Sight & Sound: Marilyn’s Method

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Accompanying the ‘Birth of the Method‘ season at London’s BFI – including a screening of Bus Stop in November – the current issue of UK magazine Sight and Sound features an in-depth article about Hollywood’s Method pioneers. If you want to buy a copy, hurry – the next issue will be out in a few days. (A shorter version of the article is available here.)

“But the example of the Method, and the lure of the Actors Studio as a place where actors could go for help, could also have a positive effect on outside actors, as in the example of Marilyn Monroe. Groomed for stardom and inevitably typecast by her studio, Monroe was drawn by the promise of the ‘new’ style of actor training offered at the Actors Studio. Perhaps too eagerly, Strasberg became both surrogate therapist and parent to the troubled actress, but he did help her to hone the talent amply displayed in her early work – her psychotic babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), her smouldering wife in Niagara (1953.) When she had a good part, as in Bus Stop (1956), playing a no-talent chanteuse longing for love and self-respect, she was deeper and more self-revealing than she had been before.”

‘Bus Stop’ at BFI London

Bus Stop will be screened at London’s BFI on November 14-16, as part of ‘The Birth of the Method’, a season of movies celebrating great performances by Hollywood’s original Method actors.

“As with several Hollywood stars in the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe found in the Method a refuge from the typecasting she had come to resent; she became a regular at the Actors Studio, and had private lessons with Lee Strasberg. Her portrayal of a saloon singer who yearns to be respected for more than her looks, and who faces the overbearing affections of a naïve cowboy (a misjudged yet Oscar-nominated performance by Don Murray), is a model of the Method style – an exposing performance drawn from within.”

Legal Dispute Over Strasberg Letter

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A letter written by Marilyn to Lee Strasberg, which sold for $156,000 at a Profiles in History auction in 2013, is the subject of a continuing legal dispute concerning Anna Strasberg, executrix of both Lee and Marilyn’s estate, reports the San Fernando Valley Post-Periodical. (The letter was written on Hotel Bel Air stationery, and may date from filming of Some Like it Hot in 1958. You can read a transcript here.)

“A judge told an attorney for an auction house Monday that he wanted to know who was in possession of a letter written by Marilyn Monroe to her longtime mentor and acting coach, pending the outcome of a trial over its ownership.

Robert Enders, an attorney for Calabasas-based auctioneer Profiles in History, said the letter’s purchaser – who is not identified by name or gender in court papers – advised him last week that the letter would be sent to the purchaser’s personal attorney in Los Angeles for safekeeping.

Enders said the person in possession of the letter – from Monroe to acting coach Lee Strasberg – did not give him any specifics about who would receive the letter and when.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin said he wanted answers to both.

In an Aug. 11 hearing, Fruin suggested placing the letter with an independent third party, while its ownership was litigated.

He also asked plaintiff Anna Strasberg’s attorney, Bradley Mancuso, to let him know when his client would be available to be deposed by Enders. Mancuso said the deposition would take place today.

Strasberg sued Profiles in History in May 2013, saying she learned in April 2013 that the letter, dubbed a ‘letter of despair’ in a New York Post article, was missing from her collection, which she inherited from her late husband – the administrator of Monroe’s estate.

According to court papers, Anna Strasberg thought the letter was with other Monroe memorabilia, locked in a filing cabinet at home.

The letter was bought via the Internet and sold by Profiles in History.

The buyer, however, is not a party to the case. Strasberg’s attorney, Bradley Mancuso, however said he may name him as a defendant.

While today’s deposition of his client would be done, he said he would rather wait until he knows whether or not to bring the buyer into the case. That way, Strasberg would only have to be deposed once.

‘I’d like to know who we’re fighting and what we’re fighting over before I take the next step,’ he said.

Strasberg lives on the East Coast, is 75 years old and in poor health, Mancuso said.

Mancuso said Stasberg believed the letter was stolen. But Enders told Fruin the consigner who provided the letter to the auction house said he got it from a member of the housekeeping staff at the Hotel Bel-Air in the 1970s and that it was a draft of a letter never sent Lee Strasberg.

Strasberg, who wants unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, became heir to her husband’s estate, including the Monroe letters, when he died in February 1982 at age 80.”

A Matter of Diction: Bette and Marilyn

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‘All About Eve’ (1950)

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two stars more different than Marilyn and Bette Davis, although they briefly appeared together in All About Eve. Many on the set found Davis intimidating, and few escaped her catty remarks.

However, as Bette later told a biographer, “I felt a certain envy for what I assumed was Marilyn’s more-than-obvious popularity. Here was a girl who did not know what it was like to be lonely. Then I noticed how shy she was, and I think now that she was as lonely as I was. Lonelier. It was something I felt, a deep well of loneliness she was trying to fill.”

