Marilyn’s Misfits and the ‘Big Bang’

Marilyn and the making of The Misfits are among the many historical touchstones featured in Big Bang, David Bowman’s posthumously published novel of mid-century America, as John Williams reports for the New York Times. (According to Publisher’s Weekly, Bowman – who died in 2012 – also delved into the origins of The Misfits in 1956, when Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow were waiting out their divorces in Nevada. Events which followed the movie – such as Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy in 1962, and Miller’s depiction of her in the 1964 play, After the Fall – are also mentioned.)

“The novel’s central nervous system is formed around American politics — it ends as well as begins with Kennedy’s death, and spends considerable time on the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate. But J.F.K., Jacqueline Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Richard Nixon and Ngo Dinh Diem are joined in this story by — among others — Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Dr. Benjamin Spock and his wife, Jane, George Plimpton, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, J. D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Elizabeth Taylor, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas.

The events recounted in Big Bang include, but are far from limited to: Mailer stabbing his wife, Burroughs shooting his wife, Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy, Khrushchev at Disneyland, the director John Huston making The Misfits, Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Nixon playing the piano on The Jack Paar Show, the release of the Ford Edsel, Montgomery Clift nearly dying in a car wreck after leaving a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills and, for about the blink of an eye, a young George W. Bush in the car with his mother, Barbara, after she has suffered a miscarriage.”

Jonas Mekas 1922-2019

The Lithuanian-born filmmaker, poet and artist, Jonas Mekas, has died aged 97. During World War II, he was imprisoned for eight months in a German labour camp while trying to flee his home country. In late 1949 he emigrated to the US with his brother, settling in Williamsburg, New York.

Mekas interviewed fellow Brooklynite Arthur Miller in 1954, and in 1958, he began writing a ‘Movie Journal’ column for the Village Voice. He would review The Misfits in 1961, praising Marilyn’s performance highly. He later wrote a rapturous tribute to Marilyn after her death.

In 1964, Mekas launched a campaign against movie censorship. His innovative art films inspired Andy Warhol to make movies. Throughout 2007, Jonas released a film each day on his website. He would continue his ‘online diary’ until his death.

Photographer Horace Ward Has Died

Fleet Street photographer Horace Ward, who captured Marilyn and many other celebrities on film, has died. Ward photographed Marilyn at London Airport on November 20, 1956, during a final press conference before she and husband Arthur Miller departed for New York. Sir Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, were also present. The atmosphere was far more muted that day than when Marilyn had arrived to film The Prince and the Showgirl four months previously, perhaps because of her fractured relationship with the British press (not to mention Olivier.) “What I do remember vividly, the coldness that night standing on the tarmac,” he wrote later. “I was frozen to the ground – just glad the flashbulbs went off.”

Horace was interviewed by author Michelle Morgan for the 2012 edition of her definitive biography, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed.  He recalled: “I remember a crowded press conference in the old tin-hut terminal with dreadful drab green curtains they had up as a backcloth, which everyone moaned about. There were hardly any fans about; it was mostly airport staff and a few police.”

In his bio for EPhotoZine, Horace noted that he began taking photographs in 1949. Self-taught, his first newspaper picture was published that year. After serving in the army, he worked in the photographic department of a national airline. By the early 1960s, he had moved to Fleet Street, with up to five pictures published each day. As well as Marilyn, he captured other blonde bombshells including singer Kathy Kirby, plus actresses Brigitte Bardot, Jayne Mansfield and Vera Day (who had earlier dyed her hair red to play Marilyn’s friend Betty in The Prince and the Showgirl.)

He was commissioned to photograph the legendary dance troupe, The Tiller Girls, for London’s Evening Standard in 1960. The British Music Hall Society has featured his photographs of Adam Faith, Alma Cogan, Anthony Newley, Kathy Kirby (a glamorous blonde singer whose looks were compared to Marilyn’s), Charlie Drake, Bernard Bresslaw, and Cliff Richard on their website.  He also photographed Vera Day (who played  on The Prince and the Showgirl) many visiting entertainers, including Pat Boone and Connie Francis.

Among his most famous subjects were Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, and Marilyn’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star, Jane Russell. Horace later became chief glamour photographer for a leading magazine. Further examples of his work can be found on the personal website of the Belgian actress Bettine Le Beau, who died in 2015. In later years he preferred to photograph steam trains (his father had worked for the Great Western Railway.)

