‘Bigger Than Life’: The Lost Cameo

Marilyn with actor James Mason and his son Morgan on the Bigger Than Life set

This second extract from Patrick McGilligan’s Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director concerns Ray’s attempt to include Marilyn in his 1956 movie, Bigger Than Life.

“‘Some weekends,’ [Gavin] Lambert wrote, ‘Nick arranged for a girlfriend to come over in the late afternoon, and asked me to stay out of the bungalow for “a couple of hours.” The girlfriend was usually one of several young unknown actresses, very occasionally she was Marilyn Monroe, and in any case [she] never stayed the night.

Divorced from baseball star Joe DiMaggio, Monroe was dating Ray again when convenient. She remained one of his deepest crushes, although he could never quite promote himself into the role of her steady ‘beau’ (as Hedda Hopper was encouraged to describe their relationship.) He couldn’t quite promote her into any film he was directing either.

Once, when Monroe visited the set of Bigger Than Life at the end of the day – she was finishing Bus Stop for 20th Century-Fox on a nearby soundstage – Ray tried coaxing the actress into a cameo appearance. Staging cutaways for a hospital scene, Ray talked Monroe into donning a nurse’s costume and carrying two lamps into camera range. ‘Carry them on the set,’ Ray advised her, ‘put them down, walk over to this desk, sit down and look at the star, who’s gone slightly off his nut.’

According to [James] Mason, who was in the scene, the cameo was intended as a laugh for studio executives at dailies, not for actual use in the film, but Monroe lost her nerve anyway. Ray couldn’t shoo away her anxiety. ‘Oh Nick,’ she said, ‘tell me what you want me to do! I can’t do it, Nick!’ Finally Ray called cut, according to Mason, giving Monroe a comforting embrace before announcing ‘that he did not think it was such a funny idea after all, so let’s not do it. “Come on, Marilyn, what do you what to drink?”‘ Ray later fed the item to Hedda Hopper, who ran it straight: ‘Marilyn Does Bit in Nick Ray’s Film,’ her column declared in May 1956, reporting that Marilyn had played her cameo role ‘like a lamb.’ Yet Monroe cannot be glimpsed in Bigger Than Life – nor in any other Nick Ray film.”

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