50th Anniversary Thoughts: The Death of Marilyn Monroe, The Birth of James Bond

50 Years of Bond

Fifty years ago this month, Marilyn Monroe passed away from a suspected accidental drug overdose (although conspiracy geeks love to contemplate more nefarious scenarios). The commemoratives are already showing up on magazine and newspaper entertainment pages, cable channels have announced their Marilyn film fests and documentary tributes. There’s little of worth I can add either in academic consideration or aesthetic appreciation to all the testimonials as well as the previous fifty years of ruminating in print and on film re: the lasting appeal of La Monroe. I can only wonder, with a sort of melancholy amazement, over the fact we’re still talking about her all these years later.

That persistent hold she has on popular culture is a fascinating study in itself. Her career had already been faltering when she died, she’s been gone a half-century, yet there are people who carry her image on T-shirts and purses and God knows what else who barely know who she was. Somehow, she’s still with us in all her bleached-blonde, ruby-lipped, pneumatically-curved glory. One recent USA Today story pointed out she’s made the cover of Vanity Fair three times since 2008. Not bad for a ghost.

Part of the attraction, I suppose, is certainly her tragic end, and with it the tantalizing pondering of what a life unlived might have been like. Perhaps it’s that death memorialized her as a beauty. She was only 36, still attractive – hell, she was still gorgeous — when she left us. We’ve seen countless contemporary celluloid beauties try to put up a faltering bulwark of Botox and botched cosmetic surgery against the onslaught of time; Marilyn was spared that, and so is our memory of her.

Most appreciations touch on her vulnerability; something of the real Norma Jean Baker, damaged in childhood, unsure, wanting to be respected as much as liked, all of which came through on screen.

Consider her in comparison to some of the contemporaries she worked with. Jane Russell, who co-starred with Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) never looked vulnerable; she looked like if you’d made an unwanted pass, you were going home to put your crushed cojones on ice. And there was Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953); Grable had a next-door-neighbor wholesome kind of sexiness (I get the paradox but it’s there), while Bacall had a cool, almost patrician quality, but neither had that please-like-me-please-be-nice-to-me quality Monroe had. When the chips were down, both could turn on a kiss-my-ass-buster toughness.

But Monroe was never hard; it wasn’t in her. Even in her few dramatic roles – like The Misfits (1961), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), or her small early-career part in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – there was a soft, bruised quality to her screen persona. If a guy was interested in Jane Russell, she was the kind of captain-of-her-own-ship who would say, “Well, maybe, if I like you, and maybe not even then.” Monroe, on the other hand, wanted to meet the man of her dreams, hungered for it, but would surrender to the wrong guy out of fear the right guy wasn’t ever going to show up.

Or maybe… Maybe it was because she was accessible. I don’t mean that she came off as easy, but most of Monroe’s characters were not exceptional women. She didn’t play high society queens, she didn’t play hard-driven, ambitious career women, and even when she played a show biz type – a showgirl in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a tipsy ukulele player in an all-girl orchestra in the classic Some Like It Hot (1959) – she was no star, but a rank-and-file chorine. Marilyn was working class – for all her voluptuousness and breathy wet-dream sexiness, she was blue collar. She was one of us.

And maybe, in the end, that’s what she had over the other sex idols of her generation: she was believable, a believable dream, something maybe not probable, but certainly possible. You put that together with that inherent fragility of hers she could never quite conceal, and it made her real; someone any of us could know.

If she had lived… Well, as horrible as it sounds to say it, she may have passed at the right time. Although she didn’t die until 1962, she was a model out of the 1950s, an age of wide lapels, puffy poodle skirts, and big cars with big fins and big chrome bumper “tits” (sorry, that’s what we called them). Twiggy and a generation of sexy sylphs – Faye Dunaway, Julie Christie, Susannah York, Goldie Hawn, Mia Farrow, Jacqueline Bisset, Ali MacGraw – were right around the corner. If she had lived, Marilyn would’ve looked like an aging ’59 Caddy parked next to a fresh-off-the-production-line ’64 Mustang.

So, there are no embarrassing, eroding later years, no soft-focus camouflage to cover a slow fade to old age. How we remember her is how she was: a sunny smile; baby-faced, part cherub, part Botticelli Venus; tousled bleached-blonde hair tumbling down across sleepy blue eyes that asked, with more hope than expectation, for us to “Be nice.”

