On Marilyn, Acting and Mental Illness

Marilyn plays a mentally disturbed woman in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ (1952)

In Actresses and Mental Illness, a new academic study, author Fiona Gregory focuses on stars like Vivien Leigh and Frances Farmer, whose psychological problems are as well-known as their dramatic talents. In her introduction to the book, she also mentions Marilyn.

“Marilyn Monroe stands as one of the best-known examples of an actress whose life was impacted by mental illness. Actors’ and directors’ accounts of working with Monroe make frequent reference to unprofessional behaviour (lateness, inability to learn lines, conflicts with colleagues), drug addiction and visits to psychiatrists. While rumours and coded reports of Monroe’s illness circulated during her lifetime, much of the detail of her particular problems and the treatments she pursued has emerged posthumously. Each further revelation – of a psychiatrist visited; a drug treatment tried; a suicide attempt hushed up – has added to the picture of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as icon of suffering. It’s a picture suffused with irony – imagine, that one of the most beautiful and celebrated women in the world, with seemingly every personal and professional opportunity, should be made so uncomfortable in her own skin by the demons in her mind!

In the biographical record, Monroe’s suffering – taking as its form chronic self-doubt, an unstable sense of self, and a seeming inability to forge healthy relationships – is framed as fundamentally connected to her professional identity as a performing woman. Above all, Monroe is represented in terms of her inability to formulate a stable, coherent identity … In such narratives, the creation of an alternate identity becomes a strategy to mask an essential emptiness. The notion of actress as cypher, evacuated of meaning unless she is performing, recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress…

In 1955, Monroe recorded a dream in which her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, ‘cuts me open’ in an operating theatre, only to find ‘… there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is deeply disappointed but more even – academically amazed that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going to be so much – more than he had ever dreamed possible in almost anyone but instead there was absolutely nothing…’

Here, Monroe becomes an eloquent commentator on the fears and insecurities of the performing woman, and on the questions of identity, ambition and meaning that circulate around her. This autobiographical artefact puts emptiness at the core of Monroe’s own psyche. The fact that it is Strasberg – the man who stood as her authority on acting – who has found her out suggests that it was in her own professional realm that Monroe desired to achieve significance but feared she would be found wanting. Monroe’s dream literalises the fear of the ‘nothing’: that the glittering surface will be revealed to mask an essential absence – a lack of talent, a lack of worthiness – that recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress and in actress’ own meditations on self.”

American Isis: Marilyn and Sylvia

The American poet Sylvia Plath, who died fifty years ago today, once dreamed of Marilyn (see here). Her latest biographer, Carl Rollyson – whom has also written about MM – argues in his just-published book, American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, that she was ‘the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.’

He explained this comparison in a recent interview with Biographile:

“You begin your book by calling Sylvia Plath ‘the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.’ Can you say more about that comparison, and how it shaped your writing?

It’s always struck me that Sylvia Plath was unusual for a woman of her generation in the range of her interests. She had such an interest in poetry, in prose, and in wanting to be a greater poet, but at the same time she saw no problem with also being a popular writer, for Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other kinds of magazines. When you look at her journals, she really wanted to have a wide range of appeal. That made me think of Marilyn Monroe, in part because Sylvia Plath dreamed about Marilyn Monroe, and I thought that for a writer of Plath’s age and seriousness, to dream about Monroe was really quite striking – and not only to dream about her, but to take Monroe seriously as someone who would give her advice, comfort her, appear as a kind of fairy godmother. When I read biographies of Plath, biographers would say that this was odd or strange, but because of my own work on Monroe I thought no, that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath is. This is a woman firing on all cylinders, who wants to be that kind of cynosure or center of attention, that marks her as a figure in the culture.

It’s a fascinating connection that you develop as the biography moves forward: Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Arthur Miller, for instance, has several parallels to Plath’s with Ted Hughes.

Marilyn Monroe was always looking for, in some sense, a father figure, and Arthur Miller served that function, as well as being her lover and a man she respected for his writing. Well, look at Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – in her poetry, and Hughes’s own poetry, in Birthday Letters, he emerges as a kind of replacement for Plath’s father, and also of course as a respected writer, someone with whom Plath could identify in that way.”

St Vincent Inspired by Marilyn’s Writing

Marilyn leaving hospital in 1954

St Vincent – aka musician Annie Erin Clark – performed ‘Surgeon’, a song inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s writings, now available as a free download from her forthcoming album, Strange Mercy, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, reports the Times:

‘St. Vincent ended her concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday night with an emotionally complicated plea. “Best, finest surgeon,” she sang coolly, fingers skittering along the neck of her guitar. “Come cut me open.”

The song was “Surgeon,” with lyrics inspired by an entry in Marilyn Monroe’s diary, and St. Vincent made its queasy hunger feel palpable, even, somehow, during the mounting vulgarity of the synth-guitar solo that she used as a coda.

Surgery isn’t a bad metaphor for the process by which St. Vincent, a k a Annie Clark, creates her music. But she’s rarely if ever the one being operated on. What she does is traumatic but controlled, unsentimental but not uncaring. She can seem clinical, but she knows what she’s doing in there.’

The song is based on a piece published in Fragments, the 2010 collection of Marilyn’s writing. It was written on Waldorf-Astoria stationary (MM lived at the hotel in 1955.)

This may be an account of a dream. It is filled with characters from Marilyn’s life at the time – Lee Strasberg, Arthur Miller, Milton Greene, Dr Hohenberg, the Rostens – and suggests Marilyn’s intense fear of not living up to their expectations.

Like many of Marilyn’s undefined pieces, it has the quality of a prose poem. The bolded parts denote spelling anomalies, while the crossings-out are her own.

Best finest surgeon – Strasberg

waits to cut me open which I don’t mind since Dr H

has prepared me – given me anesthetic

and has also diagnosed the case and

agrees with what has to be done –

an operation – to bring myself back to

life and to cure me of this terrible dis-ease

whatever the hell it is –

Arthur is the only one waiting in the outer

room – worrying and hoping operation successful

for many reasons – for myself – for his play and

for himself indirectly

Hedda – concerned – keeps calling on phone during

operation – Norman – keeps stopping by hospital to

see if I’m okay but mostly to comfort Art

who is so worried –

Milton calls from office with lots of room

and everything in good taste – and is conducting

business in a new way with style – and music

is playing and he is relaxed and enjoying himself even if he

is very worried at the same time – there’s a camera

on his desk but he doesn’t take pictures anymore except

of great paintings.

Strasberg cuts me open after Dr. H gives me

anesthesia and tries in a medical way to comfort

me – everything in the room is white in fact but I

can’t even see anyone just white objects –

they cut me open – Strasberg with Hohenberg’s ass.

and there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is

deeply disappointed but more even – academically amazed

that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going

to be so much – more than he had dreamed possible in

almost anyone but

instead there was absolutely nothing – devoid of

every human living feeling thing – the only thing

that came out was so finely cut sawdust – like

out of a raggedy ann doll – and the sawdust spills

all over the floor & table and Dr. H is puzzled

because suddenly she realizes that this is a

new type case of puple. The patient (pupil – or student – I started to write) existing of complete emptiness

Strasberg’s hopes & dreams for theater are fallen.

Dr H’s dreams and hopes for a permanent psychiatric cure

is given up – Arthur is disappointed – let down +