“Do you want me to turn them loose?” This is what cowboy Perce asks a sad-eyed Roslyn in John Huston’s elegiac The Misfits (1961), and that one question about untying the mustangs he and fellow wranglers Gay (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach) have captured—beautiful horses who will be turned to dog food—is so extraordinarily moving in its quietly weighed delivery that it’s breathtaking. It’s moving because it’s Montgomery Clift asking the question, and because of the power of Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn and her chemistry with Clift. But it’s sublimely moving because of Roslyn’s preceding scene instigating the request—her scream in the desolate landscape, her testimony:
Killers! Murderers! You’re liars! All of you liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God’s country! Freedom! I pity you! You’re three dear, sweet, dead men!
That big, blistering moment is filmed in a gorgeous and almost unmerciful long shot, with a distant Monroe, her blond hair and denim in the desert; viewers fix their eyes to see her better as she rages—a brilliant choice by Huston. By forgoing a close-up, he makes Monroe’s speech feel almost unexpected and shocking, and, oddly, more powerful. There are three men who, throughout the movie, have observed this woman with bewilderment, lust, love, and anger. She’s represented multiple ideas, dreams, or wishes for them (the script was written by her soon-to-be ex-husband, playwright Arthur Miller), but she’s now screaming and nearly tearing her hair out—almost as if to make herself flesh and blood.
Marilyn as Roslyn espouses part of the movie’s thesis—a potential sledgehammer—without the directness feeling unnatural, underscoring the end-of-the-line lives these men lead and the simultaneous empathy and anger she feels toward them. Clift’s Perce, who is already feeling lousy about capturing the mustangs, so much so that he doesn’t even want to be paid for it, gazes with sadness and, perhaps, shame; Gable’s Gay looks on concerned, disquieted, and Wallach’s Guido, at that moment, is all annoyance and anger: “She’s crazy,” he says. “They’re all crazy. You try not to believe it because you need them.”
The Misfits—her entire performance and that speech—is a key moment for Marilyn on-screen, and it remains a tantalizing and heartbreaking glimpse of the projects she might have done had she lived through the 1960s and beyond. Her prior work was excellent, and some of her movies are masterpieces, but when you watch her in The Misfits, it becomes expressively clear that she could have been part of an emerging new American cinema. As Jonas Mekas wrote of her in The Misfits for the Village Voice in 1961: “There is such a truth in her little details, in her reactions to cruelty, to false manliness, nature, life, death—everything‚ that is overpowering, that makes her one of the most tragic and contemporary characters of modern cinema.”
At this point in her career, Marilyn had been under the tutelage of the Method acting teacher/guru/innovator Lee Strasberg and was being coached on set by Strasberg’s wife, actor and teacher Paula Strasberg. Working with Lee Strasberg was not her first foray into seriously studying acting, nor was it the first time she encountered a variation on the teachings of Stanislavski, but Strasberg was a vital part of Marilyn’s journey as an actor, and also important in terms of where she was in her life.
Much has been written about the Strasbergs and Marilyn by those who were there, historians, and MM devotees—and the relationship has been seen as either inspired and beneficial, or exploitative and even detrimental to Marilyn—or a combination of all of these things. Lee, though controversial, was certainly one of the most important acting teachers of the twentieth century, and many actors credit their success and passion to him. Jane Fonda said, “I’m not sure I even would have become an actress were it not for him.” But when it comes to Marilyn, it gets murkier. Isaac Butler, in his excellent, informative book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, quotes Strasberg as saying: “I made Marilyn Monroe an actress . . . even though she was already a star. I worked out her problems for her too.” But, Butler writes, “both of these assertions are dubious. Monroe had extensive training prior to working with the Strasbergs . . . Whether Monroe benefited from her relationship with Paula and Lee or not, she thought she needed them, and her colossal fame blasted both the Studio and the Method into the stratosphere.”
