The New Marilyns

American Photo conducted an experiment that had a result a little different than what they may have intended. They had photographers recreate "the Monroe look" with some contemporary models. It reveals what Marilyn's passing reft us of. Ironic, that a year after her death the assassination of Jack Kennedy would destroy forever our national idealism, since Jack Kennedy, even more than Marilyn Monroe, was less than what his death transformed him into.

 Perhaps her passing was the last time we would see innocent sensuality iconized in our aging, cynical culture. Her real sensuality radiates from her photos, very different from the living sexual parody in her film roles, and yet there is a kind of innocence in Marilyn's photographic persona that none of the "new Marilyns" seem to even comprehend. It was this innocence that distinguished her from the Ava Gardners, Jean Harlows, and Jane Russells.

I can hear a snicker at the word "innocence." Let me explain. There is no air of calculation in her photographic persona. If that is an illusion, so be it; the illusion was her appeal. Look at Ashley Judd posed like one of Bert Stern's bedsheet nudes. There is in Judd's face none of the sense of play, the joy, that makes the original photographs so charming. None of the homages works as impression; ironically, the closest one to success is a female impersonator, Jimmie James, who opts to recreate the real Marilyn rather than imitate cheesecake. The picture could be Monroe in a candid shot at 45 or 50 years old. He gets the eyes right, and the open mouth, which manages sexiness and yet also appears to represent no more than a moment when she is about to speak or take a breath. One of the touching elements of the picture is that it offers a glimpse into an alternative future; it could be her ten or fifteen years older than when she died.
And the others:

Anna Nicole Smith
Her photographer wanted to capture her "obvious sensuality and her quiet, frail vulnerability." Say what? What he got was a big lump of flesh, a roast turkey in a peignoir. The face has a Jane Russell sneer that tells us precisely what the woman's sensuality is obviously for; she looks about as frail and vulnerable as the four bodyguards one imagines her calmly siccing on anybody she disliked.

Cindy Crawford
She might have pulled it off, with the help of Herb Ritts, if she hadn't gone for the cliché of the bitten lower lip. She doesn't look at all like Marilyn, but Ritts has her posed right, lit right, focused right. And the lower lip spoils it. It's no accident that there is no photo of Marilyn containing this detail. What were they thinking of?

Heather Locklear
Heather Locklear? Does she know somebody at American Photo? The Locklear picture tries, I suppose, to capture the posed abandon of the calendar shoot, except that Locklear wouldn't do nude (she opts for a 'sexy' Victoria's Secret leopard teddy). The only memorable detail of the picture is the huge tattoo on her ankle (she could have turned over to hide it), and instead of Marilyn's "leaping into the hurricane" gaiety, Locklear is all wrapped up in herself. Literally. Unh-huh.

Darryl Hannah
Ok, more proof she can't act. And she has shoulders like a coat rack. She goes for the ditzy blonde look (good choice), but she misses the key element, the vacant "Oh" look in the eyes. She manages to look like some other dumb blonde. Two mistakes.

And Ashley Judd
The closest in many ways to the sexual persona of Monroe. Another irony, given that the other wannabes, like Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Louise Ciccione, Britney Spears, and the tragic Jayne Mansfield, are all official "sex symbols" and Ashley Judd is a nice lady who's kinda pretty and can act. But she still doesn't get it quite right. There is too much control, that element I've called calculation. The camera was Marilyn's friend; it's Ashley Judd's colleague.

There isn't any new Marilyn. Who wants one? Monroe spent her entire life trying to be someone else; how grotesque, that now people are trying to be her.