Bookish and traumatised: the real Marilyn Monroe comes to Venice

·4-min read

Sixty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe is back in the limelight as the subject of the buzzy Netflix biopic 'Blonde', which premiers at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday.

Based on the bestselling, semi-fictionalised book by Joyce Carol Oates, it is a dark retelling of the iconic actress's life that lifts the lid on the trauma and fierce intelligence behind the bubbly, sexualised image of the time.

It looks set to propel Cuban actress Ana de Armas into the A-list and is directed by Australian Andrew Dominik, who has made two other darkly poetic biopics -- "Chopper" and "The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford".

These are five lesser-known facts about Marilyn that have become far more important to her story in recent years:

- Troubled childhood -

There was glamour galore in her adult life but Marilyn's childhood, when she was called Norma Jeane, was a very different story.

She grew up partly with her mother but when Gladys Monroe was placed in a psychiatric hospital, her young daughter was shuttled between orphanages and foster homes.

She developed a stutter which a therapist helped her manage.

She never knew her real father and for several years believed her mother's account that he had died.

His true identity was only confirmed in 2022 in a French television documentary, which revealed after DNA tests that her biological father was Charles Stanley Gifford, a colleague of her mother's at a film production company.

- Bookish with big ambitions -

In the years since Marilyn's death a more complex picture has emerged of the actress and singer, who was objectified as the definitive "blonde bombshell" pin-up.

Marilyn was not only an avid reader but also tried her hand at poetry and yearned for challenging acting roles, including the complex female protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s "The Brothers Karamazov".

The shelves of her library were filled with classics by writers including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert.

In the clearest sign of her serious acting ambitions, she broke out of the Hollywood cocoon just when her career was taking off to join the prestigious Actor's Studio school in New York.

Of all the students that passed through its doors, director Lee Strasberg said two pupils shone brighter than the rest -- Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe.

- Elevated Ella Fitzgerald -

Among Marilyn's role models was Abraham Lincoln. She would make her own mark on the civil rights movement, helping to elevate jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald at a time when racism was rife in the United States.

As Fitzgerald liked to recount, Marilyn used her star power to get her a gig at famous Los Angeles night club, the Mocambo.

Marilyn told the owner if Fitzgerald got a run on stage, she would sit up front each night, assuring big business for the bar.

It was a deal and a jazz star was born.

- Rebel with a cause -

Decades before MeToo, Marilyn was challenging the male-dominated studio system.

As early as 1953, she published an article in the industry magazine Motion Pictures Magazine calling out the "wolves I have known" prowling and exploiting young women.

"Girls in every walk of life have to take great care that they don't find themselves just another scalp on some man’s belt," she wrote in a remarkably candid article.

A year later, she founded her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, with the photographer Milton Greene.

- Mystery to the grave -

Marilyn's shock death at the age of 36 remains a mystery and source of widespread speculation.

"Probable suicide" was the coroner's conclusion but many have debated whether the act was accidental or intentional. Some speculate she may even have been murdered, following rumours of romantic entanglements with US President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby.

She was discovered in bed at home on August 5, 1962, with one hand holding the telephone. No note was found.

Her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, did not attend her funeral but her second husband and lifelong friend, baseball star Joe DiMaggio did. The pair had reportedly been planning to remarry on August 8, the day she was buried.

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