May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Can the most overrated sex symbol of this or any other century be easier to choose?
It’s Marilyn Monroe, of course. Her breathy, pneumatic charms always seemed like a parody of sex, a version of feminine allure designed with drag queens in mind. Of course, her basic appeal is obvious, and it’s not hard to see why she was doted on by that exemplary triumvirate of 1950s masculinity: Miller, DiMaggio, and Kennedy. But, please, at least spare me the absurdly exaggerated claims about her acting skills or her hidden intelligence! The woman put out, but she was hardly Helen of Troy.
Underrated sex symbols are tougher. We all have our guilty pleasures—mine run the gamut from Louise Brooks to the guiltiest of all, Donna Reed. What could be more taboo than thinking of America’s perfect TV mom in that way? Yet working backward, it’s possible to discern the sexy babe lurking just below the domesticated surface.
Remember her as Alma, the world-weary prostitute in From Here to Eternity ? It was her daringly wholesome good looks, and the way she used them, that made the performance so compelling. Then go back to It’s a Wonderful Life , where in scene after scene she gazed at James Stewart with such frank desire that he reluctantly gave up every dream of escape and stayed in Bedford Falls to marry her. Think of that memorable scene with Stewart when they shared a phone together, each one in a feverish pitch of sexual excitement, both trying to hide their true feelings. Reed’s tearful ecstasy is unforgettable, and I defy anyone to find its equal in the oeuvre of Marilyn Monroe.
By the time Reed was star of her own TV show, she was in her midforties. Domestic bliss personified, she still had a movie star’s slim physique, but now, too, there was the knowing smile of a mature, satisfied woman. Yup, Donna Reed had sexual power all right, and unlike Marilyn she knew how to use it.