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The Unspin Room

Dalton Delan: Legends flicker from candles burned out long before

Virus Outbreak France Cannes

Aa mural of Marilyn Monroe in Cannes, southern France.

It was early morning in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, exactly 60 years ago today, when the doctor found Marilyn Monroe unresponsive, empty bottles of barbiturates overturned by her bedside.

The road from a childhood tossed between foster homes and institutionalization, rescued only by marrying at sweet 16, was both brutalizing and steep. Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin told the tale in their haunting threnody, “Candle in the Wind,” whose lines proclaim “Hollywood created a superstar and pain was the price you paid.”

Norma Jeane Mortenson wasn’t born a blonde bombshell, one of the last to blast the silver screen, a heartbreaker for the celluloid century. Her mother suffered from schizophrenia, and although Norma Jeane’s depression became recognized at least in death — under what Norman Mailer saw as suspicious circumstances given her trysts with John and Bobby Kennedy — Marilyn spent her short life running from the fear that she would succumb as her mother had. Mental illness was closeted.

As Marilyn, she became someone special — platinum like Jean Harlow, retaking her scenes over and over again until she drove directors out of their minds. The insecurity never left. She looked for adoring men to fill the void, but Joe DiMaggio was a wife-beater and Arthur Miller was a misfit in his own write. Press agent Johnny Hyde was a constant, but he died in 1950, and her mother was a distant planet whose orbit always threatened to eclipse her weak gravity.

I saw her first in “Some Like It Hot” in a drive-in theater near Woodstock, N.Y. Most of the gender-bending humor flew over my head, but her presence was like a sun in the night sky. When news came of her passing three years later, it was on my birthday. My mother had styled her own hair a la Marilyn, and like many women of the era she looked to Monroe, as to Jackie, for a sense of grand style. My mother worked for Clairol, so she could dial up blonde on blonde. I remember what a sad day it was in our house — a madhouse at the best of times, but as my mother suffered from similarly wild fits of depression, it took very little to set her off.

Several years later, I heard one of the last of the living legends, Marlene Dietrich, perform at a shed in Connecticut. She epitomized glamour and the glory of the cinema. There is a reason the larger-than-life presence of the stars who possessed that ineffable “it” made an impact on us that is hard to replicate today. When we saw “Top Gun: Maverick” recently, the film was preceded by Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise reminding us in succession that the big screen still matters. It’s a size distinction with a difference. It’s where the magic is. Come back, Marilyn.

We consume binge-worthy series on TV, and there is a surprising amount of good writing out there amidst all the usual tripe. Not to kid our memories, most movies were mediocre, too. But then there were the special ones. Nicole Kidman has that Bacall look, but put Bacall up there with Bogart and we levitate above the theater. Tracy and Hepburn. Astaire and Rogers. Pick your own favorites. Maybe it wasn’t just the size. There was a secret sauce stirred up in the Hollywood studio system. To escape the assembly-line grind, a select few had to transcend, and they did. I checked off every Bogie movie I saw in a list of them all; I made it pretty far. But then the art-house cinemas died out with the dawn of cable television and home video. Bye Bogie.

Just before I was born, Marilyn graced the first centerfold and cover of Playboy, brainchild of the adolescent mind of Hugh Hefner. They were old photographs Hefner bought for $500. But Marilyn never minded being the first nude superstar. She was proud of what she had made of herself. Sex and beauty sell. But sanity and peace of mind come dear on the market, and she couldn’t buy those. If it is true that mental illness is usually the product of childhood trauma meeting inherited tendency, she was a winner indeed. All the hair coloring in the world couldn’t paint over the hurt and the longing for a mother who would never be a rock but only a wave breaking.

Next month, we will see Elton John on his farewell tour, his long goodbye. Maybe he will play his song for Marilyn. Maybe he won’t. One of the last of the great rock stars, he’s another flame guttering out. But I’ll pay my money and see him against the night sky. “It seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.” Goodbye yellow brick road. We’re not in Oz anymore.

Dalton Delan can be followed on Twitter

@UnspinRoom. He has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.

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