This week marks the 60th anniversary of The Seven Year Itch, Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of George Axelrod’s play about a middle-aged husband—left alone for the summer while his wife and son vacation in Maine—and the girl in the apartment upstairs. In Axelrod’s version, the husband is a fumbling, conflicted adulterer; in Wilder’s version, the husband is a fumbling, conflicted castrato, neutered to appease the Hays Code. Marilyn Monroe is the girl upstairs, and Tom Ewell, reprising his role from the play, is the middle-aged husband. The movie is typical of its era: women are either sex bombs or doting mothers, and men are either jaw-agape dorks or rubber-faced cads. Wilder would later call The Seven Year Itch “a nothing picture” and claim he wish he’d never made it under such moral restrictions. How can a story about adultery not allow for adultery?
Monroe, that’s how. Among other more obvious gifts, Monroe (who herself would have turned 89 this week) reflected our own pungent longings: a sister-in-sorrow for women in search of mentor and protégé; a perpetual Lolita for men who wanted to read her a bedtime story after a night of savage congress. Monroe’s cheeks begged to be pinched, her waist seemed made for hands to slip around, the way she threw her head back in throaty laughter—followed by those fluttering eyelids and the surprised pout—hinted at that most private of expressions: the orgasm. She promised easy seduction, as though it would only take one drink and a few laughs to make her pearlescent hair fall across our pillow. (Marilyn Monroe Platinum Blond must be a secret formula, like Ferrari Red or Charleston Green. The same can be said of her skin tone, for even when untrammeled by makeup, it retained the hue of a ripe, white peach.)
She first appears in the doorway of Ewell’s brownstone, holding a bag of groceries and an electric fan, its cord trailing like a cat’s tail. Her polka-dotted dress is shrink-wrapped to her body. Her lips are red and wet. She asks Ewell to help untangle her cord, and Ewell—leering, fumbling—obliges. When she finally walks upstairs, in a slow ascent equal parts geisha swish and runway strut, Ewell cannot look away. Neither can we. Monroe’s luminescence is at full wattage here. I imagine a collective gasp coursing through the audience, the censors fanning themselves, NATO calling for air strikes.
Whenever Monroe leaves the screen, so does our interest. The remaining set pieces—an overbearing boss, some prescient swipes at the health-food craze—are forgettable, save one: besotted, Ewell asks a psychoanalyst for advice.
Husband: I’ve been married for seven years, and I’m afraid I’m coming down with what you and Dr. Steichel call the seven-year itch. What am I going to do?
Doctor: If something itches, my dear sir, the natural tendency is to scratch.
Sexual hysteria—pardon the prudish expression—follows. The husband kisses Monroe, he fantasizes about Monroe, but he does not scratch Monroe. We know how it ends before he does. The sanctity of marriage triumphs, as it must.
Is Monroe’s weapons-grade sexuality enough to save this film? Barely. The iconic status of her subway-grate billowed white dress is the amber in which this movie is preserved, but most of the jokes are corny, the men are irritating, the women are caricatures, and the sex farce isn’t nearly sexual or farcical enough. Still, Monroe abides. She seems like she came from the future. She makes everyone around her obsolete. Monroe walks differently. Shetalks differently. Under her command, that rapid-fire, stage-derived staccato, an audial watermark of 1950s Hollywood, slows to a sensuous, breathy legato. Every color looks good on her; every angle is flattering. The camera cannot remain objective, and neither can we.
Watching with 60 years’ worth of hindsight, it’s clear that The Seven Year Itch is about the sin of boredom, not lust. Left alone, the husband might do something he regrets, but under the supervision of his purring ingénue, he flirts harmlessly, drinks moderately, and makes a charming fool of himself. Monroe treats him the way a beautiful girl might treat the nice boy who lives next door. Her temptation reminds him of what matters most: family, or something like that. She ends their friendship with a three-second kiss, and Ewell flees his brownstone for the safety of Maine. Monroe waves good-bye from the window, smiling, wistful, wholesome, carnal. We don’t want to leave. We want to see her again. We want a girl like Monroe. But some itches are never scratched: in seven years, she would be dead.