I recently saw the film, “My Week with Marilyn,” the story of the filming of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” which starred Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. It is relevant to this blog because it sheds some light on the relationship between sexuality and work. The movie depicts Marilyn as the prima-donna, coming late to rehearsals, being emotionally volatile, and demanding considerable attention. What is noteworthy, is that the film does not depict any sexual tension much less a sexual relationship, between Olivier and Marilyn. Instead, she has a flirtation with a young man, Colin Clark, the “third assistant director,” whose memoir about his experiences, written 50 years after the fact, is the basis for the film.
Some viewers were disappointed in the lack of fireworks between the two depicted stars, Olivier and Monroe, but I think that was the point. Marilyn could not work effectively as an actress unless she experienced some level of sexual tension. There is some basis for this depiction, insofar as Olivier was definitely bisexual, and may have preferred men to women. Instead, the third assistant director, at least in his telling, becomes the vehicle, through his openness, which Marilyn uses to tap into her acting skills and achieve a great performance.
One can write the film off as simply a picture of Marilyn’s character, or disposition. But this fails to take account of her iconic status. There has always been a bit of a mystery about her mass appeal, looks are not enough, though men are often drawn to her vulnerability. But I think the movie breaks through to an important idea; that Marilyn embodied the equation between sexuality and life, a point that Freud made theoretically. She is never so much alive as when she is feeling sexual, and as the film depicts, men used her and she used men to feel this life force. The film is saying that Marilyn performed at her best when she felt alive, something we can all identify with, and to feel alive is to feel sexual.
This connection is discomfiting, if only because sex and predation at work are also connected. This was the subject of a previous blog. (http://learningfromexperiencelarryhirschhorn.blogspot.com/2011/11/mad-men-and-women-ceos.html.) But if we can transcend the taboos associated with political correctness we can come to a deeper understanding between work as a source of vitality rather than simply as a burden. It is a most critical feature of the movie that the relationship between Colin, the memoirist, and Marilyn, is never consummated. In Freud’s sense, sex is sublimated and its sublimation gives rise to the vitality we need to be creative. Freud believed that people would not readily accept his basic insight that sexuality was part and parcel of our work of building a civilization. Perhaps Marilyn’s singular status is linked to this truth.