Marilyn Monroe and Annie Oakley

Caribbean Dream, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Caribbean Dream, oil on canvas, 11×14

IN THE LAST FEW DAYS I have had the pleasure of watching television programs featuring two of America’s most famous women: Marilyn Monroe and Anne Oakley. Monroe was starring in her final movie, The Misfits, while Oakley was the subject of a documentary shown on PBS’s American Experience. The similarities are striking.

This was the third time I have watched The Misfits, but the first in about a decade, and it has probably been that long since I have watched a Marilyn Monroe movie. (A lot has been written about her, of course, but I’ve read very little of it, so if what I write seems too obvious I hope you at least enjoy the painting.)

I never knew much about Annie Oakley until I read about her  in the Jill Jonnes book Eiffel’s Tower, which culminates with the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, at which Oakley performed. Granted, most of the video documentary images of Oakley are black-and-white photographs (she lived from 1860 to 1926), but The Misfits was also filmed in black-and-white. Even without the seduction of color, both women’s power and allure still shine through after all these years.

LIKE HER CO-STAR Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe was not an actress but a personality. You can’t imagine either one of them playing anyone but themselves, yet they do it so convincingly it works, as long as they are cast in the right roles. Male lead Clark Gable, on the other hand, also always plays a persona, but he’s too self-conscious for my tastes, often mugging for the camera (The Misfits, by the way, was his last film, too; he died before its 1961 release).

The tragedy for Monroe, of course, is that the very thing that brought her such great fame alienated her from others. Her physical beauty and charisma are arresting — I can’t take my eyes off her when she is on the screen (neither can the cameraman nor actors, and Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach spend the movie vying for her affection).

But this is no dumb blonde. I sense her depth, her desire to be understood. I want to hear what she has to say, and she delivers, sad, poignant lines like, “If I have to be alone, I’d rather be by myself.”

WHILE MARILYN MONROE’S beauty is alluring, Annie Oakley’s sensuality exudes. Her trim figure is accentuated by snug-fitting blouses and jackets, but it is her face that conveys her special beauty. Her gaze is warm and fierce at the same time, her mouth both vulnerable and determined.

Unlike Monroe, who was defined by her sexuality, Oakley was famous for her unprecedented athleticism and skill. Both women showed that they could beat men at their own game, Monroe directly through her overwhelming appeal, Oakley indirectly through her dominance over men with guns, a male province and phallic symbol.

Oakley’s motive, though, was not to challenge the status quo (later in life she famously eschewed the suffrage movement) but simply to revel in her native talent. In life Oakley was as comfortable with herself as Monroe’s fleeting on-screen persona. Unlike Monroe, she could differentiate her talent from her sexuality, and not sacrifice either.

 * * *

THE CRITICAL ROLE I play for my dog Molly when walking is obvious: to provide stability and direction. She can be completely carefree as long as she has me in her sight, relieved of the responsibility of thinking about where we are going.

Today I walked without her (she is away visiting friends). I missed her, and was made freshly aware of our symbiotic relationship. As I am her rudder, she is my thread, weaving before me, pulling me along.

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