In her latest column for the Chicago Tribune, Liz Smith finds another similarity between MM and Davis – both actresses were, at different points in their careers, known for their ‘mannered’ speech.

'The Letter' (1940)
‘The Letter’ (1940)

“Last weekend I watched two films, one a classic, the other not so much — though it has a cult following. I do mean William Wyler’s The Letter, starring Bette Davis as a woman who murders her lover and River of No Return starring Marilyn Monroe as a tough saloon singer fighting turbulent rapids, Indians and Robert Mitchum. Quality wise there’s no comparison, although River, directed by Otto Preminger, is a great looking movie, with excellent use of early Cinemascope. It’s an entertaining potboiler. The Letter, based on Somerset Maugham’s novel, is one for the ages.

And while you might imagine Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe were as unalike as two actors could be, they shared one quality — an odd manner of speaking. Davis’ clipped tones became famous instantly, and as she grew older, the static quality of her delivery increased, rendering many of her performances artificial. It took a strong director and an inspiring script to wrench Davis out of her habits.

AS for Miss Monroe, shortly after she began working in films, she met a dramatic coach named Natasha Lytess who convinced the insecure Monroe that her diction was ‘sloppy’ and she needed to enunciate more clearly. Well, Monroe, whose diction was just fine actually, did enunciate. Boy, did she en-nu-ci-ate. She came down so hard on her Ds and Ts she all but bit them off. Even she was not entirely comfortable with this, and when given a good script, her speech would relax, no matter what Miss Lytess said. River of No Return was not a script Monroe liked. The result was a performance that varies wildly. It’s fun to see her as a smart-talking, back-talking woman. And when she unbends her diction, she’s earthy and effective — refreshingly strong. But in other scenes, she comes off like a gorgeous Martian, who is just learning our language. It’s a pity, because despite Monroe’s objections, River was a change of pace, and all contract actors did westerns. They just did. (The chief pleasure of ‘RONR’ is the sight of Monroe in her physical prime, athletically running around in skin-tight blue jeans!)

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‘River of No Return’

But unlike Bette, Marilyn’s vocal impairment didn’t last. (Even in The Seven Year Itch, she is merrily relaxed.) After Monroe abandoned Hollywood and her 20th Century Fox contract, she went into the Actors Studio. Lee Strasberg convinced her, first of all, that she was nothing, had accomplished nothing. Only he (and wife Paula) could help her. That she was the biggest female star in the world at that point didn’t impress the Strasbergs. At least that’s what they said. Presto! Out with Natasha — who didn’t go quietly — and in with Paula, who became even more hated on Monroe sets than Lytess. (Natasha at least lectured Marilyn on discipline. The Strasbergs told her only the ‘art’ mattered, and she should take as long as she liked.)

There was little change in the essentials of Marilyn’s acting, except the disappearance of her excruciating diction, although every so often it would pop up on a word or two. Lytess must have used hypnosis on her!”

Writing Marilyn: Carl Rollyson

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Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Revised and Updated, the upcoming new edition of Carl Rollyson‘s 1986 biography, now has a book trailer. You can see it here.

Rollyson has also spoken about the process of writing about Marilyn in an interview with the How Did You Write That? blog.

“HDYWT:  How did you come up with the idea for Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress?

Carl: While Norman Mailer’s biography of Monroe has been much maligned, it is, in fact, an important work not only about Monroe but about the genre of biography …Mailer used one word to describe Monroe that no other biographer had used. He called her ambition ‘Napoleonic.’  That was very astute.  The more I read about her, the more I could see his point.  She really did want to conquer the world and, in many ways, she has succeeded…I spent the summer of 1980 reading the literature about Monroe. I realized that even the most important books about her, including Mailer’s, missed the most important part of her biography. She had this terrific desire to be an actress.  Did she, in fact, become an actress, or just a star?

HDYWT:  How did you get started on the project?

Carl: I was fortunate that I knew Bruce Minnix, director of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. Bruce had told me long before I ever dreamed of writing about Monroe that he knew two of her friends. So I called on Bruce, who put me in touch with Ralph Roberts, Marilyn’s masseur and confidant, and Steffi Sidney, the daughter of Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who helped Monroe invent some of the more dramatic stories about her life. They, in turned, connected me with others, like Rupert Allan, Marilyn’s most important publicist. Just as important were my contacts with Maurice Zolotow and Fred Lawrence Guiles, two of Marilyn’s early and most important biographers. They were wonderful to me, sharing their insights, and providing me with still others to interview. Guiles let me visit him in the hospital while he was recovering from a heart attack, and later he sent me a recording of his interview with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s most important acting teacher.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Carl: The breakthrough moment came when Susan Strasberg read part of an early draft. I had interviewed her about her memories of Monroe and Actors Studio, and we got along very well — in part, I think, because she could see I was going to write about Marilyn as an actress in a way no one else had done before. I sent her an early draft of the book, and she said: ‘When you tell the story of her life and her acting you establish your voice. But then there is also this other stuff that sounds like a treatise. Who are you trying to impress — your colleagues?’ That’s when I threw out about two thirds of the book and rewrote it as a narrative. As soon as I had my story, the organization of research fell into place.”

