Marilyn Monroe and the Actors Studio

Caproni

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Marilyn Monroe was cemented as a silver screen powerhouse by 1955, and she was easily the most bankable contract star for Twentieth Century-Fox. She had starred in a string of commercial successes for the studio, such as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire, to name a few.

One of her more iconic movies, the film version of The Seven Year Itch, was released on her twenty-ninth birthday, June 1, 1955. It was a critical and financial smash, but it also fueled the dumb blonde stereotype Monroe had rode to the top of her stardom. As the nameless upstairs neighbor in the film, she was willingly playing into the notion that her off-screen personality and on-screen persona were one and the same.

Marilyn had grown weary of playing roles she knew were not stretching her skills as an actress. In early 1955, she walked out on her Fox contract after declining yet another stereotypical dumb blonde part in How to Be Very, Very Popular. She had determined herself to pursue her dreams of becoming a serious actress. Leaving her lawyers to deal with the lawsuits brought forth against her by Fox, Monroe set her sights on Manhattan, the home of the legitimate American theatre. She had been invited by acting guru Lee Strasberg to join his Actors Studio as an observer of his lessons.

Monroe would end up studying with the Actors Studio exclusively for well over a year, during which time she turned down a host of scripts, citing them as inferior.

In this thread, I want to dive into Monroe's time with the Actors Studio and its effects on her professional and personal lives.


 
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Marilyn M used to watch Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara and company rehearse for Cat on a hot tin roof and was at the premiere and opening night in NYC
 

Caproni

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Marilyn M used to watch Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara and company rehearse for Cat on a hot tin roof and was at the premiere and opening night in NYC
I don't believe I ever knew that before. Thanks for this tidbit.
 

Caproni

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Below is a picture from Marilyn's 1955 press conference she held after Fox had updated her contract. Although Darryl F. Zanuck was irritated at his star's repeated attempts to assert her independence, he decided to prepare a new contract for her, hoping to lure her back to the studio and not go to the Actors Studio in New York.

The new contract provided Marilyn with both script and director approval. She submitted a list of directors to Fox that she would agree to work with, among them William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz among others, and the studio surprisingly agreed to her demands. I'm assuming that her salary was also adjusted, but I haven't found anything verifying that it was. The press conference, from which the below photo was taken, Marilyn was asked about submitting a list of directors to her home studio. She hesitates to answer the question, but eventually says: "I'd rather say, ummm, that I have director approval." Apparently, her advisers didn't want her to appear too demanding to the media.

Even though Marilyn would accept Fox's new contract offer, she still headed to New York to mold her craft with the Strasbergs at the Actors Studio. The success of The Seven Year Itch had thrown her for a loop. While she was understandably happy that the film was a hit, it fueled her twin desires to be both a popular star and serious actress. She desperately wanted both. She wanted to be famous, but also judged by her acting chops. Actress Sheree North said that Marilyn "had gotten recognition as a glamour girl, but she wanted to go on and be something more solid".

I'm not entirely sure when Marilyn arrived in New York, but it was sometime following the premiere of The Seven Year Itch that June. She was initially invited merely to observe the lessons being taught at the Actors Studio. This started a continuing series of events that would change her life, personally and professionally, forever.

 
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Below, Marilyn is pictured with Lee and Paula Strasberg, her mentors she met while at the Actors Studio. Paula replaced Natasha Lytess as Marilyn's personal drama coach, apparently at a salary of around $5,000 a week, and worked closely with the actress during the production of every film she did from 1956 to 1962. Marilyn was also close to the the Strasbergs' younger daughter, Susan, who was also a successful film and theatre actress.

Marilyn's dependency on the Strasbergs is generally felt to have crippled the actress and her notorious fragile temperament. Paula, in particular, was "universally unpopular" on the sets of Monroe's movies. Producer Henry Weinstein said Paula dressed in all black, a manner her referenced as "Dracula's assistant", and that she would "indulge" Marilyn, and urged the studios not to mistreat Marilyn "because she's a very big star".

The general consensus is that the Strasbergs did not help Marilyn at all, specifically because they encouraged her to examine her years of loneliness and childhood abandonment to further her craft as an actress. Likewise, many in Hollywood felt that the Strasbergs were only interested in Monroe because of her popularity, which brought considerable attention to their Actors Studio and their method acting techniques. Screenwriter Walter Bernstein said that being Monroe's mentor was "very important" to the Strasbergs, which is why the indulged her tendencies and focused their time predominantly on her and her studies as training for method acting.

