Behind the Scenes of Marilyn’s Last Movie

Alexandra Pollard takes a fresh look at Marilyn’s ill-fated last movie, Something’s Got to Give, in an insightful piece for The Independent.

“She hadn’t been on a film set for over a year when she was cast in Something’s Got to Give, a remake of the 1940 screwball comedy My Favorite Wife. Her time off had been plagued by illness and drug addiction … The accumulative physical toll had caused her to lose so much weight that she was thinner than she had been in all her adult life. The studio, Twentieth Century Fox, was delighted. ‘She didn’t have to perform, she just had to look great,’ said the film’s producer Henry Weinstein, ‘and she did.’

But in hindsight, Monroe wasn’t ready – either physically or mentally – to return to acting … ‘She was just fearful of the camera,’ said Weinstein, who recalled Monroe throwing up before scenes. Early on, he found her unconscious, in what he described as a barbiturate coma … The studio and production team had little sympathy for their star. ‘Yes this is a sick woman,’ said screenwriter Walter Bernstein, ‘but this is a movie star who’s getting her way, and who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else, and is being destructive and self-destructive.’

But watching Something’s Got to Give’s raw footage – most of which remained unseen for years after the film was scrapped – gives a very different impression. On camera, Monroe is earnest, demure, desperate to get her part right. If she messes up, she apologises profusely … She is gentle with her young co-stars, too. Alexandria Heilweil, who played her five-year-old daughter, is told to sit up straight. ‘If I do the right thing…’ says the little girl, but [George] Cukor cuts her off: ‘Be quiet.’ Monroe smiles at her. ‘You will,’ she says gently. It certainly doesn’t seem like the behaviour of someone ‘wilfully disruptive’.

And there were a few good days. During the now (in)famous swimming pool scene, Ellen takes a late-night skinny dip, attempting to lure her husband out of his bedroom. The set was closed, but a few select photographers were allowed to stay. When Monroe ended up removing the flesh-coloured swimming costume she had been given, they were caught completely off guard. ‘I had been wearing the suit, but it concealed too much,’ she later told the press, ‘and it would have looked wrong on the screen… The set was closed, all except members of the crew, who were very sweet. I told them to close their eyes or turn their backs, and I think they all did. There was a lifeguard on the set to help me out if I needed him, but I’m not sure it would have worked. He had his eyes closed too.’ Photos of Monroe emerging from the pool, sans suit, appeared on magazine covers in over 30 countries. By all accounts, spirits seemed high.

But things went rapidly downhill. On 19 May 1962, having been too sick to work for most of the week, Monroe flew to New York for President John F Kennedy’s birthday celebrations … Monroe had gained permission to attend the event long before filming began, but [Cukor] deemed it unacceptable. In June, just a few days after Monroe’s 36th birthday, she was fired for ‘spectacular absenteeism’, and sued by Fox for $750,000 for ‘wilful violation of contract’. ‘Dear George,’ wrote Monroe in a telegram to Cukor, ‘please forgive me, it was not my doing. I had so looked forward to working with you.’

In fact, it may not have been entirely Monroe’s doing. At the same time as Something’s Got to Give was being made, Fox was haemorrhaging money on its three-hour epic Cleopatra … The studio was panicking. ‘Tensions were high, nerves were frayed, funds were low,’ wrote Michelle Vogel in Marilyn Monroe: Her Films, Her Life, ‘and it’s clear that Something’s Got to Give and Marilyn Monroe were the scapegoats for some very anxious studio executives who felt they were spinning out of control with both productions. The lesser of the films had to go.’

A few days before she died, Monroe had given an interview to a journalist from Life Magazine, and the subsequent profile was published a few weeks later. It ended with the following: ‘I had asked if many friends had called up to rally round when she was fired by Fox. There was silence, and sitting very straight, eyes wide and hurt, she had answered with a tiny, “No”.'”