Marilyn was already a wonderful actor, but she wanted to steer her career toward more artistically fulfilling work, more substantial parts, and she wanted to expand and improve her craft—and Strasberg became part of that mission. In her final interview, published in 1962 in Life magazine, Marilyn said of actors, “We not only want to be good; we have to be.” She continued, “You know, when they talk about nervousness—my teacher, Lee Strasberg—when I said this to him, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m a little nervous,’ he said, ‘When you’re not, give up, because nervousness indicates sensitivity.’ ”
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, Marilyn Monroe started her career as a model and transitioned to movies in 1947. By 1954 she was a megastar at Fox, with three 1953 hits—Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire. And yet, after those films, she felt she wasn’t offered the salary or parts she deserved and was being typecast. Unhappy with her contract, she refused the role in The Girl in Pink Tights and in 1954 was suspended.
She eventually settled with Fox and went on to film The Seven Year Itch (1955), a hit that cemented her luminous stardom. But Marilyn was still unhappy and toward the end of 1954 ventured to New York City and formed Marilyn Monroe Productions with photographer and friend Milton Greene (it ended after their second picture, Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Marilyn is dazzling). Knowing her power and owning it, Marilyn now had an improved deal with the studio and her own production company, giving her more creative control. MMP’s first project (with Fox distributing) was Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop, from the William Inge play—a pivotal Method film in Marilyn’s career and a significant leading part. It was also the first picture on which she worked with Paula Strasberg on set. An added bonus—Logan had studied under Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, something ever-curious Marilyn liked to discuss with him.
The media and movie industry were watching MM’s career moves and the Fox drama closely. At first, observers were often dismissive, even derisive, but when they saw the independent steps she had made with MMP and her desire to expand her art, some perceptions began to change. Time magazine ran a favorable 1956 cover story that looked at her life and career, and her time in New York studying under Strasberg. Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, and Strasberg were all quoted, praising her acting talents. According to Time:
Almost at once Marilyn found friends in the theater . . . “For the first time,” she says, “I felt accepted, not as a freak, but as myself” . . . After about six months of study and exercise, she finally worked up courage to do a 20-minute scene from Anna Christie before the other students, many of them practiced professionals. They praised her work in extravagant terms . . . The old fears were still there, but now there was a way to transform them. “I never dared to think about it,” says Marilyn, “but now I want to be an artist. I want to be a real actress.”
Of course she was a real actress, and she was an artist, but as she said, she “never dared to think about it.” To say that aloud was courageous, given how she was sometimes looked at by the press and the industry—the whole “dumb blond” image. The Time profile ended with a note on her plans to take on Aristophanes’s Lysistrata on television and how she was “determined” to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. How great would that have been?
The Strasberg relationship started the first few months of 1955, when, according to Butler, Marilyn met theatrical producer and cofounder of the Actors Studio Cheryl Crawford at a New York dinner party. As Butler writes in The Method, “Crawford took a liking to Monroe and brought her to the Actors Studio. Soon Monroe began studying with Strasberg at Malin Studios . . .” Eventually, Marilyn would take private classes from the charismatic teacher, and the Strasbergs became like family to her. As Martin Landau says about Lee in a Marilyn documentary, “Who better to put that badge on her but the high priest.”
The “high priest,” Strasberg, had cocreated the Group Theatre in New York City in 1931, alongside director and drama critic Harold Clurman and Crawford. He joined the Actors Studio in 1948—which had been founded by director Elia Kazan, Crawford, and actor, director, and teacher Robert Lewis—and took over as director in 1951. Though it’s hard to sum up succinctly, Strasberg’s methods included improvisation, dance, sense memory, and affective memory, wherein an actor digs into real-life past memories to provoke an individual, emotional, and honest response. Strasberg encouraged therapy to aid or alleviate some of the more challenging aspects of his methods, and Marilyn herself was in psychoanalysis. This digging could uncover intense past trauma, and some people around her were concerned.
