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Jeff Simon: Latest version of Marilyn Monroe – this time from Joyce Carol Oates – comes to screen

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Adrien Brody, left, and Ana de Armas in "Blonde."

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In 1955, photographer Eve Arnold took what became a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe, on a park bench, reading a beat-up copy of James Joyce's "Ulysses." Arnold later told the world that on their shoot together in the park, Monroe had retrieved the book from her car and began to read it.

Her car, she told Arnold, is where she always kept it.

That famous photo has been the occasion of an untold number of horselaughs at Monroe's expense ever since, especially from: 1) literary intellectuals; 2) people who want to be thought of as literary intellectuals; 3) friends of those in groups 1) and 2); and anybody else who wants to feel superior to an actress all-too-famous for bimbo roles in her quest to be taken seriously for her higher faculties.

I'm on Monroe's side. And consider the facts: She was already involved with writer Arthur Miller at the time and would marry him a year after the picture was taken.

Take a good look at the photo. Not only is her copy of "Ulysses" battered but she admitted to Arnold that she didn't always understand the book. She liked to read it aloud, though, for the sound of the words. That's about as valid a reason for nonliterary types to be partial to "Ulysses" as any that I know.

Take an even better look at the photo. What she's reading are the book's final pages – Molly Bloom's soliloquy remembering the moment when she first succumbed to the seductive charms of her husband, Leopold, the struggling ad salesman. The book ends famously "and yes I said yes I will yes."

It's among the most legendary passages in all of English literature – specifically from the literature that we've spent the last century calling "modernism."

Then browse the web a little, especially if you're still smirking at Monroe's "pretensions."

You'll find that after her death people have searched through auction catalogs and other sources and found 430 books that were in Monroe's personal library at the time of her death. As lists go, it's nothing but smart: Camus' "The Fall"; Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"; Nikolas Kazantzakis' "The Last Temptation of Christ"; and a whole lot of D.H. Lawrence, including "The Portable D.H. Lawrence," the selected poems and no less than two copies of his novel "Sons and Lovers."

Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was the novel that, in her lifetime, began the possibility on both sides of the Atlantic of reading unexpurgated copies of long-censored books.

The woman who was called a "sex symbol" almost everywhere in the Western world had good reasons for exploring literature thought to be erotic, including Joyce's extraordinary stream-of-consciousness monologue, one of the most famous ever written.

The meeting of Monroe and literature has been an amazing subject ever since she married one of the most famous writers of her time, the author of plays ("Death of a Salesman," "A View from the Bridge"), novels ("Focus"), essays, you name it. Before their divorce after five years of difficult marriage, he had written a screenplay for her to star in for director John Huston ("The Misfits") and with Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. After their divorce, he wrote the play "After the Fall," which is often thought to have exploited her in a way familiar to her entire life.

It's likely that it will be a long, long time before writers leave Monroe alone.

Of important recent vintage was "Blonde," the 738-page novel by Joyce Carol Oates who is, as we speak, still awaiting the Nobel Prize for which she was once rumored to be a logical candidate. "My 'Moby Dick', " Oates called "Blonde" with one assumes tongue firmly in cheek.

It's a little surprising that it took 22 years for "Blonde" to become a film. (It will be here next week and will be available on Netflix Sept. 28.) Since her death in 1962, Monroe has been enacted by a platoon of film actresses who are ambitious, whether they bear any resemblance to her or not.

The latest, Ana De Armas is being kindly reviewed by those who have seen the film in online screeners or in festivals.

In the meantime, let me tell you about a forgotten and little seen film from 2011 that had a terrific performance by Michelle Williams, an actress who resembled Monroe very little but whose talent has always exceeded her reputation at a minimum by a factor or 10.

It's by British director Simon Curtis and is called "My Week With Marilyn" and is based on a book by Colin Clark that he says stemmed from his sweet, sympathetic relationship with her when she traveled to England to make the ill-fated "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Sir Laurence Olivier.

In its small way, it is as memorably sympathetic to Monroe as is the ambitious, three-hour "Blonde," which arrives complete with NC-17 rating. (There is graphic rape scene and a visualization of Monroe's encounter with John F. Kennedy.).

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I find myself in my maturity sympathetic to everything I know about her self-destructive life but still as unimpressed with her on film as I always was, from the '50s onward. (Major exceptions: "Niagara" and "The Misfits.")

One would have to be blind not to register her astonishing beauty, but I'm one of those who holds with the theory that her true genius was as a photographer's model not an actress. Yes, she was funny and hugely memorable in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," but anyone who thinks seriously about the actress at all and that film can begin to understand why she was so frequently late to film sets – maybe even why she needed to abuse so many substances just to get through a world of wall-to-wall exploitation, 24/7.

That is always my trouble with Monroe on screen, striking beauty or not. Even as a kid, I always had reservations about Monroe movies telling me that the epitome of sexiness was empty-headedness. The actresses whom I'd always designate personal goddesses were Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Janet Leigh, Inger Stevens and Lee Remick – all of whom were routinely filmed in the act of having brains that worked very well indeed, often at the expense of male co-stars whose gray matter was a good deal less conspicuous.

Cultural dissent was pretty common for me in the '50s and early '60s. As the years went on, shifting tastes made me a lot more comfortable.

At the same time, that I was never ravished by Monroe onscreen, I've found everything I know about the woman increasingly touching when it wasn't secretly admirable.

If I forever have respect for her personal qualities it's because of my favorite story about Monroe, one that can never be told often enough.

She was, long before the general run of her peers in show business, utterly devoted to the magnificent art of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, back then, yearned for extended gigs in plush nightclubs so that she didn't have to travel so much to mini-gigs in small jazz clubs of lesser monetary return. One place that she yearned to perform for a week was the Mocambo in LA. Small problem: The proprietor was thought to be a racist whose hiring practices were of a piece with his reputation.

When Monroe heard that, she went to him and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: If he would book Fitzgerald for a week, Monroe would show up on time every night and sit ringside for the whole night. He could use that fact for his publicity, thereby assuring his club would be packed every night.

She knew who she was and what her reputation would do to Fitzgerald's s box office. She would fill the joint.

And so she did, giving one of the greatest jazz singers America will ever have the kind of gig she had only dreamed of in LA and the template for many gigs that would happen subsequently.

Monroe, said Fitzgerald with admiration whenever she would tell the story, was always ahead of her time.

Not so, sadly, was the kind of reception she had in Hollywood. One of her most famous quotes was, "Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul. I know because I often turned down the first offer and held out for the 50 cents."

I've often wondered what might have happened if 36-year-old Monroe could have hung on for just a few more years, when directors like Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman might have come up with creative ideas about how to use a former sex symbol now in her 40s who desperately deserved ways to fulfill her ambitions.

And not in Gothic freak shows like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" either.

I really think that, had she lived, her time was coming.

But Miller – whose expertise on the subject is unquestionable – once said simply she was "a woman haunted by ghosts of an unhappy childhood that eventually destroyed her."

Her time on Hollywood's cultural killing floor was the sister of Elvis Presley's, another movie star with actorly ambitions and homicidal drug habits.

I've just seen Baz Luhrmann's splendidly gaudy "Elvis," a 21st century celebration of a figure whose greatness managed to survive godawful lifelong exploitation.

And now, hurtling toward us all, is "Blonde," a film about exploitation that, according to many, is itself indistinguishable from exploitation in a "Me Too" age.

No matter what, it's a film from an America that, it seems, has finally caught up to her: the real woman, not the actress or blowhard's symbol.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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