Marilyn Monroe As The Fabled Enchantresses

The movie goddess recreates her iconic predecessors for LIFE magazine in 1958.

For Christmas in 1958, LIFE magazine gave its readers a special treat – a photoshoot by Richard Avedon featuring Marilyn Monroe, who was the most famous actress and sex symbol of the age, recreating the screen icons – “the fabled enchantresses” – of cinema past. Seeing the woman who is still, in many ways, the ultimate example of a screen goddess paying tribute to her predecessors is impressive and Avedon’s shots, the art direction (uncredited as is often the case) and, of course, Marilyn’s portrayal of these women created a fascinating study in the history of screen glamour.

The opening shot of the layout saw Marilyn as Lillian Russell, described in the magazine captions as “160 opulent pounds of curvy Victorian womanhood”, which sounds like a compliment. That’s 72.5 kilos in translation and so seems to be an early example of body positivity – a few decades later, during the height of the fitness craze, the idea of a woman of that size being seen as sexy would have been unthinkable (but then, as we are often told, a woman of Marilyn’s size would’ve been seen as overweight in the 1980s so I think that we can dismiss the push for skinniness that dominated that era as a dumb idea). Russell was a stage actor and singer whose career crossed into the early days of cinema, making her one of the first movie goddesses.

Next up is Theda Bara, the first ‘vampire’ from the days when the term was used to describe sexually provocative and seductive women (where do you think ‘vamp’ came from?) – the sort who drive men to ruin with their corrupting wiles. There is little doubt that Marilyn captures the sexual intensity of the celluloid vamp perfectly, and not for nothing have these shots become the most iconic of the entire shoot.


After this comes It Girl Clara Bow, the swinging sexpot of the 1920s jazz age. I feel that these shots are the least successful of the bunch – whatever Marilyn had, it wasn’t the thing that Clara had and these images don’t quite capture the essence of the Jazz Baby. On the other hand, it looks as though a lot of fun was hand during their creation.

On the other hand, Marilyn’s portrayal of Marlene Dietrich comes across quite well, complete with the props and lights exposed, showing the artifice of the photographic creation (though this was rather muddier and harder to see in the original magazine print). Marilyn doesn’t look like Marlene at all, of course, but the photo somehow captures the essence of both screen goddesses in a way that the others perhaps don’t.

And finally, we see Marilyn as the woman to whom she was perhaps most often initially compared, another platinum blonde goddess who also met with an untimely death – Jean Harlow. These too seem to not quite work, perhaps because these images seem the closest to the Marilyn Monroe that we all know – there is not enough of a character for her to get into in these images.

The LIFE article concludes with a piece about the photo shoot and the nature of sexual fantasy by Marilyn’s husband Arthur Miller. It’s an interesting piece in which the shots that are being recreated here are referred to as ‘archaic’ – though some were less than three decades old at the time. How quickly the past used to be forgotten. There is an irony in all this, of course, because Marilyn Monroe is possibly the most imitated woman of the 20th century. Everyone from serious actors to kissogram girls have adopted the classic Marilyn look, with wildly differing degrees of success – but as long as they have the blonde hair, the Seven Year Itch dress, the pout and the voice, everyone knows exactly who they are supposed to be. Marilyn has never left the popular public consciousness, even six decades after her death. Marilyn was ahead of the game with these recreations of classic stars of the past, probably blissfully unaware of just how many people would do the same with her in the years to come.


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