Patricia Bosworth—who met Marilyn during her Actors Studio days and was friends with Lee’s daughter, actor Susan Strasberg—wrote about the sense memory therapy exercises in a Vanity Fair piece:
Marilyn saw Dr. Kris five times a week, and afterward, she would take the elevator to Lee’s, where he would guide her in a series of sense-memory exercises, in which she acted like a child in an effort to get in touch with her “real self”—her “real tragic power” . . . But the pain of recalling those early years as Norma Jeane Baker, the abandoned and abused child, was excruciating. Marilyn confided to Susan that occasionally when Lee’s questions became too probing, she would just “make something up.”
Was all this concentrated self-study creating more problems for Monroe or unlocking avenues of expression? Or both? Of course, we can never be sure, and perhaps asking that question so often is underestimating Marilyn’s strength. But in regard to her work on-screen, what she was bringing to her acting—she was superb.
And in a 1960 interview with Georges Belmont (then Marie Claire France’s editor-in-chief) Marilyn, very movingly, said:
I always have this secret feeling that I’m really a fake or something, or a phony, you know how people feel about themselves, they have something secret they feel about themselves . . . [M]y teacher says, “Why do you feel that about yourself?” And then he starts to say, “but you’re a human being.” I said, “Yes, I am! . . . But I feel like I have to be more” . . . “No,” he says, “you start with yourself.” Lee Strasberg, I think he probably changed my life more than any other human being that I’ve met . . .
This was an inspiring time for Marilyn—you can understand why studying the Method meant so much to her. And by many accounts from people who were around her at the time, she would have been an exceptionally talented stage actor as well. In her Vanity Fair piece, Bosworth stated: “She had done two scenes in Lee’s private classes: Molly Bloom’s monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses and a section of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Michael J. Pollard. In both she had projected a luminous, yearning quality that was very appealing.”
Marilyn already had a great admiration for naturalism in acting, evidenced by her love of Elenora Duse, the Italian stage actor. In photos shot by Philippe Halsman in 1952, she sits in lingerie (in one shot reading) next to her beloved books and record player—and there, in different shots, and in two different places, is the same framed photo of Duse. There’s also another set of photos from a shoot in 1951, by John Florea, where Marilyn is lounging on her bed, charmingly, in blue jeans, reading, also next to her bookshelf with a framed photo of Duse visible. In the 1960 interview with Belmont, he asked her about a Duse portrait on her wall. Marilyn answered: “I feel a lot for her because of her life and also because of her work . . . She never settled for less, in either.”
Throughout her career, Marilyn wanted to expand and improve—and you can see in earlier movies that she had already proven herself. A brilliant comedienne, Marilyn played up her image while also giving it humanity and depth. In movies like How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and The Seven Year Itch (and All About Eve, in a small, important part, in which she is hilarious), she showcased incredible timing, musicality, and movement that were entirely her own. There’s a reason “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is so legendary and beloved. Billy Wilder said of her, “The greatest thing about Monroe is not her chest . . . It is her ear. She is a master of delivery. She can read comedy better than anyone else in the world.”
And she had also accomplished excellent dramatic work early in her career—in movies like Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night, and Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock, which features one of her greatest dramatic performances, one of unforgettable, searing complexity and sadness.
Starting in 1948, and up until Bus Stop, Marilyn’s drama coach was the Berlin-born Natasha Lytess (who had studied under Max Reinhardt). They worked together for many years, with Lytess so devoted to Marilyn’s work and Marilyn to her that eventually Marilyn became her main pupil. Speaking about Lytess on Edward R. Murrow’s television program Person to Person, Marilyn said, “she helped me very much from the very beginning.” But, for various reasons, and much to Lytess’s disappointment, Marilyn replaced her with Paula Strasberg.
