Niagra—that underrated shocking pink, fake gold, candy-apple red noir—is proof that Marilyn Monroe could have been a great dramatic actress.* In that film she plays a femme fatale crass operator who is performing Monroe's signature wiggles and breathy pouts, catnip to men, to render them pathetically helpless. As murderous pleasure-seeker Rose Loomis, Monroe flashes glimpses of a cracked and rough character underneath all that shellac. While these subtle turns in characterization flaunt Monroe's basic chops as a performer, she would never again present that conflict (between self-awareness versus her "oops" innocent effect) as a simple binary opposition. Instead she would later use instinct and technique to embody these two opposing truths at once, which is the essence of comedy. Monroe could have been a great dramatic actress, but was instead a brilliant quicksilver comedienne who illustrated the comic effect of that kind of catnip. Or, as the exalted cinematographer Jack Cardiff stated, "She wasn't an actress. She was a genius."
Her next film, her best, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, ends with a line delivered in what would become her comic trademark, a down-to-earth anti-logic: "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she is pretty, but, my goodness, doesn't it help?" While there is a proto-feminist practicality in this parity based on difference not equality, with Monroe's alien savant delivery it can't be taken too seriously. But this upside down comic logic does upend the typical male point-of-view; by refusing common logic, Monroe also refuses typical patriarchal assumptions, delivering refreshing truths in breathy, cockeyed aphorisms. She owns the female point-of-view unapologetically.
Monroe is often depicted as calculating, but since the girl can't help it, since she cannot help the catnip effect of her curves, she is without control. How can someone be calculating in a way that is out of her control? In part, through knowledge. With exaggerated wiggles accompanied by winces, slightly pained with every swish, Monroe shows a feminine paradox; her power is not hers, this power belongs to its effect on him, and so belongs to him. The difference between Jane Mansfield's aggressive genius depiction of "The Girl who Can't Help It" and Marilyn Monroe's woozy vulnerability is that Monroe shows that knowledge of this paradox is a comic tragedy, or a tragic comedy.
"My dramatic coach, Natasha Lytess, tells everybody that I have a great soul, but so far nobody's interested in it," she said. There was passive-aggressiveness in the way she responded to knowledge of this disinterest. She was notoriously late and had a reputation as a flake. She would aggravate others in turn as much as their disrespect aggravated her, while also making them admit that she was good, simply because they would put up with it; they would wait. Also, this aura of ineptitude was apparently part of her technique. According to a Jonathan Rosenbaum's article on Monroe's intelligence on the set of Fritz Lang's Clash by Night, Monroe spoiled 27 takes of a scene by flubbing her one line that came after a series of intricate moves by others on a boat. Monroe later admitted, "I just didn't like the way the scene was going. When I liked it, I said it perfectly." Her strategies were airheaded intelligence in action; her brilliance was comprehensive.
According to biographer Sarah Churchwell, Monroe kept an edition of Freud's letters on her bedside table. What did she do with this knowledge? This literary knowledge of what Freud knew of women combined with an instinctive, emotional knowledge about what he might have overlooked? In Contesting Tears, Stanley Cavell uses Freudian descriptions of hysterics to describe the talents of certain actresses: "The aptitude demands, for example, what Freud calls ‘somatic compliance,' together with high intelligence, a plastic imagination, and hallucinatory absences." All of these are visible in Monroe's performances, particularly in the films she made after 1956, which show lessons learned from a stint at the Actor's Studio. In tapping into past pain, Monroe was tapping into childhood traumas, blank spots unprocessed and out of reach of adult comprehension. These "hallucinatory absences," as Freud described them, are visible on screen, usually in wonky black holes of reason, in comedy, rather than in typical Method actors' self-swallowing (and word-swallowing) introspection. The intensity with which she channeled her own past, the osmotic way she absorbed everyone's energy she got within a foot of, and her irrepressible gift for perfect comic timing delivered with soft weary irony, all combined into her singular talent.
The scene below from The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) clearly illustrates this particular comic skill. The crew, including director Lawrence Olivier, had been incredibly frustrated with Monroe's unprofessional fumbling on set, but as soon as they saw the rushes became convinced that she was the best thing in the film. The awkward-seeming wiggles that bookend this scene are actually smooth, deliberate fumbles illustrating specific internal thoughts. Monroe does react to co-star Olivier, but she is limited by his (character's?) limited view of her, so she really plays the scene with herself, reacting to her own inner dialogue. ("I just love my own company," she says just before this clip.)
"You made a pass, and I turned it down. That's all that happened. We can still be friendly," Monroe says, casually deflating Olivier's overwrought, ego-shattered Prince by a reminder that what is a climatic turning point for their relationship for him, a rejection, is perhaps just an everyday occurrence for her. What is the end of a movement for him, and perhaps the end of relating, for her signifies the beginning of a chance to be friends, to be "friendly," to be funny. She doesn't just laugh but guffaws at and literally shoves away his hackneyed advances. He starts to retreat and to seem smaller in the scene as her knowledge of this routine is revealed. This is her power, not her sexual power but her knowledge. And what was construed as her power, was actually powerlessness outside of her control. Elizabeth Taylor responded to this feminine power paradox with anger; Kim Novak with soulful weariness; Marilyn Monroe with laughter, with physical comedy. Also in Contesting Tears, Cavell quotes Freud declaring that "the leap from a mental process to a somatic innervation [in which nervous excitation is ‘converted' somatically] can never be fully comprehensible to us." Cavell goes on to write, "a claim I find suspicious coming from him, as though he wishes sometimes to appear to know less than he does, or feel he does, about the power of women."
BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York will be continuing their Marilyn Monroe retrospective, Marilyn!, through July 17. The Prince and the Showgirl screens Friday, July 15.