June 1 marks what would have been Marilyn Monroe's 90th birthday. Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, passed away in 1962 after a barbiturate overdose. In the New York Times obituary of Monroe, it was speculated that one thing that contributed to her tragic death was the overwhelming amount of paparazzi focus on her. This, to me, is what makes Monroe only grow more relevant with every passing year: she was an actress who was forced to be self-conscious about her image in a way that foreshadowed modern actors and celebrities living in the social media age.
Monroe's rise to stardom came after she first made one key change to her own image. She had naturally "curly reddish-brown hair" until she purchased a bottle of peroxide to lighten her hair for an early screen test in 1950. One change anticipated another. In 1956, the actor changed her legal name from Norma Jean Mortenson to the name she'd been using as a stage name for years: Marilyn Monroe. She was aware of her potential to be a sex symbol and seemed to consciously enhance these aspects of herself to stand out and to win the success in the entertainment world she craved. Perhaps she didn't realize that success would go hand in hand with overwhelming, intrusive publicity. And why would she? What star, prior to Monroe, had been so besieged by the press?
Monroe's perception of herself was often guided by what the press saw in her. In the a 1962 interview with Life magazine, she explained how it was thanks to journalists' reactions that she first realized she was famous:
...the men of the press, unless they have their own personal quirks against me, they were always very warm and friendly and they'd say, "You know, you're the only star," and I'd say, "Star?" and they'd look at me as if I were nuts. I think they, in their own kind of way, made me realize I was famous.
But Monroe seemed realistic about the corrosive influence endless publicity could have, too. In the same interview, she described the way fame made it difficult for her to deliver the quality of acting she wanted to:
Goethe said, "Talent is developed in privacy," you know? And it's really true. There is a need for aloneness, which I don't think most people realise for an actor. It's almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you'll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you're acting. But everybody is always tugging at you. They'd all like sort of a chunk of you. I think that when you are famous every weakness is exaggerated.
Monroe's nuanced response to publicity — a mix of self-consciousness about it, embracing it, and being repulsed by it — was perhaps best summarized in another line from the same interview, when she said: "The 'public' scares me, but people I trust." She was right to be concerned about the way the "public" responded to her and her personal life. In the obituary, Sir Laurence Olivier called her "the complete victim of ballyhoo and sensation," while poet Jean Cocteau said "Marilyn Monroe's tragic death should serve as a terrible lesson to all those, whose chief occupation consists of spying on and tormenting film stars. Some of these reporters even spied on her from helicopters hovering over her house. That is scandalous."
And it is in these ways that her life was a reflection of the modern era of fame. For example, there was a pervasive mistrust in Monroe's motivation for dating male celebrities, with even her ex husband Arthur Miller speculating in a 1973 New York Review of Books article that her marriage to her second husband, baseball star Joe DiMaggio wasn't a traditional love story: "There is even the possibility that her interest in DiMaggio begins right out of her need to play counterpoint in public relations." This is reminiscent of when less famous female celebrities date more famous male celebrities, and the world decides it's a publicity stunt that the woman enters into to further her career. Think: the Kim Kardashian/Kanye West marriage or the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes marriage.
In addition, the explosive mix of Monroe's status as sex symbol, battles with mental health and anxiety, and her overexposure to the press also feels like it anticipates some other stars of our age: it has been speculated that the growing media focus on Britney Spears from 2004 onwards (when she married a childhood friend Jason Alexander and had an annulment less than two days later) eventually contributed to her eccentric behavior in 2007, when she shaved her own head and attacked a photographer with an umbrella. In 2008, a court put Spears under conservatorship that, according to the New York Times, is "designed for people who cannot take care of themselves." But the issues that overexposure brings up can be exacerbated by social media, providing a second layer of publicity for modern day stars: Amanda Byrnes and Azaelia Banks have both experienced media scrutiny following outbursts on Twitter that both of the stars have attributed to mental health issues.
When it comes to being a star, too much publicity will always be difficult for celebrities to shoulder and the emergence of social media gives a new urgency to these issues of press intrusion that have existed for decades. Now celebrities don't just field encounters with the journalists, and with fans, on the street, but in the privacy of their own homes as soon as they log onto Twitter. Monroe was right when she quoted Goethe: the highest form of acting or music requires that a person doesn't just exist as a public figure, but has private reserves they can draw from. In this era where even a normal, non-Hollywood-er can feel pressure to market themselves as a brand via social media, taking advantage of our increasing accessibility to celebrities seems to be more harmful than helpful. Celebrities, like any other human being, like Monroe herself, deserve peace.
Images: 20th Century Fox (2)