WEAREABOUT to raise the dead yet again.
On March 22, Ventura photographer Tom Kelley Jr. will put up for eBay/Butterfields auction the “Red Velvet” series the famous photographs depicting a young nude Marilyn Monroe. His father, Tom Kelley Sr., took the original shots in 1949 (one made it as the inaugural centerfold of Playboy magazine, but it won’t be included in the sale), and paid Monroe $50 for her efforts.
Son Kelley waited not out of respect or nostalgia or forgetfulness. No, he patiently bided his selling time until technology caught up the kind that can put Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong together in a nightclub listening to Elton John croon about Diet Coke. You see, selling photos, dresses and other celebrity-blessed property is an old business. What Kelley Jr. wants to do is sell the intellectual property rights the negatives, the copyrights, Monroe’s signed release. These, he expects, will fetch more than a million because the rights allow the buyer to breathe digital life into Monroe and have her hawk whatever product or business he or she desires.
This is more than adding to the white noise of celebrity overload. This goes even beyond issues of artistic integrity. If it unsettles us to see the living sell themselves, such as Sting riding in the back seat of a Jaguar, what kind of macabre disrespect pings even our largely secular consciousness when we rent out the living dead for a dollar?
The nightclub act with Bogart, Cagney, Armstrong and John happened in 1991, and signaled the first digital reincarnation. In the decade since, we’ve seen Lucille Ball pick appliances at Service Merchandise (she didn’t prove enough of a talisman to save the product showroom) and John Wayne claim a Coors Light beer. Perhaps the most egregious was Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil this indignity after the widow Astaire denied the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts permission to include his clips in a tribute to longtime career partner Ginger Rogers.
As with so many who have brought back the dead to be celebrity pitchmen, Kelley Jr. avows only the purest motives. “We’re talking about pictures of historical significance,” he says. “I’d like to see them be treated with the integrity they deserve.”
Integrity doesn’t mean being housed in a museum. Kelley Jr. can’t establish a decency reserve in the auction, but perhaps he’s set aside 10 percent under his pillow for the wishful thinking fairy. Aside from the sheer fatuousness of his statement, it’s difficult to trust his probity further when you listen to his agent: In one breath he says they’ve rejected numerous offers that would have “detracted from the value of the property,” then in the next imagines this scenario: “Say someone wanted to take the image of Marilyn Monroe and dress her up, turn her into a moving image and have her purchase an airline ticket. With the model release form you are allowed to create derivative images. Moving figures? Absolutely.”
The argument for marketers who raise the dead and the defense of those who enjoy it claim that classics are being resuscitated for a new generation. What we’re truly doing is going from idol worship into spiritual cannibalism.
Theophagy is eating a god’s body and blood to be blessed. In our celebrity culture, we’re always feeding off the spirit of our heroes, whether watching their films or buying memorabilia. Sometimes in a film such as, say, “Forrest Gump,” when Tom Hanks’ character shook hands with the late John F. Kennedy, someone is brought back to provide a sense of the times within a story. Director Robert Zemeckis admitted that he found even this use of the technology “scratching (at) the back of my conscience.”
Commercials, on the other hand, encourage gluttony of the worst kind: We consumers devour our idols, but we’re being force-fed empty calories. Chances are, someone who meets Monroe for the first time as a hawker for an airline won’t recognize her as a legend and run out to rent “Some Like It Hot.” She has been branded.
In a similar way, that happened with the film “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” What could a dead celebrity and a fictional cartoon character possibly have in common? Well, they both operate in the spirit world of their fans, who rarely know the objects of their affection firsthand. So while lovers of the 1957 book made director Ron Howard millions, other aficionados equally savaged his interpretation for making the pure, innocent Whos a silly, greedy flock of Yahoos. Not only did the movie desecrate their spirit, but the rampant merchandising of green-cream Oreos and Game Boys violated the spirit of Dr. Seuss so much for his message that “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store.”
What’s more frightening is that Audrey Geisel, wife of the late creator and the guardian of the Seussian menagerie, already snuffed out from the film what she called “bathroom humor.” Imagine what it would have been without her vigilance. Then again, she also collects half of Grinch merchandise profits, which she herself observes as “a paradox to end all paradoxes.”
As for the March 22 auction, Monroe’s estate may yet stop the blonde actress from having to work again. Monroe left her image and name to acting coach Lee Strasberg and a London psychiatric center; CMG Worldwide, which represents the estate, says a photo release doesn’t give the right to exploit her image. That will be dealt with among the lawyers as surely as the sale will go on.
As all good fables teach us, immortality comes at a price. Who would have thought it was one that everyone keeps paying.
Vera H-C Chan is a reporter for the Times. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.