In 1955, Marilyn Monroe was already a star, having appeared in a handful of movies over the past few years and rising through the ranks of leading women in Hollywood, but her turn in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch made her an icon. The great Billy Wilder (when someone makes as many outstanding classics as Wilder did, we are legally and morally obligated to refer to him as “The Great”) had a knack for casting the right people for the right parts, which is one of the things that make a lot of his movies--I’m thinking particularly of Sunset Boulevard--so awe-inspiring. Wilder’s decision to cast Monroe, who had just posed for Playboy and was rapidly achieving the reputation as America’s sexiest celebrity, in his film about a married man feeling the temptation to cheat on his wife is now perhaps one of cinema’s most defining moments.
The Seven Year Itch follows Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman, a man approaching middle age in Manhattan who finds himself alone for the summer after his wife and child head north to escape the brutal New York heat. Sherman has been married for seven years, and is starting to feel the calling of something akin to a midlife crisis. He wants to view himself as full of passion and danger, and misses the smoking, drinking, womanizing lifestyle that he gave up when he got married. Enter Marilyn Monroe in what has to be her most self-aware, exaggerated sexpot performance as a tenant in the apartment above Sherman. He’s feeling the seven year itch, and the best way to satisfy an itch is to scratch it.
Along comes The Great Billy Wilder, who cleverly found ways to subvert the whole system. The Seven Year Itch is a comedy about sex and adultery that contains no sex or adultery. For all Monroe’s sultry behavior, she does nothing at all inappropriate. By staging elaborate fantasies for his middle-aged leading man, Wilder is able to place most of the naughty behavior in the realm of the imagination, allowing himself the freedom to say and do things that he otherwise would never have been able to get on screen. What’s more, The Seven Year Itch is a charming, hilarious movie. It’s frequently laugh-out loud funny, such as when Sherman decides to eat at a vegetarian café for lunch and must listen to his graying waitress espouse the merits of nudism, or when Sherman fantasizes about having a woman passionately make love to him on the beach in a direct parody of From Here to Eternity. Wilder’s comedic timing and absurd wit go a long way toward disarming audiences watching this movie with a red pen at the ready. It’s this sense of ridiculous comedy that makes some of Wilder’s more outrageous concepts, like two guys in drag in Some Like it Hot, so accessible and fun. He took this movie and its messages very seriously, but it seems like he’s having a great time.
This is also the movie that gave us THAT scene, the most iconic scene in all of Marilyn Monroe’s career. I’m talking about the subway scene in which she stands above a subway grate in a white dress that blows up when the train passes beneath her. It’s easy to take that scene for granted now, especially since it’s so engrained in our culture that it was in a Snickers commercial with Willem Defoe recently. It’s interesting to learn (and see for yourself when you watch the movie) that the sequence as we remember it isn’t actually in the film. What we see in the film itself is a cutaway to just her knees down. There is no full-body shot of Monroe standing there with her skirt up, showing her underwear in this movie. That scene was deemed to sexual and naughty by the Hays Code to be allowed into the movie, so Wilder—I’m sorry, THE GREAT Wilder put in as much as he could, though he was forced to make several cuts. He got his revenge, though, when it came time to market the film, and he used the full-body image of Monroe in posters, billboards, and even a massive blow-up that hung on the side of a building. This is how the world would remember Monroe, and it has continued to be the most defining, iconic image of the star, even over sixty years after the fact.