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Marilyn Monroe will always be with us

Ryan Gosling performing “I’m Just Ken” at the 96th Oscars; Marilyn Monroe performing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Marilyn Monroe’s image is omnipresent, so much so it’s as if she hasn’t been dead for the past 62 years.

She was at the recent 96th Academy Awards in spirit. Ryan Gosling played tribute to her in his “I’m Just Ken” song and dance number from “Barbie,” the highlight of the Oscars telecast. Dressed in a rhinestone-adorned fuchsia suit, dark glasses and leather gloves, and surrounded by dozens of tuxedoed fellow Kens on a pink staircase, Gosling summoned memories of Monroe’s most famous dance scene, her “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” romp in the 1953 film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Monroe’s everlasting image, and her complete command of it, reminded me of an interview I did in 2012 with photographer Lawrence Schiller, who was 25 in 1962 when Monroe disrobed for his lens at a swimming pool on the 20th Century Fox set of “Something’s Got to Give,” a movie the actress didn’t live long enough to finish.

Schiller’s photo spread and memories of the shoot, the subject of a glossy book by Taschen, were revealing in more ways than one. Far from being a case of voyeurs manipulating Monroe, it was Monroe manipulating voyeurs.

She knew what she was doing and what she wanted to show the world: how good she still looked and how sexy she still was at the age of 36.

Monroe was also keen to one-up Elizabeth Taylor, whom she considered her chief rival. Taylor that year was to earn $1 million for starring in “Cleopatra”; Monroe would get $100,000 for “Something’s Got to Give.”

“This was a smart woman,” Schiller said, when I contacted him at his New York apartment. He compiled more photos and memories for “Marilyn & Me,” a book by Doubleday that Taschen release as a deluxe volume.

“When I said to her, ‘You’re a smart woman, you’re already famous, and now you’re going to make me famous,’” she looked up and said, “’Why are you so cocky, Larry?’”

Why indeed? Schiller had photographed Monroe once before, on the set of 1960’s “Let’s Make Love," so he was familiar with her. But the only reason he was back for the second session was because he’d passed muster with her.

“She’d been run over by so many trucks in her life, by the time you get to 1960 or 1962, this woman had to be savvy,” Schiller said. “She didn’t have a business manager.”

Rare for the time, and even rarer now, Monroe had absolute last word on any photo snapped of her. The paparazzi phenomenon hadn’t yet started, and digital photography, cell phone cameras and the rapacious Internet were still decades away.

Monroe insisted that photographers audition for the right to photograph her. She would then demand they show up at her office or home with contact sheets that she’d examine with a small magnifying glass she kept with her.

She would “X” out the photos she didn’t like, and then take a pair of pinking shears to destroy the negatives. A shoot of 100 or more pictures might result in only a few photos that Monroe approved. Those were the rules.

“With Marilyn Monroe, photographers were like a sponge preserving or soaking up what it was that she had,” Schiller recalled.

“Put Marilyn in front of a camera, and she did it. She knew what she wanted to look like. You might suggest the clothes or arrange the lighting, but you didn’t tell Marilyn what to do. That’s why she was different with every single photographer. She knew what was right for her.”

There was also much more public respect for private lives back in 1962. Gossip mags whispered of illicit affairs involving Hollywood stars, but the stories were often designed to enhance legends, not to tear them down.

If you didn’t give Monroe what she wanted, Schiller said, you didn’t get invited back into her intimate circle.

“Somebody asked me yesterday, why did she trust me? I said Marilyn Monroe didn’t trust me; I don’t think she trusted anybody. I think she gambled with Larry Schiller. She gambled with me that I was young enough and had enough chutzpah and was able to deliver.”

There was no TMZ or other such sites to show stars at their worst, as we so often see today: sans makeup, with puffy eyes and splotchy faces, every excess ounce displayed as a high-def horror show.

There was also no Photoshop or other digital sorcery, making it harder to hide the tiny roll of tummy that you can see in some of Schiller’s shots.

Monroe still had tricks to make her nude form look as good as possible. One frame from Marilyn & Me shows makeup man Whitey Snyder dabbing something onto her naked back at pool’s edge, a powder or some shiny gel to hide or enhance something.

“Fox should start paying as much attention to me as they are paying to Elizabeth Taylor,” Monroe said to Schiller during the shoot.

She got all the attention she wanted, and then some, but she didn’t live to enjoy the career surge her calculated move brought. She appeared on the cover of Life and Paris Match magazines soon after the pool session, and she was the talk of newspapers worldwide. More explicit photos would appear in Playboy, but not until more than a year after her death.

She’s a bigger star today than she was in her brief life, as the recent flurry of Monroe projects and tributes show. Schiller, who would later go on to become a movie producer and author (with friend Norman Mailer), says he can’t imagine how she’d cope with today’s 24/7 media environment.

“In those days, you could control the media. Sadly, I don’t think Marilyn Monroe could exist in today’s world. She’s a product of her time, just as Lady Gaga is a product of her time.

“I think there’s another reason (why she succeeded). I think Marilyn didn’t offend women. Women were never insulted that their husband and boyfriend were looking at a picture of Marilyn Monroe. You can offend a man and get away with it. You cannot get away with offending women.

“She was instinctively the kind of woman that women understood. She was a sympathetic figure to them, because of her miscarriages and husband problems. Her sexuality didn’t offend women.”

But Monroe was also incredibly canny about her image and used it to further her immodest ambitions. She wanted attention and she got it, and shall forevermore.

She also went to her grave with at least two secrets people have long speculated upon: did she have affairs with president John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy?

Schiller got to see a lot of Monroe and the people she kept company with, and he knew that RFK numbered amongst them. He would later become one of RFK’s official photographers. Schiller has suspicions, but no proof.

“I wasn’t in the bedroom of any of them. I think she desired John F. Kennedy but I don’t think she got near him. I don’t think she desired Bobby as much, but I think she got near him. But you can’t prove a negative. It’s not for me to say.”

Even in death, Marilyn Monroe has the final say about who she really was. And as Ryan Gosling’s Oscars song-and-dance showed, her image is everlasting.

(This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star.)

Photo of buff-and-bathing Monroe by Lawrence Schiller, used as the cover of “Marilyn & Me.”


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