57 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains the greatest movie icon the world has ever known – a legacy celebrated in Amanda Konkle’s new book, Some Kind Of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe. You can read my review here.
In a blog post for the 25 Years Later site, J.C. Hotchkiss looks back at Marilyn’s comedic roles in Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
“The ‘dumb blonde’ has more depth than you would first think. As someone who has played this ingénue of a character, the ‘ditzy’ blonde needs to know herself. She needs to know the jokes but is NOT the joke. She needs to command the scene, but not be so childlike that the audience stops rooting for her and gets annoyed with her immaturity. Marilyn navigated this fine line throughout her career …
Marilyn fought for a long time to be taken seriously in the acting arena in which she desperately wanted to excel and to be a true actress, not just a pretty face. I believe all these performance showcase that brilliance … To me, she was more than just a beauty. In fact, the internal struggles she was fighting throughout her life made these performances even that much more poignant …
Marilyn was a trendsetter without even trying to be. She just wanted to make people happy, sometimes at the detriment of her own well-being. At least we have her bright smile and contagious laughter on celluloid whenever we need to laugh and remember just how funny and beautiful she was; to remind us of who Marilyn Monroe was and the legacy she wanted us to remember. “
“Sugar is breezy and cheerful, seemingly gullible as she befriends two women who are very obviously men in disguise, yet Marilyn imbues her with both wide-eyed silliness and something darker lurking just beneath the surface. Perhaps this characterization mirrors Marilyn’s real-life persona as a bubbly star with a rocky past, but it also attests to her talent that she could create comedic characters whose countenances belie something deeper just beneath. Sugar’s references to her past heartbreaks – ending up with the ‘fuzzy end of the lollipop’ – hint at a sense of loneliness and a longing for companionship. Although we never learn much about her past, her status as a touring musician indicates that she lives a somewhat transient life, never settled down anywhere, always giving pieces of herself away in her performances. All of this shines through as Marilyn dances, sings, giggles, and gossips throughout the film.”
The literary magazine Paris Review has posted a 1966 interview with Arthur Miller, where he talks about his relationship with Marilyn, and After the Fall.
“MILLER: I think Strasberg is a symptom, really. He’s a great force, and (in my unique opinion, evidently) a force that is not for the good in the theater. He makes actors secret people and he makes acting secret, and it’s the most communicative art known to man; I mean, that’s what the actor’s supposed to be doing … The problem is that the actor is now working out his private fate through his role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play is the last thing that occurs to him. In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions … This is Method, as they are teaching it, which is, of course, a perversion of it, if you go back to the beginning. But there was always a tendency in that direction.
INTERVIEWER: What about Method acting in the movies?
MILLER: Well, in the movies, curiously enough, the Method works better. Because the camera can come right up to an actor’s nostrils and suck out of him a communicative gesture; a look in the eye, a wrinkle of his grin, and so on, which registers nothing on the stage.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the push toward personal success dominates American life now more than it used to?
MILLER: I think it’s far more powerful today than when I wrote Death of a Salesman. I think it’s closer to a madness today than it was then. Now there’s no perspective on it at all.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say that the girl in After the Fall is a symbol of that obsession?
MILLER: Yes, she is consumed by what she does, and instead of it being a means of release, it’s a jail. A prison which defines her, finally. She can’t break through. In other words, success, instead of giving freedom of choice, becomes a way of life.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel in the New York production that the girl allegedly based on Marilyn Monroe was out of proportion, entirely separate from Quentin?
MILLER: Yes, although I failed to foresee it myself. In the Italian production this never happened; it was always in proportion. I suppose, too, that by the time Zeffirelli did the play, the publicity shock had been absorbed, so that one could watch Quentin’s evolution without being distracted.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think happened in New York?
MILLER: Something I never thought could happen. The play was never judged as a play at all. Good or bad, I would never know what it was from what I read about it, only what it was supposed to have been.
INTERVIEWER: Because they all reacted as if it were simply a segment of your personal life?
INTERVIEWER: Could this question of timing have affected the reaction here to After the Fall?
MILLER: The ironic thing to me was that I heard cries of indignation from various people who had in the lifetime of Marilyn Monroe either exploited her unmercifully, in a way that would have subjected them to peonage laws, or mocked her viciously, or refused to take any of her pretensions seriously. So consequently, it was impossible to credit their sincerity.
INTERVIEWER: Was it the play, The Crucible itself, do you think, or was it perhaps that piece you did in the Nation—’A Modest Proposal’—that focused the Un-American Activities Committee on you?
MILLER: Well, I had made a lot of statements and I had signed a great many petitions. I’d been involved in organizations, you know, putting my name down for fifteen years before that. But I don’t think they ever would have bothered me if I hadn’t married Marilyn. Had they been interested, they would have called me earlier. And, in fact, I was told on good authority that the then chairman, Francis Walter, said that if Marilyn would take a photograph with him, shaking his hand, he would call off the whole thing. It’s as simple as that. Marilyn would get them on the front pages right away.”
