In 1962, photographer Bert Stern shot a series of photos of Marilyn Monroe that have collectively come to be known as “The Last Sitting.” Taken during several boozy sessions at the Hotel Bel-Air, the photographs are arguably the most famous images ever captured of America’s most famous actress: Monroe, sleepy-eyed and naked, sips from a Champagne glass, enacts a fan dance of sorts with various diaphanous scarves, romps with erotic playfulness on a bed of white linens. Six weeks after she had posed, Monroe was found dead of an apparent barbiturate overdose.
The photos endure partly as artifacts—as the last visible evidence of the living woman (a legacy reinforced by Stern’s decision to publish the contact sheets Monroe herself had crossed out in red marker). But the pictures are also remarkable for the raw truths they seem to reveal. In them, we see an actress whose comedic talents were overshadowed by her sex appeal, a woman who is cannily aware of her pinup status, yet is also beginning to show her 36 years. In many shots, she is obviously drunk. This was an unhappy time for Monroe. Notorious for her on-set antics, she had been publicly lambasted by Billy Wilder after Some Like It Hot, then fired from the production of Something’s Got to Give; she’d endured two recent divorces and, in 1961, a brief stint in a psychiatric ward.
Stern excavated and preserved the poignant humanity of the real woman—beautiful, but also fragile, needy, flawed—from the monumental sex symbol. In our armored, airbrushed age, his achievement feels almost revolutionary.
Forty-six years later, Stern has revisited his classic shots with Lindsay Lohan, another actress whose prodigious fame is not quite commensurate with her professional achievements. Stern, who shot the photos on film rather than digitally, told me he was interested in Lohan because he suspected “she had a lot more depth to her” than one might assume from “those teenage movies.” Indeed, many in the film industry believe that Lohan has yet to pursue projects equal to her gifts. Without putting too fine a point on it, you might say Lohan has, like Monroe, a knack for courting the tabloids and tripping up her career. (Readers will remember that Lohan had her own Billy Wilder moment two summers ago on the set of Georgia Rule.) Stern said the project also grew out of his interest in “controversial women,” or “bad girls,” like “Britney, Paris, and Lindsay.” Monroe was, in a sense, the original tabloid queen.
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