Marilyn Steps Off the Casting Couch

Photo by Milton Greene, 1953

In the wake of last year’s scandal regarding sexual exploitation in Hollywood, several ill-informed commentators have claimed Marilyn as a historic symbol of the casting couch. In an interview with Stephanie Nolasco for Fox News, author Michelle Morgan explains how her new book – The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist – sets the record straight. (You can read my review of The Girl here.)

“‘She had said that she never fell for it,’ Morgan told Fox News. ‘She had walked out of various interviews and situations that she deemed inappropriate … She was doing a series of interviews in 1954. At that time, she really wanted to write her autobiography but … In the end, she decided not to go through with it because it had been leaked out to the British press.’

In the mid-1950s, Monroe spoke out about being harassed by an executive whom she did not name. ‘She was very intelligent about that, to keep his name out of the article. But she certainly did speak about it.’

‘She was never going to let herself be victimized. She spoke about it and as a result, inspired other people to speak out … She was one of the only actresses in Hollywood at that time who was speaking out about that.’

Morgan added: ‘I think based on the things she said herself and the outspoken way she approached Hollywood, I personally don’t believe she was ever a victim of the casting couch. I think she was able to walk away.'”

Gemma Arterton on Playing Marilyn

Gemma Arterton has spoken with The Times about her role as Marilyn in It’s Me, Sugar, which opens the new season Sky Arts’ Urban Myths in the UK next Thursday (see trailer here.) While I don’t agree with all of Arterton’s comments – MM was not, as she claims, ‘the epitome of the casting couch’ – she does at least seem genuinely sympathetic to Marilyn’s experiences of harassment and sexism, and sensitive to the factors underlying her ‘difficult’ behaviour. (Interestingly, Arthur Miller is played by Dougray Scott, who took the same role in My Week With Marilyn.)

Thanks to Fraser Penney

“Gemma Arterton is screaming at the top of her voice. ‘F*** you!’ she roars. We’re alone in an empty changing room in a small production studio 17 miles south of London and the 32-year-old star of Tamara Drewe is tapping into her inner Marilyn Monroe. Almost unrecognisable in platinum-blond wig, blood-red lipstick and marble-white make-up, she is in between takes and casually unleashing her version of the screen legend, a volatile concoction of aching vulnerability mixed with furious hair-trigger passions.

The swearing, for instance, is delivered with jump-out-of-your-seat urgency, in the midst of an explanatory monologue about Monroe’s mid-sentence mood swings. ‘She goes from [whimpering], Oh my God, love me! straight into the opposite,’ says Arterton, before swearing, chuckling and then adding: ‘Everything I’ve read about Marilyn points to how unpredictable she was. She could change just like that. People would be afraid to knock on her door and to ask her to come out on set. Whereas I think most people think of her [adopts archetypal Monroe squeak] like a wet blanket.’

‘Marilyn used her vulnerable side to get what she wanted and to manipulate people,’ says Arterton, on a break from filming a stingingly satirical scene in which Monroe and Strasberg discuss her ‘motivation’ for opening a door (Strasberg asks Monroe if her character eats cheese and Monroe replies: ‘Only on Fridays — she gets paid on Thursdays!’). ‘That was a powerful tool that she had, to make everyone feel sorry for her. But in that power she was in control. There’s a bit in our film where they’re 37 takes in and Wilder says, “Don’t worry about it!” And she says, “Don’t worry about what?” And she actually said that! So she’s very tongue-in-cheek. She knows what she’s doing. But she plays the childlike thing. It’s part of her act.’

The film’s writer, David Cummings (a regular collaborator with Paul Whitehouse on Nurse and Happiness), adds later that ‘Marilyn said in interviews, “Sex is fine, but I don’t actually want to be objectified.” So she hired Paula Strasberg and married America’s leading playwright … Every message she gave off was, “I’m more than this sexy moron!” And I tried to put that in the script.’

Indeed, a prerequisite for Arterton’s role as ‘the blonde bombshell’, she says, was an assurance that, in the era of Harvey Weinstein, Me Too and Time’s Up, this would be a different, more engaged Monroe. ‘When I read the script I loved it, but the Weinstein stuff was happening at the same time and I really had to think twice about it,’ says Arterton. ‘Because this is a funny script about a woman who has been abused … So we talked about it and we made sure that we were all aware of that.’

I don’t think that it was fun at times to be inside Marilyn’s head,’ says Arterton …’But at other times it must’ve been great. Joe DiMaggio, her second husband, once said, “It’s a nightmare being married to a lightbulb.” She gave off this glow. Some depressive people are like that. There’s the dark, but also the light. And I hope that’s what we showed.'”