 

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Great thread again and very informative.

This is a fascinating moment in Monroe's career and life. For an actress at the peak of popularity, fame and success to just leave it all and head to school is unheard of. Just shows how humble MM was after all and how much she wanted to learn, improve and get recognition, something Hollywood wouldn't let her do.

I love those photos of her sitting in the crowd and watching actors perform and practice at the Studio. Imagine being one of those amateur wannabe actors and having MM sit next to you as a fellow classmate. Surreal.

As for the results and effect it had on her, I guess it's hard to say. She did get some dramatic roles after this and imo she did great job, especially in Bus Stop (1956), her first post Actor Studio movie and of course The Misfits (1961), perhaps her best performance.

BTW, in that photo above, I think that's Billy Wilder behind Marilyn, not Lee.
 

Caproni

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Great thread again and very informative.

This is a fascinating moment in Monroe's career and life. For an actress at the peak of popularity, fame and success to just leave it all and head to school is unheard of. Just shows how humble MM was after all and how much she wanted to learn, improve and get recognition, something Hollywood wouldn't let her do.

I love those photos of her sitting in the crowd and watching actors perform and practice at the Studio. Imagine being one of those amateur wannabe actors and having MM sit next to you as a fellow classmate. Surreal.

As for the results and effect it had on her, I guess it's hard to say. She did get some dramatic roles after this and imo she did great job, especially in Bus Stop (1956), her first post Actor Studio movie and of course The Misfits (1961), perhaps her best performance.

BTW, in that photo above, I think that's Billy Wilder behind Marilyn, not Lee.
Thank you. I've always been a big Marilyn Monroe, and I enjoy finding different ways to discuss her career and it's great to do so here by dividing her career up into different threads. She had many eras in her career that were pivotal to the whole, and her work with the Actors Studio was definitely one of those.

Whether or not Marilyn's time with the Actors Studio was positive is certainly up for debate. As I said in an earlier post, many in Hollywood felt that her decision was a courageous one that showed she sincerely wanted to mature as a character actress. On the other hand, there are just as many that feel the studio's techniques worsened Marilyn's already fragile emotional state and her temperamental behavior during the production of her films. And of course, her temperamental behavior can be attributed to her insecurities and personal doubts, all things the Actors Studio encouraged her to tap into in order to be a better actress on screen.

She did do some great character work post-Actors Studio, namely in Bus Stop and The Misfits, the two films you previously mentioned. I would agree that The Misfits captures Marilyn's best performance on film, even though the film was initially misunderstood when originally released back in 1961. Her other films during this later era, whether it be the prestigious work known as The Prince and the Showgirl, the critical and box office smash hit that was Some Like It Hot, or the oddball musical comedy Let's Make Love, all grouped her right back into the pretty, sexy blonde stereotype she was so desperately trying to rid herself of.

And as for the picture, I do believe you are right. That is Billy Wilder. I guess I should do a little more digging before posting snap shots instead of always trusting Google to tell me what I'm looking for. The picture appears to have been taken on the set of Some Like It Hot.

Here's an actual picture of Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg:

 
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Speaking of The Prince and the Showgirl, I have to say this is the worst movie she ever made, IMO. I only saw the whole movie once, a few years ago, and it was one of the most boring movie experiences ever. Like what were they thinking? What was the point of it all? I can't even remember the plot now, if there was any, but it was just so empty, staged, limited, lifeless.... I know there was a lot of behind the scenes drama, as usual, and that Olivier was unhappy with her but still the movie is the absolute pits. I'm sure even Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! is a better quality movie, in fact it sounds like it's a lot of fun.:D

Anyway, just had to get that out of my system. Monroe's career is actually very consistent in that she made hit after hit and they were all great quality movies that are remembered as classics in their genres. Showgirl is the only true bomb she made.

