celebrity

For decades Marilyn Monroe was painted as a victim. She was a 'career mastermind'.

You could make the case that Marilyn Monroe is the biggest pop culture icon of all time.

Her acting career was tragically short-lived and overshadowed by her personal life, both in life and death, but her imprint on pop culture is everywhere you turn. Blonde hair, red lips and white dresses conjure up her image. Her likeness, turned into pop art by Andy Warhol, is a favourite of coffee shops, theatres and hotel lobbies. You can hear her rendition of 'Happy Birthday Mr President' in your mind right now, can't you?

Watch: Here's Happy Birthday Mr President, because of course. Post continues below video.


Video via YouTube.

But the legacy of Monroe is complicated. Many reporters and scholars portray her as a victim of the time, used and abused by a misogynistic culture that didn't see her as anything other than someone to take advantage of. It's true that more money has been made off her image since she died than she was ever able to make for herself when she lived. She spoke about being abused, and the focus of her legacy has never really been about her intelligence.

But more recently, another narrative has emerged; Monroe as a trailblazer and the mastermind behind her image, who played the games of the time and used the rules that were supposed to work against her to her advantage.

She was also Hollywood's first major silence breaker, bringing to light the behaviours of predatory men.

A new CNN docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, narrated by Jessica Chastain, dives deeper into this version of the Hollywood legend.

At the time of Monroe, talent or drive was not enough for a woman to make it in entertainment. She could've been the hardest working actor in town, and it wouldn't matter if she didn't get powerful men on her side.

That was the terrible reality.

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Image: Getty.

Monroe scored a brief contract with 20th Century Fox after being discovered by a photographer while working at a munitions factory during World War II.

When she was 21, 20th Century Fox ditched this contract. 

According to Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, she then developed "an intimate relationship" with powerful film executive Joseph Schenck.

"[Monroe] understood that you either said, I don't like these rules and therefore I'm not playing your game, and give up [my] dreams of a career, or you recognise that those are the rules of the game and you decide how you're going to deal with it," biographer Sarah Churchwell told the docuseries.

Schenck used his influence to convince Columbia Pictures to hire Monroe for a six-month contract.

While there, head of production Harry Cohn - who was known for trading sex from female stars for favours - invited Monroe on his yacht. As the story goes, she responded with "Will your wife join us?". Afterwards, Cohn did not renew her contract.

She later engaged with talent agent Johnny Hyde, who helped her score a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox.

With her dream career well underway, Monroe made a bold move: she co-authored an article with journalist Florabel Muir titled 'Wolves I Have Known'. In this, she shared experiences she'd had with 'wolves' in the industry.

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Image: Getty.

She didn't namedrop any men, but it was one of - perhaps even the - first time that a woman in Hollywood had so publicly acknowledged the dark side of 'making it'. 

It was a huge career risk, but one that has been relegated to footnotes in of the story of her life. Instead, the biggest stories about Monroe are focused on her sexuality and relationships with these very men.

Throughout it all, Monroe created an image. She knew she was a brand long before anyone else did.

"She realised, 'People want to come snap pictures of me, people want to know about me.' She was sort of like an original Kardashian in that way," actor Amber Tamblyn said in the docuseries.

She famously walked off the set of The Girl in Pink Tights when she learned Frank Sinatra would earn three times her salary for the film, and focused on building up her profile to give her better bargaining power in negotiations going forward.

After marrying baseball player Joe DiMaggio in 1954, years-old nude photos of Monroe from a photoshoot surfaced, and they too could've killed her career.

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Monroe then negotiated her own tell-all interview to set the record straight.

"I was in debt," Monroe explained. "I always supported myself. No one else ever supported me in my life. I had no family. And I had no place to go.

"Besides, I'm not ashamed. I've done nothing wrong."

Image: Getty.

Later that year, she moved to New York City, where she and photographer Milton Greene founded their own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. The move was initially laughed at by the industry and in the press, but Monroe persevered.

By the end of 1955, Marilyn Monroe Productions had partnered with Fox in a contract that granted Monroe the right to choose her own projects, directors and cinematographers. 

After this, Time lauded her as a "shrewd businesswoman".

It was a change of tune: every moment of Monroe's life was dissected by male reporters and critics, who were never interested in her brains.

Following Monroe's death in 1962 from a barbiturate overdose, those types of writers, historians and autobiographers were the ones tasked with sharing her legacy, which for decades has been dominated by the more salacious parts of her life and status as a sex symbol.

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Speaking to Vanity Fair, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe executive producer Sam Starbuck said Monroe was ahead of her time.

"I think the world wasn't ready for her. I think the studio bosses really wanted to control her and went out their way to bully her and belittle her, and, and she fought back. That's one of the most surprising things about her — how incredibly courageous she was. This woman has been underestimated and dismissed, but actually she should be celebrated as an active agent, trailblazer, whistleblower, and power broker."

Marilyn Monroe with Ella Fitzgerald in 1954. Image: Getty.

To those who knew her, this isn't surprising.

"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," Amy Greene, Monroe's former friend and roommate, told Vanity Fair.

Queen of jazz Ella Fitzgerald counted Monroe as a friend as well.

"She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times," Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview. "And she didn't know it."

Thankfully, audiences now do.

Feature Image: Getty/Mamamia.

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