“Horace was a brilliant photographer and a wonderful friend,” Michelle Morgan wrote today. “I knew Horace for fourteen years and he was always so kind, funny and supportive. I’ll always remember him with great warmth and affection.” You can read her tribute here.

Marilyn’s Misfits in ‘Yours Retro’

Marilyn is featured again in the latest issue of UK nostalgia magazine Yours Retro, with ‘The Curse of The Misfits’, a two-page article by Hannah Last, included with other pieces about Elvis Presley and his mother, the greatest Hollywood musicals, and cover girl Natalie Wood. (My only criticism of the article is that it repeats the unfounded allegation that Arthur Miller became involved with his third wife, Inge Morath, on the Misfits set. In fact, their relationship began with a chance reunion in New York in 1961.)

Thanks to Fraser Penney 

Miller on Marilyn, ‘After the Fall’, in ’66

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.

Barbara Loden as Maggie in ‘After the Fall’, featured in LIFE (1964)

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?

MILLER: Yes.

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.”

Marilyn’s ‘Siddur’ Up for Sale (Again)

A Jewish prayer book  or ‘Siddur’ acquired and personally annotated by Marilyn during her 1956 conversion will be auctioned at J. Greenstein & Co in Cedarhurst, New York on November 12, with an estimated price of $5,000 – $8,000, as Anthea Gerrie reports for the Jewish Chronicle. (Originally purchased at Christie’s in 1999, it went unsold at another New York auction last November.)

“The Siddur, being sold on behalf of an Israel-based American who bought it directly from the star’s estate in 1999, bears the imprint of the Avenue N Jewish Center in Brooklyn.

This was the shul of playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe’s third husband, and Jonathan Greenstein, New York’s prime auctioneer of Judaica, says a current member of the congregation has ambitions to return it to the synagogue: ‘He will be bidding on it himself, as he says it is known that Marilyn and Arthur Miller attended services there.’

It was not where the star studied for her conversion. Her mentor was Connecticut-based Rabbi Robert Goldburg, who married the couple in 1956 and later presided over Seders they attended.

History suggests she was driven to convert not only by her love for Miller, but rejection of the Christian fundamentalism practised by her foster parents … But despite keeping her Siddur close, playing the Hatikvah from time to time on her menorah and maintaining  a mezuzah on her doorpost, Monroe did not get a Jewish burial.”

Marilyn’s Black Thunderbird For Sale

Marilyn’s black Ford Thunderbird – which she later gave to John Strasberg as a birthday gift – will be auctioned at Julien’s as part of their annual Icons & Idols sale on November 17, with an estimated price of $300,000-$500,000 (approximately £190,000 -£380,000 in British currency.) More details on the auction to follow…

“A published report at the time suggests that Monroe and Miller drove this vehicle to their civil wedding ceremony on June 28, 1956 and likely their private wedding on June 30, 1956. It was a powerful car for its time, with a 225 horsepower V-8 engine and a top speed of 113 MPH. The car features a complete dual, through the bumper exhaust system, giving a deep throaty roar at speed–adding to its ‘va-va voom’ personality.”

Reinventing Marilyn’s ‘Misfits’ in Dublin

A stage adaptation of The Misfits is set to open at the Dublin Theatre Festival on September 27. Ahead of the premiere, Donald Clarke surveys the production for the Irish Times. As the photos indicate, the cast and crew are not going to replicate the 1961 movie (Aoibhinn McGinnity, who will play Roslyn Tabor, hasn’t seen it.) This is probably a wise decision as the original is so iconic – however, director Annie Ryan has much to say about it, and Marilyn’s performance.

“The picture has an awkward position in film history. It is remembered for a famously disordered production … Most poignantly, the last scene in The Misfits, showing Monroe and Gable sharing the front seat of a truck, stands as a farewell to both those imperishable stars.

Elements of the picture deserve celebration … Monroe really does make something of a dramatic role. Working with Paula Strasberg, one of the era’s great acting coaches, she managed to excise almost all traces of the breathy comic persona that helped her to superstardom.

‘The work in it,’ Ryan sighs. ‘You can really feel Paula Strasberg right behind the camera. She is going for a moment-to-moment method acting truth, but what I see there is the effort in every scene. I watch it thinking: that poor woman. From an acting perspective, it is absolute torture.’

