From the archive
David Thomson has high standards in film stars and he imposes rather firm rules about how they ought to twinkle, but he isn’t being fair to Marilyn Monroe (Letters, 24 May). The actress won’t be confused anytime soon with Abraham Lincoln or Abbie Hoffman, but in her own way she changed the situation, pre-1960s, by making the personal feel like something more political. Twentieth Century-Fox wanted nothing from her but cheesecake and compliance, and, increasingly, as Jacqueline Rose pointed out, she gave them trouble, the kind of trouble that can only challenge the rules of exploitation.
Thomson suggests Marilyn was never as well behaved or professional as Elizabeth Taylor: that’s right, but she was never as happy or as well-spoken as Liz either, or as stable in terms of her family life or education. And yet, unlike every other actress, Marilyn fought for director approval after 1955 and she got it. She never again made a picture with a director she didn’t think intelligent. And on the list of directors she esteemed was Alfred Hitchcock, who expressed a wish to work with her and who clearly, contra Thomson, was fascinated by her talent. It seems Thomson doesn’t wish, as Rose does, to locate Marilyn’s issues with power in a brutal childhood. Men wanted only one thing from her; but she wanted other things from herself, and in this lay her struggle. To imply that her battle was stupid or worthless is to deny her reality all over again.
Nobody said she handled the film industry brilliantly, but she did get Bus Stop made; she did attend the Actors Studio at a time when every journalist in America was scoffing at the notion; and she did make her contempt for Something’s Got to Give so evident that they fired her from the production, and then had to rehire her when her co-star Dean Martin wouldn’t do the picture with her replacement (Lee Remick). Maybe Thomson is just fed up with the whole Marilyn story, and can’t be bothered to seek out the things that matter about her (and mattered to her). But Marilyn’s wish to be a thinking person and a political person is not, for me, undermined by the fact that some of her contemporaries had similar wishes.
Thomson’s point about Anna Christie is daft: Lee Strasberg loved her in the part, but he wasn’t a producer or a commercial director by that point in his life. In fact he didn’t work on a single stage play between 1951 and 1963. He was though, as Rose says in her piece, mad keen to direct her in a television production of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Again, Marilyn showed her loyalty and exercised her power with NBC by holding out for him as director, because he had done the work with her. She was indeed a democratic being, and Thomson might allow that democracy doesn’t always come out on top, especially when it hangs out with dictators. But Marilyn was her own faltering powerhouse, a small agent of change, and none of the other splendid actors Thomson mentions booked a table every night at the Mocambo to ensure that Ella Fitzgerald got the gig.