The most endlessly talked-about and mythologized figure in Hollywood history, Marilyn Monroe remains the ultimate superstar, her rise and fall the stuff that both dreams and nightmares are made of. Innocent, vulnerable, and impossibly alluring, she defined the very essence of screen sexuality. Rising from pin-up girl to international superstar, she was a gifted comedienne whom the camera adored, a luminous and incomparably magnetic screen presence. In short, she had it all, yet her career and life came crashing to a tragic halt, a Cinderella story gone horribly wrong; dead before her time -- her fragile beauty trapped in amber, impervious to the ravages of age -- Monroe endures as the movies' greatest and most beloved icon, a legend eclipsing all others.
Born Norma Jean Mortensen (later Baker) on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, she was seemingly destined for a life of tragedy: Her mother spent the majority of her life institutionalized, she was raised in an endless succession of orphanages and foster homes, and she was raped at the age of eight. By 1942, she was married to one Jim Dougherty, subsequently dropping out of school to work in an aircraft production plant; within a year she attempted suicide. When Dougherty entered the military, Baker bleached her hair and began modeling. By 1946, the year of the couple's divorce, she was accredited to a top agency, and her image regularly appeared in national publications. Her photos piqued the interest of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who scheduled her for a screen test at RKO; however, 20th Century Fox beat him to the punch, and soon she was on their payroll at 125 dollars a week.
Rechristened Marilyn Monroe, she began studying at the Actors' Lab in Hollywood; however, when virtually nothing but a bit role in the juvenile delinquent picture The Dangerous Years came of her Fox contract, she signed to Columbia in 1948, where she was tutored by drama coach Natasha Lytess. There she starred in Ladies of the Chorus before they too dropped her. After briefly appearing in the 1949 Marx Brothers comedy Love Happy, she earned her first real recognition for her turn as a crooked lawyer's mistress in the 1950 John Huston thriller The Asphalt Jungle. Good notices helped Monroe win a small role in the classic All About Eve, but she otherwise continued to languish relatively unnoticed in bit parts. While she was now back in the Fox stable, studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck failed to recognize her potential, and simply mandated that she appear in any picture in need of a sexy, dumb blonde.
In 1952, RKO borrowed Monroe for a lead role in the Barbara Stanwyck picture Clash by Night. The performance brought her significant exposure, which was followed by the publication of a series of nude photos she had posed for two years prior. The resulting scandal made her a celebrity, and seemingly overnight she was the talk of Hollywood. Zanuck quickly cast her as a psychotic babysitter in a quickie project titled Don't Bother to Knock, and after a series of minor roles in other similarly ill-suited vehicles, Monroe starred in 1953's Niagara, which took full advantage of her sexuality to portray her as a sultry femme fatale. However, lighter, more comedic fare was Monroe's strong suit, as evidenced by her breakout performance in the Howard Hawks musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Like its follow-up How to Marry a Millionaire (just the second film shot in the new CinemaScope process), the picture was among the year's top-grossing ventures, and her newfound stardom was cemented.
After starring in the 1954 Western River of No Return, Monroe continued to make headlines by marrying New York Yankees baseball great Joe DiMaggio. She also made a much-publicized appearance singing for American troops in Korea, and -- in a telling sign of things to come -- created a flap by failing to show up on the set of the movie The Girl in Pink Tights. As far back as 1952, Monroe had earned a reputation for her late on-set arrivals, but The Girl in Pink Tights was the first project she boycotted outright on the weakness of the material. The studio suspended her, and only after agreeing to instead star in the musical There's No Business Like Show Business did she return to work. After starring in the 1955 Billy Wilder comedy The Seven Year Itch, Monroe again caused a stir, this time for refusing the lead in How to Be Very, Very Popular. In response, she fled to New York to study under Lee Strasburg at the Actors' Studio in an attempt to forever rid herself of the dumb blonde stereotype.
In New York, Monroe met playwright Arthur Miller, whom she wed following the disintegration of her marriage to DiMaggio. In the meantime, her relationship with Fox executives continued to sour, but after pressure from stockholders -- and in light of her own financial difficulties -- she was signed to a new, non-exclusive seven-year deal which not only bumped her salary to 100,000 dollars per film, but also allowed her approval of directors. For her first film under the new contract, Monroe delivered her most accomplished performance to date in Joshua Logan's 1956 adaptation of the William Inge Broadway hit Bus Stop. She then starred opposite Laurence Olivier in 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl. Two years later, she co-starred in Wilder's classic Some Like It Hot, her most popular film yet. However, despite her success, Monroe's life was in disarray -- her marriage to Miller was crumbling, and her long-standing reliance on alcohol and drugs continued to grow more and more serious.
After starring in George Cukor's Let's Make Love with Yves Montand, Monroe began work on the Miller-penned The Misfits; the film was her final completed project, as she frequently clashed with director John Huston and co-stars Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, often failed to appear on-set, and was hospitalized several times for depression. In light of her erratic behavior on the set of the follow-up, the ironically titled Something's Got to Give, she was fired 32 days into production and slapped with a lawsuit. Just two months later, on August 5, 1962, Monroe was dead. The official cause was an overdose of barbiturates, although the truth will likely never be revealed. Her alleged affairs with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, have been the focus of much speculation regarding the events leading to her demise, but many decades later fact and fantasy are virtually impossible to separate. In death, as in life, the legend of Marilyn Monroe continues to grow beyond all expectation.