The Misfits is something different. Even before we sit down, Ryan, her Chicagoan accent still largely intact, is giving out about the way Thelma Ritter is underused and about how uncomfortable she is with Miller’s attempts to ‘save’ Marilyn through art.

‘This isn’t a great film. It’s a really flawed film,’ she says. ‘I came upon it because it’s in his collected plays. My impulse came before the 2016 election. There isn’t a strong narrative, but there could be something to it. And it only has five people. I can’t afford a bigger cast than that unless I partner with a bigger company. Part of my thinking was: Can this work?’

She mentions the 2016 US presidential election. Obviously, all American art is now about Donald Trump. You can’t get away from him. The Misfits finds Monroe’s Roslyn, in Reno for a divorce, meeting three very different, but equally damaged, hunks of cowboy masculinity and then following them as they hunt mustangs in the nearby desert. Over 50 years ago, these characters were already complaining that the world had passed them by.

‘I suspect 60 or 70 per cent of those going in won’t have seen the film,’ Ryan says. ‘But they’ll know the iconography. They’ll have seen the photographs. Everyone knows about The Misfits even if they haven’t seen it. The image of the expanse. The image of Marilyn in the hat and the shirt. They are famous images. You have to accept they are in the room.’

It helps that Ryan is not working from the original script. Her production of The Misfits is officially an adaptation of a novella that Miller published to tie in with the release of the film.

‘That’s what I have the rights to cut,’ she says. ‘It’s very hard to get the rights to a film because the film company owns the rights.’

‘I think Miller did [Marilyn] a disservice by writing a version of herself,’ Ryan says. ‘He did this as a gift. But there’s no mask. She has an innocence. She has a compassion for all living things, which comes from Marilyn. She has an incredibly dysfunctional family background, which comes from Marilyn. Men are falling over each other to be next to her. There is a lot of language in the text about “the golden girl” arriving. No actor can play themselves. Most actors can’t face speaking in public, They just can’t bear it.’

Echoes of the #MeToo movement creep into The Misfits. The production will have much to do with how men interact with (and sometimes ignore) women in social engagements. Marilyn Monroe suffered more from those abuses than most. You see it in her films. You read about it in her life.

‘We see how she has become expert at saying “no” in a really nice way,’ Ryan says of Roslyn. ‘We have all been there to some degree. What would it be like to imagine that character now without sexing her up?’

 Some reclaiming and revaluating is in order.

‘I feel that we are doing this for Marilyn’s ghost in some way.'”

Miller’s Elegy for Marilyn in Kansas City

Some Kind of Love Story, one of the plays in Arthur Miller’s 1982 double bill, Two-Way Mirror, is considered to be inspired by Marilyn. However, its lesser-known counterpoint, Elegy For A Lady – currently playing at Birdie’s on West 18th Street as part of the Open Spaces festival in Kansas City – also brings her to mind, as Alan Portner writes for Broadway World.

“Elegy For A Lady is a tiny fragment of a play lasting no more than forty minutes, but also an insight into the mind of American playwright Arthur Miller. Instead of being performed in a traditional theater, Bob Paisley and Heidi Van inhabit their characters inside a tiny lady’s boutique in the Crossroads among, rather than in front of, a tiny audience of about twenty people.

Neither actor is named in the script. They are the owner of the boutique and a middle-aged man with a longing desire to purge his soul of a much younger woman. She is his mistress, yet emotionally unobtainable. The man obviously wants more. The mistress requires a separation. The mistress is ill and soon to undergo a serious operation. The man shops for a gift before she enters treatment.

Somehow, a bond grows between the shop owner and her customer. She becomes his muse and ultimately his lover. Having the audience in the middle makes the action all the more intimate.

Heidi Van, as the shop owner, wears the iconic blond hairstyle from Monroe’s last completed film, The Misfits. Van, in costume, is close to a ringer for Monroe.

Bob Paisley as the stand-in for Arthur Miller is sufficiently tortured by his own infidelities, his love for this almost unobtainable avatar of a woman, and his need to unburden himself. Van listens, advises, then transforms into the woman about whom the Miller-like character obsesses. They make love and abruptly the relationship ends. The playlet ends. The audience wants more, but there is no more.”