Carl Rollyson on ‘Arthur Miller: Writer’

Carl Rollyson, author of Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, has set out his thoughts on Arthur Miller: Writer, the new documentary made by Miller’s daughter Rebecca, now on HBO in the US.

“It is a remarkable revelation of the man, but it is also a very limited view. How could it not be? It is his daughter’s film , and she could not, for example, bring herself to interview him about his institutionalized Down’s syndrome son. The film is really a memoir, and not a biography.

But I am going to concentrate on the treatment of Marilyn Monroe. For the most part, she is treated as rather pitiful, with Miller spending his time propping her up. He wrote very little while married to her but does not mention the countless hours locked away in a room trying to write. More importantly, he gives a very distorted view of what happened during the shooting of The Misfits. He says she doubted she could perform in a serious role. This is a staggering lie, or an example of self-delusion. Monroe was upset about the script and was shut out from the Miller-Huston deliberations about how to fix it. She wasn’t happy that her husband was treating her as a myth, not a real person. If he was going to give her lines that she actually had spoken, then he was obligated to give the full context in which such lines were spoken.

The most telling moment occurs earlier when Miller mentions Elia Kazan as telling him what a great play Death of a Salesman was. Kazan may have been the first one to say so to Miller. Miller trusted Kazan’s judgment and his sincerity. But when it comes to The Misfits, Miller does not mention the letter [Elia] Kazan sent him detailing the faults with the character of Roslyn that Monroe had to play. And those faults were exactly the ones Monroe had identified.

Another telling moment in the film is when Tony Kushner analyzes After the Fall and says Miller was afraid of Monroe. Just so, she had a much more capacious sensibility than he did, and he did not know how to respond to her. The same is true with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. When she died, Hughes said, ‘It was her or me.’ In both cases, these men simply could not come up to the level of their wives, and afterwards suggested that was because the wives were doomed. And that is the impression Miller conveys in his daughter’s film.”

A ‘Loving Portrait’ of Marilyn and Arthur

The Millers in New York, by Sam Shaw (1957)

Sophie Gilbert has praised Arthur Miller: Writer as a ‘loving portrait‘ in her review for The Atlantic. Rebecca Miller’s new documentary can now be viewed by HBO subscribers in the US (I will update this blog when it becomes more widely available.)

Arthur Miller: Writer is a family portrait defined by intimacy with its subject, captured in footage the filmmaker first started shooting in her 20s. The movie’s at its most intriguing when it’s parsing the strangeness of being closely related to someone so celebrated, who put so much of his life in his work. Rebecca’s sister, Jane, recalls how, conversing with her father when she was younger, ‘There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it.’

It’s a surprise, though, how warm and goofy Miller is in scenes with his daughter, as she captures him working on carpentry projects in his studio in Connecticut or reminiscing in his kitchen. Rebecca Miller, when the camera turns to her, watches him intently, with palpable affection.

Monroe, Miller’s second wife, is a substantial part of the film, although not an overwhelming one. It’s almost as though Rebecca Miller feels reluctant to probe too deeply into her father’s romantic life, even though he himself laid much of it bare in the 1964 play After the Fall. (‘The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him,’ Miller says in one interview.) When Miller and Monroe were first introduced in 1951 he recalled telling her that she was the saddest girl he’d ever met—a line he later put into The Misfits, a film he wrote for her to star in. Their marriage captivated America, given the unlikely union of a brilliant intellect and an incandescent movie star.

But Miller seemed to comprehend the pain within Monroe, who forged a bond with her new father-in-law that lasted until her death. ‘She couldn’t really gain for herself the confidence she had to have to do this,’ Miller tells his daughter. Then he sits, silently, for what feels like minutes, his face distorted with pain. ‘Terrible,’ he says. ‘Well.'”

‘Ms. Monroe’ Inspires Warsaw Radio

‘Ms. Monroe’, the new single from Brighton band Warsaw Radio (whose lead singer Brian McNamara hails from Limerick, Ireland), is inspired by Marilyn’s relationship with Arthur Miller, as Eric Lalor reports for JOE.ie. Taken from their debut album, Midnight Broadcast, ‘Ms. Monroe’ doesn’t mention the couple directly, but its lyrics evoke doomed love and the video’s use of found footage enhances the retro feel.

“The narrative imagines Monroe giving advice on relationships after the break down of her relationship with Miller when they were filming what would be Monroe’s last film (The Misfits) in Reno, Nevada … McNamara’s vocals have rarely sounded better … It’s a cracker from start to finish and would leave you wanting to hear more.”

