When Marilyn Monroe emerged to become the ultimate Hollywood bombshell, it was inevitable that other actresses in her orbit would suffer.
One of those was British sensation Diana Dors, who was frequently compared to the iconic star.
However, Dors’ rise to fame pre-dated that of her counterpart. For many, she is an icon in her own right.
Like Monroe she was blonde and beautiful, with a flair for publicity and a quick wit, not to mention serious acting talent. Yet she also had a cultural identity all her own.
Talking to interviewer Mike Wallace on the subject in 1957, she remarked “I think that there is only one Marilyn Monroe, there could never be any other. And therefore I don’t want to sort of be a carbon copy of Marilyn… I want to be England’s Diana Dors”.
Born in Swindon, England in 1931, Diana Fluck (as she was known) had her attention grabbed by the big screen from an early age. She became the youngest ever student at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). Diana was 14, though people believed she was older.
1947 saw her appear in her first film: The Shop at Sly Corner (aka Code of Scotland Yard). As Talking Pictures TV wrote, it was “originally just a walk-on part but later developed into a speaking role… it was during this time her name was changed to Diana Dors.”
Her breakthrough part was in 1949’s Diamond City, a period drama set in 19th century South Africa. Other notable performances during the 1950s included that of a convicted murderess (based on the case of Ruth Ellis) in 1956’s Yield To The Night, and a hostess in Tread Softly Stranger (1958). These demonstrated that “she was not just a pretty face and body, but an actress to be reckoned with.”
It was only a matter of time before she had a shot at Hollywood. Publicists were keen to put her in the Monroe bracket, though her talents were underestimated.
When Mike Wallace asked her about starting “in the same way that Marilyn Monroe started. You posed in the altogether for photographers and, er… as a model, did you not?”, her response was rapid.
“No, I didn’t Mike,” she replied. “I was given a part in a film. And by the time I was fifteen I was under contract to the Rank Organization, and then I had made something like 23 pictures by the time I was seventeen.”
Unfortunately for Dors, she went to Tinseltown with her then-husband, Dennis Hamilton, who she’d married in 1951. An actor-turned-salesman, he was an exploitative and violent man who took control of her business affairs.
A 2010 Express article quoted her as saying, “I never fell in love with Dennis nor loved him in the truest sense of the word. Rather I was the fly caught in the spider’s web… I was married to a virtual stranger. It was so sickening that I began to hate Dennis almost as much as I hated myself for being so stupid.”
Hamilton reportedly involved her in sex parties and quashed opportunities that could have made her a name across the pond. Her association with Hollywood came to a disastrous end during a party thrown for her by Hamilton.
The trouble started when “Diana and Hamilton plus Diana’s US agent and a dress designer were posing for photos by the pool”. Apparently “pressmen surged forward, toppling all four into the pool.”
Hamilton’s reaction was savage. He “emerged furious, punched the nearest photographer to the ground and kicked him in the head until he lost consciousness.” This scandal created a flurry of which Diana felt she needed to get away from.
Dors returned to the UK and resumed her career. She split with Hamilton, though the marriage left her struggling financially. She continued to act and received good reviews, though also developed sidelines in cabaret and much later as a TV agony aunt.
Arguably the comparisons with Marilyn Monroe ended as she grew older, though the pair shared an emotional connection of a kind only experienced by the famous and adored.
“You see,” she told Mike Wallace, “we’re really talking about two different people: we are talking about the Diana Dors that the world knows, as a kind of publicity, film actress, who… who only faces things, likes to go out, and be seen at premieres and nightclubs… But the… the other Diana Dors, which is the one that I… I am inside, really doesn’t like any of these things at all.”
This is worth contrasting with an anecdote in which Monroe was seen studying her own reflection.
A Guardian article by John Banville about Adam Victor’s book The Marilyn Encyclopedia relays that, “A friend told of passing through her house and seeing her sitting in front of a mirror, gazing at her reflection, and then returning some time later to find her still there, still at gaze. ‘I’m looking at her,’ Marilyn explained.”
Both women were isolated, and felt the contrast between public image and private individual. Behind the scenes, Dors went on to marry Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes) between 1959 – 66.
In 1968 she got hitched to actor Alan Lake. Their long-standing relationship was stormy, with Lake a reputed alcoholic. Tragically Dors was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early Eighties. She passed away in 1984, aged 52.
Her final movie role was in the acclaimed drama Steaming, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles. It was a welcome highlight for her fans, but her personal life ended on a devastating note.
Alan Lake committed suicide a few months after her death, taking with him the whereabouts of her fortune, said to be in the region of £2 million. She supplied the family with a cryptic code but only Lake knew how to unlock it, leading to a mystery that continues to this day.
Though some commentators regarded her as living in Marilyn Monroe’s shadow, Dors herself was positive about her showbiz experiences.
In her interview with Mike Wallace, she said, “I am not ashamed of anything I’ve done, oh no, far from it. I think that my publicity, although some of it has been colorful, and some of it, as in the case of this Hollywood swimming-pool incident, which I’m sure everybody knows about by now, was certainly unwanted and… and I could have done without. But I am not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”
Diana Dors not only played strong characters. She also had impressive strength of character, in spite of her hardships.