A Marilyn Monroe season runs at BFI Southbank throughout June 2015.
The breathy voice, the windswept white dress, and the endless litany of falsely attributed Pinterest quotes: since her death of a drug overdose in 1962, Marilyn Monroe has been so relentlessly mythologised that she often seems to exist more as commemorative poster art than as a film star. Born Norma Jeane Baker to a mentally unstable single mother and raised in a number of foster homes, she struggled out of a difficult and possibly abusive childhood and into a contract with 20th Century-Fox.
Marilyn – as we know her – was constructed sometime in 1946, after her divorce from a husband she’d married at 16. By 1950, with a platinum dye job, the incarnation was complete. The immediate persona – deemed ‘vulgar’ by numerous critics and commentators – was that of a well-meaning dumb blonde; all baby talk and male fantasy made flesh. That she was apparently ill-at-ease with this image has long passed into common lore about Monroe.
In spite of early attempts at breaking into more serious dramatic roles – as with Don’t Bother to Knock in 1952 – sexist condescension was never far behind. Archer Winston, a critic at the New York Post remarked: “[…] they’ve thrown MM into the deep dramatic waters, sink or swim. And while she doesn’t really do either, you might say that she floats. With that figure, what else can she do?”
Estranged from her sex goddess image and striving for artistic validity, Marilyn went on to study at the Actors Studio, hiring Paula Strasberg as her acting coach. Strasberg was Marilyn’s constant companion on set, to the fury of numerous directors.
Nonetheless, each director Marilyn worked with – from Billy Wilder to George Cukor – helped to piece together a part of her persona. There is the exaggerated, almost burlesque femininity of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); the wounded and childlike vulnerability of her role in The Misfits (1961); and the less-discussed, duplicitous femme fatales of her early career, as in Niagara (1953).
Marilyn’s relationships – and her notorious battles – with some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers of the age came to uniquely shape her onscreen roles. Here are 10 of her key collaborations.
Marilyn vs Billy Wilder
The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959)
In both of Wilder’s collaborations with Monroe, her role is preposterously and joyfully innocent – although that sexy naiveté is much better personified by musician Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot. Her sweetly genuine performance is pitched perfectly against the rambunctiousness of Lemmon and Curtis. The innocence gag works less well in The Seven Year Itch, where she is charmingly indifferent to the lecherous desires of the married Tom Ewell.
Perhaps the on-set atmosphere while working with Marilyn is best described by that rumoured Tony Curtis remark – kissing her was “like kissing Hitler”. She was notoriously forgetful, at one point driving Wilder to write her lines on a card and put it inside an open drawer for her while shooting. Her flakiness and emotional temperament caused headaches all around, but Wilder turned out to be forgiving in retrospect. “All I can tell you is if Marilyn was around today, I’d be on my knees, saying ‘please let’s do it again!’”
Marilyn vs Otto Preminger
River of No Return (1954)
In a television interview from 1977, Otto Preminger was asked about choosing to cast Marilyn in his 1954 western, River of No Return. In his typically forbidding German baritone, Preminger states authoritatively: “She had no talent as an actress, but she had one thing that the camera gets. She was a born star.” Preminger, known for his string of classic film noirs (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends) and his brisk, severe on-set manner, never got on well with her. Co-star Robert Mitchum, playing referee between the two, seemed more sensitive to Marilyn’s insecurities, and the pair – as a cowboy and saloon girl – have a memorable chemistry in spite of an unevenly plotted film.
Marilyn vs John Huston
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Misfits (1961)
A mutual respect marked the relationship between Monroe and John Huston – an unlikely pairing, perhaps, given Huston’s propensity for rugged, masculine dramas. But she felt that he took her seriously as a dramatic actor; he confidently cast her as an unknown in The Asphalt Jungle back in 1950. He worked with her again over a decade later, with their two collaborations serving as bookends to her career.
The Misfits, perhaps Monroe’s greatest film, served as a swan song for the careers of two other iconic actors in the twilight of their lives: Clark Gable, who died two days after wrapping the shoot, and Montgomery Clift, who would, like Marilyn, be dead of an overdose within five years. The director himself was hardly a teetotaler, making for a chaotic, boozy set where one or more of the key players were often unable to perform. Production was even halted for two weeks while Marilyn entered rehab.
Even without this knowledge, it’s a boldly sorrowful piece of work, focusing on the romance between Gable’s lonely old Reno cowboy and a neurotic, beautiful divorcee. For Marilyn, it’s a role which seems close to home – she’s a reflective surface for men and their desires and a frail child of a broken home. Since her husband Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay – and their marriage fell apart throughout the making of the film – it’s hard not to assume that we’re seeing something like the real thing in her performance.
Marilyn vs Laurence Olivier
The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)
When Olivier cast Monroe as the romantic lead opposite himself in his Pinewood-shot comedy, a disastrously strained working relationship was to follow. Monroe arrived dishevelled and was routinely unprofessional – needing numerous takes, missing her marks, forgetting lines, and generally making a mess of things. Olivier, for his part, looked down his nose at her attempts at method acting and her insistence on confiding in her acting coach Paula Strasberg. Although Olivier ultimately claimed he was happy with her performance, he was well known for sniping about his co-stars – to the point where contemporaries like Alec Guinness referred to him as “unpleasant”.
For Marilyn, the breaking point was when Olivier offered her a flippant direction along the lines of “Try to be sexy”. Given that she had come all the way to Britain to avoid glitzy Hollywood stereotyping, it was a hurtful remark – and she apparently never forgave him for it. The film was poorly received and it marked the end of the actors’ incompatible working relationship.
