Tuesday, October 16, 2012

marilyn and miller — the playwright prince and the reluctant showgirl

Here's another essay from the longer-format piece I'm working on about Marilyn Monroe.

There are countless stories of how difficult Marilyn Monroe was to work with and be around during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. Many of them come from the her highly indiscreet co-star and director, Laurence Olivier. More recently the actress's behavior has been recounted in two books by Colin Clark, who worked as an assistant to Olivier during the filming: The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, which reads as a snipey yet entertaining diary of his time on the set, and My Week with Marilyn, his recounting of a "lost week" not included in the first book, which reads as a wish-fulfillment fantasy.The latter notably became a film starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier.

When one views The Prince and the Showgirl none of the strife between the lead actors is evident. In fact, Marilyn comes off much more accessible and watchable than Olivier, who is stiff and boring. To be fair, his character may have been written that way. The staginess of playwright Terence Rattigan's play, The Sleeping Prince, was preserved in his screen adaptation. But Olivier's acting approach also seems old-fashioned and off-putting. Marilyn not only understood the camera, but the inherent comedy in the piece, aspects that seemed to elude the great British Actor with a capital A.

Marilyn, no matter the strife in her life or her personal demons, always seemed to manage to put them aside on screen. She is luminescent, sporting golden hair (a wig), rather than her trademark platinum blonde. She also looks great in the period costumes designed by Beatrice Dawson. She is still her seductive self, with just the right combination of innocence, as an American showgirl in London, Elsie Marina.

Marilyn and Miller in New York
So why would Marilyn have been in such a state during the filming? She was newlywed, just a few weeks, to playwright Arthur Miller, who accompanied her to London for the making of the movie. She should have been wallowing in domestic bliss. But that was not the case. Marilyn may have felt pressured to marry Miller (by Miller) — he announced their pending nuptials to the press before he bothered to ask the lady herself. Their wedding conveniently coincided with his hearing with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Having the biggest star in the world, Marilyn Monroe, on your side when you are being investigated to determine whether you are a Communist certainly helped Miller's image and case immeasurably.

"The Egghead and the Hourglass" wed quickly, and a week later found themselves ensconced in the tony surroundings of Parkside House in London. During their stay there Marilyn found some of Miller's notes for a project he was working on (which would later become his play After the Fall) — clearly inspired by her and undeniably unflattering. This was a major blow to her marriage fantasy of trust, protection, and hope. Such an incident easily kickstarted the cycle of lateness, forgetting lines, and generally difficult behavior that drove a professional working actor like Olivier mad. It didn't take much for Marilyn to slide into abusing the medications she took regularly. She was aided in these efforts by doctors who were only too willing to placate their celebrity client, and by her business partner and co-producer, photographer Milton Greene, who, along with Miller, Olivier, and countless others, was wrestling for control of the beautiful star.

Especially revealing is a poem she wrote during that time. She was already feeling insecure about the marriage:

I guess I have always been
deeply terrified to really be someone's wife
since I know from life
One cannot love another,
ever, really.
where his eyes rest with pleasure — I want to still be — but time has changed
the hold of that glance.
Alas how will I cope when I am
even less youthful —

Miller, very quickly in their marriage, was put in the role of caretaker, something he was highly unsuited for. It must have been an awakening, and an unpleasant one, for him, too. The responsibilities of being with Marilyn as his wife versus his lover were quite different. One can imagine when they were dating each other in New York that it would make no difference to Miller how long it took Marilyn to get herself together. He could work in the morning and see her in the evening. But sharing a house with a wife who was so addled from sleeping pills and painkillers, and who needed his help to get her up and going in the morning — with a new set of pills to achieve that effect — didn't leave much time for the strong-egoed Miller to concentrate on his own work. He wanted his time in England to bolster his own career. A production of his play A View from the Bridge was in production, and he hoped to cultivate Olivier's favor to his own advantage.

Milton Greene, Marilyn and Miller arrive at a London premiere
It makes one wonder about those "notes" he left lying around, a notebook left in plain sight, in which he called her a "bitch." Whether by mistake, subconscious, or purposeful needling, it was the wrong tack to take with her. With her fragile ego Marilyn needed someone who was unflinchingly supportive. A cheerleader. She needed the kind of unspoken support that one usually gets from a parent. Marilyn had neither a mother nor a father while she was growing up. That she was continually drawn to men with strong egos who didn't have the time or inclination to be nurturers was understandable, but also her mistake and tragedy. One could think of Hollywood in the late '40s and early '50s as a community of despotic fathers, and Marilyn was constantly put in the position if trying to please them, while simultaneously trying to rebel and shirk off their control.