When Marilyn Broke the Silence

In the wake of recent revelations about sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn has often been mentioned in discussions about the ‘casting couch’. Unfortunately, much of this coverage has been inaccurate, depicting Marilyn as either a passive victim or somehow complicit.

A new article by Sean Braswell for OZY takes a different perspective, praising Marilyn as ‘Hollywood’s first big silence-breaker.’ Braswell cites the story of Marilyn turning down a pass from Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as well as her 1953 piece for Motion Picture magazine, ‘Wolves I Have Known.’

“In the years after her death, Monroe’s biographers, largely men, tended to ignore the star’s silence-breaking role, preferring to focus instead on the more salacious details of her personal life and the rumors that she slept her way to the top. Nor did Monroe, while she was alive, think of herself as a social reformer or a trailblazer for women’s rights. As the singer Ella Fitzgerald, a good friend of Monroe’s, once reflected about the screen legend: ‘She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times, and she didn’t know it.'”

Braswell also refers to authors Michelle Morgan and Sarah Churchwell, both of whom have done excellent work in recent years to address the sexist presumptions of earlier biographers. ‘Marilyn was really one of the first big stars to speak out about what we would now call sexual harassment,’ says Churchwell. ‘She was talking about a culture in which women were unsafe [and] her whole point was to say this happens over and over and over.’

Unfortunately, Braswell is on shakier ground when he uses ‘off the record’ quotes. For example, he quotes her saying in an interview before her death, ‘When I started modeling, [sex] was like part of the job … and if you didn’t go along, there were twenty-five girls who would.’ Braswell also states that Marilyn wrote ‘You know that when a producer calls an actress into his office to discuss a script, that isn’t all he has in mind. I’ve slept with producers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t,’ in her 1954 memoir, My Story – but that line doesn’t appear in any version of the text.

In fact, both quotes are taken from an alleged conversation with writer Jaik Rosenstein, published in Anthony Summers’ 1985 biography, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe.  Summers claims that Marilyn had known Rosenstein for years, and she trusted him not to write about it at the time. Whether or not Rosenstein is a reliable source, it should be made clear that Marilyn did not say them for publication.

Rewriting History: Marilyn, Arthur and #MeToo

In the wake of last year’s revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn’s own experiences have often been cited as historical precedent. While she certainly did experience sexual harassment, it’s notable that she managed to succeed without recourse to the fabled ‘casting couch.’ She resisted Harry Cohn’s advances; was a friend but not a mistress to Joe Schenck; and her relationship with Johnny Hyde was based on real affection. As for Darryl F. Zanuck – perhaps the most significant Hollywood figure in her career – they were never close, and Zanuck himself admitted that Marilyn’s triumphs were of her own creation.

In a new article for the Daily Beast, Maria Dahvana Headley turns her attention to Arthur Miller, claiming that he ‘smeared’ Marilyn and ‘invented the myth of the male witch hunt.’ She begins with his 1952 play, The Crucible, based on the Salem witch trials of 1692, but widely perceived as an allegory for the contemporary ‘red-baiting’ crusade by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which Arthur would later be implicated – but ultimately exonerated.

Arthur and Marilyn first met in 1951, when he was still married. There was a strong attraction between them, and they corresponded intermittently thereafter. Headley is not the first to argue that the adulterous affair between the teenage Abigail Williams and John Proctor might have been inspired by his conflicted feelings for Marilyn – Barbara Leaming also suggested this in her 1999 biography, Marilyn Monroe. Many historians have pointed out that Miller’s depiction of these protagonists is not accurate – Abigail was still a child, and there was no affair with Proctor. This mooted association between Abigail and Marilyn is purely speculative, however, and Miller would hardly be the first playwright to fictionalise events. (For a factual account of the trials, I can recommend Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.)

But Headley goes further still, conflating the story of Arthur rubbing Marilyn’s feet at a Hollywood party (as later told by Marilyn to her acting coach, Natasha Lytess) with an incident noted in the Salem court reports that inspired The Crucible, of Abigail touching Proctor’s hood and then becoming hysterical, crying out that her hands were burning. ‘Women, unless they are very devout and very old, The Crucible tells us, are unreliable and changeable,’ Headley writes. ‘They’re jealous. They’re vengeful. They’re confused about sex and about love. They might, given very little provocation, ruin the life of a good man, and everything else in the world too.’