Marilyn vs George Cukor
Let’s Make Love (1960) and her unfinished final film Something’s Got to Give
After working with Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, Marilyn had proven one of her greatest strengths was in the role of a comedian; she had a bubbly, natural rapport with light-hearted material. A collaboration with George Cukor, who had long been known as a ‘women’s director’ with a light-fingered comic touch, seemed like a logical choice. The result was Let’s Make Love, a musical comedy met with near-outright ridicule on its release – everything from Marilyn’s dramatic changes in physical appearance to co-star Yves Montand’s French accent were subject to mockery.
The relationship between director and star went sour over the making of Marilyn’s unfinished final film with Cukor, Something’s Got to Give. A remake of the 1940 screwball comedy My Favorite Wife, it starred Marilyn as a missing wife presumed dead, who then reappears in the life of her newly remarried husband. Increasingly erratic and unwell, Marilyn’s frequent absences infuriated the director. With an over-budget project threatening to halt production, she was fired from the film with the approval of Cukor, and later re-hired. Marilyn died of a barbiturate overdose in August of the same year, halting production on the film permanently. It was later completely remade by the studio and filmed as the Doris Day vehicle Move Over, Darling; Cukor did not return as director.
Marilyn vs Jean Negulesco
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
In this daft romantic comedy, co-starring Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, three scheming New York models do their best to snare themselves a rich man. Marilyn does a variation on her ‘innocent gold-digger’ routine, too vain to wear her desperately needed spectacles around men. She stumbles – sometimes quite literally, given her blindness – into a relationship with another near-sighted individual who happens to have a fat pocketbook. Her guileless performance lacks any intent or cunning – and by consequence, the gold-digging sexpot isn’t even afforded the credit of her wit.
The director, Negulesco, was a Romanian-born genre director flitting between various studio projects from the 1930s onward. How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the very first films to employ the new technology of CinemaScope, causing considerable difficulties in adjusting framing to the new anamorphic lens. Plagued too by Monroe’s legendary lateness, Negulesco was magnanimous: “She never felt she was ready to face the camera. For that reason it took her two hours to fix her lips. But the moment she appeared […] there was a love affair between her and the lens. She gave something which no one was able to catch live but the camera.”
Marilyn vs Henry Hathaway
Early in her film career, Marilyn was cast in this Technicolor noir as an indecently curvy femme fatale, plotting against her husband (Joseph Cotten) while holed up in a holiday cottage in Niagara Falls. Cotten is a frazzled Korean war vet suffering from PTSD, but he’s still wise to her tricks. Hathaway swore that he had given the star her “kittenish sway”, and it’s impossible not to notice the way she wiggles onscreen in a tight magenta dress; Technicolor was made for a girl like Marilyn.
Hathaway is now generally regarded as a journeyman director – a sort of studio workhorse who was a competent craftsman of straightforward action-adventure romps. He might never have attained the artistic heights of his fellows Howard Hawks and John Ford, but Niagara is one of his best, a surprisingly chewy and psychologically complex drama which suggests that women are perennially quicker to understand – and to act – than men.
Marilyn vs Howard Hawks
Monkey Business (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Hawks first cast Marilyn in his screwball comedy Monkey Business opposite Cary Grant. The film essentially follows similar plot points to his Bringing Up Baby (1938): Marilyn is a stereotypically idiotic secretary hired only for her good looks. She’s the butt of a number of jokes, including a mix-up of the words “punctuality” and “punctuation” – but Hawks redeems himself considerably by giving her the charming role of Lorelei Lee in the following year’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Most famously, it’s the role where she wiggles through the sparkling, conspiratorially funny musical number ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’.
Besides that, she also gets an unforgettable screen pairing with the equally wily Jane Russell. The ‘Hawksian woman’ who was characteristic of the auteur’s films – a smart-alecky, career-driven dame with brains and beauty to spare – makes her spirit felt in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The central relationship between Monroe and Russell has such wit and charm that, by comparison, men are turned into ineffable weaklings and targets. Given Marilyn’s constant impetus to ditziness, it’s awfully nice to see the shoe on the other foot.
Marilyn vs Joseph L. Mankiewicz
All about Eve (1950)
Alongside another small role in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Marilyn’s brief appearance as ‘Miss Casswell’ in All about Eve made 1950 a pivotal year in the career of the young starlet. Mankiewicz was president of the Director’s Guild and long entrenched in the who’s who of Hollywood writers, so when his film won the Academy Award for best picture that year, Marilyn was sure to be noticed. She plays an aspiring Broadway star, turning up as a guest to Bette Davis’s soireé – a “graduate of the Copacabana school of acting”, goes the introduction. It’s a sparklingly witty line in a screenplay full of them.
Marilyn vs Fritz Lang
Clash by Night (1952)
By this stage in his career, Fritz Lang was an all-round veteran of the screen trade; he had been hailed as a master of German expressionism, and as an emigré to Hollywood he had perfected the film noir. Marilyn, by contrast, was a budding star on loan to RKO from 20th Century-Fox. Her perpetual tardiness seemed to be present from the beginning, often attributed to her nerves; Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan reports that “the actress vomited before almost every scene”. Regardless, Lang had no intention of allowing her to interfere with his shoot; he tried to have her dialogue coach banned from the set.
The overheated melodrama starred Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, and Robert Ryan. Marilyn hadn’t even been due a top billing until a public scandal arose around a nude photoshoot she had done. RKO execs saw the opportunity to exploit public interest, and the film became a smash.