In a thinkpiece for The Conversation, Margaret Hickey – a professor at Australia’s LaTrobe University, which ran an extension course on MM last year – asks an intriguing question: Would Marilyn’s career (and life) have been different if she had acted on stage?
“[The] drawn out Method approach is more conducive to a theatre production (which it was originally designed for) than a busy film set. The intimacy of the method, the focus on self, appealed to Monroe and she threw herself into it.
Much is made of Monroe’s drug addiction and famous lack of punctuality (few consider the similar behaviour of her co-stars and directors). But with the smaller budgets and longer rehearsal time of the theatre productions, she may have been less prone to the crippling anxiety attacks she increasingly suffered from.
Other stars of the era who managed the transition from ‘sex bomb film star’ to stage actor had a very different trajectory to Monroe. Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell, Monroe’s co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, all grew tired of films that focused mainly on their figures and made the switch to stage.
A small role to begin with, an off-Broadway theatre with her Studio classmates, a lengthy rehearsal schedule – it might just have garnered Monroe the respect she craved.”
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 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.”
A rare radio interview from 1955, at the premiere of The Rose Tattoo, has surfaced on Youtube. MM, Marlon Brando, and Sid Caesar discuss method acting, with Marilyn’s segment beginning ten minutes in. She is charmingly shy, but it’s here that we learn more about her work at the Actor’s Studio.
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar – who paid homage to Marilyn in his 2009 film, Broken Embraces– has praised her again in a recent interview for the Yorkshire Post, describing MM as one of the few method actors who could play comedy:
‘”To me, Saturday Night Live seems like cabaret, the cradle for decades of the best American comics. The Actor’s Studio, however, with all the respect and admiration it deserves, seems just the opposite to me,’ he explained. ‘Brando, a comedy actor? No. And he tried it. He even sang and danced in Guys and Dolls, stiff as a board, but Brando was too self-aware. I don’t know if Montgomery Clift ever actually tried it but I can’t imagine him. Or James Dean. Or Daniel Day-Lewis.”
‘I don’t debate his greatness but no matter how thin he is, Daniel Day-Lewis can’t manage to give the slightest sensation of lightness,’ Almodovar candidly stated. But surely, there must be someone who bucks the rule? Someone who managed to get the highest dramatic training, yet could still be effortlessly light and funny? Well, there is: ‘Marilyn Monroe is still the exception. Adopted by the Strasbergs, she managed to overcome the weight of the Method.'”
This new, academic study of method acting in the US by Rosemary Malague features Marilyn, arriving at the Actor’s Studio in 1956, on its cover. You can order it in paperback or as an Ebook from the Book Depository.
“‘I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for years: a thorough-going analysis and reconsideration of American approaches to Stanislavsky from a feminist perspective …lively, intelligent, and engaging.’ — Phillip Zarrilli, University of Exeter ‘Theatre people of any gender will be transformed by Rose Malague’s eye-opening study An Actress Prepares…This book will be useful to all scholars and practitioners determined to make gender equity central to how they hone their craft and their thinking.’ — Jill Dolan, Princeton University ‘Every day, thousands of women enter acting classes where most of them will receive some variation on the Stanislavsky-based training that has now been taught in the U.S. for nearly ninety years. Yet relatively little feminist consideration has been given to the experience of the student actress: What happens to women in Method actor training?’ An Actress Prepares is the first book to interrogate Method acting from a specifically feminist perspective. Rose Malague addresses “the Method” not only with much-needed critical distance, but also the crucial insider’s view of a trained actor. Case studies examine the preeminent American teachers who popularized and transformed elements of Stanislavsky’s System within the U.S.–Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, and Hagen– by analyzing and comparing their related but distinctly different approaches. This book confronts the sexism that still exists in actor training and exposes the gender biases embedded within the Method itself. Its in-depth examination of these Stanislavskian techniques seeks to reclaim Method acting from its patriarchal practices and to empower women who act.”
Vanity Fair‘s Bruce Handy re-evaluates Marilyn’s performance in The Prince and the Showgirl:
“The film is a classic example of Hollywood’s most prevalent genre: the awful movie made by talented people. The culprit isn’t Monroe’s neuroses, but rather a creaky, silly screenplay (adapted from what must have been a creaky, silly play). I wasn’t expecting it to be good, anyway, but I was hoping it would serve as a tutorial in opposing acting styles—Monroe’s intuitive emotional truths vs. Olivier’s precision-tooled affect. A clash of the titans, to reference another lousy Olivier movie.
Its best scene is a long would-be seduction, in which Olivier has invited Monroe to his apartment for a late-night repast. He then mostly ignores her, tending to business and assuming she’ll get drunk on his champagne and perforce go to bed with him. She, naturally, is onto him—she knows all the tricks—and here, Monroe is wonderful. Given a chance to show off her flair for comedy, she demonstrates that she too is capable of precise effects.
Olivier is a great on-screen, even in junk like this. For one thing, as the carriage scene shows, he understood stillness, and how to let the audience come to him, in a way that Monroe never did. She was more of a heat-seeking missile.
But it’s not a contest. When given the right scaffolding of dialogue and stage business, she too is great. Her greatest shortcoming as an actress, if it is a shortcoming, is that she didn’t know how to fake it. The second half of the film, where the story turns loopy and improbable—her character is forced into being a go-between for silly political intrigue—leaves her looking lost. Judy Holiday or Betty Hutton might have made it work, but that’s no knock on Monroe. The Prince and the Showgirl didn’t deserve to work. And when Monroe had real material—like with Some Like It Hot—she soared.”
Another extract from Peter Bogdanovich’s essay on Marilyn, published in Who the Hell’s In It? (2004)
“Monroe was frightened to come on the stage – she had such an inferiority complex – and I felt sorry for her. I’ve seen other people like that. I did the best I could and wasn’t bothered by it too much. In ‘Monkey Business’, she only had a small part – that didn’t frighten her so much – but when she got into a big part…For instance, when she started her singing (for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’), she tried to run out of the recording studio two or three times. We had to grab her and hold her to keep her there…I got a great deal of help from Jane Russell. Without her I couldn’t have made the picture. Jane gave Marilyn that ‘You can do it’ pep-talk to get her out there. She was just frightened, that’s all – frightened she couldn’t do it.”
Hawks thought Marilyn worked best in light comedy, and was sceptical of Method acting:
“Monroe was never any good playing the reality. She always played in a sort of fairy tale. And when she did that she was great…She was trying, for example, at the Actor’s Studio, to formularize her approach: She didn’t want to squander her energies. I’m not convinced it helped her at all. But that was her aim – to make it even more real.”