‘Trouble Doll’: Dennis Hopper on Marilyn

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Born in 1936, Dennis Hopper played supporting roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant alongside his friend, James Dean, before falling out of favour with Hollywood. In 1959 he began five years of study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Hopper later found renewed fame when he directed, produced and starred in Easy Rider (1969.) After battling drug addiction, he once again resurfaced, with memorable roles in Apocalypse Now (1979) and Blue Velvet (1987.) He was also a prolific photographer, artist and sculptor.

Dennis Hopper died in 2010. He was rumoured to have attended a 1962 party where Marilyn Monroe met LSD ‘guru’ Dr Timothy Leary (though Leary’s own account has been disputed.)

In another post for his Follies of God blog, James Grissom has featured a portion of an undated interview with Hopper. The extract does not clarify whether Dennis knew Marilyn well – it focuses on his ideas about her enduring fame, though they may have known each other from the Actors Studio. In the excerpt, Hopper compares Marilyn to a Guatemalan trouble doll ( also known as worry dolls.)

Marilyn was like a trouble doll for a lot of people: A lot of people needed her because she was beautiful and she was sweet and she was pretty much what a lot of people believed was a perfect woman–a sexual machine with a heart. And a lot of people needed her because they wanted her to fail or to cry or to die, because they wanted to believe that all of her gifts–physical and otherwise–wouldn’t save her or make her happy. So the ugly and the mean-spirited could feel better about their lives and their various lacks. And a lot of people looked at her and saw money and sex and power and an evil sort of joy that comes from getting off. She was a product, a commodity to them. And a lot of people needed her because she so clearly needed a friend, needed some love, and a lot of people really wanted to give this to her.
Marilyn Monroe was this creamy, sweet, beautiful trouble doll for a lot of people, and we whispered to her image or her memory and told her what we needed, what we desired, and then we believed that things would happen or change. And she got put in her box and was put on an eternal shelf, where we can continue to ask of her what we need.” 

Documentaries: Old and New

Last night, I watched two Marilyn-related documentaries online that I’d never seen before. The first, Stars of the Silver Screen: Marilyn Monroe, was made in 2011 by 3DD Productions. The second, Eyewitness: Marilyn Monroe – Why?, was filmed by ABC News just a week after her death in 1962.

Stars of the Silver Screen is a formulaic look at Marilyn’s life career, but it’s quite well-made. Film critic Derek Malcolm and fashion journalist Matthew Bevan provide a mostly interesting commentary, while interviewees include Tony Curtis, Eli Wallach, Curtice Taylor (son of Misfits producer Frank), and Angela Allen (John Huston’s script supervisor.)

A highlight was the rare footage from the David Di Donatello Awards in 1958, where Marilyn was named Best Actress for her role in The Prince and the Showgirl. When a reporter witlessly asked if she took acting seriously, Marilyn replied, ‘Yes, I’m afraid I do!’

My main criticism would be that, as with so many documentaries, the focus was more on Marilyn’s legendary on-set insecurities than the celluloid magic that resulted from her painstaking work.

Eyewitness: Marilyn Monroe – Why? has the advantage of being recorded immediately after Marilyn died. The producers were able to engage people who knew Marilyn well and were famous in their own right. It also gives a more authentic picture of how the world perceived Marilyn in her own lifetime.

Emmeline Sniveley, Jean Negulesco, Lee Strasberg, George Cukor, plus fellow actress Kim Novak and playwright Clifford Odets all feature in the programme. Novak seems to have the most empathy towards Marilyn, while Odets offers the most eloquent commentary.

There is also some rare footage from the day that the Miller’s divorce was announced, with a distraught MM telling reporters, ‘I can’t talk about my personal life.’

 

The Market For Marilyn

Earlier this year, the $156,000 sale of an intimate letter from Marilyn to Lee Strasberg made headlines. Maine Antique Digest spoke to Marsha Malinowski of Profiles in History about the auction.

