‘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

Miller (and Marilyn) Haunting the Stage

This month sees three plays looking at Arthur Miller’s legacy reaching the stage. Firstly, Jack Canfora’s new play, Fellow Travelers – looking at Miller, Marilyn and Elia Kazan, set against the backdrop of the red-baiting era – is at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, NY, until June 17, with Rachel Spencer Hewitt playing MM. Over in London, Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture – about the filming of The Misfits – will have its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre from June 12-July 7.

Finally, Bernard Weinraub’s Fall – now at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston – looks at Arthur’s conflicted attitude towards Daniel, his son with Inge Morath, who grew up in institutions after being diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. While Arthur was a public figure, Daniel (who is still alive) is not, and it all seems in questionable taste to me.

“Miller, not having recorded his thoughts about his son, cannot defend himself here,” Jesse Green writes in the New York Times. “I’m not sure Mr. Weinraub would let him anyway. He seems to want to take Miller down, and not just as a man who made an abominable choice like thousands of other parents in his day.”

Larry Burrows’ Marilyn: From London to New York

This photograph, showing Marilyn at a press conference with Sir Laurence Olivier and Arthur Miller at the Savoy Hotel after her arrival in London in July 1956,  is featured in a new exhibition, Larry Burrows Revisited, at the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York until June 29, the Guardian reports.

Larry Burrows (1926-1971) worked for LIFE magazine’s London bureau, and his other subjects included Brigitte Bardot and John F. Kennedy. He later covered the Vietnam War, and would die aged 44 when his helicopter was shot down in Laos.

Variant images of Marilyn by Burrows are part of the permanent collection at London’s National Portrait Gallery, and were featured in the 2012 exhibit, MM: A British Love Affair.

Young fans gather outside Parkside House, where Marilyn stayed while filming ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’

‘Finishing the Picture’ in London

Arthur Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, looks back to the filming of The Misfits and although Marilyn (depicted as ‘Kitty’) is seldom seen, she is the force that binds together the other characters (based on Miller, the Strasbergs, Huston etc.)

From June 12-July 7, Finishing the Picture will have its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre, above the Finborough Arms pub in Earl’s Court, London. More details will follow – but for now, read my review of the play here.

Marilyn, From Korea to Connecticut

A recent obituary for a Korea veteran in the Hartford Courant includes a reference to Marilyn’s 1954 visit. (I wonder if he ever bumped into Marilyn after she moved to Connecticut with Arthur Miller in 1956?)

“Gordon Thomas Calano died peacefully in his sleep in Hobe Sound, Florida, on April 9, 2018 …  Gordon was born on July 1, 1929, in Hartford, Connecticut. He graduated from East Hartford High School in 1947 and from the University of Connecticut in 1951, leaving soon after for Korea, where he served in the army for two years as a war correspondent and earned a Purple Heart. One of his most treasured memories was acting as Marilyn Monroe’s personal escort while she entertained the troops. Following military service, Gordon taught English and history at East Hartford High before launching Calano Furniture … “

Elsewhere in Connecticut, Greenwich Time reports on a new book by local author Matthew Bernard,  Victorian Summer: The Historic Houses of Belle Haven Park, which also has a link to Marilyn, Arthur, and the producer of The Misfits.

Frank Taylor (centre) with the Millers on location for ‘The Misfits’

“The house he grew up in, for instance, was previously owned by Frank Taylor, publisher of Playbill magazine and a Broadway and film producer. Taylor entertained major creative talents at the home, including Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller…”

Marilyn’s Misfits at the Christmas Tree Inn

Photo by Eve Arnold

The former Christmas Tree Inn & Casino in Nevada, where Marilyn and the Misfits crew partied on October 17, 1960 – will reopen under new management and a new name, as Jonathan L. Wright reports for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

“Chef Colin and MaryBeth Smith are heading for the hills. The couple, owners of Roundabout Catering … just purchased Tannenbaum Event Center, tucked in the pines halfway up Mount Rose Highway.

The business, to be called Tannenbaum by Roundabout, occupies a landmark property where the Christmas Tree restaurant sat for nearly 60 years before being reborn as Tannenbaum in 2005 after extensive renovations.

The Christmas Tree opened as a bar in 1946; it became a restaurant in 1947. The place became known for its panoramic views of Washoe Valley, its warm fire and its steaks grilled over mahogany. In the 1950s and early 1960s, celebrities visiting or performing in Reno and at Lake Tahoe frequently stopped by the Christmas Tree.

From the mid-1960s on, the Christmas Tree experienced a fire and rebuilding, a foreclosure, a reopening after sitting empty for a bit, and several changes of ownership. The restaurant closed for good in 2003. The next year, the Nobis family purchased the property and remade it into Tannenbaum Event Center.

