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.”

‘Cold War’ Star Inspired by Marilyn

In Cold War, the new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, Joanna Kulig plays Zula, a folk singer who begins a doomed love affair with a pianist in the aftermath of World War II. In an interview for The Guardian, Joanna reveals the inspirations behind her acclaimed performance.

“In Cold War, the narrative is fragmented, the actors more than unusually responsible for the film’s emotional continuity as the action leaps forward several years at a time. ‘With each instalment she is different: sometimes she’s a street urchin and bad girl, sometimes she’s melancholy and then she can be sarcastic with dry wit,’ Pawlikowski says. ‘Joanna has wit but she’s not sarcastic, she’s got a very kind disposition. It was a huge challenge and it didn’t come easily, but I knew she had all these different colours in her.’

Indeed, Cold War requires a dizzying range of emotions to play across that mutable face, which can switch from blunt and defiant one moment to pinched and wounded the next. Kulig is a fine-grained actor, never more so than in those instances when she is conveying layers of contradictory feelings from beneath a showbiz veneer. One scene in particular, in which she must register from the stage her recognition of a familiar face in the audience, and then, after the interval, react to the shock of the now-vacated seat, all while persevering cheerfully with her musical number, is an unbeatable example of the performer as plate-spinner or high-wire walker.

What is she thinking of when she sings? ‘It depends,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I thought about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, how theirs was maybe a similar relationship. Or it helped to think about Amy Winehouse and her personality. I feel Zula has something of that: she is so nice and talented but at the same time she wants to destroy something.’ Whatever the situation, Kulig feels at her most charged when she is singing. ‘The emotions are closer to the surface. It is all there. Agata Trzebuchowska, who played Ida, told me: “Joanna, I love your acting, but you act the most wonderfully when you are singing.”‘”

‘Essentially Marilyn’ Opens at the Paley Center

The new exhibition, Essentially Marilyn, has opened at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles. Admission is free until September 30, ahead of the Profiles in History auction in October. The exhibit showcases the remarkable collection of Maite Minguez Ricart, all the way from Spain. Jackie Craig shared these photos of Monroe’s glamorous movie costumes and personal artifacts on Marilyn Remembered – you can see more here.

A number of personal items are also on offer, including several family photos inscribed by Marilyn on the reverse.

Marion Monroe (brother of Gladys) with son Jack, and mother Della
Mementos from Marilyn’s high school days
Jim Dougherty at 17 with sister Lydia Hayes, and after his marriage to Marilyn
Marilyn’s address book, and her gift to Billy Wilder
Jack Cardiff’s 1956 portrait of Marilyn, which Arthur Miller kept in his study after they married

When Will ‘Fellow Travelers’ Make It to Broadway?

Fellow Travelers, Jack Canfora’s new play about Marilyn, Arthur and Elia Kazan, was critically acclaimed when it opened in the Hamptons this June (see here.) The producers are now hoping for a Broadway run – but as Michael Reidel reports for the New York Post, without a star attached it’s going to be an uphill journey.

“This issue is bedeviling a compelling new play that, if it could get a Broadway theater, would be a strong contender to win the Tony next year. Jack Canfora’s Fellow Travelers — about the real-life combustible triangle of Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Marilyn Monroe during the McCarthy era — opened in June to rave reviews at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater.

Local critics called director Michael Wilson’s production ‘phenomenal,’ ‘sharp,’ ‘witty’ and ‘gripping.’ New York’s major papers, alas, didn’t review the show. Had their reviews been good, the play would have stood a much greater chance of getting to Broadway.

Somebody slipped me a copy of the play, and it’s terrific. Fellow Travelers takes a few liberties here and there with the facts, but it digs deep into the complicated friendship — and falling out — between Kazan and Miller.

And it spices things up by adding Monroe to the stew. In his biography Arthur Miller, Martin Gottfried suggests that Kazan threw Monroe in Miller’s way, knowing that she would upend the playwright’s life.

Gripping as it is, Fellow Travelers has yet to find its way onto Broadway. ‘We don’t have a star,’ a production source says. Celeb duos are being floated — Andrew Garfield and Jake Gyllenhaal and Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy among them. If they read the script, they would leap at the chance to play such juicy characters.

Until then, Fellow Travelers languishes on Broadway’s waitlist. That’s a pity.”

‘The Misfits’ On the Stage

The Misfits will have its first ever stage adaptation (as far as I’m aware) at the Dublin Theatre Festival from late September to mid-October, as Jennifer O’Brien reports for The Times. While I don’t think the movie should ever be remade, I’m glad to see Arthur Miller’s creation getting a new lease of life.

The Misfits already has an Irish connection, as prior to filming in 1960, Arthur had visited director John Huston at St. Cleran’s, his estate near Galway, to discuss the project (while Marilyn was filming Let’s Make Love in Hollywood.) No dates have yet been announced, but it will be staged at the Corn Exchange – and I’ll be keeping you posted, so watch this space!

