Sixty years after Marilyn Monroe’s death, the blond bombshell is still remembered as a tragic figure—a passive victim of a patriarchal Hollywood. But as Monroe’s friend, 92-year-old Amy Greene, tells us, “She was never a victim, sweetheart. Never in a million years. She was a young, vital woman who loved life, loved parties, and had a good time.”
Greene has been saying this for about 60 years, since Monroe was her roommate, occasional babysitter to her son, Joshua, and muse to her late photographer husband, Milton. On Sunday, Greene, as well as Monroe biographer Sarah Churchwell and actors including Mira Sorvino, Amber Tamblyn, and Ellen Burstyn, looked back on Monroe’s life and career for a new CNN docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, narrated by Jessica Chastain.
Told through a female perspective—and an empathetic, post–#MeToo lens—the docuseries contends that contrary to the way she’s been depicted in the past, Monroe was a shrewd businesswoman who understood the industry’s misogynist rules and played them to her advantage. For executive producer Sam Starbuck, who has spent much of her career covering male subjects alongside male crew members, tackling Monroe’s life and legacy was a rare privilege and opportunity to reveal the real woman behind her sex-object status.
“She’s so much more interesting and smart and funny than I ever could have actually imagined,” says Starbuck. “She was a total power broker and trailblazer.”
Ahead, with the help of Starbuck and Greene, several examples that prove Monroe was an architect of her own fate.
She Helped Create Her Own Hollywood Image
Monroe, like many stars of her era, was a Hollywood product—her name, hair color, and origin story were changed in favor of a more marketable image. But Monroe, who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, also had an active role in her movie-star metamorphosis. She signed her first contract at 20th Century Fox with executive Ben Lyon, who rechristened her “Marilyn.” The then model insisted she be able to use the surname “Monroe.” She later explained, “I wanted my mother’s maiden name because I felt that was rightfully my name. And true things really get into circulation.”
By that point in her life, at about 20, Monroe was already a survivor—of sexual abuse, a chaotic upbringing with a schizophrenic mother who spent years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and a first marriage devised to keep her out of an orphanage when she was only 16. But she also knew what she wanted—a movie career—and chased it accordingly. After a photographer visited the munitions factory in Van Nuys where Monroe was working in the 1940s, she ultimately quit and signed with a modeling agency, divorced her first husband (who was not supportive of her career), and began approaching studios about acting.
When 20th Century Fox began publicizing Monroe, with her new name, they erased her complicated family history and active pursuit of a Hollywood acting career and created a more marketable origin story. Studio “flacks” advertised her as an orphan who was discovered after babysitting for a talent scout. Monroe not only signed off on the G-rated backstory, but posed for photos changing diapers and reading to children for a story that ran in 1947 under the headline “Pretty Sitter Sittin’ Pretty.”
Says Starbuck, “They took photographs of her with big bows in her hair and changing babies’ diapers. That was completely made up. But she understood what she needed to do to get herself where she wanted to go to.”
Making Powerful Male Allies
Monroe took acting classes and spent hours with photographers to learn about her best angles and refine her on-camera persona. But in the male-dominated studio system, there was only so much Monroe could do on her own. In the words of Mira Sorvino, who played Monroe in 1996’s Norma Jean and Marilyn: “I think Marilyn accepted that she was going to have to date people to get what she wanted. And I don’t think she ever should have had to choose that. But at least there was a decision in it on her part.”