A couple of years or so ago it became common for critics to swap lists of the most famous films they'd never seen—a kind of movie buffs’ parlor game. My own list is a bit embarrassing: for various reasons, I’ve never gotten around to seeing The Seven-Year Itch, The Bridge on the River Kwai, the original Scarface, or (gasp!) Caddyshack. Until now, that is.
The Seven-Year Itch (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955) was first on my list, because I had always heard it referred to as one of the iconic Marilyn Monroe performances—another being her turn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I’ll be getting to later. Never much interested in her or her films when I was younger, my interest in Monroe has grown steadily since I first read Joyce Carol Oates’ utterly devastating Blonde (part biography, part novel) back in 2005. After learning more about her life and reading Oates’ depiction of her as tragic, doomed genius, it’s impossible for me to not feel sad whenever I see Monroe on-screen, as if a dark shadow is hanging over her aura of bright, glowing sensuality. As funny and charming as she is in films like The Seven-Year Itch, watching her fills me with a sorrowful ache instead of a thrill of titillation.
The Seven-Year Itch—which strikes me as almost a quintessential 1950s Hollywood movie on just about every level: stylistically, formally, ideologically—is also interesting in its own acknowledgement of Monroe’s iconic star quality. As in the new film My Week with Marilyn, The Seven-Year Itch collapses actress and character until we don’t even know if we’re watching Tom Ewell interact with “The Girl Upstairs” (as her character is often credited) or with “Marilyn Monroe” herself. What is the difference, anyway?, the film forces us to ask. Every man in the film responds to “the Girl Upstairs” as if he really is seeing the most famous movie star on the planet. In the film’s broadest moment of reflexivity, Ewell’s character refers jokingly to the Girl—whose name he never learns—as Marilyn Monroe. And then there’s the business of the Girl’s modeling career: we learn that she’s been the subject of a photographic “study” which turns out to have been a cheesecake photo shoot. Monroe herself had done nude modeling before becoming an actress, and the scandal that resulted from the discovery of those photos in the 1950s nearly ruined her career.
The Girl’s appetite for champagne and potato chips also seems to be a kind of synecdoche for Monroe herself—for her singular ability to mix the classy and the kitschy, the elegant and the tawdry. She isn’t even aware of the difference between elegance and tawdriness; she dunks her potato chip into her champagne glass without giving it a second thought. Monroe/The Girl’s appeal lies in her naturalness, her blitheness, her lack of self-consciousness. Her innocently sexy allure, so blinding to everyone else, is invisible to her. It makes perfect sense that Oates calls this one of the quintessential Monroe performances; watching “The Girl,” we feel that we’re getting the essence of Monroe’s star persona.