Marilyn Monroe's Photo Legacy

Among Hollywood celebrities, the life and work of Marilyn Monroe have hardly been underrepresented over the years since her death in 1962 at age 36. Films, books and even plays have analyzed Monroe from what would seem to be every angle.

That hasn't kept Emmy-winning filmmaker Gail Levin from coming up with a few surprises in "Marilyn Monroe: Still Life," an "American Masters" offering that examines Monroe's photographic legacy.

"It was a big challenge to do something that viewers would feel they hadn't seen before," Levin says of her film, which premieres Wednesday, July 19, on PBS (check local listings). "I have a real passion for photography from the '50s, so I was sort of predisposed to this subject. I did a film several years ago called 'Making the Misfits,' and I had been thinking even then of the vast, vast, vast number of photographers and photographs that existed on her. I just thought it would be really fascinating to take a look at the imagery of this incredible self-creation as well as the photographic creation."

The fact that Monroe would have turned 80 this year ("It seems inconceivable!" Levin says) provided another hook to the hourlong documentary, which includes interviews with novelist Norman Mailer, publisher Hugh Hefner and feminist author Gloria Steinem, along with many other publishers and photographers.

Former Redbook editor Robert Stein, who collaborated with best friend Ed Feingersh on a series of startlingly candid shots of Monroe during the '50s, says that if you want to try to understand why the actress remains such a global icon even today, you have to look to the haunting still photographs of her, not her movies.

"Ironically, in the still pictures, her vulnerability and connection to life comes through more than in most of the movies, except right there at the very end, in 'The Misfits,' " Stein says. "In her other movies, she was some confection that had been dreamed up by Twentieth Century Fox, and you get only glimpses of her.

"Feingersh's pictures tell so much about her because they were both very similar. Most of us go through life sort of protected by our daily roles -- whatever work we do, family, friends, social life -- but there are some people in this world that you might view as psychiatrically on the edge who are so closely connected and involved with life that they can't deal with that 'construction' the rest of us live inside of."

Acclaimed photographer George S. Zimbel was on the scene in New York that historic night when he and his colleagues captured those now-legendary shots of Monroe atop a subway grating, her dress billowing upward from fans hidden below. As the night wore on, he snapped his favorite shot, which he calls "Serious Marilyn."

"Marilyn was really getting into it, having a good time and being very cooperative," Zimbel recalls of the shoot. "[Her husband] Joe DiMaggio was there with Walter Winchell, and evidently the guys were giving DiMaggio a really hard time about his wife in this scandalous scene.

"Then came the point at which DiMaggio walked off the set and everything stopped, including her. That's my absolute favorite shot from that night. She's almost in profile and she's anointed in the light. Never mind that it's Marilyn Monroe. It just works so well as a picture of a beautiful woman who is very, very unhappy."