Terry Johnson’s Marilyn: From ‘Prism’ to ‘Insignificance’

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in ‘Prism’

Prism, Terry Johnson’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre about the twilight years of Marilyn’s favourite cameraman Jack Cardiff, is enjoying  positive reviews. Elsewhere in London, Johnson’s most famous work – Insignificance – will be revived next month at the Arcola Theatre, with his daughter, Alice Bailey-Johnson, playing the Monroe-inspired leading lady.

Poster art for ‘Insignificance’

“Gorgeous photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich hang around the garage, and an expensive camera is held up on a stand. There’s a problem though; the device doesn’t work, as it’s missing a vital component, the prism. The prism is a miracle of light, and an object that splits this light into a rainbow of three colours, creating a Technicolor fantasy.

Written and directed by Terry Johnson, the play cleverly weaves together two time periods: the Fifties and present day. Despite not much happening in terms of dramatic action, the text is full of light-hearted motifs and one-liners, keeping the audience engaged. However, Prism also packs a real punch, as it deals with an illness currently effecting a lot of people: dementia.

Suffering from the disease, Jack doesn’t know who he is or who his family are. His son Mason (Barnaby Kay), has requested he write a memoir, however Jack only seems to remember the past without its glory. Riddled with anxiety over the task, he is supported by a carer (Rebecca Night). As Jack, Robert Lindsay gives a masterclass in stage acting. The comedy lands at all the right points and his full embodiment of every Cardiff trait is surreal to watch.” – Alistair Wilkinson, Broadway World

“Cardiff’s memories of his famous subjects – Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen, Marilyn Monroe accompanied by her husband Arthur Miller on The Prince and the Showgirl – glimmer in the air … There’s strong support too from Claire Skinner who gets to impersonate Katharine Hepburn, and from Rebecca Night who is transformed from carer into Monroe and Lauren Bacall. But it’s Lindsay’s night.” – Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage

“Lucy (Rebecca Night), who’s been hired as Jack’s carer and typist, doesn’t have much of a clue about how to fulfil either role, though she does eventually prove to have a kind of natural empathy for him … Night is also reborn as a shimmering, statuesque Marilyn Monroe, to re-enact an earlier scene she shared with Cardiff as Lucy when the ailing cinematographer imagined her as the Blonde Bombshell on his own casting couch. Barnaby doubles as Monroe’s affronted husband Arthur Miller.” – Adam Sweeting, The Arts Desk

“When Robert Lindsay’s concertedly serene, quietly agitated Jack holds up the refractive optical marvel that was a key component of his adventures in colour – ‘God’s eye’ – it’s hard not to feel a frisson of wonder. Our response to the way the domestic scene that greets him in his converted, memorabilia-crammed Buckinghamshire garage is twisted by his diseased mind into memories of yore is more complex, however. Johnson invites some hesitant laughter as Cardiff talks funny, imagines his local boozer has gone missing and fleetingly confuses his carer with Monroe and his son with Arthur Miller, reliving old conversations. Yet the piece is suffused with real pain, the family torn between despair and indulgence.” – Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph

“The problem is that because Cardiff worked so much with the famous, the play doesn’t inspire the immediate empathy of a work like Florian Zeller’s The Father, with its more mundane hero. If it finally touches our hearts, it is because it reveals the cost to those close to Cardiff of his final decline and because of its recognition that no life achieves a perfect narrative arc, and is instead more akin to shooting a film than watching one.

Lindsay is amazing to watch. He evokes the casual charm that made Cardiff magnetic to the women he worked with as well as the professional obsessiveness that led him to experiment with prisms and seek to reproduce the textures of a Vermeer or Renoir on screen. Above all, Lindsay’s performance has a humanity that suggests Cardiff’s cinematic memories are accompanied by a spasmodic grasp of reality.

Claire Skinner shifting between Cardiff’s wife and his idealised Katharine Hepburn, Rebecca Night as the carer who becomes his memorialised Marilyn Monroe and Barnaby Kay as the son who turns into Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller, also show the pangs of becoming part of someone else’s disordered dreams.” – Michael Billington, The Guardian

“The structure is artful. Rebecca Night reappears as a lustrous Marilyn Monroe, in order to re-enact, word for world, an earlier scene with Jack in which he’d confused his carer, Lucy, with the screen goddess, draped on his casting couch. (Kay is a pompously affronted Arthur Miller). These lapses between precarious present and distorted past take us into the jungle of Jack’s ailing mind, while the doubling and tripling bring home the ache of being mistaken for one of the luminaries in his thronging cinematic memory-bank.” – Paul Taylor, The Independent

Marilyn and Jack Cardiff on the London Stage

Jack Cardiff – the legendary cinematographer who befriended Marilyn on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl – is the subject of a new play, Prism, at the Hampstead Theatre in London, as Holly Williams reports for the Telegraph. The  play is written and directed by Terry Johnson, author of Insignificance – the surrealist fantasy featuring a Marilyn-inspired character, which became a successful movie in 1985 – and Cardiff is played by the popular English actor, Robert Lindsay. Prism runs until October 14 – more info here.

“In a garage in Ely, Cambridgeshire, hangs a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. On it she has written: ‘My darling Jack, if only I could be how you made me look.’ Cardiff called Monroe ‘as near perfect as any cameraman could wish for’. She in turn called him the best cinematographer in the world.

The seed was planted seven years ago, shortly after Cardiff’s death following a struggle with Alzheimer’s. The youngest of his four sons, Mason – a film writer/director, named after James Mason – met Robert Lindsay in a local pub, and as their friendship developed, the actor became fascinated by stories of how Alzheimer’s had suspended Cardiff in his glory days as a cinematographer.

