“People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person.” MM
“They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts then they white-masked themselves by calling me lewd.” 60 years ago this week one of Marilyn’s most famous photographs was shot. And shot and shot. It was for a scene from The Seven Year Itch, you know the scene where she stands over a subway grate and a blast of air rises and lifts up her white dress to reveal some leg. This, believe it or not, small blink and you miss scene, has been catapulted into our collective consciousness to the point where this ‘silly little dress’, the designer’s words not mine, is considered the most memorable screen outfit ever worn and set a record when it auctioned for 4.5 million dollars in 2011; the actual cost to the buyer was even higher, a whopping 5.5 million after taxes and fees. The movie itself is, well its director, Billy Wilder, probably says it best when later in his career he said “..there’s nothing I can say about it except I wish I hadn’t made it.” Now it’s not all that bad and it was a huge box office success when it was released and Marilyn for her part is great in it, but what for me is the most interesting thing about it is that it is a perfect example of the phenomenon that Marilyn speaks of above.
In the film, which by the way doesn’t even give her a name, she is simply ‘The Girl’, she plays a young working girl who happens to live in the apartment above Richard Sherman, played by Tom Ewell, whose wife and son have gone to Maine to escape the New York summer heat. Now unlike many of the other husbands who view this separation as an excuse to resume bachelorhood, Richard, speaking directly to the camera, repeatedly informs the audience that despite the parade of women throwing themselves his way, he will remain faithful. Now Richard ain’t no looker, not that you have to be good looking to have women throw themselves at your feet, but he comes across as quite gun-shy and not very confident around women. Anyway after he meets The Girl his promise of fidelity is tested, not that she’s remotely interested in him, but in his own head he does resist her and the film ends as he exits stage-left, hoofing it to Maine, marriage vows intact.
The Girl isn’t all that innocent and Marilyn’s dialogue is rich with sexual double-entendres, but unlike the play on which the film was based, nothing happens between them. Their’s is a chaste relationship, and to view it as anything remotely sexual feels absurd and wrong.Thanks to Hollywood’s strict moral codes we get Chopsticks not Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, we get fidelity not adultery. And yet the scene with the dress which has been given a sexual reading albeit on a metaphorical level – the phallic train blasting air, her standing her legs apart. But 50 Shades it ain’t. Marilyn herself said she wasn’t thinking about sex, just about having a good time. Although the two are seen as linked and are not mutually exclusive, I think that she was actually just enjoying the sensation without it being anything more, I mean again Richard was no Kit Harington . But the 100 male photographers and the 5000 spectators well, they had something less savoury on their minds. They were the ones shouting, ” more, more, more Marilyn – let’s see more.” To ensure they didn’t see more she was wearing two pairs of undies but when Wilder began aiming his camera at her crotch she’d have needed an iron chastity belt to protect her modesty.Even her hubbie Joe Di Maggio was guilty of seeing only what he saw and was so furious about the shot he reportedly was physically abusive towards her later that night in their hotel. It was the death knell for their marriage; they separated a month or so later and divorced the following year.
Now Marilyn was no dumb blonde despite what the executives at Fox thought. Obviously she was very astute and knew what light people viewed her in. I think she knew that all these guys were not shouting at her cos they liked her scathing critique of The Creature From The Black Lagoon, the movie she and Richard had just seen, or that Wilder’s close-ups of her nether regions had anything to do with the plot. But I do think what she would have appreciated, is that their, and because of it’s popularity and universal appeal, our thoughts, that we imposed on the shot we recognize them as our own, and little to do with her. That when we look at her and project our desires, our fantasies onto her, that we then do not point fingers and accuse her of being the slut; that we do not question her morals and draw conclusions about the type of person she is because of what we see in her. Yes I think she would very much have appreciated that consideration, alas I do not think she ever got it.