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How Marilyn Monroe Became a ‘Real Actress’

3 minute read

From the beginning, Marilyn Monroe—the iconic actress who would have turned 90 on Wednesday—was a “figure of fantasy,” as TIME put it in a 1956 cover story. Her face and body jump-started her professional life, from her earliest days as a model to the nude calendar shoot that revived her sputtering career in 1949. But all along, Monroe wanted more. She wanted to be cultured, educated and respected for her craft.

And that respect was—to the surprise of some observers—deserved.

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In the unbylined cover story, which was written by Hollywood reporter Ezra Goodman with the help of 33 reporters in 26 cities, TIME explored how Monroe’s troubled youth as Norma Jeane Baker (which included her rape, as a child, by family friend) affected her psyche as Marilyn Monroe.

“Norma Jeane was trained for nothing except laying on paint; her education was so poor that she could not even fake a cultural conversation,” the story explained. “In public she was smothered by feelings of inferiority. In private she was swept by panics, anxieties and hallucinations. And yet, curiously, life in its deepest expressions was on Norma Jeane’s side—perhaps had always been on her side. The sensitivity which made her feel so deeply the shocks of her childhood was countered by a set of instincts as solid as an anvil. She took blows that would have smashed many people, and she cracked a little, but she did not fall apart. And always there was that traffic-jamming, production-stopping hunk of woman that the scared little girl inhabited.”

MORE: Read Marilyn Monroe’s Obituary From 1962

As that “hunk of woman” began to earn her international fame, many in Hollywood saw her as nothing more than that. “That blonde can’t act her way out of a Whirlpool bra,” one of her directors told the magazine, anonymously. Acting had become her career, and a very successful one at that, but it was not a passion.

That changed after her 1954 divorce from Joe DiMaggio:

As soon as she was through with The Seven Year Itch, she walked out on her contract, went to New York in “an absolute, desperate attempt,” says a friend, “to find out what she was and what she wanted.”

Almost at once Marilyn found friends in the theater—Cheryl Crawford, Elia Kazan, the Strasbergs, Arthur Miller, Norman and Hedda Rosten, Maureen Stapleton. “For the first time,” she says, “I felt accepted, not as a freak, but as myself.” She showed a nice talent for painting (watercolors), and she read aloud from poems she could hardly understand. Friends sent her to the Actors Studio. After about six months of study and exercise, she finally worked up courage to do a 20-minute scene from Anna Christie before the other students, many of them practiced professionals. They praised her work in extravagant terms.

…All at once Marilyn could talk without any stutter at all. She could hardly stop talking. She was gay, and her wit ran free. She leaned less on her friends, stood more on her own feet. Her health was better. The rashes, the sweats, the psychosomatic colds came less often. The old fears were still there, but now there was a way to transform them. “I never dared to think about it,” says Marilyn, “but now I want to be an artist. I want to be a real actress.”

Read the full cover story, here in the TIME Vault: Marilyn Monroe

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com