At this point, any Marilyn Monroe fan worth their salt has heard about Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, the new docuseries by CNN. With the 60th anniversary of Monroe’s death upon us in August, Reframed becomes the first entry in a variety of programs that will grace our television screens this year. It looks promising, but after seeing the erroneous bestowing of “First Woman to Start a Production Company” on Monroe already coming from CNN’s Twitter account (since deleted), I’m not holding my breath that we’re going to necessarily get something more factual as much as we’re going to get something more sympathetic, attempting to paint Monroe as a god-like being who somehow singlehandedly changed the face of 1950s Hollywood. In short, after reading the press release, the documentary screams “GIRL BOSS!!!!!!!!!!!” with words like “feminist” and “power-broker” liberally sprinkled throughout. Given, I have not seen it (I plan on giving a thorough review here), so I’m not making a hasty judgement on the documentary itself. Instead, I’m looking at how it’s getting marketed.
After (rightfully) getting called out for claiming Monroe somehow became the first woman to think, “Gee. I think I’m going to start a production company,” CNN followed up with: “Marilyn Monroe started her own production company to create better roles for herself.” This is one of those narratives that seems to get trotted around in order to show Monroe’s dedication to the craft, usually in conjunction with Monroe’s famous declaration of, “I don’t want to make money; I just want to be wonderful.” However, at the end of the day, Monroe demanded a hefty salary increase when she renegotiated her contract with Fox. If it wasn’t partly about money, and strictly about artistic integrity, why didn’t Monroe pull an Ida Lupino?
Lupino famously worked hard to get the roles she wanted, spending much of her time with the studio suspended, demanding rewrites and working hard to get prime roles. With a much more privileged upbringing than Monroe, it’s worth noting Lupino likely felt more secure in her bargaining position with her studio; however, by the time she left Warner Bros. in 1947, one can safely argue that her professional life was at a low point versus Monroe’s 1954 career high. Lupino got to work setting up a company (The Filmmakers Inc.) she loved, famously declaring herself a “bulldozer” when it came to securing financing to create films she cared about. Producing works like The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist (both 1953), Lupino became a force worth reckoning with, even if her film budgets were small, before eventually turning largely to television and dissolving The Filmmakers Inc. in 1955.
I’m not saying Lupino didn’t have financial worries or made movies without the intention of making a profit. She obviously needed profitability to continue her work. I’m using Lupino as an example of a woman who created a production company to create better roles for herself without finances becoming a prime focus. Monroe’s formation of Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) seems closer to Rita Hayworth’s creation of Beckworth, which allowed Hayworth more creative control in addition to a higher salary. Hayworth really wasn’t creating roles as much as she was increasing her own profitability, getting a slice of the pie that Columbia built around her image (famously, Columbia cut Hayworth out, resulting in a 1955 lawsuit).
People like to put Monroe as a second Lupino (usually cutting Lupino out of the narrative), forming a production company in big, bad Hollywood to create powerful, creative films 20th Century Fox wouldn’t let her make. In actuality, Monroe had a pretty even output between comedies and dramas while Fox decided what to do with her (as I talked about here), with her last dramatic film before leaving her contract being 1954’s River of No Return. When Monroe created her company, she probably did want to follow Lupino’s footsteps, but she also wanted to keep her steady Fox salary, using her company as a bargaining chip to get the pay raise she felt she deserved as well as more artistic and career control.* Monroe ran her salary and box-office take through MMP (supported by financial documents, Monroe ousting Milton Greene by saying she didn’t create her company to give him part of her salary and these production companies being a common practice among stars to get a lower tax rate), much like Hayworth did with Beckworth, rather than using it primarily to create her “own” roles.
Neither did Monroe’s roles go through a metamorphosis of deep, hard-hitting dramatic filmmaking after forming MMP. She reverted right back to the ‘dumb’ blonde (to varying degrees) with Bus Stop, The Prince and the Showgirl, Some Like It Hot, Let’s Make Love and Something’s Got to Give. The Misfits, arguably her best performance, would become the only gut-wrenching drama Monroe would create since Don’t Bother to Knock, and it wasn’t produced under MMP. However, this reversion isn’t necessarily bad. Monroe knew what the public wanted from her, and she knew Fox would pay to keep her in their stable. By creating her company, she was able to scrape years off her salary climb while getting to work with people she felt would help her perfect her craft, with varying results.
So, why do people ignore that MMP was likely driven, at least partially, by finances? For starters, Monroe famously said it was about making “better pictures.” Would she have gotten the same amount of support if she said, “I’m underpaid,” while making more in a month than the average American family brought home in a year? Of course not. As much as people want to claim otherwise, Monroe led a rather extravagant lifestyle, sending all laundry out, relying on personal secretaries and bringing in housekeepers. Her thousands of belongings in addition to a plethora of receipts show someone who greatly enjoyed shopping, even though people cling to the narrative that she owned a handful of items. She needed money to fund this lifestyle, and it’s not at all surprising that she would want (and need) a higher salary to live the life she was accustomed to.
Furthermore, it’s much easier to claim the pay increase was an added benefit rather than something Monroe actively fought for. The artistic angle started with Monroe and just kind of stuck. Rather than taking a look at Monroe as a person who needed money for the extravagant lifestyle she created for herself, who wanted a piece of the pie Fox built off her image just like Hayworth did with Beckworth, people opt for the abused artist who just wanted to create something but got stopped by a greedy corporation.
In reality, Monroe likely created MMP with both the intention of perfecting her craft as well as getting a boost in her salary. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s irritating to see one aspect continuously championed and another ignored. Instead of pushing Monroe’s fight for a salary that reflected her popularity by creating a company she could use to ensure she was fairly paid, it’s turned into an artistic argument. At the end of the day, Monroe really didn’t go off on her own to “create better roles for herself,” and that’s fine. We don’t need to change her story to turn her into a film tycoon with the same business acumen as Nelson Rockefeller or Conrad Hilton to appreciate what she accomplished.
Once again, I’m asking people to look at Marilyn as a person instead of an idea. She dealt with the same struggles as all of us–including with finances. It’s okay to acknowledge that she was underpaid by Fox, that she took her career into her own hands to get the pay she deserved, and that she used MMP to do this.
*The only film Monroe made under the MMP banner, 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl (TPATS), underperformed at the box office, earning a good portion of its revenue from international markets, no doubt aided by Laurence Olivier co-starring. As much as I respect Monroe for going out on a limb to create her own project, TPATS was far from a riveting or unique film when period pieces were a dime a dozen. It held minimal risk, and its underperformance at the box office suggests audiences found the film dull.
Special thanks to Moriah (@_daisykenyon on Twitter) for fact checking my Ida Lupino section.