Why do we still love Marilyn Monroe?

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Books, films, dolls...The Monroe industry shows no sign of slowing down. But if she were alive today, the actress would be just another druggie starlet, argues Lena Corner

If Marilyn Monroe were alive today she'd turn 85 on her next birthday. You can't help but wonder what she would be doing. Would she have done a turn in that awful gay wedding scene in Sex and the City 2? Or been roped into the role of Ida Blankenship, Don Draper's cantankerous old secretary? Or would she have had the grace to turn into a recluse living quietly on a combination of pharmaceuticals out in Pasadena?

This month, there is another book out about Monroe. It's a big colour hardback that retails at £25 with nothing in it we didn't already know. Its selling point is that it comes with a set of "removable facsimile documents". In other words a few photocopied scraps – her divorce certificate, hotel receipts, airline tickets and even a licence for her dog.

There are nearly 13,000 products on Amazon which have Monroe's name on them, and in the run up to the 50th anniversary of her death in 2012 we can only expect this to snowball. Recently, we have seen another definitive biography: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J Randy Taraborrelli, as well as in September The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe by Keith Badman which picks, yet again, over the cause of her death. Last month we saw the publication of Fragments, a collection of literary musings written in, whisper it, Monroe's own fair hand. And as well as that, more unpublished photos, courtesy of Brian Wallis in Marilyn, August 1953: the Lost Look Photos. It is astounding how much never-before-seen stuff is out there. She's on the cover of the most recent edition of Vanity Fair, less than two years after she previously featured on the front. Even the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who's not even been gone 15 years, doesn't get that kind of treatment any more.

Andrew O'Hagan, a Glaswegian author, who made his own contribution to the Monroe archive in May with the publication of The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn, about the last years of Monroe's life as seen through the eyes of her dog, says: "Marilyn Monroe is now the most written about woman in histor. There has been more written about her than Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Florence Nightingale put together. She is the 20th century gift to making things up."

Which does rather beg the question why? There were some good performances of course, Some Like it Hot and The Misfits, in particular, but wasn't she an actress who, at best, can be described as having a narrow range? For a while she may have been 20th Century Fox's most bankable star, but towards the end of her life, wasn't the studio sinking all its money into Liz Taylor in her role as Cleopatra?

"Monroe wasn't a serious actress," says American critic and film historian David Thomson. "There are stories that she wanted to play amazing parts and that Lee Strasberg (the method acting coach) thought she was a great actress. I don't believe it. I don't think she could really carry more than a line or two at a time."

And, as we all know, she was a pain to work with. Billy Wilder, who directed her in Some Like it Hot called her difficult, unpredictable and obstructive. "We were mid-flight," he said at the time, "and there was a nut on the plane." On her last, uncompleted film Something's Got to Give, she turned up for just 12 days out of 35, citing sinusitis, but still managed to get herself on a jet to New York to sing happy birthday to President John Kennedy.

"I think if she was still alive today she would have been a wreck and a mess and her career would have stopped a long time ago," says Thomson. "Clearly she could not have gone on into middle age as she didn't have what that took. She wasn't a Katharine Hepburn or a Meryl Streep. She died at a certain age and it's horrible to say it, but early death can be a fantastic career move. This enormous, proliferating legend has gone on."

So as an emotionally troubled actress of middling ability, it does make you wonder, if she alive today would Monroe be any different to say Lindsay Lohan or any others of her ilk who are littering Hollywood today. Lohan herself certainly sees parallels. She has one of Monroe's quotes tattooed on the inside of her wrist: "Everyone's a star and deserves the right to twinkle" it says. Lohan also had her own Billy Wilder moment on the set of Georgia Rule when the producer, took the unprecedented step of writing her a letter complaining of her "bogus excuses" and "all night heavy partying." And two years ago Lohan even attempted to recreate the classic Monroe shoot known as "the last sitting" shot by Bert Stern in 1962 just six weeks before her death. Whereas the originals show Monroe as still luminescent and beautiful, Lohan does little but draw attention to the dodgy tattoo she has on her bum.

The difference is probably all about timing. Our enduring obsession with Monroe owes much to the fact that she was working in an older, gentler world in an era before the media made it its business to get its nose into everything. Unlike Lohan and other stars of today, who we get to see snorting coke, sporting alcohol-monitoring tags and wearing no knickers, we never witnessed anything like that with Monroe.

"It is very much to do with censorship still being present in her era," says Thomson. "There was a moment in film history where it's all about desire and not about sex. Everybody wanted the movies to get into sex and nakedness, which was something people could do with much more ease as the 1960s went on, but in Monroe's age that hadn't happened yet. She is a figure poised in a moment. If there was a single scene in a film of Monroe nude having sex I think her legend would be dispelled."

Of course, the legend is all about money too, and for those who own the rights it's virtually a licence to print the stuff. When Monroe died she left almost everything to her dear friend Strasberg with the wish that they be "distributed among my friends, colleagues and those to whom I am devoted." Instead, Strasberg stored them in a warehouse and when he died left them to his widow Anna, a woman who Monroe is reported to have never met. She saw it for the cash cow that it was and allowed Monroe's image to be used on a blitz of products including cigarette lighters, Absolut vodka, slot machines and even a range of pet clothing. In 1999, in what is seen by many Monroe fans as a final betrayal of her memory, Anna put it up for auction at Christies in New York. The sequined gown Monroe wore when she sang to the president went for $1.2m (£740,000) and the whole lot netted Anna $13.4million.