*****

Two months or so after Marilyn Monroe died, Dr. No – the first big screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s literary creation, James Bond – premiered in the United Kingdom (because elements of the film echoed the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film’s U.S. premiere was put off until the following May). One legend ended; another was born.

Rest easy. While I’m (painfully) aware a number of my posts tend to have a grumpy, “Ya know, young feller, back in my day…” attitude, I’m not here to declare Sean Connery was The Bond Bomb and it’s all been downhill ever since. In fact, I think the Daniel Craig Bonds are the best thing to happen to the series since Connery’s heyday in the role, and I’m even open to the idea they – and Craig – may even be better.

With Craig, for the first time, Bond seems identifiably human (well, a bit). Connery’s Bond was always something of a fantasy; the kind of man fantasizing men could never be, the kind of man fantasizing women could never have. Craig is a bit more life-sized, and, as spectacular as the action in his Bond films has been, so is the world he moves in. Connery’s world was always a bit, well, comic booky.

But as good as they are, there’s one thing the Craig Bonds can never replicate, that no amount of money can buy or special effects magic can conjure, and that’s something the Connery Bonds will have, forever and always. It doesn’t make them better or worse, but it is what distinguishes them from the 17 Bond-quels which followed (and, yeah, that includes Connery’s two returns to the role after he did the first five).

How to describe it?

Well, it’s like the nuns used to tell the girls back in Catholic school: you can only lose your virginity once.

In an era that’s long been steeped in big-action spectacles, it’s hard to remember that when the James Bond films first came on the scene in the early 1960s, there was nothing like them. Never had been. And it would be a long time before anything could match them.

In their casual sexuality, their equally casual violence, their ever-growing spectacle, and in their supreme jet-age 60s coolness, they were unique. And so was Bond, a hybrid between Mickey Spillane’s brutal, carnal Mike Hammer, and a comic book superhero, maybe the movies’ first top-end superhero (Batman and Superman had been filmed before, but in cheapie serials).

I had missed the first two Bonds: Dr. No and From Russia with Love (1963). They hadn’t been overly spectacular performers and had skipped my neighborhood theater. But then came Goldfinger (1964) and Bond-O-Mania exploded (I would finally get to see No and Russia when they were re-released after Goldfinger to capitalize on the Bond explosion). Goldfinger was the breakout flick, the critical mass. After Goldfinger, it seemed like, overnight, kids on the block had James Bond lunch boxes, coloring books, bubblegum cards, Aston Martin DB5 models, Bond toys that keyed off all that nifty it-looks-like-this-but-it’s-really-that hardware of the movies (I had a toy camera that turned into a pistol; a friend of mine had what looked like a portable radio which turned into a submachine gun).

Up until then, spy movies – gritty, life-sized, and laced with Cold War paranoia and desperation — for the most part, had been grim affairs about grim men doing a dirty job playing by dirty rules, like Pickup on South Street (1953) and Night People (1954).

But the Bonds were glitzier, shinier, a complete break with what had come before. From the opening bars of John Barry’s brassy theme – Bwaaaa-WAAAAA – and Shirley Bassey belting out the movie’s theme song – “His name was Gold-feen-gah!” – and the opening credits sliding by over gold-painted bikini babes, we knew we were being taken to some place the movies hadn’t taken us before. No back alleys here; this was a world of cool cars and swanky hotels. Commercial jet travel was only a few years old and the idea of some suave, well-dressed guy flitting around the globe to hang out in Miami Beach one day and Switzerland the next was impressive in its own right. The gizmos were oh-wow impressive: that gimmick-packed Aston Martin, Goldfinger’s laser (the first in a commercial movie). There were Ken Adams’ space-agey, chrome-laced sets. Like I said: unique, novel, cutting edge (at the time) — ultimate coolness.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the bad guy was going to knock over Fort Knox. Fort Knox! And what a Fort Knox! Wholly created out of the imagination of Ken Adams, the bullion vault with its chrome bars, Florsheim-glossy floor, and gold bars piled stories high was just what a nine-year-old thought Fort Knox would look like.

Again: ultimate coolness.

And then, at the end, that tantalizing credit: “James Bond will return in…”

There was gonna be more?

