The morning air was not far above freezing when I arrived yesterday in Bendigo with Eleni, my beauty therapist, to honour the memory of Marilyn Monroe. It may have been these conditions that caused us both to cry at an eight-metre high statue of the blonde, “That’s gross!” Perhaps when this thing with breasts the size and shape of torpedoes was installed back in February, in the place where small town monuments to the war dead are more generally found, it seemed sunnier.
But, the transposition of Marilyn as “the girl” from The Seven Year Itch being cooled in summer by up-draughts from the New York City subway to a bitter country winter just seems unkind. She looked freezing and helpless despite her size, and none of this was helped by the spectacle of straight men, largely absent as visitors to the exhibition itself, gazing up at her fibreglass panties. It seemed to us that they lived their lives like vandals in the wind.
And it seemed to me that it was not at all fair that the famous Travilla pleated cocktail dress depicted in sculpture was nowhere to be found inside the Bendigo Art Gallery. Nor was the Marilyn-coloured Jean Louis gown into which she was sewn before singing (or vomiting, to be more accurate) Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy Jr. Nor is the saucy pink stag-party cake of a dress, again Travilla, she wore for Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.
There are many practical and intriguing reasons that Monroe’s most recognisable gowns are not on display at an exhibition of Monroe’s gowns, and as I have no wish to dissuade you from attending this exhibition, I will not tell you what they are but encourage you to visit to find out. Let’s just say that if you always thought of the Actors Studio and its “method” mama and papa, Lee and Paula Strasberg, as cruel and cultish, you will not be moved from this view. The curators of this exhibition cannot be blamed for the insanity that led an anonymous bidder to pay $US4.6M to lock away a memory that belongs to all of us.
And, anyhow, there are still some nice very pretty, fairly recognisable items here. Even as it’s a blow not to see the Diamonds gown used on screen, it’s great to see its much saucier first iteration. The wiggle-dress into which Monroe shrugged to entertain US troops stationed at Korea is a peachy keen first exhibit. And, props to whomever it was that gave the final room of dresses in this exhibition the air of an upscale department store circa 1955. In a space of smoky mirrors and gowns ascending on a Hollywood-style stairway, all patrons become silent. It is only in this room that the promise of the gallery, to give us a Marilyn who is more than the public artefact or the private disaster, is partially realised.
It was only here that a crowd — made chiefly of women, partially of gay men and just a little of bored husbands who were all standing around the beautiful nude made famous in Playboy — began to experience the “icon” in the personal way I imagine many of them would have preferred.
Much of this exhibition delivers frustration rather than revelation. We are not here to look to the “truth” of Monroe or of Norma Jean Baker. Or, at least, Eleni and I, both Monroe fans, had long ago abandoned the idea that we could ever know a woman whose own work was not to know herself. We wanted to understand, as I believe many other visitors did, why she resonates with us.
“If you can take your beauty therapist with you to show you the difference between the plain-cheesecake pictures of Norma Jean and the highly stylised press shot of her with Joe DiMaggio…. I can highly recommend it.”
There are plenty of the old, fairly wholesome Norma Jean “art studies” taken on beaches and these are in such over-supply, I guess, to show us the “essence” of the star and to prove that tedious old idea that “she was more beautiful without makeup”. But this fancy actually diminishes Marilyn, the human, of the agency she had in creating such an extraordinary vision. It’s not enough to say, with the use of some fairly pointless garbage such as an old-stained sweater or a few tiles from her Brentwood kitchen, that “she was real like us”.
She was, also like us, an elaborated version of femininity. And, honestly, if you can take your beauty therapist with you to show you the difference between the plain-cheesecake pictures of Norma Jean and the highly stylised press shot of her with Joe DiMaggio — “she put Vaseline on her cheeks there. She drew white to simulate shine on her lips here. She probably popped buttons inside her bra to simulate hard nipples down there” — I can highly recommend it. The woman’s devotion to the image of her body must be seen, surely, as a beautiful work and not as something that “stopped her from being the real Norma Jean”. It turned her into an artist.
Some of these ambitions are discussed in a good essay from the catalogue by Sue Gillett of La Trobe University. But, none of these are realised in an exhibition that gives us the same thing we could see on any Movie of the Week about the real Marilyn. Save, again, for the little last room where we are freer to honour Monroe as artist and self-devised commodity in the not-unfamiliar surrounds of an old-time upscale department store.
This exhibition may not advance understanding of the complicated relationship many of us have with Monroe. But, some of its items are a great way to settle that tedious and recurring Facebook dispute that Marilyn’s was the body of a “real woman”. She was a teeny, tiny lady who reportedly resorted to all sorts of methods to maintain her 22 inch (59 centimetre) waist, including enema. These acts, of course, in the context of the everyday are not to be celebrated. But, that they are not even referenced in a show that purports to chart the greatness of a self-sculpted woman — so much less vulnerable than that hideous fibreglass giant in the middle of Bendigo — is a great shame.
Still the dresses are nice. Bias-cut or hand-draped, these frocks don’t lose their shape.