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The Smart Dumb Blonde - review

A portrait of Marilyn is a celebration of the American voice.

The Smart Dumb Blonde

BBC Radio 4

A documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe (5 August) pumped all the usual kind of wind into its subject – that MM was incredibly smart, that she was a comedy genius wielding a weird sex-goddess somnambulism. But there was so much here to enjoy, not least the pointing up of small details such as MM’s habit of applying hormone cream to her chin and cheeks to encourage the growth of a baby-white down (so thick she was often ordered to shave it) that acted as a kind of lighting rig (if you have ever wondered why Kate Winslet looks quite so radiant in early movies like Sense and Sensibility and Hideous Kinky – beyond being exceptionally beautiful – I’d say it is partly down to this: she, like Monroe, is markedly furry, and frequently lit in ways that bounce brilliantly off her own electric fuzz). 

The clips from MM’s movies were well chosen. Moments from Bus Stop (“I ain’t been a dumb blonde since . . . since . . .”) and Some Like It Hot (“if it wasn’t for you, Dorothy, I’d be out in the middle of nowhere sitting on my ukulele”) were so uniquely delivered by MM there was no need for visuals: one could just picture her tricking-up her slow reaction times into comedy the way she did. But what hit more were the voices of the presenter and interviewees. Maureen 

Dowd – a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Times – may have been born in Washington but sounds pure New Jersey. Her offs are owfs. Her beautifuls byuwdiful. There were moments when she more resembled Mike Myer’s 1980s spoofs of his elderly mother-in-law in the SNL sketches “coffee talk” (cwoffee twork). 

Ben Lyon – the 20th Century Fox executive who “discovered” Monroe – sounded as gloriously, confidently, bamboozle-ishly 1950s as someone selling a condo in Aspen while wearing tin buttons and shoes with the sole flapping off when he said “the moment you entered with that girl, every head turned around”. Jane Russell was Hollywoodishly, toughly, femininely indulgent when she recalled MM always reading a book (do women like Monroe because they don’t take her seriously enough to find her threatening?). These sort of great American voices are rarely heard now. The loss of their variety and sly energy is as sad as anything you could say about Monroe. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism