Arnold Schulman Remembers Marilyn

Arnold Schulman became a playwright and screenwriter after taking classes at the Actors Studio. He became the second writer to work on the beleaguered Something’s Got to Give. He shared his memories of Marilyn’s last, unfinished movie with author Patrick McGilligan for the 1997 book, Backstory 3: Interviews With Screenwriters of the 60s. (The book also includes an interview with George Axelrod, who adapted The Seven Year Itch and Bus Stop for MM.)

Marilyn photographed with another writer, George Axelrod, on the Backstory 3 cover

“I know from reading David Brown’s autobiography, ‘Let Me Entertain You’, that you had at least one not-marvelous experience in Hollywood in the sixties, working with Cukor again, this time on the last, never-completed Marilyn Monroe picture: ‘Something’s Got to Give’.

I haven’t read David’s book, but I’ve been told he said I wore a kimono and sat on the floor when I wrote. Clearly, I was crazy, so he fired me. I still wear a kimono and sit on the floor when I write, and lots of people think I’m crazy— maybe I am—but David and I recall the situation differently. Actually, I quit. Cukor wanted me because we had such a good experience on the Magnani picture, but when I found out what they were doing to Marilyn, I quit. They were setting her up. A guy from the advertising business named Peter Levathes had come in as head of the studio, having taken over from [Spyros] Skouras, who was kicked out, as I recall, because Cleopatra [1963] went so much over budget. Levathes had to prove himself a hero. He had to prove he wouldn’t take any shit from any star. He wanted to humiliate Marilyn into quitting and then sue her, I was told.

You were Marilyn’s friend?

From way back. I met her when she first left Hollywood and came to join the Actors Studio. I got a call one night from Lee Strasberg, and he said, ‘I’ve got two tickets to a poetry reading at the Y. I can’t go. Will you take the person I’m supposed to go with?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I had no idea it was Marilyn until she opened the door. This was at the peak of her fame. I didn’t have a car or anything, so we had to catch a cab. We got mobbed. We finally got to the Y. I’m thinking, ‘Why does she want to go to the Y? Why didn’t Lee tell me who I was going with?’ And, of course, the program couldn’t go on, because everybody left their seats to catch a glimpse of her. We escaped through a side door and ran up the street with a mob chasing us, and finally wound up on 125th Street in a dinky Chinese restaurant I knew about. That’s how I met her, and we became good friends.

What was her condition at the time when you were working on the script? Was she deteriorating, as everybody has written?

I didn’t see any of that. When I was with her, she was bright, warm and loving, and in good shape.

She wasn’t demanding?

Not at all.

She was on time for everything?

She didn’t have to be on time. This wasn’t even preproduction. I hadn’t written a word. But her agent would call and request things—I remember one thing in particular—and Fox would deliberately say no, doing everything to make her quit. She wanted her regular hairdresser, I remember. No—she couldn’t have her regular hairdresser. Whatever she wanted, the rule was, she couldn’t have it. Gradually, it became clearer and clearer what was going on—and then I overheard conversations about it between the executives. As soon as I realized it, I went ape. I think I grabbed David Brown, who is about two feet taller than I am, and shook him against the wall; if not, I wanted to, which is probably closer to the truth. I called Marilyn and told her. She understood what was happening, but there was nothing she could do about it.

You think they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams—driving her to her death?

It’s not that cut and dried. But they certainly didn’t contribute to her will to live.

Cukor was party to this?

He knew about it.

That’s shocking.

The whole thing was shocking to me. She asked me to come back and write the picture and be on her side. I told her I was on her side, and that is why I got out of it. I told her she had to get out of it. ‘If I go back,’ I told her, ‘I’m powerless.’ I have terrible guilt about that experience, still. Terrible guilt. The lingering feeling, however irrational, that if I had gone back, I might have made a difference, and she might still be alive today.”

David Brown was the original producer on Something’s Got to Give. He later said of Schulman, ‘He was a great writer, but I was somewhat alarmed when I passed his office and saw that he had removed his desk, and was writing in a yoga position. Bear in mind that the myth of Hollywood is much less than the reality.’

Marilyn in Something’s Got to Give

Author Keith Badman adds further detail in The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe (2010), claiming that Marilyn was dissatisfied with Schulman’s script. However, given that Nunnally Johnson’s original adaptation – which she loved – had been rejected, this may be a reflection of her growing concerns about the production rather than a personal attack on Schulman.

“He quit the film in protest when he discovered the menacing treatment Marilyn had been receiving from certain members of the Hollywood hierarchy. He had encountered the actress for the first time in 1955 during her first spell in New York and regarded her as a true and trusted friend. However, friendship meant little in the Hollywood movie industry and Marilyn soon made it clear she was unhappy with several parts of Schulman’s work. Her loathing of it was manifested in several handwritten notes, scrawled across the screenplay’s front page and across several pages inside. ‘This is funny?’ she asked. ‘Not funny,’ she maintained. ‘Not a story for me,’ she insisted.”

In late 1961, Brown was fired and replaced by Henry Weinstein, a rather inexperienced young producer who  was a good friend of Monroe’s psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson. Schulman was later replaced by Walter Bernstein, who told biographer Donald Spoto, ‘Everbody was aware that Greenson had put Marilyn in a cocoon-like situation. I always felt that she had become an investment to people like him…’

Thanks to Sherry at Immortal Marilyn

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