"That sale was the most bonkers thing that ever happened in history of things being bonkers," says O'Hagan who was present. "There were people falling over themselves. I stood next to Tommy Hilfiger and he was sweating with anticipation about the idea of buying a pair of Marilyn Monroe jeans that she wore in The Misfits for two hours. To Tommy those framed jeans that he was going to put up in his vast Upper West Side apartment wall, represented the meaning of the 20th century. That the proximity he might enjoy to these jeans, and to the notion of this famous icon, was as meaningful as perhaps people felt 200 or 300 years ago when they got close to an actual Rembrandt or a Van Dyke. He felt that way and so did everyone else in the room accept me. But that's perhaps because I don't have $220,000 to spend on six Polaroids of Marilyn Monroe's dog, which is, indeed what those photographs went for that day."

This idea of proximity is an interesting one and it seems there's no shortage of celebrities, slightly pathetically, buying up the leftovers of Monroe in the hope that some of her magic may rub off. "If you saw my house, I have a lot of Marilyn stuff," Lohan told New York magazine. Or there's the late plastic surgery addict Anna Nicole Smith who planned to be, "the next Marilyn Monroe," but after her covers of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" failed to propel her there, she did what she thought was the next best thing and rented the home in which Monroe died. "It seemed to me as if Andy Warhol's notion of 15 minutes of fame had gone well past human reason into something else where being close to the leavings of a famous star was where late 20th century art actually found it's meaning," says O'Hagan.

There are others who don't bother with the memorabilia, in favour of simply trying to be her. Madonna tried it for years and her "Material Girl" video is an outright homage to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. You can't help but wonder what would have happened if Madonna had disappeared forever say just after Ray of Light, before her pairing with Guy and long before she'd ever considered sticking her tongue down Britney's throat. "I'd love to be a memorable figure in the history of entertainment," Madonna is quoted as saying. "I'd like to leave the impression that Marilyn Monroe did." Sorry love. Too late.

And there are others. Witness Christina Aguilera's various attempts at Monroe's old-school Hollywood glamour, or Scarlett Johansson who seems to have spent her life auditioning for the part. Then there's Megan Fox, men's magazine favourite and star of Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, who is doing her best to channel a bit of Monroe with a tattoo of the star's face plastered on her inner forearm.

But they've got no hope. Someone should tell them. Recreating Monroe's mix of wide-eyed innocence, overt sexiness and the frisson of danger and power that comes from being associated with the mafia and the Kennedys is nigh on impossible. Celebrities these days only seem interested in having access to Premier League footballers which isn't nearly so interesting.

So as the new Marilyn Monroe film starring Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn, rolls into production and the unseemly fights over rights to Monroe's image continue, the money continues to pour in. There is one case in particular from last year which scrapes the bottom of the barrel when one Elsie Poncher, a Los Angeles widow, cropped up on eBay auctioning off the crypt that lay directly on top of that occupied by Monroe. Poncher was offering the highest bidder the chance to sleep, in all eternity, with the world's favourite Hollywood sex symbol. The bidding finally stopped when it hit $4.6m.

"Our obsession isn't going to stop for a long time yet," concludes Thomson. "These days we don't believe in stars in the same sort of way. We are much too cynical. Celebrity has taken over from stardom and celebrities have a built in self-destruction factor which means they're always going to implode or burn up. There is no one remotely close to Monroe and I don't think there ever will be."

Marilyn: a girl's best friend - stars inspired by Monroe

* Madonna was described by The New York Times in 1992 as "Marilyn come back to take revenge". Her 1985 music video for the song "Material Girl" was a homage to Monroe and Madonna's take on the Hollywood star's style was so convincing that a nude picture of the pop star was mistaken for Marilyn in 2008.

* According to reports in the New York Daily News, Anna Nicole Smith was so desperate to play her idol, Marilyn Monroe, on the big screen, she offered to finance a film about the life of Monroe's second husband Joe DiMaggio six months before her death in 2007. Despite Smith's offer, she was deemed "not right for the role" by the DiMaggio estate.

* The actress, singer and ex-con Lindsay Lohan is such a fan of Monroe's that as well as being inked with a quote from the star, she also re-created her last shoot in New York Magazine. Less successfully, Lohan spoofed her heroine earlier this year in a scene for a forthcoming film which saw her skirt blowing around à la The Seven Year Itch.

* Actress Megan Fox said in an interview last year that she is scared she will die early like Monroe. "I basically read every book ever written about Marilyn Monroe," she said. "I could end up like that because I constantly struggle with the idea that I think I'm a borderline personality."

* Michelle Williams is playing Monroe in the forthcoming film My Week with Marilyn. But she's not the only actress to be hitting the bottle... of peroxide. Naomi Watts is due to play Monroe in the movie Blonde based on American writer Joyce Carol Oates's 2000 fictional biography of the star. Blonde is expected to start shooting in early 2012.

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