In Actresses and Mental Illness, a new academic study, author Fiona Gregory focuses on stars like Vivien Leigh and Frances Farmer, whose psychological problems are as well-known as their dramatic talents. In her introduction to the book, she also mentions Marilyn.
“Marilyn Monroe stands as one of the best-known examples of an actress whose life was impacted by mental illness. Actors’ and directors’ accounts of working with Monroe make frequent reference to unprofessional behaviour (lateness, inability to learn lines, conflicts with colleagues), drug addiction and visits to psychiatrists. While rumours and coded reports of Monroe’s illness circulated during her lifetime, much of the detail of her particular problems and the treatments she pursued has emerged posthumously. Each further revelation – of a psychiatrist visited; a drug treatment tried; a suicide attempt hushed up – has added to the picture of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as icon of suffering. It’s a picture suffused with irony – imagine, that one of the most beautiful and celebrated women in the world, with seemingly every personal and professional opportunity, should be made so uncomfortable in her own skin by the demons in her mind!
In the biographical record, Monroe’s suffering – taking as its form chronic self-doubt, an unstable sense of self, and a seeming inability to forge healthy relationships – is framed as fundamentally connected to her professional identity as a performing woman. Above all, Monroe is represented in terms of her inability to formulate a stable, coherent identity … In such narratives, the creation of an alternate identity becomes a strategy to mask an essential emptiness. The notion of actress as cypher, evacuated of meaning unless she is performing, recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress…
In 1955, Monroe recorded a dream in which her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, ‘cuts me open’ in an operating theatre, only to find ‘… there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is deeply disappointed but more even – academically amazed that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going to be so much – more than he had ever dreamed possible in almost anyone but instead there was absolutely nothing…’
Here, Monroe becomes an eloquent commentator on the fears and insecurities of the performing woman, and on the questions of identity, ambition and meaning that circulate around her. This autobiographical artefact puts emptiness at the core of Monroe’s own psyche. The fact that it is Strasberg – the man who stood as her authority on acting – who has found her out suggests that it was in her own professional realm that Monroe desired to achieve significance but feared she would be found wanting. Monroe’s dream literalises the fear of the ‘nothing’: that the glittering surface will be revealed to mask an essential absence – a lack of talent, a lack of worthiness – that recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress and in actress’ own meditations on self.”
Ontarians, set your diaries now: Niagara will be screened at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope on October 14, as part of this year’s Vintage Film Festival, sponsored by the Marie Dressler Foundation (the Canadian-born character actress was an idol to Marilyn.) Mark Baker reviews Niagara here.
“The story starts relatively quickly and the tension keeps increasing. I was surprised at just how quickly the story unfolded. There are some nice plot twists along the way as well that kept me engaged.
Likewise, the acting was wonderful. I’m not that familiar with Marilyn Monroe as an actress (this is only the second film I’ve seen her in), but her performance here was strong. You could see her character’s mind working. The rest of the main cast is just as good, which is one reason why I got so lost in the story so easily.
While the movie was filmed partially on sound stages in California, it was also partially filmed on location. That gives the sinister story a gorgeous backdrop. The Technicolor picture adds to the beauty.
The bigger issue are a couple of plot holes. Yes, you can guess how the characters got to where they are, but it is truly never explained …”
Last December, it was reported (here) that Disney had bought Twentieth Century Fox’s assets from its most recent owner, Rupert Murdoch. And on July 27, as Variety reports, the Fox-Disney merger went ahead with a $71.3 billion buyout. Marilyn’s films for her home studio will be included in the purchase. As many commentators wonder what this will mean for the venerable Fox brand, the Hollywood Reporter looks back on its colourful past with a series of articles including the fraught relationship between longtime studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and the biggest star of all – Marilyn – during 1951-62, a period described as the ‘Monroe Years’ (preceded by ‘Eve’s Gold Rush’ in 1950, a reference to the Oscar-laden All About Eve in which Marilyn had a small part.) Firstly, film historian Leonard Maltin offers a eulogy for Fox, and the personalities who made it great.
“Zanuck always had someone waiting in reserve in case one of his stars became uncooperative. Betty Grable was hired as a threat to musical star Alice Faye and soon surpassed her as Fox’s premier attraction (and No. 1 pinup) of the 1940s. Faye grew tired of Zanuck’s belittling behavior and walked off the lot one day without saying goodbye. (Zanuck wouldn’t have survived in the #MeToo or Time’s Up era. He was notorious for taking advantage of starlets.)
Zanuck reigned until 1956, when he resigned from Fox and moved to France to become an independent producer. In the fractious years that followed, the studio wooed him back for projects more than once, even allowing him to cast his mistresses (Bella Darvi, Juliette Greco, et. al) in leading roles. But while movie attendance soared during the years following World War II, it sank nearly as quickly with the introduction of television. Fox’s response was to unveil a widescreen process called CinemaScope and its aural equivalent, stereophonic sound. Films like the biblical epic The Robe drew people back to theaters. So did Fox’s newest star, blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe.