The Encore pay-TV channel has been celebrating the superspy’s anniversary with a festival of James Bond flicks. Catching a few of the early Bonds, it hit me – maybe for the first time – that while Goldfinger was my first Bond, it’s not the one I think of when I remember that fresh flush of excitement I had for the series in the early years. No, the one which signifies what was so damned entrancing about the Bonds for me then was actually #5 in the series: You Only Live Twice (1967).

Goldfinger had come on like an assault. It shook you up, a cultural earthquake to tell you cinema’s tectonic plates were shifting. But by Live Twice, the change had already taken place. We knew Bond’s world, so now the job was to take us further…

Goldfinger came at you – like the opening theme – brassy and hard, but You Only Live Twice was a seduction, opening with the gently cascading violins of the opening theme and Nancy Sinatra purring instead of Shirley Bassey blasting. Even today, when I hear those opening strings, the feeling I had the first time I saw the movie comes back to me so vividly I can feel the damp cool air of the Royal Theater and smell the faint mustiness of the old upholstery on the seats.

I was 12. It was summer. I’d hit the Royal for a weekday matinee. Couldn’t have been more than two dozen people scattered around the seats. The movie opens in Hong Kong, Bond’s in bed – surprise! – with a Chinese cutie setting him up for an assassination. Goons bust in, there’s a burst of submachine gun fire, and then Bond lying dead (but not really), the camera zooming in on the crimson blood splattered across the white sheets which segue slickly into the spinning Oriental patterns of Maurice Binder’s credit sequence rolling across that incredibly wide screen of the Royal.

Dr. No had been filmed in Jamacia: ocean and beaches. We had that in Jersey. From Russia with Love? Much of it took place on a train. Most of Goldfinger was set in Kentucky (I’d missed 1965’s Thunderball). But You Only Live Twice was filmed in Japan, and director Lewis Gilbert so deftly captured a sense of the place that he brought a new component to the Bonds: a sense of the exotic. This wasn’t backlot Japan, this wasn’t back projection Japan: this was Japan.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is a rooftop chase along the Kobe docks. Gilbert does all the things in shooting the sequence that you’re not supposed to do with an action sequence. For one thing, it’s filmed in long shot – extreme long shot, actually, from a helicopter, no less – and the camera pulls still further away as the scene progresses. The chase is a single, long take – no cuts. An extended, uninterrupted take in long shot: by conventional wisdom, all elements to play down the dynamics of the action.

But what Gilbert does in that shot as the camera pulls further back is something you rarely see in an action sequence. That long, wide shot frames the action squarely against the Kobe waterfront. This isn’t a set, this isn’t a penny-pinching production trying to pass off Vancouver as a more alluring locale. That’s James Bond fighting it out with real Japanese guys on the real Kobe waterfront.

What Gilbert managed to do with sequences like this rarely matched in the Bonds (or many other action thrillers for that matter), was to do what we always want movies to do: take us someplace else.

As whisked away as I was at 12 by You Only Live Twice, there’s an aspect of that movie I only came to appreciate – I mean really appreciate – years later.

The action climax of the movie takes place in the villain’s lair in a hollowed-out volcano. In those pre-CGI days, you could sometimes pull this off with miniatures, matte paintings – techniques that wouldn’t let the set “live.” If you wanted a set to do something, your only option, then, was to actually build it 1:1.

The volcano set Ken Adams built was one of the largest every constructed up to that time, and supposedly was visible up to three miles away. It had a usable, movable helipad, a moving rocket gantry and a full-sized rocket which could actually spit smoke and look like it was lifting off, a working monorail, and a retractable roof. And then James Bond and an army of Ninjas break in and blow the hell out of it.

It’s awesome. I don’t mean that in the contemporary, hey-dude tossed off sense of the word, but in the classical definition sense: the massive scale and the effort it represented still fill me with awe.

And that, I’m afraid, will never – can never – happen again.

A kid growing up today is swamped by the spectacular from the day he/she is born. It’s a world of CGI-filled movies and videogames populated by wizards and zombies and aliens in hyperkinetic big-action scenarios where over-the-top has become the new normal. In that context, the new James Bonds may fit right in, but they don’t stand out. They may be good – maybe even great – but they’re not unique anymore.

