Marilyn Monroe never trained as a dancer, but she stars in one of the great movie dance scenes, a number so joyful, vivacious and wittily self-aware that nearly 70 years on it still explodes with life.
“Blonde” wants you to believe that one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons was a haunted, hated sad sack who cried, screamed and groveled her way through film history. The truth disagrees. Monroe did struggle for respect as an artist, and she was denied roles that might have changed her career and her life. Loopy, fragile Holly Golightly in the 1961 rom-com “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was one; Truman Capote had based his character partly on Monroe, whom he had befriended, and he was furious when she lost out to Audrey Hepburn.
But Monroe’s artistic gifts endure in a number of her movies — and none is a more exuberant showcase of her talents than “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the film that shot her to stardom. She plays Lorelei Lee, a small-town refugee out to snag a rich husband, with Jane Russell as Dorothy Shaw, her friend and co-conspirator. Russell has the sass. (Lorelei: “How do I look?” Dorothy: “Like trouble.”) Monroe has the moves.
According to movie lore, neither of the actresses took easily to the film’s dance sequences, but with her generous charm and soft physicality, Monroe looks like Margot Fonteyn next to tall, square-shouldered Russell. They’re paired in a few numbers, but it is as the solo star of “Diamonds” that Monroe blazes her way into cinematic heaven. The scene is a Parisian nightclub, where, with her fiance gaping from his table, Lorelei unapologetically flaunts her assets — and proclaims her price.
What is more mesmerizing: Monroe’s mastery of restraint and natural freedom? How her gloved fingers travel lightly, deliberately over her bare skin, drawing attention to what’s barely hidden? How does that gown stay up? Call it a balance of powers. The number is a socko blend of seduction, release and control.
“Diamonds” offers a prismatic look at the actress, the culture and the times. There are many ways to see Monroe, and many ways to view her most iconic scene. Here are a few.
1. Yes, it’s Monroe’s voice.
Earthy, low and warm, this is Monroe’s singing at its best. Jule Styne, who wrote the song, praised her voice, with good reason — her uniquely sultry, jazz-influenced interpretation is ranked 12th-best on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 songs in 20th-century American films. Was there any dubbing? If so, it was minimal — a line or two has been credited to voice actress Gloria Wood and frequent dubber Marni Nixon.
2. Voilà, the genius of Jack Cole.
With his lush, expressive way with bodies, Cole revolutionized dance on film. A modern dancer turned choreographer, he liberated movie numbers from tap, ballroom and kick lines. Instead, he drew freely from non-Western styles, including Afro-Cuban and the classical Indian form bharatanatyam. “Diamonds” bears traces of this, in the deep S-curves of Monroe’s body, the way she sinks into a hip. It’s also apparent in the sharp, swift way she cuts her eyes.
Cole frames Monroe as a diamond herself — luminous against a chorus of men in black, she twists this way and that to show off her facets. She doesn’t cover a lot of space, but she doesn’t need to. This is Monroe up close, the way the world covets her; Monroe is animating her body in small, sharp, emphatic ways. The thrust of her pink-gloved arms, the suggestive gestures to her bodice and backside, that quick, bang-bang flash as her fingers form pistols — there are so many clever, almost outré burlesque references, the whole array combining into a marvel of ease and command. It’s minimalist dance with maximum effect, liberating Monroe as never before to speak with her body.
They worked together on five more films, among them “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954), “Bus Stop” (1956) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959).
3. That fabulous pink dress? Thank a nude-photo scandal.
Hollywood has morals, people. Shortly before “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” went into production, news broke of a calendar featuring a nude model reclining on red velvet who resembled Monroe, though the face was partly obscured. Monroe took control and acknowledged it was her, telling a reporter she had been broke when she posed for it, and why should she be ashamed? Fox executives were so afraid of public backlash they scrapped plans for Monroe to wear a bikini-type confection for “Diamonds,” as film historian Debra Levine has written. Instead, costume designer Travilla devised the rosy gown to cover her. Mostly.
4. Almost led to a very weird moment at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
The movie’s co-stars were friends, and together, they sunk their hands and feet into wet cement in front of the famed theater where so many movie stars have left mementos. Yet Monroe had a more creative idea: She tried to coax Russell into imprinting her bare chest into the pavement, while Monroe would memorialize her rear end. Apparently, she never stopped thinking about publicity. Happily, a Fox rep intervened and kept the ladies to the original plan.
5. A gift to the troops.
Monroe was so beloved by servicemen that Stars and Stripes named her Miss Cheesecake of 1951. She was inundated by fan mail from troops — especially from those stationed in South Korea. After filming “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she had the chance to meet her admirers. While traveling in Japan with baseball star Joe DiMaggio, her new husband, the actress was invited to entertain troops in Korea. Monroe flew to each stop by helicopter, leaning out and blowing kisses to the cheering men below. Wearing sequins, rhinestones and — as always — plenty of bare skin, she sang in wintry conditions, opening with “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” In his 1973 biography “Marilyn,” Norman Mailer writes that excitement for her visit ran so high that road signs read: “Drive Carefully — the Life You Save May Be Marilyn Monroe’s.” Moved by the wild reception, heedless of the weather, Monroe sang herself sick. Returning to Japan, she fell ill with pneumonia.
6. Early feminism.
Say what you will about the questionable career goals of Lorelei Lee, whose single ambition, in the film’s view, is to sweet-talk a millionaire into marrying her. But the “Diamonds” song tells a different story. Listen, Lorelei tells us: There are plenty of men out there who are stupid and vain enough to want you for a very simple transaction. Make them pay for it, in cold currency. Don’t be bought off with promises.
This forceful rejection of blame was fresh, bold and, in its way, a rallying cry for women to embrace their power.
7. A glimpse of George Chakiris.
Chakiris, the actor and exceptional dancer who played Bernardo in the 1961 “West Side Story,” is one of the tuxedoed men in the chorus surrounding Monroe.
8. Cold War propaganda.
Curvy, beautiful women offering glamour and pleasure — what could be more emblematic of American prosperity? Their Soviet counterparts were plain, sturdy laborers toiling away in men’s work — communism, how dull. The entertainment industry proclaimed an unmistakable message with every flash of a showgirl’s leg. Monroe, with all her quintessentially feminine softness draped in diamonds, displayed the triumph of American society. (Even if that society — or specifically, the condensed, contradictory corner of it that was Hollywood — was an uneasy fit for so many women, and most especially Monroe.)
9. Traces of Joe DiMaggio.
Well, perhaps. Mailer, the writer, believes some of Monroe’s dazzling physicality in this film is due to the influence of DiMaggio. They were married for just nine months, but they had been a couple for longer.
“In the best years with DiMaggio, her physical coordination is never more vigorous and athletically quick,” Mailer writes in his Monroe biography. “She dances with all the grace and all the bazazz — she is a musical comedy star with panache!”
It’s cheeky to attribute Monroe’s motor impulses to the man she was with, but it is an interesting thought. Did the Yankee Clipper’s athleticism inspire her?
I’m willing to believe their romance sparked all kinds of new feelings and connections in Monroe, who searched her whole life for love, approval and protection. But she was the one sweating in the dance studio with Cole, the one rehearsing toward perfection, the one who snapped and swirled and cocked a shoulder just so and spun herself into the dreams of a world that is always hungry for beauty, sex and, most of all, joy.
In the end, that’s what Monroe’s dance is all about: the joy.