MaryBeth Smith recalled eating at the Christmas Tree in the late 1990s when she first moved to the area. ‘They had the mahogany steak on the menu, so we might do some pop-up restaurants here that serve the mahogany steaks. It will be our remembrance of the Christmas Tree.'”

As Gary Vitacco-Robles writes in Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, this was the Millers’ last public outing as a married couple, and so the memories were bittersweet.

“The company hosted a surprise birthday party for Miller, turning forty-five, and Monty Clift, five years younger, on the following Monday evening at the Christmas Tree Inn & Casino. The event also served as a wrap party. Clift told [Ralph] Roberts that the evening was a highlight of his life, and sadly, this was a true statement. Within two years, Clift experienced a major depressive episode and lived virtually as a hermit …

Marilyn, in a pearl dress from the party she hosted for Yves Montand before the start of Let’s Make Love, sat beside Clift and expertly twirled fettuccini alfredo on a spoon as only the former wife of an Italian-American could. Russell Metty made the toast: ‘… Why don’t you wish [Arthur] a happy birthday, Marilyn? This truly is the biggest bunch of misfits I ever saw.’ Marilyn smiled but shook her head in negation. After dinner, the party gambled in the casino. At the roulette table, Marilyn teamed with Eve Arnold. [John] Huston handed Marilyn a pair of green dice.

‘What should I ask the dice for, John?’ she asked.

‘Don’t think, honey, just throw,’ Huston replied. ‘That’s the story of your life. Don’t think, do it.'”

Marilyn Book News: The Girl, Hollywood and More

2018 is shaping up to be another great year for Marilyn’s book-loving fans. Marilyn: Lost and Forgotten, featuring 150 images from Colin Slater’s Hollywood Photo Archive, is set for publication in October. For those who can’t get enough of those classic Hollywood beauties, a companion volume – Venus in Hollywood: Portraits from the Golden Age of Glamour – is due in November.

Michelle Morgan’s latest book, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, will be published in May. For the latest updates, follow Michelle’s blog here.

Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, a full-scale biography by Charles Casillo, will follow in August.

Looking further ahead,  Amanda Konkle’s Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe, a scholarly look at her film performances, will be published in February 2019. (Only the Kindle version is available for pre-order as yet.)

In related interest, Marilyn graces the cover of Samantha Barbas’ Confidential Confidential: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Notorious Scandal Magazine, due in September. (The notorious ‘Wrong Door Raid’ is also featured in Jim Heimann’s Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir, just published by Taschen.

Reno, a 2016 play by Roy Smiles about Marilyn’s conflicted relationships with husband Arthur Miller and director John Huston during the tumultuous filming of The Misfits, will be published shortly by Oberon Modern Playwrights (the Kindle version is currently available for pre-order.)

And finally, Elizabeth Winder’s Marilyn in Manhattan is now available in Turkish; and Marilyn Monroe: 1926-1962, a new study of her untimely death by Eva Enderström, has been published in Sweden.

The Character Assassination of Marilyn

Marilyn by George Barris, 1962

In an article for The Independent, Andy Martin explores the subject of public humiliation, citing Marilyn’s ‘dumb blonde’ stereotyping as a prime example of character assassination. He also looks at her marriages and battles with directors, although I would argue that it is her continuing misrepresentation in the media – and in particular, false and degrading conspiracy theories – that is most damaging to her legacy today.

“Consider the case of Marilyn Monroe. Unequivocally one of the icons of the 20th century …The ‘Stradivarius of sex’ as Norman Mailer described her. But therein lies the rub. Did she necessarily want to be some kind of instrument? Does anyone? … Anything is possible, but more likely she was the victim of humiliation.

There is a case for saying that Joe DiMaggio, her baseball player husband, was humiliated on account of the shoot when she is standing on a subway grate and her dress is being blown up in the air and she is trying to hold it down … She is exposed. But it is DiMaggio – coming from a working-class Italian-American family – who feels humiliated …

She was certainly no airhead, no kind of ‘bimbo.’ You would think that, all in all, the Monroe-Miller combination ought to have been workable. But it wasn’t … He wanted an All-American Girl to symbolically get him off the hook of the McCarthy black list … Maybe Monroe could save him. But she needed him to save her. And instead of that he humiliated her … Laurence Olivier was another of her humiliators (an ugly word, I know, but then it is ugly) …

She almost certainly committed suicide. Overdosed on barbiturates. Or, rather like Amy Winehouse, abdicated life … No one can coincide (at least, not for very long) with their own myth. But everyone else wanted her to be nothing but the thing she was supposed to be. She strove to be something else, quite what she never knew, or was never allowed to know. She was asked to get back in her box. But she didn’t want to. So she ended up in a box anyway. No living being wants to be reduced to a thing, like a frying pan. Not even a Stradivarius.”