“Virtually every news organization highlighted a letter by Marilyn Monroe to her mentor Lee Strasberg. A celebrity with worldwide recognition was an understandable choice for them. But what does it say about the manuscripts market that the undated Monroe missive was the top lot of the sale? Selling for $156,000, it beat out all other results for items by men of state (John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), men of science (Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur), men of letters (Jack London, Samuel Clemens, Charles Dickens), and women of many different talents (Billie Holiday, Louisa May Alcott, Virginia Woolf, Mata Hari, Catherine de’ Medici, Helen Keller, Isadora Duncan, and Jackie Onassis), to name a few.

Maybe the outcome says that a manuscripts sale is a great leveler, just like fame itself. (Flannery O’Connor once commented that her fame had made her feel like a cross between ‘Roy Rogers’s horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955.’) Maybe it says more about the past successes of Profiles in History. Its customer base may be international, but its headquarters is not far from Hollywood, and the auction house is known for its sales of high-profile movie memorabilia—e.g., the white cocktail dress that flew up as Monroe stood over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. The star of a $22.8 million sale in 2011, the costume fetched $5.52 million.

Asked for her take on the result, Malinowski said, ‘It’s so hard for me to understand that a Marilyn Monroe letter sold for more than a Beethoven letter.’ (The sale’s one-page autograph letter signed by the composer, a terse message to opera singer Friedrich Sebastian Mayer, fetched $96,000.) ‘It’s just incredible to me on so many different levels. Then again, that was probably one of the most poignant Monroe letters I’ve ever read in all my years in the business.’

Partly, the price can be explained by the fact that powerful contemporary material is selling for very high prices, Malinowski said. Yet, she added, there was something about this letter that transcended that trend. ‘It was such a poignant letter; it struck a chord with people across the board.’ And as if to underline that statement, the item went not to a Hollywood collector, as one might suppose. ‘It went to a good manuscript-collecting client of mine, and I was thrilled,’ Malinowski said.

‘When people die tragically young, they become iconic, whether it is JFK, James Dean, or Marilyn,’ Malinowski said. ‘So there’s also that aspect. These tragic figures always garner a lot more attention.’ And because their lives have been cut short, ‘There’s a limited amount of the material, and people just go for it. I’ve watched that happen over time, and it hasn’t changed.’

Cloris Leachman on Marilyn, Strasberg

Cloris Leachman, photographed by Andrew Southam

Actors Studio alumni Cloris Leachmanwho has had a long, distinguished career on stage and screen, spoke to HitFix recently, sharing her candid opinions about Lee Strasberg, Marilyn and more.

“Leachman called me from a hotel room twenty minutes late, apologizing for her tardiness. ‘I was watching Marilyn Monroe,’ she said, explaining that a documentary about the star was on HBO. While she admitted she didn’t know Monroe personally, she said, ‘I was in the first group of the Actor’s Studio, then two years later, Lee Strasberg [who famously coached Monroe] took over and I couldn’t stand him.’  Still, she was more interested in talking about Monroe. ‘She was so fragile. It’s too bad.'”

Birthday Tributes in the Blogosphere

Over the next few posts I’m going to focus on the best fan tributes for Marilyn’s birthday. But firstly, here are a few selections from the blogosphere.

We’re all used to reading Marilyn’s own words online – though sadly, some of them are internet fakes – but Flavorwire has compiled a rather good list, 30 of Marilyn Monroe’s Smartest and Most Insightful Quotes.

Nearly all of these are genuine, in my opinion – meaning, they can be traced back to reputable biographies and interviews with MM herself. The only one I’m not sure about is the second one, regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses, which comes from the disputed Miner transcripts. (However, we do at least have Eve Arnold’s 1955 photo as evidence that Marilyn read the book – and, indeed, she later performed Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy as an exercise for her dramatic coach, Lee Strasberg.) 

“Here is [James] Joyce writing what a woman thinks to herself. Can he, does he really know her innermost thoughts? But after I read the whole book, I could better understand that Joyce is an artist who could penetrate the souls of people, male or female. It really doesn’t matter that Joyce doesn’t have… or never felt a menstrual cramp. To me Leopold Bloom is a central character. He is the despised Irish Jew, married to an Irish Catholic woman. It is through them Joyce develops much of what he wants to say.”

Geeks of Doom posted this thoughtful tribute:

“While she didn’t have the cocksure winking swagger of a Mae West, or the sharp natural beauty of an Ava Gardner, she somehow fell somewhere in the middle of both of those ladies…In a strange way, she is old Hollywood and still remains fresh in new Hollywood.”

And finally, Kim Morgan reposts her wonderful Playboy tribute from last year over at her Sunset Gun blog.

“Because through it all, no matter what was happening in her life, Marilyn gave us that gift: pleasure. Pleasure in happiness and pleasure in pain and the pleasure of looking at her. And great artist that she was, looking at her provoked whatever you desired to interpret from her. Her beauty was transcendent. For that, we should do as Dylan instructs: ‘Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes.'”