Mason showed Lindsay the garage where the family kept all the film memorabilia they’d surrounded Cardiff with in his final years. And when Lindsay spied that signed portrait – and then heard how the frail Cardiff had become convinced that one young care assistant was, in fact, Marilyn Monroe – he knew they had a show. The pair took Johnson to lunch to discuss writing the script; by pudding, he was convinced too.

Cardiff also adored her, admiring with a cameraman’s eye her beauty. ‘She had a classically sound bone structure,’ he once said. ‘But I had to be careful about her nose, so delightfully retroussé. For if the key light was too low, a blob would show up on the tip.’ Prism shows the pair getting close during a photo shoot – ‘art’, as Cardiff also liked to say, ‘is an intimate thing’, although in reality their relationship probably never went beyond mutual affection.”

Restoring Jack Cardiff’s Renoir Collection

With Christmas on the way, there are sure to be many demands on your purse – whether buying presents for friends, or donating to charity. However, if you’d like to give the gift of Marilyn this year, here’s a novel idea.

Mason Cardiff, son of the legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, is embarking on an exciting new project, and is looking for sponsors via Kickstarter. You can donate as little as £1. (Benefits include a postcard for £7; a poster for £17; and more…)

“Not being commercially minded, he was very selective in whom he photographed. On the film set of Laurence Olivier’s Prince and the Showgirl, he became close friends with Marilyn Monroe and took many photographs of her at her home in Esher. She was later to call him ‘the best cameraman in the world.’ Apart from the black and white pictures, he did a series of Marilyn in 19th century French costume; these are in colour and he called them ‘The Renoir Collection’. This collection remains private and most of them have not yet been shown publicly. Over 50 years these negatives became faded and marked.

In 2003 my Father with the help of the Regan Gallery undertook a venture to restore some of these negatives. My Father was never afraid to embrace new ideas and methods and he was amazed at how new digital techniques could restore negatives shot 50 years previously and produce prints of the most exquisite quality. He was closely involved with the restoration and printing process of his portraits of these screen icons and was always amazed at the accuracy of the digital re-touching of his negatives. He was so pleased to see these reproductions of screen icons immortalised by this superb restoration process. Before he passed away in 2009 a total of 25 negatives were restored of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Kay Kendall and Anita Ekberg.

Our Kickstarter project is to restore the negatives of the Monroe ‘Renoir collection’ and to bring them back to their former glory. Once the negatives are restored, a print is reproduced using the Giclee method of printing, which allows the reproduction of the finest tones and has great archival stability on the finest paper. Once we have the full collection, it is our aim to show my Father’s work to a gallery in New York or Los Angeles with a view to a one off exhibition.”

UPDATE: As the target amount was reached on December 30, 2013, this project will now be going ahead. You can still donate here.

Cardiff Documentary in Washington

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is screening at Washington’s West End Cinema from today through to July 14.

” ‘Cameraman’ should be required viewing for anyone interested in becoming more visually literate in an ever-more-media-drenched age. What’s more, it’s chock-full of yummy anecdotes from Cardiff’s work with such stars as Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, who inscribed a photo to him with the line, ‘Dear Jack, if only I could be the way you created me.’ And if only movies could be the way Cardiff himself made them: drenched in color, spinning with movement and brimming with an intoxicating sense of life.”

Jack Cardiff on Marilyn, and ‘The African Queen’

Cardiff, while filming 'The Prince and the Showgirl'

John Huston’s The African Queen, photographed by Jack Cardiff, has been digitally restored and released on Blu-Ray. Marilyn attended the film’s premiere in February 1952, with her director friend, Nicholas Ray. (Her first big break had been in Huston’s 1950 movie, The Asphalt Jungle.)

'African Queen' premiere, with Nick Ray

Cardiff, who died in 2009, is the subject of a recent documentary, Cameraman, and also worked with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl (1956.) He spoke about her not long before his death, in an interview with journalist Chris Sullivan:

Another legend you became very close to was Marilyn Monroe when she came to England to shoot The Prince and The Showgirl as directed by Laurence Olivier. How was she?
Of course, she was the biggest star in the world and when she came on set the whole of the world stopped and looked. And she hated being looked at. One day she told me she had this disguise that would enable her to walk down the street and blend in. But when she showed it to me I couldn’t believe it, it was the most screaming bright, bright orange red wig you’ve ever seen. And I said Marilyn you cannot wear that it will just attract attention and she said: ‘D’you think so? Okay.’ And that was her mentality. On one part she was the great Marilyn Monroe, the sex goddess, the person that everyone in America wanted to go to bed with. That was the Monroe character, and the other one was like a little child of about 14. She was very down to earth and normal but so vulnerable – you really wanted to protect her. Her extraordinary screen presence made up for everything.

As either director or cinematographer you filmed some of the world’s most beautiful women: Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe etc and I am sure the question we all want answered is who was the most beautiful ?
Ingrid Bergman had a face that was indestructible. Most movie stars, unless the lighting is perfect, might look less than 100, but she looked great from all angles and whatever the lightning. If Ava [Gardner] had been out all night drinking you could see it but not Ingrid .She could stay up all night and you’d never tell. Monroe had a great face in that she was almost impossible to make her look bad.

Popcorn Diaries

Jack Cardiff Documentary on DVD

Marilyn-signed photo, given to Jack Cardiff

Cameraman: The Life and Works of Jack Cardiff is a new documentary about the Englishman who became Marilyn’s favourite cinematographer after they collaborated on The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956.

Cardiff went on to direct his own movies. Had he directed Marilyn instead of Olivier (with whom she famously clashed), filming of Showgirl might have been a very different experience. Nonetheless, Marilyn did some of her finest acting in this gentle period comedy, and she never looked lovelier.

My tribute to Jack Cardiff, who died in 2009 – over here