 
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Caproni

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Speaking of The Prince and the Showgirl, I have to say this is the worst movie she ever made, IMO. I only saw the whole movie once, a few years ago, and it was one of the most boring movie experiences ever. Like what were they thinking? What was the point of it all? I can't even remember the plot now, if there was any, but it was just so empty, staged, limited, lifeless.... I know there was a lot of behind the scenes drama, as usual, and that Olivier was unhappy with her but still the movie is the absolute pits. I'm sure even Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! is a better quality movie, in fact it sounds like it's a lot of fun.:D

Anyway, just had to get that out of my system. Monroe's career is actually very consistent in that she made hit after hit and they were all great quality movies that are remembered as classics in their genres. Showgirl is the only true bomb she made.

I'd have to disagree slightly. In my opinion, Monroe's worst effort came with Let's Make Love. The film was riddled with behind-the-scenes troubles right from the start. She never wanted to do to the movie, and did it only as a part of her 20th Century-Fox contract fulfillment. She was unsatisfied with the original script, so her then-husband Arthur Miller rewrote it. At different times, the likes of Gary Cooper, Rock Hudson, Yul Brynner, James Stewart, and others were considered as her co-star. Eventually, the studio suggested French actor Yves Montand, whom Monroe would approve of.

Marilyn was eager to work with director George Cukor, who had directed many of Hollywood's Golden Age hits, and had worked successfully with a host of leading ladies, from Katharine Hepburn to Joan Crawford. He was known as a "woman's director," and Marilyn had high hopes to working with him. The production of Let's Make Love, however, proved troublesome. Marilyn's tardiness and frequent absences equaled the film to go over-budget. Cukor found her difficult to work with, and as one biography puts it, Monroe's personal issues were starting to effect her appearance on screen. She looks older here than her thirty-three years, and at times, she seems oddly disconnected from her co-stars.

Let's Make Love just isn't a movie I cared for. I've watched the entire thing once or twice, and I honestly don't have any desire to do that again any time soon. It's terribly lengthy and Monroe's role is considerably smaller than my personal preference. The only reason I like this movie is because of Marilyn's opening number, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", which has become a signature of her persona.

 

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^^^I wanted to mention Let's Make Love as well, since it is her second worst picture, for me, but still, despite all the faults you mentioned, it still has one of Marilyn's classic scenes/performances in "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" which makes it worth a watch. The pink sweater and black tights is also one of her iconic looks and I love all the scenes of MM rehearsing and hanging around with the dancers and performers.

The Prince and the Showgirl
has absolutely NOTHING going for it.

 
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Caproni

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^^^I wanted to mention Let's Make Love as well, since it is her second worst picture, for me, but still, despite all the faults you mentioned, it still has one of Marilyn's classic scenes/performances in "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" which makes it worth a watch. The pink sweater and black tights is also one of her iconic looks and I love all the scenes of MM rehearsing and hanging around with the dancers and performers.

The Prince and the Showgirl
has absolutely NOTHING going for it.

You're absolutely right. Monroe's entrance in Let's Make Love is a fixture of her persona and legacy. That outfit seems strangely original, for her at least, but it also falsely leads the viewer that this is going to be a bohemian romantic comedy, but they fail to deliver on that setup.

The Prince and the Showgirl reads beautifully on paper. The idea of Sir Laurence Olivier, often considered one of the finest actors that ever lived, teaming up with a popular screen sex symbol, such as Monroe, is definitely enticing. I'm sure the head honchos at Warner Brothers thought they had stuck gold with the pairing of a classically trained actor and a popular screen siren, but this production was riddled with its own behind-the-scenes issues, too. Almost nothing went smoothly. It received positive press and royal reviews, but modern historians critique it as slow-moving and consistently point out the lack of chemistry between Monroe and Olivier.

I'm sure Marilyn herself also had high hopes for The Prince and the Showgirl. It was her first film away from Twentieth Century-Fox since she had been loaned to RKO for Clash by Night back in 1951, and it was to be her first feature co-produced by her production company known as Marilyn Monroe Productions. I imagine she was enthusiastic about Olivier supposedly choosing her over his wife, two-time Academy Award-winning actress Vivien Leigh, for the part of showgirl Elsie Marina. Naturally, I'm sure she quite thrilled at the notion of working with Olivier himself, as she probably assumed that her work with him would bring her the prestige she wanted as an actress.

