Since her death in 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s cult status has steadily grown. You can find her in modern art, in contemporary media, and in discount frames at Winners. She is everywhere, and yet I can’t help but feel that these images of Monroe are ultimately empty. We have transformed Monroe into an icon, an impossible and inhuman symbol for beauty, youth, and tragedy. The reason I am so uncomfortable with this legacy is because its contingent on Monroe’s death and silence. She is a voiceless object our culture reuses and compares others to, forming a toxic and repetitive system where women are abused, glorified, and ultimately suppressed.
There are a few films which have tried to critique this status without critiquing Monroe as a person. Biopics like My Week With Marilyn (2011) ** have tried to frame their discussion in this way, but they are generally unsuccessful, mainly because they are unsure how to give Monroe her voice back. This week, I want to highlight a film which addresses this complicated reception in perhaps the most direct fashion: Tommy.
Tommy is a rock musical, with music by The Who, about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy, who goes on an amazing journey towards enlightenment. It features an incredible ensemble cast, including Anne Margaret, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Roger Daltrey (who stars as Tommy).
Tommy becomes catatonic after walking in on his Mother and Stepfather as they murder his Father. Racked with guilt, Tommy’s Mother and Stepfather spend the first half of the film trying to reawaken Tommy through the sense he has left. They turn to loud instruments and colours, drugs, sex, and cult worship. I mention Tommy during my ongoing horror musical week because the film has several disturbing psychedelic sequences, and it is very self-aware of the issues around violent fandom, overdose, and worship. The Monroe sequence is arguably the film’s most direct criticism of cult fanfare, although these aspects continue to develop in the film.
“She’s Got the Power To Heal You”
Early in the film, Tommy and his Mother visit a Monroe-based church, where Monroe is the new messiah. It is perverted and distorted version of Christianity, where Monroe represents 20th century faith and martyrdom. There are numerous pictures of Monroe on the walls, and the church’s disciples appear with her famous trademarks: blonde hair, eyeliner, and lipstick. They even wear robes made from newspaper articles about Monroe. It’s noteworthy that each of these features are artificial and distorted, as the disciples use disturbing masks, wigs, and robes to embody Monroe. The same distortion appears in the massive statue of Monroe, which parades through the congregation. The worshipers either snoop to kiss her feet or touch her dress/crotch to heal themselves. The statue depicts her famous Seven Year Itch (1955) pose, skirt up, with a mirror at the base, so worshipers can look up her skirt.
The sequence feels so wrong because it amplifies something our culture is already doing and presents it back to us in a grotesque fashion. We might not worship Monroe in this exact manner, but we exploit her image and mimic her appearance in a similar way.
Eric Clapton plays the head priest in the scene and performs the song “Eyesight to the Blind”, which relates to scene’s criticism on cult fanfare. The title of the song doesn’t relate to Tommy because Monroe doesn’t heal him. Instead, the song applies to us. The various Monroe images and perversions are meant to awaken us, to make us less blind about the way Monroe functions in our culture. Both the scene and song are aware of the politics surrounding Monroe, and so they incorporate the symbols associated with her in a purposeful way. For instance, one of the first shots in the church is of a drum kit with a female symbol (♀) and a money symbol ($). These are core to Monroe’s persona: womanhood and capitalism/Hollywood. The fact that they are on a drum kit, which maintains the beat and rhythm in the song, implies that they are like a heartbeat for the scene and Monroe’s life.
“Just A Word From Her Lips, and the Deaf Begin to Hear”
The scene additionally fixates on Monroe’s suppression and silence. For example, the song suggests that Monroe can heal people just by moving or speaking one word, although the song never identifies Monroe by name. One lyric mentions, “You talk about your woman, I wish you could see mine”, which is strange, considering how many images there are of Monroe in the temple. You can easily see Monroe; she is all over the place. This line instead suggests that we aren’t really seeing Monroe, that these images are nothing compared to the real person. This ultimately symbolizes how Monroe has no voice in any of these bodies, not even from the disciples who dress like her. She must remain distant or dead in order to be mystic. Her silence also means that the cult can put whatever words they want into her and heal themselves.
The lyrics therefore focus on other people’s experience of Monroe, rather than her words or experience. We hear about the way she moves and talks, but not how or why. The statue is another example of this, as we see Monroe’s famous pose, but without historic context. Filming the subway grate scene was one of the most difficult shoots in Monroe’s career. The scene had to be re-shot after massive crowds gathered to watch Monroe’s skirt lift up, an event which was deeply uncomfortable and humiliating for Monroe. This pose led to a massive fight with her husband, and it haunted her career. The pose thus symbolizes a time when Monroe felt powerless and exploited, not sexually liberated as Seven Year Itch would suggest. The fact that the pose has become Monroe’s signature image is an extension of this exploitation. Our modern culture is no better than that crowd because we continue to isolate images of Monroe from this history, and we glorify her death by suggesting it was some beautiful tragedy.
The statue in Tommy informally recreates this historic exploitation and shows us how bizarre and perverted it is. The way the worshipers line up to look under her skirt and touch her is unnerving because Monroe has no ability to stop it. It is more disturbing because we have already seen a POV shot from the statue’s perspective. As the disciplines lead the Monroe statue to the front of the chapel, we get a sweeping shot of Tommy, his Mother, and the crowd. This sweeping movement happens just as the statue turns, shot from above the crowds’ heads. We see Monroe’s perspective as she looks out onto this adoring crowd. It is as though the statue is a vessel for her, it contains and imprisons her.
When Tommy and his Mother accidentally push the statue off its pedestal, it smashes. This moment illustrates that although Monroe can’t help Tommy, he can help her. She escapes the scene, finally free from this bizarre cult and its martyrship. We get a shot of her broken face on the ground, her lips smashed and her mouth a gaping hole. Maybe now, with her lips unpursed and her mouth away from this pose, she can have a voice of her own. It almost funny that a scene which relies on and amplifies Monroe’s exploitation might be the most honest Monroe representation there is.
Recreation and Monroe
Much like our own modern fixation with Monroe, the Monroe cult in Tommy is obsessed with her death. Its version of communion is a pill, a swig of alcohol, and having your photo taken by some unseen paparazzi. There are a few shots of a camera with a gold cardboard star around its lens. This implies that the camera is Monroe’s holy symbol, her equivalent to Christ’s cross. Like the cross, Monroe’s cause of death was the camera, and the fame it created.
However, unlike Christianity, the communion is not her body, but the literal way she died (drugs and alcohol). This inverses things, as Monroe’s body is more accessible then Christ’s body and blood, which traditional communion uses. This begs the question, if Christ died for our sins, what did Monroe die for?
While Christ was surrounded at the moment of death, Monroe was alone, which adds an interesting layer to the scene. All these pictures of Monroe start to dissolve onto one another, to the point where they no longer have meaning as individual shots but as a collective. The repetition of her death, in the objects and collected images, implies that it is a sort of traumatic site, something our culture needs to work through. Even the disciples wear newspaper headlines about Monroe’s death, instead of the things she did while she was alive. The scene thus emphasizes Monroe as a multi-figure, rather than a singular person. This is a reaction to the way Monroe’s story gets repeated in contemporary media, the way we multiply her into so many projects. Perhaps, like her statue, Monroe might one day escape this repetitive model.