“Is Margot Robbie the New Marilyn Monroe?” The Huffington Post ran—and then altered—that headline just days before this year’s Academy Awards. The piece was innocuous enough, a flowery little item praising the fetching Aussie’s red carpet stylings, and seemed to piggyback off of a recent Vanity Fair photo shoot with Robbie that looked like outtakes from the beach scenes in Some Like It Hot.
But the die had been cast, and days later, when the blond stunner sauntered down that Oscars carpet looking like the epitome of old Hollywood glamour, sporting an Yves Saint Laurent floor-length gown, red lipstick, and a $1.5 million Van Cleef and Arpels necklace originally designed for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, well, numerous media outlets ran with it, saying Robbie was “recently hailed as the new Marilyn Monroe.” This is what we call the tabloid snowball effect.
The problem, in this particular case, is that the label of “the new Marilyn Monroe” is a reductive one based on a very passé notion of both who Monroe was, and the times she—and we—live in.
Robbie, 24, got her start on the Aussie soap opera Neighbours—a veritable talent factory that’s churned out Down Under celebs like Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Liam Hemsworth. “I’ve got big, big dreams for the future. I want to go to L.A. and be a massive actor over there,” an 18-year-old Robbie told the Aussie Student magazine S-Press.
After moving to L.A. to pursue her dream, she auditioned for a part in the short-lived TV series Charlie’s Angels, but instead landed a role as a stewardess on the ABC show Pan-Am. It lasted only one season and then, despite her spotty resume, she landed the part of Naomi Lapaglia, the promiscuous, no-nonsense Long Island trophy wife to sleazy stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Robbie is plenty convincing as the sexpot, seducing her hubby via a leg-spreading Basic Instinct sequence in their children’s nursery, and banging him on top of a pile of money. “I got a million paper cuts on my back from all that money!” she told me of the sex scene. “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. If anyone is ever planning on having sex on top of a pile of cash: don’t.”
The film grossed close to $400 million, was nominated for five Oscars, and catapulted the actress to the A-list. Tabloids even linked her to co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. She reprised her role as a femme fatale in the caper flick Focus which, despite mixed reviews (and precious little sex), managed to win the box office this past weekend with a haul of $19.1 million. Once again, the tabloids targeted her, misconstruing a goofy photo booth shoot for an affair. The speculation grew to such a fever pitch that Robbie was forced to address the rumors on Twitter:
So, on the strength of these two performances, red carpet glamour, vicious tabloid rumors, and the fact that she’s an attractive blond woman, she has been crowned “the new Marilyn Monroe.” It seems people are confused about what exactly that designation even means.
Monroe (born Norma Jeane Baker), was representative of a very different Hollywood—a decidedly more patriarchal system where chauvinistic studio executives treated their actresses like chattel. Monroe, like Rita Hayworth before her, was molded by execs. 20th Century Fox exec Ben Lyon named her “Marilyn Monroe” because it sounded sexy, Columbia chief Harry Cohn surgically fixed her overbite, and her agent, Johnny Hyde, forced her to get a nose job.
This is what the real Monroe looked like back when she worked at a munitions factory during World War II. In a strange turn of events, it was U.S. Army officer (and future president) Ronald Reagan who ordered David Conover of the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit to take pictures for Yank, the Army Weekly, of young women aiding the war effort. Conover shot Monroe, and later recommended her to a modeling agency. The agency said they were looking for models with lighter hair, so she dyed her brunette hair golden blond.
She was soon elevated to bona fide sex symbol in 1952, when nude photographs surfaced of Monroe taken during a private shoot in 1949. Hugh Hefner used one of these nude shots for the first issue of Playboy magazine in December 1953. She began dating (and marrying) uber-celebs like Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio and scribe Arthur Miller, and caused so much chaos on film sets (showing up late—if at all—and always with her acting coach) she made Lindsay Lohan look like an absolute saint by comparison.
But, the pills and the glamour aside, Monroe was an incredibly gifted comedic actress; a method actor in possession of deft timing and a disarming screen presence in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Some Like It Hot. Billy Wilder called her an “absolute genius,” while Olivier said she was “wonderful.” But legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg said it best: “I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of actors and actresses, and there are only two that stand out way above the rest. Number one is Marlon Brando, and the second is Marilyn Monroe.”
Monroe was also, by most accounts, much smarter than her “dumb blonde” persona would indicate and she was often very insightful in interviews. When studio executives urged her to dump boyfriend Arthur Miller after he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee over rumored communist ties, Monroe did what most of Hollywood couldn’t and told them to stick it. “Some of those bastards in Hollywood wanted me to drop Arthur, said it would ruin my career,” she later said. “They’re born cowards and want you to be like them.”
Thanks to the hollow meme culture of today, Monroe, who passed away at 36 in an apparent suicide, has been reduced to a symbolic cliché by scores of young women; a glamorous Old Hollywood icon revered for her classic looks and handful of yearbook-worthy quotes as opposed to the dynamic actress she was. It’s a big reason why the Monroe Estate pulled in a hefty $17 million last year, making her one of the world’s highest-grossing dead celebs.
Margot Robbie is a talented actress with a bright future, but she is nothing like Marilyn Monroe. And in this overexposed, oversaturated, and highly ephemeral world that we live in, there’s no place for lasting icons.