Monroe and Olivier did not have a healthy relationship, however. The classically trained Olivier was annoyed by Monroe's method acting techniques, and he felt that her dependency on drama teacher Paula Strasberg and her chronic tardiness were prime examples of a pampered star's unprofessional behavior. Many close to Marilyn felt ashamed of Olivier's treatment towards her. Susan Strasberg once said she felt Olivier had contempt for Marilyn because she was basically paying his bills. In hindsight, Monroe's method antics caused her to take the the story, which was the lightest of comedies, far too seriously in preparation. While she's as lovely as ever in the movie itself, the making-of for those involved was anything but pleasant. Actress Sybil Thorndike often came to Monroe's rescue in her spats with Olivier, and it is commonly believed that Thorndike found Monroe to be a gifted comedienne and a true screen actress for the camera.

Either way, both The Prince and the Showgirl and Let's Make Love are weak links in Monroe's filmography. As ideas they each present something enticing, but disappoint the viewer by refusing to deliver.

 

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Earlier today I watched a documentary detailing Marilyn's time she spent in New York at different points in her life. Of course, there is a specific period of the piece that is set-aside to discuss her time spent at the Actors Studio. Actress Ellen Burstyn, who joined the Actors Studio in 1967, was interviewed for this documentary. She tells of a story she often heard about Marilyn's time at the Actors Studio. Marilyn was given the chance to perform for the studio once, and she chose the play Anna Christie, a role Garbo had perfected on celluloid in 1930. It was a particularly demanding task for Marilyn, and according to Burstyn, her performance ushered a gawk from the other members who were astonished at the power of her work. Burstyn says it was a moment that Marilyn achieved excellence at her craft.

She desperately wanted to be taking seriously.

 

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Marilyn was certainly giddy upon arriving at the Actors Studio. These pictures certainly show us that she was in good spirits, and therefore had high aspirations for accomplishing something great from what she was preparing to obtain.

 

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It's ironic just how desperate 20th Century-Fox was to keep Marilyn on their rooster. One commentator said that Monroe was Fox's "biggest commodity since Shirley Temple", although I'd liable to say that Betty Grable was more than a mere stepping stone between Temple in the '30s and Monroe in the '50s. Heck, HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953) was considered the movie where Grable 'passed the baton' to Monroe as being the darling of the Fox lot. But that's not what I want to talk about, so I'm going shove on from this soapbox.

Fox tried so many tactics to get Monroe 'in line' when she bailed on them for the Actors Studio. They had already tried replacing her with Sheree North, but that proved a misfire after North failed to capture Monroe's on-screen charisma. Nunnally Johnson, the writer-producer-director of HOW TO BE VERY, VERY POPULAR (1955), said that North was "hopelessly untalented" and that she was a poor substitute for Monroe. Once North proved a dud, Fox shifted their focus to publicizing Broadway sensation Jayne Mansfield, who they placed under contract in early 1956. Mansfield was promoted as "Marilyn Monroe king-sized" in the press. Mansfield also failed to live up to her hype and, by 1958, she was being loaned out to foreign productions to 'burn off' the remainder of her Fox contract.

Throughout it all, Fox knew that it was Marilyn that they needed. One biography noted that "Marilyn still needed 20th Century-Fox and Fox still needed her" during her time in New York at the Actors Studio. Fox was very vulnerable to the changing movie industry in the 1950s, and Monroe was vital to keeping their studio afloat. Fox tried to lure Marilyn away from NYC to play more 'serious' roles in movies like THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER, but she flat refused to return for anything less than she felt she deserved. Her 'method acting' training urged her to seek out more demanding roles. Warner Brothers apparently wanted her for BABY DOLL, but whether Monroe was interested or not, the role she had been considered for was eventually given to Carroll Baker.

One has to admire Marilyn's desire to better herself as an actress. She had gotten to be a box office darling with her more glossy hits, but she wanted to go on to something more solid. When she finally returned to Hollywood and to Fox, she was still choosy in her choice of her 'comeback' vehicle. She eventually chose the William Inge story BUS STOP, which was to be directed by Joshua Logan. Monroe felt a responsibility to validate her controversial training at the Actors Studio. Her performance as Chérie, a roadhouse torch singer, received considerable praise, quieting many of her harshest critics. BUS STOP was Fox's biggest hit of 1956.

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Caproni

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Photos from a photo session during Monroe's acting training days at the Actors Studio. One speculates that such a photo session was assembled to introduce Marilyn as a more serious, character-driven actress post-method acting training.​

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