In the scene from the 1955 movie The Seven-Year Itch, when the passing subway levitates the hem of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress, I always imagined The Girl (the character was never named in the movie) was wearing red underwear.
I say “imagined” because the movie never shows us. When the train rumbles beneath the street and The Girl’s dress goes up, the movie shows us far less than we think we are seeing. We see calves, knees, and far less thigh than I see from the young ladies in skirts and dresses who ride their bikes these days down Milwaukee Avenue. The train’s breeze blows in the places that we cannot see, carrying with it the imagination of Tom Ewell’s character (and ours).
That’s quite the opposite of —and far more subtle than---Forever Marilyn, artist J. Seward Johnson’s new 26 ft tall work that was completed Friday on the plaza outside 401 N. Michigan. The sculpture attempts to memorialize the iconic scene, but as we see it from ground level, we get a completely different view than the one the movie provides. And the difference in prespective is profound. With the sculpture, we see Monroe’s white granny panties—hell, we have no choice—beneath the giant flaired dress and far more leg that the movie showed us. We see her with a rapturous, closed-eye look that she didn’t have in the original scene.
Stay with me, now. This isn’t me being a prude. I’m just trying to figure something out. If the result were a piece of public art that brought controversy or titillation—something for which Johnson was likely aiming—that would be quite ok. If it were a commentary on how society feeds off Monroe’s sexuaity and tragic death 50 years after her demise, that would be cool, too. Because at least the piece would make you think. But as it stands, The Seven Year Itch scene showed us a little and said a lot; Forever Marilyn, by dint of its size, shows us everything and somehow says almost nothing. And as a bonus, the sculpture even manages to unsexy the scene and the actress.
Check out a clip of the scene below. Watch Ewell’s character’s expression. Notice how the camera is higher than Monroe and pans downward when the train comes. Also note how Monroe plays the character almost as an innocent tease who may or may not know what she’s doing.
So maybe I’m being a bit unfair? When I saw the work Friday afternoon, the plaza was fairly populated with passersby who were snapping pictures of each other, making wise cracks and otherwise having a good time. Can’t complain about that. And maybe the sculpture is less a depiction of the scene in the movie than it is a homage to the more revealing publicity shots Monroe did to draw attention to the scene—and the movie:
Still, I walked away wanting the piece to carry a message—or to have some bite. Forever Marilyn’s location, size and subject could have been worked together to say something powerful. As it stands now, it is as harmless as the fiberglass Blues Brothers figures that pop up here and there: visually interesting for the moment, but ultimately forgettable.