Thesis Statement: Hitchcock’s Blondes were a formation of the director’s own creative vision, the image of women in film during the Monroe Era did not influence him in his depiction of women.
The Blondes Who Knew Too Much:
The Hitchcock Women during the Monroe Era
Without question, Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the most important and most influential film directors of the Twentieth Century. Throughout his career, which lasted more than 50 years, he directed over 50 feature films, many of which are now considered classics. Interestingly, he directed his most critically acclaimed movies1 during the relatively short life and career of one distinctive actress: Marilyn Monroe. It is a striking fact, however, that Marilyn Monroe never starred in a Hitchcock film, although it seems that her blond hair and her star-status would have made her the perfect ‘Hitchcock Blonde’. It would be too simple to quote the Master of Suspense about his preferences for a leading lady:
Suspense is like a woman. The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement. ... The conventional big-bosomed blonde is not mysterious. And what could be more obvious than the old black velvet and pearls type? The perfect ‘woman of mystery’ is one who is blonde, subtle and Nordic. ...
Although I do not profess to be an authority on women, I fear that the perfect title [for a movie], like the perfect woman is difficult to find (qt. in Spoto 431).
In this paper I will attempt to compare Hitchcock’s female characters during the Monroe Era with the image of women in film and how they differed from each other. For this purpose, it is necessary to first take a closer look at Marilyn Monroe and the image she embodied as well as women’s role in general during that period. In addition, Hitchcock’s background, education and attitude towards his leading ladies must also be examined. In my analysis I will focus on three films by Hitchcock:Vertigo(1958),NorthByNorthwest(1959) andThe Birds(1963). I chose these films in particular because they not only show a certain progression in Hitchcock’s work in the way he treats and presents his female characters, but also because these films were highly successful.
Granted Hitchcock’s rich body of work has been analyzed under various points of view by many scholars, I have not been able to locate a work solely concerned with the female characters in his films during the Monroe Era. There are however some works which deal with female roles, such as Tania Modleski’s focus on Hitchcock and Feminist Theory in her bookThe Women Who Knew Too Much.2 Robert Samuels looks at Lacan, Feminisms [sic] and Queer Theory in his bookHitchcock’s Bi-Textuality,and Susan White examinesVertigo and Problems of Knowledge in Feminist Film Theoryin her 1999 essay. But before turning to Alfred Hitchcock and some of his works, it is important to circumscribe the period we are looking at by focusing on the life, career and image of Marilyn Monroe.
Born as Norma Jean Baker in 1926, Marilyn Monroe lived through a troubled youth. At age eight she was sexually abused and later she spent several years in foster homes and orphanages before marring an aircraft-plant worker at age sixteen (Cinemania, par. 1). Her first occupation in front of a camera lens was modeling for bathing suits and posing for glamour photos and pin-ups. Through these photographs she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox under the condition that she change her name to Marilyn Monroe (par. 2). She first starred in minor film roles such asLove Happy(1949),All About Eve(1950) and TheAsphalt Jungle(1950). In 1953 she became famous with three films in a row: Niagara,Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, andHow To Marry A Millionaire, as well as some nude calendar photos that appeared in the debut issue ofPlayboy(par. 3). In the years to follow she appeared in such memorable films likeThe Seven Year Itch(1955),Bus Stop(1956),Some Like It Hot(1960), andThe Misfits(1961). Although she tried to fight her image of the ‘dumb blonde’ in films likeRiverof No Return(1954), the audience did not accept this change and the film was subsequently a failure at the box office. After failed marriages with Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller and increasing problems with drugs and alcohol , Monroe died from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1962 (Cinemania, par. 3-7).
Marilyn Monroe’s image has changed significantly throughout the years, although Molly Haskell argues that through her death she became an icon whose image now cannot be viewed apart from the person (258). This tragic fact had already manifested itself in her final filmThe Misfits(Haskell 256). While she was still alive, “women couldn’t identify with her and didn’t support her”(Haskell 254), which meant that she had little sympathy from the general female population.
Haskell also remarks that “women hated Marilyn for catering so shamelessly to a false, regressive, childish, and detached idea of sexuality” (254). According to these observations, Marilyn Monroe must have been a 1950s nightmare for many women fearing their husbands might fall for her.
But why did women react so enviously towards Monroe? Lori Landri provides a very plausible answer in her observations of Monroe: For one, she has “much in common with postwar ideals of femininity and representations of female power as covert” (156). Further, “because Monroe’s incarnation of female sexuality is passive, she represents not an oppositional figure but a hegemonic model of commodified sexuality in the postwar capitalist sociosexual marketplace” (157). But was she a role model? Jeanine Basinger confronts Landri’s argument by adding both Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe to the category of ‘unreal women’3 as she states that “these are stars whose beauty, elegance, and sexual appeal are somehow beyond the ordinary. They are not really supposed to be role models for anyone, because no one could imagine these women to be duplicated in real life” (166).
So Marilyn “was the fifties’ fiction, the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she’s there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs” (Haskell 255). And although it seems she was the manifestation of the ‘dumb blonde’, she wasn’t aware of her sexuality in the most innocent manner, she was not displaying it like other stars (Landri 157). Because of her image, she was reduced to a tragic figure. Haskell made the observation that “she was never permitted to mature into a warm, vibrant woman, or fully use her gifts of comedy, despite the signals and flares she kept sending up. Instead she was turned into a figure of mockery in the parts she played...” (255). What remains of Marilyn Monroe are her movies: She made 28 films4, the total gross in their first run was over $200 million and Monroe has remained by far the most famous entertainer of her period.5
Marilyn Monroe was certainly not the only successful movie star of this decade.
The number of stars is endless, ranging from Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds to Susan Hayward and Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. It would extend the framework of this paper to elaborate on all the different film stars and their images in the 1950s. Molly Haskell has devoted an extensive chapter on the fifties in her bookFrom Reverence to Rape, and Jeanine Basinger’s bookA Woman’s Viewpresents a comprehensive account of this period. I will therefore only point out some important aspects in the depiction of sexuality.
It appears though that in the popular media of the 1950s sexuality could not be separated from a woman’s identity. The distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sexuality was obviously a central theme (May 63). Good-looking single women who—in course of the film—turned out to be veritable and faithful wives were alwaysrewarded with a happy ending. Heroines who used their sexuality to allure and seduce men for their own good or to become powerful were usually dead by the end of the film (63). Interestingly, in one of her first successful films, Niagara, Marilyn Monroe plays a heroine who is responsible for the death of her husband, her lover and finally herself. However, this film also marked an end to the portrayal of Marilyn’s sexuality as hazardous (63). The focus now turns to how the female image of the 1950s was formed. According to Brandon French,the domestic female image that dominated the reality of the late forties and the fifties was the product of certain sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists,educators, authors, and physicians, as well as organs of mass media, which preached the dangers of women’s lost femininity and the bounties which awaited women within the boundaries of the traditional female role (xvii-xviii).
1 These films include Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds
2 The title of this book inspired both the title of this paper and the title of the presentation.
3 According to Basinger, they are “fantasy figures of all types (these stars are dream images, mostly appealing to men)” (166).
4 The Encyclopædia Britannica Online only acknowledges 23 films, Microsoft’s Cinemania CD-ROM database however lists 28 films (also see appendix of Marilyn Monroe’s filmography ).
5"Monroe, Marilyn" Encyclopædia Britannica Online <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=54772&tocid=0&query=marilyn%20monroe>[Accessed August 21, 2001].