Barbara Eden Remembers Marilyn

Actress Barbara Eden is best-known for her zany role in the 1960s sitcom, I Dream Of Jeannie. She also starred in the TV spin-off of How to Marry a Millionaire, which ran from 1957-59.  Her ditzy character, ‘Loco Jones’, was a blend of the roles played by Marilyn and Betty Grable in the 1953 movie. And as Barbara revealed in a recent interview for Studio 10, she would later meet Marilyn in the flesh.

Marilyn and her stand-in, Evelyn Moriarty

“She eventually met Monroe, as they both shared the same stand-in – Evelyn Moriarty. Recalling the meeting, Eden said: ‘Marilyn was over there doing wardrobe tests. I’m standing there with [Evelyn], and Marilyn came out and [Evelyn] said, “Marilyn, I want you to meet my other star”.’

Monroe was filming her last movie at the time and Evelyn later confided in Barbara following the famous actress’ death, claiming she never believed the reports at the time.

‘Evelyn said, ‘”She would never take her own life”. I just feel it was probably an accident,’ Eden said. ‘She wanted to get to sleep, and took too many [pills]… I hope that’s what it was.'”

Marilyn Makes a Splash in Rom-Com Doc

In her new documentary, Romantic Comedy (which has its US premiere tomorrow at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas), Elizabeth Sankey argues that Marilyn and Doris Day – both blonde and funny, though otherwise very different – dominated the genre in the 1950s, and as she tells Danielle Solzman on the Solzy At The Movies site, Sankey also believes that if Marilyn had lived to complete Something’s Got to Give, she could have transformed the genre forever.

“I think the real ‘wow’ moment for me was that on Marilyn Monroe’s last film she had planned to do a nude scene – she was going to swim naked in a pool to try and entice her husband back into her arms.  This would have been groundbreaking and I think potentially could have changed the world of romantic comedies – and their relationship to sex – in an indelible way.  But the film was never finished and instead re-made a year later with Doris Day [Move Over Darling] who was not someone who was keen for romantic comedies to contain sex or female characters with sexual agency.  And they’ve never really changed since then.  It’s bizarre that even in 2019 romantic comedies so rarely have the two leads having sex – most of them end with heady declarations of love before they’ve even kissed!  I do wonder if this has influenced the way women are encouraged in society to prioritize love and romance, with their sexual desire being something they’re not ‘supposed’ to be concerned with.”

Marilyn, Fox and the End of an Era

‘Seven Year Itch’-inspired mural on the Fox lot in Los Angeles

Following last year’s Disney buyout, 20th Century Fox was officially dissolved this month, as Peter Bart reports for Deadline. While Marilyn’s feelings for her home studio were mixed at best, it’s a bittersweet moment in movie history.

“Hollywood endured a big setback this month, and it had nothing to do with the Oscars. A major studio, 20th Century Fox, officially disappeared into the mist, instantly transforming a once robustly competitive industry into a Disney oligopoly. The ultimate cost in jobs could range as high as 10,000, but the real cost will be in opportunity and competitive zeal.

Fox’s history, like MGM’s, has wallowed in melodramatic triumphs and scandals –the corporate intrigues of Warner Bros and its corporate parents (AT&T) or Universal (now a child of Comcast) seem pedestrian compared with Fox’s operatic struggles: Marilyn Monroe’s mysterious demise in the middle of Something’s Got to Give; Elizabeth Taylor’s over-the-top theatrics in Cleopatra; Darryl F. Zanuck’s eight-hour stockholder speeches and stormy battles with his son and successor, Richard (fired in 1971); the eleventh-hour brink-of-disaster deal for Star Wars; the fierce tug of war over Titanic and its overages [overspend].

Given its history, it’s fitting that this is the only studio immortalized in a rock ‘n’ roll classic (‘Twentieth Century Fox’), performed with drugged-out vigor by Jim Morrison and The Doors.

Even Fox’s beginnings are cloudy: It may, or may not, date back to 1915 with the birth of Fox films, but also to 1935 when the mysterious Spyros Skouras orchestrated the first of several mergers. Darryl Zanuck, who felt he was a bigger star than his actors, gave sizzle to the studio with signings of Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Alice Faye and Betty Grable but also gave it gravitas with such well-intentioned movies as Gentleman’s AgreementThe Razor’s Edge and Wilson. Production of The Longest Day in 1962 was the ultimate Zanuck epic — a long, lugubrious account of the D-Day Invasion with just about every star in the world popping up in bit roles (John Wayne and Kirk Douglas among them).

