Opening Shots: Bus Stop

A further extract from Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies, considering Marilyn’s first scene in Bus Stop. Screencaps by likeabalalaika

“The first shot of Monroe, as so often in her films, is a point-of-view shot. But it is not Beau, the hero’s, point of view but Virgil, his mentor’s. Indeed, as the latter looks out of the hotel bedroom window, the film cuts to her (Virgil’s point-of-view) and then back to Beau shaving, underlining the fact that he does not see her (and will not until the saloon scene.) This means that the shots of her that follow can articulate more than Monroe as an object of desire, because they have not been set up as contained by desire in the first place.

Virgil’s point-of-view shot is a long shot, and it is followed by a mid-shot (at the same looking-down-at-her angle), then a return to the long shot. In this way, we get to see her better than Virgil does. In one sense, this satisfies our voyeurism – both sexual (we have a better view than Virgil) and in terms of narrative, character and star (we want to know who she is, what Monroe looks like in this part, and so on.)

In the second long shot, a group of men enter the room, crowding around her as she tries to fend them off.  They are broken up by the saloon owner who clears them out and then yells at her to get back to work. The image very clearly sets out the dimensions of male power (of the male audience/clients, of the male employer) within which Cherie/Monroe is caught. She is also caught in our/the camera/Virgil’s gaze, but what we see articulates something of what it is like to be gazed at. We gaze at an image that hints at the politics of gazing.

The scene that follows takes place inside the dressing room, no longer seen by Virgil. It allows us to see Cherie/Monroe close to, and to observe what we could not in the opening shots, which preserve something of the magic and beauty of the half-dressed woman glimpsed from a hotel window. Her hair looks as if it has been peroxided (it would not convince us that she was a natural blonde); her face looks deathly white; her stockings have holes in them. This deglamourising continues in the ungainly way she gets into her green sateen leotard. Scenes in showgirls’ dressing rooms are usually voyeuristic – ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ plays with our expectations of ‘seeing something we shouldn’t’ by teasing camera movements and set-ups, delaying our actually seeing Elsie/Monroe till she has just finished dressing. The treatment in ‘Bus Stop’ is, by contrast, head-on. There is nothing we don’t see (within the conventions of the period), but there is no sense of our being there just to see something, no tease to lead us on as in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. We are there to see it, it is true, and the fact that we are seeing Marilyn Monroe getting into a leotard must lend itself to the pleasure of voyeurism, but the ungainliness, the matter-of fact conversation with a woman who isn’t a showgirl, the tacky setting, none encourages this way of looking. Moreover, the movement shows us the showgirl setting up her act and the conversation stresses wanting to get beyond doing this kind of thing, so that within an image that is traditionally set up for the pleasure of gazing, we are again getting some explorations of what it means to be someone who lives by being gazed at.”

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