Another important and significant influence on Marilyn during her Lytess years was one of Stanislavski’s “most brilliant” students from the Moscow Arts Theatre—Michael Chekhov. Nephew of Anton Chekhov and Oscar-nominated for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Michael Chekhov inspired her enough to devote a chapter to him in her posthumously published memoir, My Story:
One afternoon Michael and I were doing a scene from The Cherry Orchard. To set a scene with Michael Chekhov in his house was more exciting than to act on any movie set I had known. Acting became important. It became an art that belonged to the actor, not to the director or producer or the man whose money had bought the Studio. It was an art that transformed you into somebody else, that increased your life and mind. I had always loved acting and tried hard to learn it. But with Michael Chekhov, acting became more than a profession to me. It became a sort of religion.
Chekhov stressed a combination of interior feelings, thoughts, dreams, and physical movement (one key aspect of his teaching was the “psychological gesture”). In her superb biography Marilyn Monroe: The Passion and the Paradox, Lois Banner posits that Marilyn would later merge these teachings with Strasberg’s. Banner writes, “Chekhov’s mysticism in her acting was the way to find her true self, the calm, transcendent center that she, like all human beings, possessed. Finding that center—the goal of most mystical spiritualities—had become Marilyn’s goal. Putting Chekhov’s technique together with Lee Strasberg’s Method technique eventually became her Method of acting.”
Though Lytess worked with Marilyn on Henry Hathaway’s magnificent Niagara, it’s interesting to think of Chekhov’s teachings and the dreamy, though very physical, quality Marilyn expressed here. It’s an extraordinary performance—a delirious creation—often under-discussed in terms of her acting, I think, because Marilyn became so iconic because of it. Her character, Rose Loomis, is writ so large that she was on par with a wonder of the world—Niagara Falls. She wasn’t the film’s lead, but she was undoubtedly its star—a fever dream who burns so brightly in her hot pink dress, with her teetering walk and red lips, that her spirit hovers over the movie even after she’s killed two-thirds of the way through.
Marilyn plays Rose as a simultaneous fantasy, symbol, and human being. She is paradoxical—a femme fatale and a victim. She also feels like a representation of the sublimated desires of the film’s heroine, the sweet but darkly curious Jean Peters, who is enduring a rather disappointing vacation (and, apparently, marriage) with her husband (Casey Adams). Peters is enthralled by the toxic Loomis marriage (Joseph Cotten plays Marilyn’s husband, George), pulled in first by Marilyn’s unearthly gorgeousness and sexuality and then by Cotten’s corrosive jealousy and unhappiness. When you see Rose emerge from her cabin in that radiating pink dress to play her favorite record, “Kiss”—a song that becomes the film’s haunted refrain—she’s beautiful but eerie, nearly a conjuring of Peters’s fascination.
As visible and as gorgeous as Marilyn’s adulterous Rose is, she is ultimately enigmatic, and you don’t have one simple read on her being just “bad.” It is Marilyn’s visage, her movements, and her sexiness mixed with threat and fear that make Hathaway’s Technicolor noir even more surreal and powerful. She matches it, is propulsive, and the movie wouldn’t have reached its level of crazy lyricism without her.
Hathaway thought she was superb. A director notoriously tough on actors, he considered her “marvelous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better.”
Bus Stop director Joshua Logan witnessed those ambitions, though he almost didn’t. In his memoir, Movie Stars, Real People, and Me, he wrote: “I nearly missed one of the high spots of my directing life because I had fallen for the popular Hollywood prejudice about Marilyn Monroe.”
With Bus Stop, Marilyn was, as usual, hard at work. And she was taking risks. She worked on an Ozark accent while inventing (with help from Greene) the bolder look of her character, Chérie. Her face was layered with extra pale, almost clown-like makeup because her character barely saw the sun (Logan claims that he had to fight with producers to convince them to keep this look). She also rejected typically sleek Hollywood showgirl clothes—going for more tattered attire, something a woman who sings at a club called the Blue Dragon Café in Phoenix, Arizona, might wear. As Logan recounted, Marilyn said, “You and I are going to shred it up, pull out part of the fringe, poke holes in the fishnet stockings, then have ’em darned with big, sprawling darns. Oh, it’s gonna be so sorry and pitiful and it’ll make you cry.” He continued, “I was beginning to feel that she had always been brilliant. No one seemed to have listened to her before.”