True to studio tradition, it remains unclear how much of the Fox identity may emerge following Disney’s $71.3 billion seizure … If Fox filmmakers feel angst, it is understandable. Disney accounted for 26% of the box office last year and that could rise to 40% this year … Darryl Zanuck is no longer around to bark, and no one seems to be mounting a new Cleopatra, but somewhere on the emptying Fox lot fragments of history still reside.”

Did Rock Hudson Reach Out to Marilyn?

In some ways, Rock Hudson was Marilyn’s male counterpart as a misunderstood sex symbol of 1950s Hollywood.  They partied together at the How to Marry a Millionaire premiere in 1953, and in 1962 Rock would present Marilyn with her final award at the Golden Globes. Sadly they never worked together, but Rock was the initial favourite for her leading man in Bus Stop; and in 1958, she was considered for Pillow Talk before deciding to make Some Like It Hot instead. (Doris Day got the part, the beginning of a great comedy partnership with Rock.)

Until now, it has been unclear how well the two stars knew each other (although a recent hack tome made the unlikely claim that Marilyn and Rock were lovers – as we now know, Hudson was gay.) In a critically praised new biography, All That Heaven Allows, author Mark Griffin draws on interviews with Rock’s secretary, Lois Rupert, who claims they often spoke on the phone. Although the frequency of their conversations may be questioned, the obvious affection of their Golden Globes photos combined with this information could suggest that Rock was one of the few Hollywood figures trusted by Marilyn in her final months – and Griffin also reveals that Hudson generously donated his fee for narrating the 1963 documentary, Marilyn, to a cause very close to her heart.

“It was while he was on location for A Gathering Of Eagles that Rock received word that a friend had died. As Lois Rupert recalled, ‘Rock met me at his front door with the news … “Monroe is dead” is all he said.’

Only five months earlier, Rock and Marilyn Monroe had posed for photographers at the annual Golden Globes ceremonies. In images captured of the event, Monroe, who was named World Film Favourite, is beaming as Hudson enfolds her into a protective embrace. With a shared history of abuse and exploitation, it was inevitable that these two should be drawn to each other. Recognising that he posed no sexual threat to her, Monroe had latched on to Hudson and had lobbied for Rock to co-star with her in Let’s Make Love as well as her uncompleted final film, Something’s Got to Give.

Lois Rupert remembered that in the early 1960s, Rock regularly received late-night distress calls from Monroe as well as another troubled superstar. ‘If it wasn’t Marilyn Monroe crying on his shoulder, then it was Judy Garland,’ Rupert recalled. ‘It was almost like they took turns. Marilyn would call one night and Judy the next. He was always very patient, very understanding with both of them, even though he wasn’t getting much sleep. I think he liked playing the big brother who comes to the rescue.’

Within ten months of Monroe’s death, 20th Century-Fox would release a hastily assembled documentary entitled Marilyn. Fox had initially approached Frank Sinatra about narrating, but when the studio wasn’t able to come to terms with the singer Hudson stepped in. Hudson not only provided poignant commentary – both on and off camera – he donated his salary to help establish the Marilyn Monroe Memorial Fund at the Actors Studio.”

Marilyn, Jayne Mansfield and a Hollywood Taboo

Bathing Blondes: Marilyn in 1962 (left), and Jayne Mansfield in 1963 (right)

In 1962, Marilyn was set to become the first American actress to appear nude in a mainstream movie since Pre-Code days – but following her untimely death, that honour went to another blonde star, Jayne Mansfield, in a film released just a year later, produced independently with Tommy Noonan (who had played Marilyn’s love interest a decade earlier in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) And as with Marilyn’s shelved nude scene, Jayne’s big moment would make the cover of Playboy.