The very plot of The Prince and the Showgirl reflects this. Set in 1911, Marilyn's Elsie, a beautiful and vivacious American chorus girl in a London review, catches the eye of an older visiting foreign dignitary, Grandduke Charles, the prince-regent of Carpathia. In town to attend the coronation of George V, but with seduction on his mind, he invites her for a late supper at the embassy. Elsie proves much smarter than anyone expects, and deftly dodges the Prince's clumsy attempts to seduce her, as well as interpret some political plotting being organized by his son, the King-regent. By the end of the film it is clear that Elsie has enchanted the Prince. They have both fallen in love, agreeing to reunite in 18 month's time, when both his regency and her music hall contract end.

Elsie is similar to Marilyn, who was attracted to powerful older men. Such men would fall in love with her beauty, and she in love with their intelligence and power. But they would ultimately prove unworthy of her, and she would once again feel crushed and disappointed and abandoned, as she had since she was a child, trying to please a series of foster families, but still inevitably being shuffled off, never having a permanent base to call her own.

A person as insecure as Marilyn must have been no picnic for Miller, but his lack of compassion for the weak cannot be isolated to their marriage. Years later, when married to his third wife, photographer Inge Morath, he insisted that their second child, Daniel, who was born with Down Syndrome, be institutionalized and not socialized with the family. His need to prove his intellectual power was one of his defining features.

Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Marilyn, and Miller at the theater,
Miller chose sides while he and Marilyn were in London, and shockingly to his wife, not hers. He championed Olivier's position, as he recounted in his autobiography Timebends: A Life,
"It was simply impossible to agree that he could be the cheap scene-stealer she was talking about. ... Marilyn verged on the belief that he [Olivier] had cast her only because he needed the money her presence would bring. I wanted to believe that this was only half the truth; I was sure he saw the legitimate dramatic contrast between their social and cultural types, and if his motives were indeed partly cynical, they did not cancel his valid artistic judgment in casting. ... inevitably, the time soon came when in order to keep reality from slipping away I occasionally had to defend Olivier or else reinforce the naïveté of her illusions; the result was that she began to question the absoluteness of my partisanship on her side of the deepening struggle."
Marilyn discovered that she was pregnant while she was in London. She suffered a miscarriage before filming wrapped. While married to Miller she later suffered an ectopic pregnancy, and yet another miscarriage after filming wrapped on Some Like it Hot in 1958. When they returned from England to their home in Roxbury, CT (a house mostly paid for by Marilyn, as Miller had not much money after his divorce), their married life hadn't improved much.
Starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that's all I really have ever had. Roxbury — … I think I hate it here because there is no love here anymore. I regret the effort I desperately made here. ... what I could endure helped both of us and in a material way which means so much more to him than me. ... When one wants to stay alone as my love (Arthur) indicates the other must stay apart.
Marilyn and Miller, during the filming of The Misfits, photographed by Inge Morath
Miller repeated the pattern he started during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl when he and Marilyn made The Misfits two years later, in 1960. He chose to align himself with director John Huston rather than his fragile wife. The Misfits was supposed to be Miller's "Valentine" to Marilyn, a screenplay and story that he had written especially to showcase her talents as an actress, but the character of Roslyn Tabor was not always shown in a positive light. This was not lost on Marilyn, who cringed as each subsequent re-write became successively more unflattering.

She was furious about a scene late in the film, where Roslyn pleads with Clark Gable's character Gay not to sell wild mustangs to a slaughterhouse.
"I convince them by throwing a fit, not by explaining anything. So I have a fit. A screaming crazy fit … And to think, Arthur did this to me … If that's what he thinks of me, well, and I'm not for him and he's not for me." — Marilyn to her maid Lena Pepitone, from Marilyn, by Gloria Steinem
Marilyn photographed by Inge Morath on the set of The Misfits
To add insult to injury, while their marriage was splintering, Miller befriended a young Magnum photographer, Inge Morath, who was assigned to take photos on the set of The Misfits. They married a month after his divorce from Marilyn was finalized in February 1962. Inge gave birth to their first child, Rebecca later that year, which must have been especially hard for Marilyn to hear.

When Marilyn first met Arthur Miller she was impressed with his intelligence and his integrity. As their relationship progressed she watched her idol fade, as he let some of his ideals slip for money (he crossed lines during a writer's strike in Hollywood to act as a script doctor on her film Let's Make Love), and her belief that she would finally be safe and loved turned out to be just a dream. Miller was not the sort of person to nurture and support a fragile actress or human being. His inability to prevent her dependence on doctors, drugs, and gurus is especially puzzling. Was he too weak to stand up to the people who wanted to control her, or was he just trying to  protect his interests? The sad fact is that Marilyn's life, although always turbulent, was much worse after her time spent with Miller. She never really recovered after their divorce. One wonders what might have happened if she had either never met him, or moved on to someone else while she was in New York. We'll never know.
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