It was believed the wildly expensive epic Cleopatra — which paid Elizabeth Taylor an eye-popping $1 million salary — nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but president Spyros Skouras already was selling off the company’s valuable backlot (now known as Century City) before the movie’s budget ballooned to $44 million. Facts aside, Cleopatra became a scapegoat for all of the studio’s ills.
In a final coup, Darryl F. Zanuck returned to Fox in the early 1960s and named his son, Richard Zanuck, president … Then, in 1970, Zanuck Sr. fired his son and sparked an Oedipal family feud that sucked in Zanuck’s ex-wife — Richard’s mother, a major shareholder — and ended with the elder Zanuck being pushed out of the studio he co-founded. Repeated changes of regime and ownership in the ensuing years took their toll on the company that had once put its distinctive imprint on such classics as Laura, Miracle on 34th Street, Twelve O’Clock High and All About Eve.”
In another article, ‘Life in the Foxhole‘, Mitzi Gaynor describes the working atmosphere at Fox as ‘like a family’, while Don Murray recalls his movie debut at the studio, and his mercurial leading lady…
“Zanuck loathes Marilyn Monroe (‘He thought I was a freak,’ Monroe once said) and nearly tears up her first contract after her nude Playboy cover comes out. But by 1953, Monroe has three of the studio’s biggest hits — Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire — and renegotiates a new contract paying $100,000 a picture and giving her creative approval. Her first film under the new deal is 1956’s Bus Stop, co-starring Don Murray. ‘I’d never done a feature before,’ says the actor, now 88, ‘so I didn’t know what to expect. From what others on the set told me, Marilyn was on her best behavior. She’d just been to the Actors Studio, and she really wanted to concentrate on her acting. But even so, she was late every day. She’d get to the studio on time, but then she’d spend hours dawdling in her trailer, getting the nerve up to act. She was trying hard — she would sometimes do 30 takes in a scene — but she was very anxious about her acting. She would actually break out in a rash before the cameras would start filming. The cameras gave her a rash.'”
Finally, you can read Marilyn’s take on Fox, and Zanuck – as told to biographer Maurice Zolotow – here.
The Misfits was first released in the UK in June 1961. This rave review from The Guardian, published on July 10 of that year, hails it as a masterpiece. Interestingly though, the same newspaper had published a more ambivalent review just a month before, and was unduly harsh towards Marilyn (see here.) Perhaps the later article was an attempt to rectify an injustice? In that case, history has proved her admirer right. Neither author is named, but could the second take have been influenced by W.J. Weatherby, the Guardian reporter who befriended Marilyn on the set?
“Occasionally a film arrives which gives the cinema a new dimension … It is not going too far to say that The Misfits is in this class. [It] does not rely on a strong story for its effect but instead wins the audience’s attention through the development and interplay of the characters. The main danger was that the film, left to [Arthur] Miller, would have been too literary, but John Huston has grafted on Miller’s prose visual images which give it a deeper significance. When, for instance, Monroe screams her defiance at the corruption of a commercial civilisation, Huston makes her a black dot on a screen dominated by a Nevada desert.
The individual performances are so good that with a thrill of recognition one sees what acting in the cinema can achieve … Miller’s heroine is so obviously based on his former wife – one half expects the cast to blurt out Marilyn for Roslyn every so often – that her performance is difficult to judge. Yet if she is merely playing herself she does it remarkably well.”
Marilyn has been selected as ‘Favourite of the Month‘ for July, over at the Classic Movie Favourites website. Each of her movies will be reviewed throughout the next few weeks: so far, her early roles in Ladies of the Chorus and Love Nest have been featured. You can check for updates on Facebook and Twitter.
Marilyn’s first screen role, in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! is featured in a list of movie stars who got their start as bit players and extras. Filmed in March 1947 – six months into Marilyn’s contract with Twentieth Century Fox – the film would not be released for another year. As ‘Betty’, Marilyn can be seen briefly in one scene. Leaving a church service, she says ‘Hi, Rad!’ to leading lady June Haver. Marilyn’s only other scene, where she and fellow starlet Colleen Townsend row a boat across a lake and chat with some local boys, was cut – although several stills from the production have survived.
Marilyn would play a slightly more substantial role in Dangerous Years before being dropped by Fox in July. Despite her minimal presence, Marilyn also posed for a series of ‘bathing beauty’ shots to promote the movie. More than half of her screen credits were made before she reached star status (not to mention a couple of other films which used her image without active participation), and while it has been rumored that she was also an anonymous ‘extra’ in several other movies, this remains unconfirmed.
Alongside A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! is the only one of her early films made in Technicolor, and a surprisingly enjoyable slice of rural Americana, with a young Natalie Wood, plus stellar character actors Walter Brennan and Anne Revere among the cast. Lon McCallister, who also appeared in Marilyn’s boating scene, later joined her during the Love Happy promotional tour.
The unusual title, referring to slang used by farm-workers to drive mules left and right, was later renamed Summer Lightning. But in the 1989 film, Driving Miss Daisy, the film’s original title can be seen on a cinema marquee.