Although Jayne would reveal more than Marilyn did, both scenes showed the stars bathing (Marilyn in a pool, Jayne in a tub), and discovered by a shy, bespectacled man (Phil Silvers and Noonan respectively.) Kristin Hunt reports on the story behind a Hollywood watershed for Vulture – and if you’d like to learn more about Jayne, read Puffblicity, an illustrated biography by April VeVea, author of MM: A Day in the Life.

Marilyn in ‘The Misfits’ (left) and ‘Something’s Got to Give’ (right)

“Monroe filmed two nude scenes — one for 1961’s The Misfits and one for 1962’s Something’s Got to Give — but neither made it into theaters in one piece. The first scene was cut and the second was a mere fragment of an unfinished movie … The Something’s Got to  Give scene was a little more intentional. Monroe’s character Ellen is supposed to swim nude, as a means to entice her estranged husband Nick from his hotel room. The footage of Monroe skinny-dipping in a pool is now available in multiple YouTube clips, but the movie never screened for era audiences, since Monroe was fired and then died before filming wrapped.

Either scene would’ve made Monroe the first American star to go nude in a Hollywood movie in decades. But in Monroe’s absence, it was Jayne Mansfield who shattered the long-standing tradition. Like Monroe, Mansfield was a buxom blonde with a complicated reputation — but unlike Monroe, she craved the industry’s constant spotlight, and frequently used her body to get it.

While onscreen nudity certainly existed before 1962, it had been outlawed in the U.S. for decades under the Production Code … It was against that backdrop that Mansfield made her topless debut in the 1963 swingers cruise-ship comedy Promises! Promises! The actress was in a bit of a career slump at the time … Mansfield had always been famous for her crass publicity stunts, which often involved her ‘accidentally’ losing her clothing … Those blatant headline grabs had launched Mansfield’s career, landing her a star-making role in the 1956 comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, and they also made her distinct from her blonde-bombshell rival Monroe, who generated tabloid fodder without really trying.

Shortly after Monroe’s 1962 death, The New York Times ran an article explaining why each ‘successor’ to Monroe was an inadequate replacement: Ava Gardner was too reclusive, Kim Novak too serious, Natalie Wood too slight. But the newspaper reserved some of its meanest comments for Mansfield. ‘Jayne Mansfield, whom 20th Century Fox was building as a Love Goddess nominee, suffers from too much publicity and too few roles,’ The New York Times wrote. ‘She has become rather a caricature — like Mae West — and alienates the segment which takes sex seriously.’

If she was already a caricature, it made sense for Mansfield to seek out the absurdity of a sexploitation film. Promises! Promises! was a translation of Edna Sheklow’s 1960 play The Plant, about two couples on a cruise ship who swap partners in a drunken haze, and then have to figure out who fathered which pregnancy. Actor Tommy Noonan purchased the film rights after nearly starring in the stage show, planning to write, direct, produce, and act in the movie.

Tommy Noonan co-starred with both Jayne and Marilyn

Noonan would’ve known as well as anyone the risks of including a nude scene, even within the context of this racy plot … But a code violation didn’t carry the weight it once did, because by 1963, the entire system of censorship was running on life support … Mansfield’s nude scene arrives fairly early into Promises! Promises!, soon after the couples have settled into their cabins. Her screen husband Jeff (Noonan) has just been to see the ship’s medic about his sperm. When he returns — in high spirits, after receiving a placebo from the doctor — he finds Sandy (Mansfield) stepping out of a bath, where she was just cooing the song I’m in Love under a blanket of bubbles. She appears in the doorway, patting down her torso with a towel that does nothing to obscure her chest. The shot lingers for a few seconds before she closes the bathroom door to dress.

As the crew filmed, a photographer for Playboy took extra shots to run in the magazine, pocketing them for the eventual publicity campaign. Despite Mansfield’s name, Promises! Promises! was a B-film to its core, shepherded by an actor-turned-auteur who was not quite a household name and who harbored no artistic pretensions. The movie entered markets without MPAA approval or studio backing, which meant it had to rely solely on advertising. You can guess what the publicity team focused on.