“The production, directed by Annie Ryan, was announced as part of the line-up for the Dublin Theatre Festival … [Aoibhinn] McGinnity, 31, said that while she was looking forward to playing Tabor at the Corn Exchange, she had not watched the film that inspired the play.

‘I hadn’t seen the film, but had met Annie to chat about the concept, and it was like, You know what, maybe don’t watch the film,’ she said. ‘We are not going to play it like Marilyn Monroe; we are going to do our own spin.’

Ryan has promised that her version of The Misfits will offer it ‘the space to come into its fullest expression’. ‘Annie is trying to rewrite it from a different angle and it brings in so many things about feminism and masculinity,’ McGinnity said.”

UPDATE: The Misfits will be staged at Dublin’s Corn Exchange from September 27-October 1. More details here.

‘Finishing the Picture’ Opens in London

Arthur Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, has opened at London’s Finborough Theatre to mostly positive reviews – although some critics have questioned why Kitty (the Marilyn-based character) is so constantly talked about, but never actually seen. Only the second production (and first in Europe), it’s on until July 7.

“The play itself is a pretty static thing, involving much talking in circles as to how to coax the radiantly beautiful and gifted Kitty (Monroe) out of her crippling self doubt and drug dependency in order to complete filming and save her from herself. Crucially, Kitty never appears on stage and has no voice, rendering her the kind of unknowable goddess/tormentor … indeed the whole piece has the feel of an exercise to seek ‘closure’ for this chapter of his life.” – The Stage

“The cohesive group of actors deliver strong performances from start to finish … A jarring peek into the ugly truth behind the idealisation of film stars opposed to the reality of the profession, Miller’s final play becomes of momentous meaning in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal.” – Broadway World

“Even as all the production members attempt to cajole Kitty into emerging from her hotel room and returning to set, there is a sense that their supposed concern for her is secondary: they will say whatever they must to save the picture … the ensemble do not seem to appreciate their culpability in the downfall of women like Monroe, and even by the play’s conclusion there is a sense that, even as Kitty has a slight chance of recovery, it may only be temporary.” – Reviews Hub

“It’s an interesting decision Miller made not to give Kitty herself a voice, but to show how those around her project on to this blank screen their own preoccupations and prejudices. The trouble is, we end up with very little idea of why Kitty is having a breakdown. In his programme note, director Phil Willmott alludes to the Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement, but sexual abuse of women in Hollywood doesn’t really feature in the play — even if it is implied that Kitty is regarded as a commodity.” – Londonist,

Finishing the Picture feels like an exorcism, a celebration, an apology and an inquest – it’s a patchy but powerful look at the dark forces that made Monroe such a vital but troubled personality … Miller has elected to keep Kitty entirely off-stage. It’s a clever device, which emphasises Kitty’s loneliness, but it sucks the life out of the play. Everything is reported, precious little happens and the most interesting character doesn’t get a look in.” – The Guardian

“Forty years on from his After the Fall, [Miller] returned to trying to explain – not excuse, not quite – the disintegration of his relationship with Monroe, alias Kitty. Here, he reserves his full venom for Method acting gurus Lee and Paula Strasberg … Yet Miller the playwright’s concern for Monroe seems as effortful as that of Paul, the Miller character. The biggest surprise, puzzle and disappointment is that, for someone so evidently haunted by the memory, Miller can in the end (literally, for him, the end) offer so little unique insight.” – Financial Times

“This is a tribute play. Miller had true affection for Monroe and with Finishing The Picture, this is clearly on show. An incredible look at the power of  and the absurdity of unchecked ego. Phil Willmott’s skilful direction expertly bringing this passionate play to life.” – Boyz

“The history is fascinating (for a while at least), but the play less so. It is hampered by the fact that Kitty is always off stage. Instead we get snippets from lives of less importance … you can feel the claustrophobia here of being stuck in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. But I soon got bored with the seesaw drama of Kitty’s ability to stand up.” – The Times 

“The intimate setting of the Finborough Theatre provides a perfect foreground for Miller’s innermost thinking to unpack. Herein, the audience are given a rare glimpse into the dark imperfections of Monroe’s character and how those in her orbit, superbly brought to life by the performing ensemble, struggle to pacify her mercurial tendencies.” – KCW Today 

“Like many old men’s plays (think of Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken), it is spare and static. But it is admirably animated by director Phil Willmott with a skilful use of music and sound effects to represent the unseen Kitty.” – Daily Express

UK Revival for ‘Some Kind of Love Story’

Marilyn and Arthur on the ‘Misfits’ set. (Photo by Bruce Davidson, 1960)

In addition to Finishing the Picture, opening in London this month, another Miller play is being revived in the UK by the StoneCrabs Theatre Company. Some Kind of Love Story (1982) is a one-act play, touring London and the South-East this summer as part of a double bill with a Brazilian play, Tieta (The Trial). (Some critics believe Love Story is loosely inspired by Arthur’s relationship with Marilyn. It was originally produced with another Miller play, as Two-Way Mirror.)

