Marilyn Lost and Found

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Despite holding up shooting for a month, Monroe insisted on attending President Kennedy's May 16 birthday party at New York's Madison Square Garden, and did, angering the studio brass even further. It was there she famously sang "Happy Birthday to You," breathily fellating every syllable. The documentary captures an eerie moment before her song: Peter Lawford introduces the chronically tardy actress as "the late Marilyn Monroe." Standing next to Lawford, she seems nonplussed by the gag — and not in a deadpan, dumb-blonde way. Neither, of course, could have guessed that within three months she would indeed be the late Marilyn Monroe.

When shooting resumed back in Los Angeles, Monroe showed up but refused closeups. Then she refused to do scenes with Martin, because he had a cold and she was apprehensive of catching it. On her 36th birthday, a Friday, she appeared at a Muscular Dystrophy benefit at Dodger Stadium and caught a cold. The following Monday she called in sick — for the 17th time in 30 days of shooting. That cracked it for Cukor. He told gossip doyenne Hedda Hopper that Monroe was off the picture; Hopper speculated it meant the "end of her career." And indeed, on June 8, she was officially fired. Something finally gave on "Something's Got to Give." The Fox bosses had forced themselves to answer the question that, at some time, must cross the mind of every studio executive: How much crap do I have to put up with before I tell a big star it's over?

The studio, unwilling to lose a big investment, tried to keep the project going by offering Monroe's part to Kim Novak and Shirley MacLaine; both said no. Lee Remick was asked and quickly signed. When Martin heard this, he resigned. Marilyn then launched a campaign to resuscitate the picture with herself as star. She dickered more reasonably with the studio (agreeing to do without Paula Strasberg's counsel) and, between June 20 and July 15, sat for five interviews with journalists. At the end of one long conversation with Life Magazine's Richard Meryman, she made a plaintive plea: "Don't make me a joke." Marilyn Monroe thought she was Jayne Mansfield.

Fox revived the project, with Monroe in and Cukor out. Fox veteran Jean Negulesco (who had directed "How to Marry a Millionaire") was assigned to take over. But before the project got under way, Marilyn was dead.

Would "Something's Got to Give" ever have been a decent movie? It's hard to tell, on the basis of the 37-min. reconstruction. There's not much promise in the situation, and the dialogue has a few innuendos that are, by the standards of the time, gross. (Cox, as a wimpy shoe salesman Marilyn has seductively invited to lunch, says "I bring my lunch to the store," and she, turning on the cartoon-Marilyn voice, replies, "I'd be so grateful if you'd ... take it out.") But of course the picture was shut down because Monroe was too rarely captured on film; so there's precious little of her on display here. What's there, though, is pretty precious. She's got glamour, fabulous comic timing and an awareness of her sexuality — that gift or curse that turned every adult male into a panting teenage Romeo.

I was a teenager when Monroe died. She had never been quite my type; I liked my goddesses with a touch of class and a bit of a Brit accent: beloved Audrey, smoldery taunting Grace Kelly. But I doted on Marilyn as a singer, on her wittily tremulous reading of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and especially her interpretation of "I'm Thru With Love" in "Some Like It Hot" — a romantic elegy with the thrilling, trilling throb of regret.

That rendition played in my mind the week she died. From that moment of mourning I remember two other things: the grace of the TIME obituary (written, I later learned, by John McPhee) and my naive certitude that, if only she'd known me, she wouldn't have taken those pills. I'll wager that millions of males felt an identical idiot pang of egotistical gallantry. If I'm right, it indicates that even then we understood that Marilyn's siren call was, in part, the cry of a lost child.

Monroe knew this better than anyone, because she lived it. After all, she had been deserted by her father before she was born; abandoned to a series of foster homes by her beautiful, mad mother, an assistant film editor at RKO. She had come close to being smothered to death at two, to being raped at six. It's trite, but true, to say that her movie career amounted to looking for (and finding) love in all the wrong places. "I knew I belonged to the public and to the world," she said, "not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I never had belonged to anything or anyone else." Many abandoned children never learn to love themselves; many of the abused turn into crafty abusers. Monroe's habitual lateness on the set, her need to exasperate the men who directed her, can be seen as stern tests of the adults in charge. I've been naughty, the abused child says; love me or punish me. Finally, fatally, Monroe punished herself.

You could say she punished all of us who wanted to let a lovely star continue to grow, to vex her coworkers and astonish her audience. To be witness to that maturing, couldn't we have done without one more cautionary fable in the brutality of starmaking? So it's best to consider the "Something's Got to Give" footage not as the last moments of Monroe on film, but a glimpse of what else she had in her.

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