Marilyn, Bruce Dern and ‘Wild River’

At 83, Bruce Dern is one of Hollywood’s most enduring character actors, with a career spanning almost 60 years. In 2013, he spoke about meeting Marilyn at the Actors Studio, and her advice that success would come to him in later life (see here.) Now in an interview for the New York Post, Dern describes a conversation with Marilyn before he made his big-screen debut in 1960; and while his recollection probably isn’t verbatim – I doubt she used the word ‘wunderkind’, or that she would have made cutting remarks about her husband with a passing acquaintance – it does shed light on a film Marilyn almost made with Dern (and her fragility certainly rings true. )

“I’m sitting in the back row my second day at the Actors Studio, and just before the session starts, this woman comes in with a yellow babushka over her head and sits down next to me.

‘You’re Gadge’s new wunderkind,’ she says — Gadge was Mr. [Elia] Kazan’s nickname. ‘The movie you’re gonna do, Wild River, I was gonna do — but I have to do this dumb movie my husband wrote, so they gave it to Lee Remick.’

Marilyn’s husband was Arthur Miller, the movie she was doing was The Misfits, and the star was Clark f - - king Gable. ‘What if he doesn’t like me?’ she asked. ‘He’s the biggest star that ever lived!’

She was as fragile as anyone I’ve ever seen in show business.”

Wild River was a Twentieth Century Fox production, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Montgomery Clift as an official from the Tennessee Valley Authority who tries to persuade an old woman to give up her home to build a hydroelectric dam on her land. He also becomes involved with her granddaughter Ella (Remick.) Bruce Dern played a small, uncredited role as a TVA agent (see inset, below.)

Marilyn was indeed committed to The Misfits, but it was Kazan who chose Lee Remick to play the lead – perhaps because sensing that his past relationship with Marilyn, and his falling out with Miller would cause conflict. Wild River was a good film, but a less glamorous role than Marilyn usually played, and arguably more suited to Remick.

Marilyn was still contracted to Fox, although she hadn’t worked there since 1956. After losing Wild River, she starred in the lightweight musical, Let’s Make Love, at Fox instead, before making The Misfits independently. Whatever her misgivings, The Misfits was probably a better fit for Marilyn than Wild River, and she finally got to co-star with her friend, Montgomery Clift.

Lee Remick was briefly set to replace Marilyn in the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give (1962), and would go on to narrate a 1987 documentary, Remembering Marilyn. Meanwhile, Miller and Kazan were finally reconciled (with Marilyn’s support), and later collaborated on After the Fall (1964), Miller’s autobiographical play in which Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden (who had also appeared in Wild River), played a character based on Marilyn.

‘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

Elia Kazan’s Private Letters

The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, due to be published on April 22, has been excerpted in the Hollywood Reporter. One of the letters, written to wife Molly in 1955, is a confession of his affair with Marilyn four years earlier, while she was filming As Young As You Feel.

“In one sense it’s true to say that it meant nothing. On the other hand it was a human experience, and it started, if that is of any significance, in a most human way. Her boy friend, or ‘keeper’ (if you want to be mean) had just died. His family had not allowed her to see the body, or allowed her into the house, where she had been living. She had sneaked in one night and been thrown out. I met her on [director]Harmon Jones’ set. Harmon thought her a ridiculous person and was fashionably scornful of her. I found her, when I was introduced, in tears. I took her to dinner because she seemed like such a touching pathetic waif. She sobbed all thru dinner. I wasn’t ‘interested in her’; that came later. I got to know her in time and introduced her to Arthur Miller, who also was very taken by her. You couldn’t help being touched. She was talented, funny, vulnerable, helpless in awful pain, with no hope, and some worth and not a liar, not vicious, not catty, and with a history of orphanism that was killing to hear. She was like all Charlie Chaplin’s heroines in one.

I’m not ashamed at all, not a damn bit, of having been attracted to her. She is nothing like what she appears to be now, or even appears to have turned into now. She was a little stray cat when I knew her. I got a lot out of her just as you do from any human experience where anyone is revealed to you and you affect anyone in any way. I guess I gave her a lot of hope. She is not a big sex pot as advertised. At least not in my experience. I don’t know if there are such as ‘advertised’ big sex pots. She told me a lot about [Joe DiMaggio] and her, his Catholicism, and his viciousness (he struck her often, and beat her up several times). I was touched and fascinated. It was the type of experience that I do not understand and I enjoyed (not the right word) hearing about it. I certainly recommended her to Tennessee’s attention. And he was very taken by her.”

Kazan had first met Marilyn a year before, at a screening of A Streetcar Named Desire with Johnny Hyde (the aforementioned ‘keeper’.) Hyde died in December 1950. Kazan came to Hollywood with Arthur Miller in 1951, which is when their affair began. However, he has written elsewhere that even then, she was attracted to Miller.

Their relationship lasted a few months, until Kazan returned to New York. They remained friends afterward, and a letter from Kazan to Marilyn was auctioned on Ebay a few years ago.

Miller and Kazan fell out when the director co-operated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, at the height of the ‘red scare’ which ruined many careers in the movie and theatre world. While married to Miller, Marilyn tried to reconcile them.

During their affair, Marilyn naturally hoped Kazan would consider her for a future role. But he rejected her for the lead in Baby Doll (1955), though author Tennessee Williams thought her a perfect choice. He also refused to cast her in Wild River (1960), after Twentieth Century-Fox offered her the part.

Marilyn bore no grudges, though, and wrote in a 1961 letter to her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson, that Kazan ‘loved me for one year and once rocked me to sleep when I was in great anguish.’

Barbara Loden in ‘After the Fall’ (1964)

Ironically, Miller and Kazan would reunite after her death to collaborate on After the Fall, a controversial, thinly-veiled account of Miller’s private demons, including a self-destructive character based on Marilyn.

Banner, Schiller and the Many Sides of Marilyn

Jeff Simon’s review of Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox – due out in the US later this month – suggests that this will be a controversial book.

(Now personally, I’m all in favour of opening up the debate – and books which make me re-evaluate my preconceptions, whether or not I agree. So I won’t be adding my own opinions here until I’ve read the book in full.)

What interested me most in this review was the contrast between Banner’s portrayal of Marilyn and Lawrence Schiller’s in his recent book, Marilyn & Me.

“While Banner’s guess is that Monroe might have gone on to have a career like Barbara Loden’s – the actress who was married to Elia Kazan and who portrayed the Monroe figure in Arthur Miller’s ‘After the Fall’ – it is also more than possible that the rebel generation coming up in Hollywood would have seen a sympathetic soul at the very least and might have figured out whole new masterpieces for her and whole new ways of filming her quite different than the routine humiliations of even some of her greatest films. (Think of what Scorsese or Altman or Hal Ashby or Francis Ford Coppola might have invented for Monroe in her 40s as feminism changed completely the savage spotlight that followed her – and demeaned her – everywhere.)

…Lawrence Schiller took the famous, unique late-period nudes in which she revealed herself to be the greatest genius of all in the art of exploiting Marilyn Monroe. Quite possibly she was cognizant even then of what would become her true immortality – not completely as a film actress, where she was erotic and radiantly beautiful but often painful to watch in a post-feminist era, but a photographer’s model. It’s there where she can be captured to perfection – frozen in time, all exterior, a flesh and blood masterpiece of white on white, suitable for any and all gallery walls.”

Read the review in full at Buffalo News