admits, “In every heartbreak, beauty intrudes.”

Monroe, sadly, never completely realized her own beauty—the fullness of her talent, her disarming magnetism, that extraordinary comic charm. All those gifts remained, somehow, external to herself. But with extraordinary sadness swelling inside, a sadness which ultimately led to her death, she was, for many years, a vessel through which her many mesmerizing gifts were shared with the world.