Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820
To read Marilyn is to experience one of the primary documents of New Journalism, the literary technique that dominated the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially in the work of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson. In New Journalism, the writer drops all pretenses of objectivity and distancing; the author, in fact, becomes part of the story, as Mailer himself demonstrated with great success in The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968). In Marilyn, he does not pretend to have known his subject personally (or to have participated in her life in the way in which he participated in the march on the Pentagon), but he does inject his candid opinions of those personages he does know, such as Arthur Miller.
One of the issues, then, in any critical analysis of Marilyn is Mailer’s authority and the validity of his voice. Kate Millet and Germaine Greer have attacked Mailer as a sexist writer, and Mailer defends himself in such works as The Prisoner of Sex (1971) and Pieces and Pontifications (1982). Yet a close reading of Mailer reveals a rather complex and deeply sympathetic treatment of the character and personality of Marilyn Monroe, in spite of the considerable controversy created by the book (eight lengthy articles on aspects of this controversy appeared in The New York Times alone in 1973). In addition to being charged with sexism, Mailer was roundly criticized for purported plagiarism, and a libel suit was eventually filed against him. Thus, Mailer’s attitude and methodology must figure into any critical appraisal of the book.
There is a considerable amount of Mailer’s trademark prose style, a kind of high-energy assemblage of adjectives and nouns that yields such characterizations of Marilyn as “a sexual oven” with “a sweet little rinky-dink of a voice” for whom sex becomes “ice cream,” a woman who “emanated sex” and whose womb was “fairly salivating in seed.” Mailer also tallies Marilyn’s well-documented clumsiness on the set and her tendency to make unforgettable bloopers. Mailer sees her as another Eliza Doolittle, and he quips, “If her blunders had hooks, they would be big enough to gaff marlin.” At the same time that he recognizes her awkwardness and her sexual self (symbolized by her nude calendar poses), however, Mailer reveals a great sensitivity for Marilyn’s soul. The body, he makes clear, was her tool, and she used it ruthlessly in the savage world of Hollywood. Yet within that body lay a vulnerable, perhaps schizophrenic woman whom Mailer can also praise. She could be a harridan or shrew on the set, always late, but these delaying tactics were her only defenses in a male-dominated industry that refused to let her break out of the “dumb-blonde” mold. Thus, Mailer argues, she played sick, and at times she became sick (she was plagued by menstrual cramps and mysterious, low-grade fevers), but in the end she won her way with nearly all of her directors, except John Huston (director of The Misfits). Mailer remarks that “fragility is her cruelest weapon” and that when she played the wounded doe it was the hunters around her who fell, not she. This axiom held true especially on the set of Some Like It Hot (1959), where she utterly exhausted Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, requiring them to do as many as forty takes of some scenes; and she improved as they began to wither. Nevertheless, these maneuvers exacted their toll; Marilyn became an addict and an insomniac. In Mailer’s phrase, she popped sleeping pills like “cocktail party peanuts.” This portrait of Marilyn is hardly the product of a woman hater or libertine; Mailer even discovers the letters of his name in an anagram of Marilyn Monroe, surely a sign that he has fallen under her spell. (At the end of the book he breaks down in a most tender manner and wishes her “au revoir.”) Perhaps he cannot gloss over her excesses, yet he redeems her by showing how her outbursts and vanities were the visible symptoms of a tormented and fragmented soul.
The controversy concerning plagiarism on Mailer’s part is harder to analyze because Mailer, like all the New Journalists, insists that he is playing by a different set of rules and that, in order to present the psychological drama he must compose “a species of novel ready to play by the rules of biography.” This is his defense for the numerous quotations from other writers and his defense against the charge of plagiarism because these quotations constitute part of the accepted tradition about Marilyn; thus, he must include them, and he does so openly, acknowledging all of his sources. In the end, because of out-of-court settlements, no suits were filed against Mailer. Even his thorniest allegation, namely that Marilyn’s death was the result of a conspiracy, is based on unexplained discrepancies in the various affidavits connected with her death.