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 – Joan has told it many times, including in her autobiography – but in light of recent allegations, it makes for an interesting read. (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.”

Marilyn and the Hollywood Wolves

Following recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, I’ve been thinking of Marilyn’s own experiences among the Hollywood ‘wolves’. (Incidentally, Weinstein produced the 2011 biopic, My Week With Marilyn.)

‘I met them all,’ Marilyn stated in her 1954 memoir, My Story. ‘Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes – an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.’

My Story was written with Ben Hecht, who may be responsible for some of the more elaborate metaphors, but he insisted it was true to the spirit of what Marilyn told him. It remained unpublished until long after her death, perhaps because it was too controversial.

When British writer W J Weatherby asked her whether the stories about the casting couch were true, Marilyn responded: ‘They can be. You can’t sleep your way into being a star, though. It takes much, much more. But it helps. A lot of actresses get their first chance that way. Most of the men are such horrors, they deserve all they can get out of them!’

This conversation also remained private during her lifetime. Sadly, Marilyn has been retrospectively punished for her outspokenness, with tales of her supposed promiscuity circulating to this day. Even film critic Mick LaSalle, who once defended her against lurid allegations by Tony Curtis, wrote this week, ‘Ever hear of Marilyn Monroe? Of course you have. Well, she said no to very few people.’

Her relationship with agent Johnny Hyde is well-known, and some believe her friendship with movie mogul Joe Schenck was more than platonic. But the rumours of her being a glorified call-girl are utterly baseless. Several men who dated Marilyn remember her being so cautious that she wouldn’t kiss them goodnight.

Perhaps one of the most important stories relating to Marilyn and the Hollywood ‘wolves’ is her refusal to spend a weekend alone with Columbia boss Harry Cohn on his yacht while she was under contract to him in 1948. He was furious, and quickly fired her. The story is almost identical to some of the allegations being made today.

Among the many stories making the rounds lately comes from actress Gretchen Mol, who was rumoured to have been promoted by Weinstein in exchange for sexual favours. In fact, she has never been alone with him, and yet this false rumour has unjustly tarnished her reputation.

Her story reminded me a lot of Marilyn, who has been endlessly ‘slut-shamed’ simply for being honest and open about her sexuality. In January 1953, she approved a story for Motion Picture magazine which is illuminating about the harassment she experienced – I have posted it below, courtesy of the Everlasting Star boards (please click on the files below to enlarge.)

What strikes me as sad is that she almost seemed to accept it as an occupational hazard.  Let’s hope that the buck won’t stop with Mr Weinstein, and that real changes will be made. Sexual exploitation is not unique to Hollywood, and until people stop blaming the victims, predators will continue to thrive.

Further Reading

Marilyn Warned Joan Collins About the Casting Couch

‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ Stars Speak Out On Abuse

World Premiere for Miller’s ‘Hook’

Marilyn poses for photographer Ben Ross, reading a play by Arthur Miller - shortly after their first meeting in 1951
Marilyn poses for photographer Ben Ross, while reading Arthur Miller – shortly after their first meeting in 1951

The Hook, Arthur Miller’s long-buried screenplay about troubled dockers on the New York waterfront – a district still known as Red Hook – is finally being staged at the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton (of all places) after more than sixty years on the shelf, Matt Trueman writes in today’s Guardian.

“This is the script – ‘a play for the screen,’ he called it – that indirectly triggers Miller’s summons to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). It sowed the seeds of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his professional split from director Elia Kazan. Without The Hook, he probably wouldn’t have written The Crucible or A View from the Bridge, nor would Kazan have made On the Waterfront. It might be the most influential film never made.

Don’t think staging it is an exercise in theatrical history, though. Sixty-six years on, The Hook is unnervingly prescient. Its focus is the exploited workforce and union corruption in New York’s docks. ‘It talks about the living wage, zero-hours contracts and industrial communities on the brink of enormous change,’ says director James Dacre, adamant that he wouldn’t programme it otherwise. ‘Why here? Why now?'”

This play is of special interest to Marilyn fans, because Miller originally pitched it as a movie to Columbia’s Harry Cohn in 1951, during his first visit to Hollywood with director Elia Kazan. Marilyn, who was then dating Kazan, even accompanied them to a meeting with Cohn, disguised as a secretary.

As noted in Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, Marilyn’s attendance was intended as revenge on the tyrannical Cohn, who had fired her in 1948 after she rejected his sexual advances. Cohn, furious at his humiliation, dismissed The Hook as communist propaganda.

In 1954, Kazan would direct an Oscar-winning film with a very similar theme for Columbia: On the Waterfront. By then, Kazan had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named several colleagues as communists, in what many (including Miller) saw as a self-serving bid to save his own career.

In his own testimony before HUAC in 1956, Miller admitted to having attended a few communist meetings many years before, but refused on principle to name others. Marilyn stood by her husband, and he was acquitted in 1958.

Kim Novak on Marilyn

The ‘ice-cool blonde’ immortalised in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) discussed her long career with Liz Smith this week. Perhaps inevitably, the conversation turned to another screen goddess of the fifties – Marilyn Monroe…

I ask this ultimate survivor – the blonde who got away – why she did survive, and Marilyn Monroe didn’t?

“I think it’s family, roots. Marilyn didn’t have that. Even if there are troubles in your family, at least it’s there. It gives your life a deeper substance, especially if you are working in a business that is so much about the insubstantial. You need something to fall back on. You need to know you are more than the face or the body or the career. Without that stability, you are lost.”

Kim Novak may never make another movie, but she will be forever remembered as the star who never got lost.

In a longer Novak profile for Q last year, Smith explored the parallels between Kim and Marilyn in greater detail. Kim was under contract to Columbia, and touted by boss Harry Cohn as a rival to Monroe. Ironically, Marilyn had signed to Columbia years earlier but was dropped (allegedly after refusing Cohn’s advances.)

Additionally, Kim’s birth name was actually Marilyn, but she decided to change it because of Monroe. Not much is known about their association, but Kim was also a guest at the Lawford beach house in 1962 where Marilyn met Bobby Kennedy.

Like many other young actresses, Novak was deeply affected by Monroe’s untimely death:

A year later, in 1963, Novak was handed a copy of the magazine Eros, in which some of Bert Stern’s famous nudes of Monroe appeared. Kim was horrified when she saw that Stern had released shots which Monroe herself had edited and crossed out. She burst into angry tears. To her, this was an act of cruelty and betrayal.

The Kim Novak Collection is now available on DVD in the US.