Marilyn and Jayne’s nude scenes were (un)covered by Playboy

Playboy published its behind-the-scenes images in the June 1963 issue, promising ‘The Nudest Jayne Mansfield’ on the cover. Enterprising movie exhibitors were only too happy to join in the ogling … But in many cities, the exploitative advertising and lack of MPAA approval were a liability, with censorship boards in Maryland, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other markets attempting to keep the film out. When the Playboy issues hit newsstands, Hugh Hefner was arrested and hauled into Chicago court for ‘publishing and distributing an obscene magazine.’ The city based its complaint on two ‘particularly obscene’ images showing Mansfield lying naked on a bed with a fully clothed man. The case ended in a mistrial, letting Hefner off the hook.

Though Promises! Promises! made money, it was too crass and too indie to recoup Mansfield’s struggling stardom — and her career never bounced back to its 1950s heights. Critics savaged the film, with Variety calling it unsuitable for ‘anyone whose mentality surpasses that of a 5-year-old.’ But the topless scene did indicate where films were heading in respect to the policy against nudity. The following year in 1964, The Pawnbroker challenged the Production Code with a much more artistic — and much more upsetting — use of nudity through a Holocaust flashback sequence. The film had a celebrated director in Sidney Lumet and a serious method star in Rod Steiger, and due to this pedigree, it had more of a lasting impact than Promises! Promises! could, setting a precedent that would make it easier for movies to include nude scenes.”

Did Elizabeth Taylor Reach Out to Marilyn?

In Charles Casillo’s new biography, Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon – due out this month – he claims that Marilyn’s alleged rivalry with Elizabeth Taylor was a myth, as Closer reports.  His source isn’t named here but hopefully the book will tell us more, as it’s a nice story. (And you can read my tribute to  Marilyn and Elizabeth here.)

“They were two of the biggest female sex symbols of the 50s and early 60s, but Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor didn’t consider each other competitors. ‘In many ways [they] were pitted against each other by the press,’ Charles Casillo writes. ‘In reality, they barely knew each other, and the two had no animosity toward each other.’

Quite the opposite! Casillo writes of an incident in 1962, when 20th Century Fox was bleeding money on Liz’s over-budgeted extravaganza Cleopatra. The studio simultaneously fired Marilyn for alleged absences from the set of her never-completed final film, the aptly titled Something’s Got to Give.

Marilyn felt she was being sacrificed so Fox could save on her salary and spend it on finishing the bloated Egyptian epic. Two decades later, Liz revealed to a friend that she had reached out to Marilyn to offer her support during this difficult period.

‘Liz told Marilyn she was willing to publicly demonstrate her solidarity,’ Casillo says, offering to quit Cleopatra unless Marilyn was rehired. ‘Marilyn was very moved by Liz’s kindness toward her, but she didn’t want to make matters worse for either of them,’ so she declined the generous offer.

Instead, Liz gave Marilyn an invaluable piece of advice. ‘No matter what they write about me, Marilyn, I never deny it,’ Casillo quotes Liz as saying. ‘I never confirm it. I just keep smiling and walking forward. You do the same.’ Tragically, Marilyn didn’t live long enough to put those words into action.”

Riley Keough Revisits Marilyn’s Skinny Dip in ‘Silver Lake’

Riley Keough in ‘Under the Silver Lake’

Actress Riley Keough makes a splash in the trailer for upcoming movie, Under the Silver Lake, a comic thriller set in Los Angeles and directed by David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), as Alex McLevy reports for AV Club.  The clip appears to be an homage to Marilyn’s famous ‘pool scene’ in her unfinished  last film, Something’s Got to Give – even her breathless invitation, ‘Come on in!’, is repeated. Miss Keough is, incidentally, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, and Under the Silver Lake will be released in the US in June.

Marilyn in ‘Something’s Got to Give’ (1962)

Unveiling Marilyn’s Beautiful Scars

Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.

Now you see her, now you don’t: Marilyn in ‘Something’s Got to Give’

“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.

The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’

Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?

Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’

Guess what? Everyone has scars too—even Marilyn.”