“Inspired by the 1940s and 50s film noir genre, Some Kind of Love Story is a dramatic gem: former lovers Angela and Tom meet one night to discuss the Felix Epstein case, which Tom has been trying to crack for five years. He is convinced Angela has privileged information, therefore holding the key to the innocent Felix’s release from prison. But Angela will not tell. Is Tom ready for the truth?

Miller hits back at the themes of American justice and the search for truth in a tale of corruption, drugs, power and abuse.”

‘Fellow Travelers’ in the Hamptons

Fellow Travelers, Jack Canfora’s new play about Marilyn, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Hollywood Blacklist, has opened at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY to glowing reviews – although Monroe fans may prefer to judge for themselves…

“While Monroe is not central to the moral issue at stake here, she is an integral part of the two men’s lives. She had a long affair and friendship with Kazan, and she fell in love with Miller even though he was married. The tabloids gorged on her short marriage to Joe DiMaggio, her surprising liaison with Miller, his ‘quickie’ divorce, and finally, their five-year marriage.

Today Monroe is an iconic touchstone of the era. We know her all-too-human story, her emotional wounds, her breathy voice, her luscious body. Ms. Hewitt in a blonde wig does a boffo job of portraying that Marilyn with warm earthiness, touching grace and surprising self-awareness.

Though some might cavil that her part is underwritten, she was not faced with the moral question of betrayal for art. Nor is she the Greek chorus here, for she does not comment on the action but rather lives in it. Her relationships with Kazan and Miller demonstrate how acts of great consequence do not occur singularly alone …

Indeed, Marilyn is necessary here, for she is the force who brought the former friends together in 1963, though they would never be great pals again.” – Lorraine Dusky, 27East

Marilyn (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) with Kazan (Vince Nappo) and Miller (Wayne Alan Wilcox)
Recreating the infamous 1951 meeting with Columbia’s Harry Cohn (Mark Blum)

“Playing icon Marilyn Monroe in a movie or play is always a tall order, but Rachel Spencer Hewitt measured up to the task and took her performance to a high level. The sexy aspects that made Marilyn Monroe along with some shockingly blunt dialogue again kept the audience captured in the story.

Fellow Travelers is an important play because it deals with a dark time in our nation’s history. A time with congressional hearings on ‘Un-American Activities’, and blacklists and betrayals to friends, and in some cases, to the country. Fellow Travelers is a hit because it is a great script that comes to life with excellent acting and wonderful directing.” – T.J. Clemente, Hamptons Theater Review

“As Monroe, Rachel Spencer Hewitt holds back on the bombshell we know so well, instead showing us a troubled woman coming to terms with her public perception … While dialogue drags at times, the play offers illuminating glimpses of the creative genius of Miller and Kazan.” – Barbara Schuler, Newsday

“The cast is exemplary … Hewitt is a strong presence as Monroe, and later as Barbara Loden, Kazan’s second wife, who then portrays the Marilyn character, Maggie, in Miller’s After The Fall, directed by Kazan.” – Bridget LeRoy, Hampton Independent

“Among the top-notch cast is Rachel Spencer Hewitt strongly portraying Marilyn Monroe. Fans of the starlet will appreciate how Ms. Hewitt doesn’t necessarily copy Monroe’s famous public persona, but cleverly infuses her own take on the role.” – Melissa Giordano, Broadway World

“With the play’s punchy, often vulgar dialogue, Mr. Canfora wrings genuine conflict and emotion from his two talented and driven characters … But in a production with so many excellent performances, it is no small compliment to say that Rachel Spencer Hewitt, as Marilyn, makes the play her own. So iconic is Monroe — and so caricatured in popular culture — that there may be no more treacherous role for an actress to play. Just on sheer guts, one must tip his hat to Ms. Hewitt for trying.

But the actress does much more than that, with a portrayal that captures both the iconic Marilyn and the tender and innocent woman she most likely hid from the world. In Fellow Travelers, we get a Marilyn on the cusp, both world-weary and yet still hopeful about her career and the possibility of love. After her divorce from Miller, she would never be quite the same.

While the play hardly absolves Kazan, there is at least the desire to understand him. And just when Miller’s saintly posturing grows tiresome, Mr. Canfora has both Kazan and Harry Cohn take pithy potshots at the playwright’s sanctimony.

But it’s Marilyn Monroe who, even in death at play’s end, gets the last word. Just as her image bedeviled millions of filmgoers (and continues to do so), so did she loom in the minds of Miller and Kazan; neither ever really got over her. Thanks to a great performance by Ms. Hewitt and the tender writing of Mr. Canfora, she ultimately dominates Fellow Travelers as well.” – Kurt Wenzel, East Hampton Star