UPDATE: In an interview with the Connacht Tribune, Brian McNamara revealed the inspiration behind the song…

“About two years I went to see a play about Marilyn Monroe at the Brighton Fringe Festival. I didn’t know anything about her, other than she was a movie star. I came home that night and started writing that song. A few days later it was finished. At the time we were recording our album and I was exploring this way of writing where you try to get other people’s perspective.”

Spanish Novelist Retraces Marilyn’s ‘Nevada Days’

Bernardo Axtaga is a Spanish author whose 2014 novel, Nevada Days – a fictionalised account of his nine-month stay as writer-in-residence at the Centre for Basque Studies – is now available in English, and the early chapters include several references to Marilyn and The Misfits.

She is first mentioned when Axtaga flips through a copy of The Misfits: Story of a Shoot, Sergio Toubania’s monograph of the Magnum photographers who documented the production. “Individually, the photographs were really good,” Axtaga comments, “… but perhaps because the photographs were the work of different photographers, seeing them all together jarred somehow.”

He later visits Pyramid Lake, and is surprised to find no postcards from The Misfits in the gift shop.”There was one, I seemed to remember, that would have been perfect: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable lying next to each other on the shores of Pyramid Lake. I asked the waitress, but she had never heard of the film. Nor was she interested in Marilyn Monroe.”

The final, extended passage about Marilyn occurs during a long drive, while Axtaga is talking to his wife Angela about Arthur Miller’s stay at Pyramid Lake in 1956, where he wrote the short story that would become The Misfits while waiting out his first divorce, and conducted a long-distance relationship with Marilyn, who was filming Bus Stop. Axtaga imagines Marilyn’s anguished telephone call to Miller from the set, as described in Miller’s autobiography, Timebends.

Axtaga then recalls the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), where Marilyn’s character, ‘The Girl’, sympathises with the monster in yet another movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon. (This was foreshadowed in an earlier episode, when Axtaga’s young daughter cries at the end of King Kong.)

As the author forms his own impressions of Nevada, Marilyn disappears from the novel. But her ghostly presence reflects how an outsider’s preconceptions about American life  can be shaped by literary and cinematic mythology.

Marilyn’s 90 Years Without Oscar

Anticipating this year’s Oscar ceremony, the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (dated February 23-March 2) features extensive coverage of the Academy Awards’ 90-year history. Of course, Marilyn never won an Oscar, nor was she even nominated. But her role in Some Like It Hot, which won her a Golden Globe, is mentioned in a list of legendary ‘Oscar disses.’

Although Some Like It Hot is her best-known film, Marilyn’s screen time was less than her co-stars. Were it not for her top billing, her performance would arguably be more suited to the Best Supporting Actress category. Marilyn’s bombshell image and flair for comedy both worked against her being taken seriously by the Hollywood establishment. But perhaps the most decisive factor was her rebellion against Twentieth Century Fox.

After winning her contractual battle with the studio, her acclaimed comeback in Bus Stop (1956) was overlooked by the Academy – a snub she never forgot. Her next performance, in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), won awards in Europe, while her last completed film, The Misfits (1961), was also her most mature dramatic role. But at the time, neither were particularly well-received in the US.

In 1964, columnist Sheilah Graham petitioned unsuccessfully for Marilyn to be given a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. However, this is not standard practice within the Academy and thus is highly unlikely to happen now. Nonetheless, Marilyn’s films remain hugely popular and for many, she is the most enduring symbol of movies and glamour – proof, if proof were needed, that you don’t need an Oscar to be a legend.

‘The Misfits’ on Film4

The Misfits will be screened on UK TV channel Film4 next Tuesday (February 20) at 3:45 pm, and is listed among the week’s highlights by The Guardian.

“Both Marilyn Monroe’s and Clark Gable’s last film, this is a slice of raw Hollywood history. Monroe’s then-husband Arthur Miller provided his only film script, a wordy affair about broken-down rodeo stars gathering for a show in Dayton. Gable’s warm and tender cowboy and Monroe’s sad showgirl embody a poignant sense of the last picture show.”

Nevada Neighbours: Marilyn and ‘The Misfits’

Film historian Robin Holabird will be giving a talk about her 2017 book,  Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens: Nevada Screen Icons (which includes a full chapter on The Misfits) at 6pm on February 13, as part of a ‘Nevada Neighbours‘ series presented by the Capital City Arts Initiative at the Community Development Building, 108 E. Proctor St in Carson City.

