Marilyn Warned Joan Collins About the Casting Couch

Actress Joan Collins has told the Daily Mail about her early experiences in Hollywood, and how Marilyn warned her about sexual harassment. It’s not a new story, but in light of recent allegations, it makes for an interesting read. Interestingly, she recalled the meeting in her 1978 autobiography, Past Imperfect, but the ‘wolves’ story only appeared in Second Act, almost twenty years later. (Another star from Marilyn’s era, Rita Moreno, has also spoken out about how Fox executives preyed on young women.)

“Shortly after arriving in Hollywood aged 21, under contract to 20th Century Fox, I attended a party at Gene Kelly’s house. The star of An American In Paris and Singin’ In The Rain hosted a weekly gathering for an eclectic group of movie industry power-brokers, A-list actors and actresses, intellectuals and his friends. It was where I first met Marilyn Monroe.

At first I didn’t recognise the blonde sitting alone at the bar until she turned to me and said rather ruefully: ‘They wanted me for the lead in Red Velvet Swing, but I’m too old.’

The part of Evelyn Nesbit in The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing was one of my first lead roles in Hollywood, but I knew it had originally been intended for Monroe.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that the woman in front of me was the legendary figure herself. We started chatting and after a couple of martinis, Marilyn poured out a cautionary tale of sexual harassment she and other actresses endured from ‘the wolves in this town’.

I replied that I was well used to ‘wolves’ after a few years in the British film industry. I decided it definitely wasn’t something I’d put up with. I told Marilyn I was well prepared to deal with men patting my bottom, leering down my cleavage and whatever else.

She shook her head. ‘There’s nothing like the power of the studio bosses here, honey. If they don’t get what they want, they’ll drop you. It’s happened to lots of gals. ‘Specially watch out for Zanuck. If he doesn’t get what he wants, honey, he’ll drop your contract.’ It was a timely warning, because days later, Darryl Zanuck, vice-president of production at 20th Century Fox, pounced.

Marilyn and Joan Collins in the audience at a studio screening of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, 1954

Hollywood studio bosses considered it their due to b*** all the good-looking women who came their way and were notorious for it. Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, for example, had no qualms about firing any starlet who rejected him. He was totally amoral.

Another role I coveted was that of Cleopatra. The head of 20th Century Fox at the time, Buddy Adler, and the chairman of the board — [Spyros Skouras], a Greek gentleman old enough to be my grandfather — bombarded me with propositions and promises that the role was mine if I would be ‘nice’ to them. It was a euphemism prevalent in Hollywood. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t — the very thought of these old men was utterly repugnant. So, I dodged and I dived, and hid from them around the lot and made excuses while undergoing endless screen tests for the role of Egypt’s Queen.

At one point, Mr Adler told me at a party that I would have ‘the pick of the scripts’ after Cleopatra and he would set me up in an apartment he would pay for as long as he could come to visit me three or four times a week. Running out of excuses, I blurted out: ‘Mr Adler, I came here with my agent, Jay Kanter. Why don’t we discuss the deal with him?’

‘Honey, you have quite a sense of humour,’ he spluttered.

‘And a sense of humour is all you’ll ever get from me,’ I murmured as I left. In due course, Elizabeth Taylor got the role.

But it wasn’t just studio bosses and producers who were predatory. Many actors I worked with considered it their divine right to have sex with their leading lady … Anyone naive enough to believe the era of the casting couch had been consigned to history will have been shocked by the Weinstein scandal and the predatory institutional sexism of Hollywood power brokers it has revealed.

But it’s not just the film industry that’s been complicit in sanctioning this appalling behaviour, and it’s not just actresses subjected to it. It may occur in any business dominated by powerful, ruthless and misogynistic men, and it’s women (sometimes men) in subservient positions who are unfortunate enough to have to deal with them.”

French Author On Marilyn’s Last Picture Show

Olivier Rajchman’s Hollywood Ne Repond Plus (Hollywood Unresponsive) is a new book in French exploring the crisis at Twentieth Century Fox in 1962, focusing on three films made that year: the scandalous Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and helmed by Joe Mankiewicz; Darryl F. Zanuck’s magnum opus, The Longest Day; and Marilyn’s last movie, the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give. It is available now in paperback and via Kindle.

Thanks to Eric Patry 

‘Cleopatra’ and the Firing of a Star

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One of my favourite film-related reads this year has been My Life With Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic, a reissue of producer Walter Wanger‘s diaries of the turbulent shoot. Among its many interesting aspects is his depiction of the power struggle at Twentieth Century-Fox, between the old guard (Spyros Skouras) and the new (Peter Levathes.)

It’s now generally accepted that the escalating costs of Cleopatra was the real reason behind the shelving of Marilyn’s last film, Something’s Got to Give, in 1962. At the time, however, Marilyn was the studio’s scapegoat. Wanger’s thoughts on her firing are quite astute.

Marilyn filming 'Something's Got to Give'
Marilyn filming ‘Something’s Got to Give’

He suggests that the real problem faced by the cast and crew of Cleopatra was not the much-publicised Burton-Taylor affair, but Fox’s chronic ineptitude. This sounds remarkably similar to the ill-fated production of Something’s Got to Give, though the results were rather different.

Wanger also believed that Marilyn would have thrived in the 1960s heyday of Continental film-making. Sadly, it was not to be.

Walter Wanger, producer of 'Cleopatra'
Walter Wanger, producer of ‘Cleopatra’

June 9, 1962

Levathes phoned from Hollywood to say he had fired Marilyn Monroe. He considers himself a big hero. He reminded me of a time when I was a very young man and was general manager of the greatest of all motion-picture companies, Paramount. I had practically unlimited powers. One day, however, I was impatient and fired a star.

Jesse Lasky, who was my boss, said to me, ‘Walter, under your contract you have a perfect right to get rid of that star, but that is not what we hired you for. We hired you to get the best out of people, not to fire them.’

June 10, 1962

The Monroe story is in all the European newspapers. ‘No company can afford Monroe and Taylor,’ a Fox spokesman says. No company can afford the mismanagement of Fox, I say.

June 16, 1962

Had a long talk with [Angelo] Rizzoli, the William Randolph Hearst of Italy and a big picture-maker (he financed La Dolce Vita) about Marilyn Monroe. I’m sure Marilyn would be excellent in films here where the picture is shot first, the sound dubbed in later.

In American films, sound and picture are done together. Using the European system it would be possible to make a picture quickly with Marilyn, then have her dub her own voice later. I think such a system would be successful and so does Rizzoli. I will get in touch with Marilyn later and try and fix a deal for her.”