Marilyn, Bruce Dern and ‘Wild River’

At 83, Bruce Dern is one of Hollywood’s most enduring character actors, with a career spanning almost 60 years. In 2013, he spoke about meeting Marilyn at the Actors Studio, and her advice that success would come to him in later life (see here.) Now in an interview for the New York Post, Dern describes a conversation with Marilyn before he made his big-screen debut in 1960; and while his recollection probably isn’t verbatim – I doubt she used the word ‘wunderkind’, or that she would have made cutting remarks about her husband with a passing acquaintance – it does shed light on a film Marilyn almost made with Dern (and her fragility certainly rings true. )

“I’m sitting in the back row my second day at the Actors Studio, and just before the session starts, this woman comes in with a yellow babushka over her head and sits down next to me.

‘You’re Gadge’s new wunderkind,’ she says — Gadge was Mr. [Elia] Kazan’s nickname. ‘The movie you’re gonna do, Wild River, I was gonna do — but I have to do this dumb movie my husband wrote, so they gave it to Lee Remick.’

Marilyn’s husband was Arthur Miller, the movie she was doing was The Misfits, and the star was Clark f - - king Gable. ‘What if he doesn’t like me?’ she asked. ‘He’s the biggest star that ever lived!’

She was as fragile as anyone I’ve ever seen in show business.”

Wild River was a Twentieth Century Fox production, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Montgomery Clift as an official from the Tennessee Valley Authority who tries to persuade an old woman to give up her home to build a hydroelectric dam on her land. He also becomes involved with her granddaughter Ella (Remick.) Bruce Dern played a small, uncredited role as a TVA agent (see inset, below.)

Marilyn was indeed committed to The Misfits, but it was Kazan who chose Lee Remick to play the lead – perhaps because sensing that his past relationship with Marilyn, and his falling out with Miller would cause conflict. Wild River was a good film, but a less glamorous role than Marilyn usually played, and arguably more suited to Remick.

Marilyn was still contracted to Fox, although she hadn’t worked there since 1956. After losing Wild River, she starred in the lightweight musical, Let’s Make Love, at Fox instead, before making The Misfits independently. Whatever her misgivings, The Misfits was probably a better fit for Marilyn than Wild River, and she finally got to co-star with her friend, Montgomery Clift.

Lee Remick was briefly set to replace Marilyn in the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give (1962), and would go on to narrate a 1987 documentary, Remembering Marilyn. Meanwhile, Miller and Kazan were finally reconciled (with Marilyn’s support), and later collaborated on After the Fall (1964), Miller’s autobiographical play in which Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden (who had also appeared in Wild River), played a character based on Marilyn.

Bruce Dern Remembers Marilyn

Bruce Dern is a veteran actor who, at 77, won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year for his role in Nebraska. He began his career in New York during the 1950s, as he recalled in an interview for Hitfix:

“Nearly half a century ago, Marilyn Monroe confided in a young Bruce Dern an opinion of the actor passed to her by Actors Studio founder Elia Kazan, or ‘Gadge’ as they all knew him. ‘He’s not going to be a leading man,’ the famed director said, ‘because he’ll be into his 60s before anyone knows what he’s capable of.'”

Dern’s screen debut was in Kazan’s Wild River (1960), starring Montgomery Clift. Marilyn was offered the female lead, but at Kazan’s insistence, the part was played instead by Lee Remick.