Headley is on firmer ground with her interpretation of After the Fall, Miller’s 1964 play which featured a self-destructive singer, Maggie, who marries lawyer Quentin – a relationship widely acknowledged to be based on Arthur’s marriage to Marilyn (though he seemingly remained in denial.) ‘Maggie uses sex to bewitch Quentin out of his marriage to the long-suffering Louise,’ Headley writes, ‘marries him herself, and then becomes a catastrophe. By the end of the play, Quentin is wrestling a bottle of pills out of her hand. She drains their bank accounts, uses all of his energy for her own career, and demands endless love.’

This is a harsh portrayal of Marilyn, and many felt that Miller went too far. However, it is not without compassion. By focusing on the real-life parallels, Headley sidelines the broader themes of both plays. The Crucible was about the persecution of innocents for imaginary crimes, and After the Fall was, at least partly, a reckoning with the Holocaust (as well as Arthur’s own guilt over Marilyn’s death.) While the victims of the Salem witch hunts were mostly women, it is not surprising that Miller would identify more closely with a male protagonist. And the horrors of his own time – the holocaust, and HUAC – claimed both men and women.

In his final work, Finishing the Picture, Arthur revisited the troubled production of The Misfits. ‘She’s ceased to be the sex goddess she’s supposed to be,’ Headley says of Kitty, the Marilyn-figure in the play. ‘Instead, she is once again a naked girl in the woods, glimpsed running from the rest of the story, and in her flight, she makes everyone around her miserable … In Miller’s final statement on the matter, she’s what the world might become if a woman wanted too much consideration.’

In November 2017, Anna Graham Hunter accused actor Dustin Hoffman of sexually harassing her as a 17 year-old intern on the set of Death of a Salesman, the 1985 TV adaptation of Miller’s most famous play. According to the Hollywood Reporter, film director Volker Schlondorff responded with the glib remark that ‘I wish Arthur Miller was around, he would find the right words, but then he might get accused of sexually molesting Marilyn Monroe.’ Since then, other women have come forward with allegations against Hoffman. Whatever Schlondorff may believe, it’s impossible to know what Arthur would have made of the scandal, but it’s worth remembering that he reportedly disliked Hoffman’s performance in the prior stage production, although it had won a Tony award for Best Revival.

Anna Graham Hunter’s story needs to be heard, as do countless other victims of predatory men. In Marilyn’s case, however, there’s a danger of rewriting history. While Headley’s literary critique is valid and interesting, her attempt to recast Miller as an abuser of women is grossly unfair.

Marilyn and the Presidents Club Scandal

Images of Marilyn have been used to promote a controversial gala held last night at London’s Dorchester Hotel for the Presidents Club, a men-only organisation, as Martin Belam reports for The Guardian. Female staff at the most recent ball have complained of groping and sexual harassment, leading to calls for better protection of workers in the hospitality trade. It’s unclear whether the use of Marilyn’s image has been approved by her estate, but regardless, this is yet another example of corporate branding at its most crass.

However, Monroe impersonator Suzie Kennedy, who has performed at a past gala, takes a different view, as she told LBC Radio‘s Shelagh Fogarty today…

“It was three years ago. It’s rich men having a night out. They are usually very powerful in business and are very generous to the charities. The charities need these balls to happen.

Everybody at that job was told what the job is. It’s a businessman’s night out. Everyone’s going to drink, they are going to have cigars, they are going to have fun.

I didn’t see any of the girls thinking ‘Oh no, I have to wear this’. They were fine with wearing it. In nightclubs in London, girls are wearing a lot less.”

Marilyn Impersonator Reveals Sexual Harassment

Riely Saville, an Australian-born entertainer and Marilyn impersonator, has become the latest woman to speak out about sexual harassment at the hands of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as two unnamed US rappers, in an interview with Megan Palin for News.com. Marilyn herself experienced sexual harassment and assault (as explained here,) and on behalf of ES Updates, I am now extending my support to all women (and men) who have been exploited and victimised in this way.

‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ Stars Speak Out On Abuse

Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, who both starred in the 1996 HBO biopic, Norma Jean and Marilyn, have both spoken out recently about sexual abuse in Hollywood. While this rather inaccurate and sensationalist TV movie isn’t highly regarded by fans (and seems unconnected to the incidents in question), it’s both inspiring and poignant to see these brave women come forward about experiences not dissimilar to Marilyn’s.

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, but in light of recent allegations, it makes for an interesting read. Interestingly, she recalled the meeting in her 1978 autobiography, Past Imperfect, but the ‘wolves’ story only appeared in Second Act, almost twenty years later. (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 … 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

Marilyn Impersonator Reveals Sexual Harassment