The series is 50 years old; that’s inevitable. And as one of the most successful movie series ever, it’s been constantly copied, cloned, ripped off and parodied (Mike Myers Austin Powers’ movies are a salute to/parody of the Bonds, and Christopher Nolan has several times admitted the influence of the Connery era Bonds in his films, with that influence particularly clear in the mountaintop fortress sequence in Inception [2010]). That constant Xeroxing of the original can’t help but take some of the freshness away.

That’s the thing I miss most, I guess; going to see the newest James Bond movie, knowing I was going to be dazzled and awed by something I’d never seen before and wouldn’t see anywhere else.

You may be able to live twice, but things can only be new once.

- Bill Mesce

This article is part of our 007 marathon. You can find all the entries by clicking here.



By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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6 Responses to 50th Anniversary Thoughts: The Death of Marilyn Monroe, The Birth of James Bond

  1. staindslaved November 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    That was a fun article.

    Absolutely right about Marilyn Monroe. It might sound odd to say she passed at the right time but it’s true. Imagine how we’d think of George Lucas if he died tragically in 1983. Instead fans cheered at the announcement of a new Star Wars trilogy, in large part because Lucas will not be making them. It’s the same reason why The Beatles are considered the best band ever instead of The Rolling Stones. It’s because they broke up and Lennon was killed.

    Casino Royale was the best film but Sean Connery was the best Bond, its OK you can say it. As I was reading the article and you mentioned Goldfinger wasn’t the first film that comes to mind when you think of the original Bond series I immediately went to You Only Live Twice. Same thing when you were talking about the best scene, I was thinking oh he’s gonna talk about the roof sequence. I’m with you 100% about You Only Live Twice, best villain portrayal of the series as well.

    Reply
    • Bill Mesce November 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      …he said from the shadows, his fingers anciously moving through the silky fur of the purring Persian in his lap.

      Reply
  2. DomizianoA November 2, 2012 at 1:12 am

    I think more than anything is because Marilyn today is still modern! Some of her late interviews, some of her perceptions, some of her rage,even some of her poems are today highly used by the new generations as memorable quotes, because they certainly were. I don’t think she was a philosopher, but she was a real person, with a true heart and a wounded sensibility she never tried to hide.
    She’s also the epitaph of all American Tragedies, and c’mon, her films may be dated, but, still are magic, and there was certainly some magic and some enigmatic interior radiance always coming out from her. She made History, at this point, Marilyn will always be the most recognizable, the most Classic movie Star.
    A tragedy and a dream , sealed together, make for an everlasting legend! One of the very few modern ones!

    Reply
  3. Justine November 1, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    As always, great article Bill! I am a huge fan of Marilyn Monroe, the hype is real… she was more than a great talent, but did have a magical quality. As you said, she had a certain “bruised” vulnerability. I think she channels to her audience a rare intimacy, which is why she has such an enduring appeal. What do you think of Don’t Bother to Knock? It’s one of my favourite of her films and performances.

    Today a friend and mine were actually discussing Marilyn Monroe and her appeal. We were talking about her “image” in particular, and she is a really interesting case for building a star persona. You can really chart her success from minor starlet to huge star. You have playboy, you have the change in her look and her forays into different genres and works with several auteurs of the era.

    We spoke especially of the importance of Whitey Snyder to the construction of her “star image”. It’s so rare that we acknowledge the importance of make-up artists, which is strange when you realize how important they can be in defining the looks of the biggest stars. I am not sure there exists someone as important in this field as Whitey, but how much of that iconic image we have of Monroe reliant on that red lip-stick, perfect eyeliner and drawn on beauty mark? Just random thoughts, no big contribution.

    Reply
    • Bill Mesce November 2, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Justine, you could never make a small contribution even if you tried. I think you raise a provocative point about how instrumental that “look” was in selling Monroe. One of her tragedies — and there were so many — is that I get the feeling she sort of knew how to market that look, yet never knew how to take control of her career. Stuck somewhere between her ambitions and her insecurities was poor little her.

      Reply
  4. PB210 August 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    and a comic book superhero, maybe the movies’ first top-end superhero (Batman and Superman had been filmed before, but in cheapie serials).
    ————————————————————-
    Quick digression; oddly enough, the Captain America serial cost almost as much as an A-list film of the time.

    Reply

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