I absolutely adore Marilyn Monroe, but I don’t write about her much because with so much out there, I honestly feel I have very little to add to the conversation. I do, however, love to share what other people have said about her, especially her peers. To wit: legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff had a particularly powerful experience with Marilyn Monroe while photographing The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). As was his practice with many of his stars, Cardiff took still photos of the Monroe before filming began as a test (the shot below is also the cover of his memoir Magic Hour, published in 1996). Here is one of his most powerful and romantic passages about collaborating with Marilyn Monroe wherein you sense the great intimacy that exists between artist and subject. Though their relationship was, evidently, chaste, he clearly loved her and had great insight into her completely unique relationship with a camera. They seem to have shared a truly emotional connection, and I found it fascinating.
“All the stars I photographed had some kind of facial flaw which a badly placed light would disclose, or emphasize, and Marilyn was no exception—although she was as near-perfect as any cameraman could wish for. She had a classically sound bone structure; her cornflower-blue eyes were the right distance apart, and her full mouth was perfectly formed. But I had to be careful about her nose, so delightfully retroussé, for, if the key light was too low, a blob would show up on the tip. She actually mentions this in the film, saying to Larry’s [Olivier] paean: ‘You skipped my nose, because you noticed the bump on the end.’ Marilyn’s face was, in fact, so flawless that, were it a painting, it would be criticized as too perfect. Bacon said: ‘There is no beauty which has not some strangeness in its proportions.’ Luckily, the almost too-perfect proportions of Marilyn’s face came magically alive the moment she breathed, and her face became a bemusing paradox: that of an innocent sex siren.”
Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009) was one of the all-time great cinematographers, with credits like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Prince and the Showgirl, and The African Queen, to name just a few of his classic films. Directing credits include the highly regarded Sons and Lovers (1960) and The Liquidator (1965). Interestingly, Cardiff’s career spanned nearly the entire history of cinema: he made his debut as an actor in a silent film called My Son, My Son in 1918 and worked well into his 90s—he was the cinematographer on Rambo: First Blood Part II—quite a run. His completely engaging autobiography, Magic Hour, was published in 1996 by Faber and Faber and is highly recommended, filled with terrific movie stories and self-effacing humor.
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