The look gives her a mixture of vulnerability and strength, too, as she rushes by in these skimpy outfits, trying to hold her ground and escape from the hollering virginal cowboy Beauregard (Don Murray). Bo sees her onstage, decides precisely who she is, and will not hear anything to the contrary. He pursues her to the point of kidnapping, supposedly comically, but Chérie is so embarrassed and anxious that through her you feel how disturbing it all is. It’s a strange movie, fascinatingly so, and though it’s hard to reckon with Bo changing so quickly by the end, Marilyn is so powerful, so moving, that even the odd happy ending has a tinge of heartbreak. Heartbreak because this character has been knocked around so much in life that when Bo calms down and sees how awful his behavior is, it’s clear she has never experienced a man being this nice to her.
Marilyn’s eyes are often filled with hope—but also doubt, and uneasiness—and you are right there with her, you feel it pouring so honestly out of her. As Butler writes in The Method, about an especially compelling moment from the film: “Monroe’s face is squashed against her forearm, about as unglamorous as she could be. But Monroe stays there, Chérie’s every conflicted thought rippling over her face. It’s acting in the true Method mold: idiosyncratic, emotionally driven, and somewhat cryptic.”
Considering Chérie among Rose and Roslyn, you can see that all of these characters are fighting, in various ways, to just be themselves. Roslyn, Rose, Chérie—they all were, at one time or another, put on a pedestal and then knocked off, and they probably didn’t want to be put on that pedestal in the first place. They all have a rage inside too, whether it is actively expressed, as with contemptuous Rose, who has a lover attempt to murder her husband, or bottled up and ready to erupt, as in the righteous indignation of Roslyn’s “Murderers!” speech and when Chérie, infuriated and fed up, yells at Bo: “I hate you, and I despise you!”
Marilyn showed different dimensions as part of who these women were, not just what men want to see, not just the goddess, provoking various feelings and actions—from curiosity to love to murder. What these women are thinking and doing is of keen interest to viewers—and whether Bo believes she’s an “angel” or Guido thinks she’s “crazy” or George Loomis thinks she’s a “tramp,” it’s almost as if these women have had to live without privacy, to always be onstage, to be archetypes (all three characters were performers as well), something Marilyn could surely relate to.
Marilyn’s Roslyn, and that riveting long shot where she unleashes such a raw anger that she seems electrified by the results, feel like a culmination of this anger and frustration. This could have been a moment of acting that Stanislavski called “perezhivanie”—something Butler describes in The Method as occurring when “an actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has so thoroughly entered into the imaginary reality of the character, that they feel what the character feels, perhaps even think what the character thinks.”
In the thick of it here, one feels that Marilyn is connected to the moment purely—and after reading about how tough this production was, this doesn’t seem surprising. The Misfits—such a haunting movie when it was released and even more so now—and especially Monroe’s performance feel not just meta but radical. She’s screaming at these cowboys as if she needs to awaken the dead.
When writer James Goode, who spent time on the set of The Misfits and wrote a book about the storied production (The Making of “The Misfits”), talked to Monroe, she said: “Goethe says a career is developed in public, but talent is developed in private or silence. It’s true for the actor. To really say what’s in my heart, I’d rather show than to say. Even though I want people to understand, I’d much rather they understand on the screen. If I don’t do that, I’m on the wrong track or in the wrong profession.”
She was certainly in the right profession. Her talent was developed by everything she learned, felt, and created. And there was a natural inner luminosity there too—a magic that the camera loves. She was a true artist. She made herself, and in doing so, she minted a method of her own.
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