“In her Nevada Neighbors talk, Holabird will explore the blending of icons and Nevada, along with her personal experiences of watching movies, talking with famous people, and showing off a diverse range of stunning and iconic locations like Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Area 51. She will discuss how Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and space aliens, like the Transformers, share a surprising connection along with James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Rocky Balboa — all beloved icons who have played active roles in movie and television projects set in Nevada.

In her new book, Elvis, Marilyn, and Space Aliens, Holabird shows how Nevada’s flash, flair, and fostering of the forbidden provided magic for singers, sexpots, and strange creatures from other worlds. She also gives readers an insider’s look into movie-making in Nevada by drawing on her extensive experience as a film commissioner. Holabird will share her personal take on film history and culture in her Nevada Neighbors talk.”

Marilyn Brings Denim Back to the USA

Earlier this week we learned that the pencil skirt is making a comeback. Now it’s time for dark denim to re-enter your wardrobe, sported here by Marilyn and Arthur Miller. “This look, similar to that immortalised by Marilyn Monroe in 1961’s The Misfits and Martin Sheen in 1973’s Badlands, evokes a glory time in American history when the US was the leading purveyor of denim worldwide,” Scarlett Conlon writes for The Guardian.

Revisiting ‘The Misfits’ at Stanford

Marilyn with Montgomery Clift on the Misfits set, 1960

Following a recent screening of The Misfits for students at Stanford University,   Carlos Valladares has reviewed Marilyn’s swansong for Stanford Daily.

The Misfits comes out at the tail-end of the classic Hollywood era (1961), and it shows. The photographers who drifted on and off the set (Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson, Henri Cartier-Bresson) showed off Monroe, Clift, Gable in all their un-Glamour, in a starkly honest look that would have been unthinkable in the studios’ heyday … The editing is odd and erratic, but these glitches actually contribute to its depth. At one point, Monroe’s lips go out of sync with her voice. At another, Monroe’s close-up is interrupted by a blurry soft focus. She has none of the leering, near-pornographic dazzle of her 1950s promotional photos. Here, the camera looks as if it were just crying, doing a terrible job at wiping away its tears, overwhelmed by the state of Marilyn.

The Marilyn performance is so brave precisely because, despite the odds, she survives … It is when the men, after all their hard work and physical exertion, decide to shoot the wild horses they just captured, selling their meat for a few lousy hundred bucks. Suddenly, Monroe darts off into the distance and screams … the exact catharsis needed to make us care again about the sanctity of human beings. The camera hangs far back in an extreme long shot, making me feel Rosalyn’s insignificance, and, contrariwise, Monroe’s strength. It’s a rare instance where Rosalyn/Monroe has privacy to herself. Huston wisely does not go in for a typically Hollywood close-up that would show her breakdown and emotional turmoil with dramatic, lurid tastelessness. The camera cannot go in for a close-up. To do so would completely negate the scene’s point: the breaking out of a woman from her banality. She screams: ‘ENOUGH.’

The dialogue in this remarkable scene (perhaps the climax of Monroe’s acting career) also predicts Monroe’s eventual suspected fate … She could just as well be talking back to Arthur Miller (and the viewing public — us) as she is to Gable, Wallach and Clift. It’s an amazing example of an actor taking back her agency in a narrative that, at first glance, seems to float above the actors.”

‘The Misfits’ at Stanford

Photo by Inge Morath

Students at Stanford University, California have a chance to see The Misfits today in Room 115 of the McMurtry Building at 5:30 pm. It’s being screened as part of the syllabus of Professor Usha Iyer’s course ‘The Body in Film and Other Media.’ Carlos Valladares has reviewed The Misfits for Stanford Daily

“The cult over only the indexical sign of Marilyn Monroe (the blonde hair, the sexpot husk, the eyes) gets nowhere near her weirdnesses and complexities as a person. Of course, can we ever know? Her performances in her best work — Don’t Bother To Knock (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Some Like it Hot (1959), Let’s Make Love (1960), and especially The Misfits — give us an actual glimpse into one of America’s most obsessed-over stars.

The Misfits, which was scripted by Monroe’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Arthur Miller (yes, that Arthur Miller), punctures the popular perception of Monroe as an unreal sex goddess to be whistled at. As the critic Angelica Jade Bastien writes, “For me, Monroe is evocative more of a mood and a time than just the dumb blonde sexpot she’s become known for. Through this lens, her startling, heartfelt, gorgeous work in The Misfits feels strangely like an elegy for the dumb blonde she never truly was, and the Hollywood she existed within … she explores and brings to life the cloying weight of loneliness the way few actors can.’ Monroe delivers a frighteningly frank performance, as does everyone else in this tired film about tired failures.”