Tags for: Film Star: Marilyn Monroe’s Lasting Impact on Film in PROOF-Inspired Series
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Film Star: Marilyn Monroe’s Lasting Impact on Film in PROOF-Inspired Series

John Ewing, curator of film, Andrew Cappetta, manager of collection and exhibition programs
February 7, 2020
Grid of twelve photographs of a woman in a white off-the-shoulder dress in different poses.

Marilyn Monroe, 1952. Philippe Halsman (American, b. Russia [now Latvia], 1906–1979). Gelatin silver print, ferrotyped; 25.4 x 19.8 cm. © Halsman Archive. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

The CMA’s special exhibition PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet is OPEN NOW! Featuring approximately 180 works from the collection of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz, the exhibition presents images from the second half of the 20th century — with subjects ranging from Marilyn Monroe to the Beatles to Twiggy — that take viewers through a photographer’s creative process.

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Video courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art. List of featured artworks at PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet.

PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet features a section dedicated to legendary screen star Marilyn Monroe. To complement this exhibition, the CMA presents the film series Marilyn x 4. Learn more about her lasting impact on culture in the Q&A below with CMA staff John Ewing, curator of film, and Andrew Cappetta, manager of collection and exhibition programs.

PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet highlights a section of photos and contact sheets featuring Marilyn Monroe. Why do you think she has been such an enduring figure in art and film?

JOHN: Marilyn Monroe was one of the foremost celebrities of her time, with connections to many important people in Hollywood. But beyond that, she also had connections to major figures in other realms of American life — sports (she married Joe DiMaggio), the New York theater (she studied at the Actors Studio and later married playwright Arthur Miller), and politics (she famously sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK). All this, coupled with her talent, beauty, and sex appeal, made her a mid-century cultural icon who has endured into the 21st century, largely thanks to artists, photographers, performers, and repertory film programmers who have long celebrated her.

Marilyn’s story is quintessentially American: she rose from poverty and an unstable childhood to the pinnacle of power and fame, only to die prematurely, and unhappy, at age 36 from a drug overdose that was ruled suicide. Marilyn’s life and image — and her tragic death — continue to inspire artists and writers who reappraise her place in US history and search for the dark mysteries beneath her impeccable facade.

ANDREW: As John expressed, Monroe’s appeal and popularity was for the most part due to her own beauty, wit, and talent, though the culture industry played a role in engineering her image, too. Philippe Halsman’s Life cover image from 1952 shows the actress in the way the magazine and its photo editor wanted us to see her. But Halsman’s contact sheet reveals a more complex story. It exposes how this industry manufactures stars but also how Monroe attempted to maintain agency and control over her own image within that very system. Pushed into the corner of a room, Monroe takes a pose that at first appears defensive; her left arm braces her body against the wall and her legs are bent. Her face tells another story. Instead of being apprehensive, she actively engages the viewer with a seductive gaze. There is a knowingness in this look. She knows that she is the object of our gaze and makes us aware of this manufactured desire. This more complex story is cropped out of the resulting cover image (incidentally not included on the contact sheets presented in the exhibition), but I think her awareness is still present in the way she engages us.

Monroe was not the only one aware of how desire was manufactured through images. In Andy Warhol’s painting Marilyn x 100, the artist suggests how this same culture industry that built Marilyn’s stardom might have led to her demise.

Image courtesy of Robert Muller for the Cleveland Museum of Art

What are the similarities between the images of Marilyn featured in PROOF and the films you chose?

JOHN: The only direct overlap is the series of shots from the set of The Misfits. (We show that film on February 23 and 25.) But the Marilyn that moviegoers will see in that film is the carefully crafted image of the actress that the producer and director wanted to convey. Everything else was left on the cutting room floor. The contact sheets in PROOF include images that are more private, personal, and “imperfect” than those that are ultimately chosen to be published and shared.

ANDREW: John traced those connections closely, but I will also add that PROOF reveals how much the film industry relied on the work of photographers in the ’50s and ’60s, Monroe’s heyday. The work of photographers became movie posters, photos taken on set helped advertise films, and images of film stars in magazines helped transform them into celebrities as well as reveal their humanity to their adoring public, much like social media platforms do today. Some photographers also turned to motion picture film as a medium, including Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, William Klein, and Robert Frank, whose work is on view in this exhibition. In their history, film and photography are closely linked and will continue to be in that they both offer ways to capture and reimagine images from life.

Film still from The Misfits. Image courtesy of the film.

Out of all the films featuring Marilyn Monroe, why did you choose these four?

JOHN: The films we’re showing are four of Marilyn’s best movies, and they also showcase the range of her talents. Her iconic “platinum-blonde bombshell” persona is seen in both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, but she also sings, dances, and shows off her comic capabilities. Marilyn sings in Bus Stop as well, but the movie is mostly remembered as the vehicle in which this oft-dismissed “dumb blonde” proved she could act. She further displays her dramatic bona fides in The Misfits, her final film, written for her by her then husband Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible).

PROOF focuses on the concept of the contact sheet and how digital technology has put an end to that era. Can you speak to how advances in film technology have changed how artists and directors use that medium?

JOHN: Shooting films digitally has taken a lot of the guesswork out of moviemaking. Video assists allow the director, cameraman, and others to view takes immediately after they are shot, making it easier to decide whether another take is required. Even “mistakes” in digital films that do get through can be fixed or tweaked during postproduction. This is fast turning many live-action movies into something close to animated films. Digital capture of image and sound has even allowed deceased actors like Carrie Fisher and James Dean to make new movies. Is Marilyn next?

ANDREW: In many ways, the contact sheet is still with us. It is no longer confined to the dark room; now it is on every smartphone. Just open your digital archive of photos and see how your life has become one seemingly endless contact sheet.

Speaking more broadly, while analog photography and film were accessible to amateurs and enthusiasts throughout the 20th century, digitization has made them even more so. Still and moving images are enmeshed in nearly everything we do, which makes the work of artists even more crucial. They can help us sharpen our visual critical sensibilities and navigate this world of images. The work in PROOF, while analog, accomplishes this. It makes us realize how images are constructed and shaped to make us think one thing or another.

Monkeys with Masks, 1994. Albert Watson (British, b. 1942). Gelatin silver print; 50.3 x 40 cm. © Albert Watson. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

What do you hope visitors come away with after viewing these films and seeing the exhibition?

JOHN: I hope filmgoers come away with an appreciation of Marilyn Monroe’s multifarious talents. I also hope they recognize the craft and skill of filmmakers who direct actors and then shape performances and raw camera footage into iconic imagery and memorable movie moments. The directors of the four films we’re showing — Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Joshua Logan, and John Huston — were themselves cultural icons.

ANDREW: In addition to seeing some entertaining films and photos of famous faces, I hope that viewers leave with an understanding of how photographers in the 20th century were part of a larger image-based cultural ecosystem that included photo editors, magazine publishers, designers, and filmmakers, as well as celebrities.


Marilyn x 4 series

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Sunday, February 9, 1:30 to 3:05 p.m.
Tuesday, February 11, 1:45 to 3:20 p.m.

Some Like It Hot
Friday, February 14, 6:45 to 8:45 p.m.
Sunday, February 16, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Bus Stop
Tuesday, February 18, 1:45 to 3:25 p.m.
Friday, February 21, 7 to 8:40 p.m.

The Misfits
Sunday, February 23, 1:30 to 3:35 p.m.
Tuesday, February 25, 1:45 to 3:50 p.m.


Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet is OPEN NOW! Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, and Twiggy. This exhibition features approximately 180 works that take viewers through the photographer’s creative process.