Several months ago I was reading over a film message board and I came across a topic concerning Marilyn Monroe as an actress. I was surprised to see just how many people on the board seemed to have so little regard for her, not only as an actress but also as culturally relevant figure.
I could go into a heavy and long posting on why Marilyn Monroe was, and remains, so important but I thought for now I would just look at one particular performance that I think is so fine that I can't imagine people who have seen it questioning her abilities. I will say though regarding her as a person, and as a cultural significant figure, there are very few people I hold in higher regard than Marilyn Monroe.
After filming THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH with Billy Wilder, Marilyn was under the mistaken impression that 20th Century Fox would immediately start offering her equally challenging roles. She was mistaken as the studio wished nothing more than to continue to play her as a dumb blond sex goddess and asked her to do a series of lightweight films that she rightly felt were underneath her. Marilyn did the unthinkable at this point and just left Hollywood. She travelled to New York to study at Lee Strasberg's famed Actor's Studio and effectively broke her contract with Fox, a move that could have ruined her entire career but Monroe was smart enough to know what she was doing.
Within a few months Fox caved, and in a move nearly unthinkable under the studio system, gave Monroe director and script approval rights. Monroe had imn the meantime been taken under Strasberg's wing and her time in New York is one of the most significant in her life. The Marilyn Monroe that would return to Hollywood in 1956 was a very different one than had left less than a year earlier.
Marilyn's first post New York/Strasberg role was Joshua Logan's BUS STOP, adapted from the William Inge play by George Axelrod. Logan had just come off his wonderful Inge adaption PICNIC (1955) and Axelrod of course had just adapted his play THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH for Monroe and Wilder in 1955.
Axelrod had a tricky time adapting Inge's play but finally he did a splendid job as BUS STOP manages to open the play up but never loses it's sweet if slyly cynical and heartbreaking feel. Logan was the perfect choice and with it's lovely widescreen CinemaScope photography by Milton Krasner and fine supporting cast including the always great Arthur O'Connell and a young Hope Lange, BUS STOP remains one of the most enduring and effective films from Hollywood in the fifties.
The Oscar nominated Don Murray was a well known tv actor and BUS STOP would provide him with his first major film role as the clueless and slightly irritating Bo Decker, a farm boy off to the big city obsessed with finding him a wife. The incredible O'Connell plays his wise uncle Virgil and spends much of the film attempting to rescue Bo from himself. The object of Bo's desires is a nightclub singer named Cherie, a lonely woman whose been on her way to California for years but she is starting to understand that the hardest thing to realize is a dream. Cherie is played in a heartbreaking and fully realized performance by Monroe. A performance that more than twenty years after it's release had a tearful Logan exclaiming, "She WAS Cherie...she was just Cherie."
From her opening scene where she is singing an exciting, funny and tragic THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC, to the film's final moments where she is literally shaking with anticipation, Monroe is everything here her legend has made her out to be. There has never been anyone that can even come close to matching her simultaneous strength and vulnerability on screen and BUS STOP is her major work. It might not be as good of a film as SOME LIKE IT HOT or THE MISFITS but Marilyn Monroe as Cherie is one of the smartest and most effective performances in Hollywood history.
I first saw BUS STOP in my early teens and really just fell in love with Monroe in it. I remember I was so taken with the theme song by The Four Lads that I took one of those small home cassette recorders and held it up to the front of the TV to get it on tape. It is a film that I have watched dozens of times and it never fails to move me and it remains one of my favorite films from the fifties.
Marilyn's best moments in the film are pretty well documented, from her opening musical number to the chase at the bus stop. One scene that hasn't gotten enough attention is one between her and Hope Lange. Lange was making her feature film debut and was just in her early twenties when she got to work with the legendary Monroe. The scene, where they discuss the future and marriage, is a remarkable moment between two really fine actresses at the top of their game. It is also quite moving to see Monroe interacting with a younger woman, you can almost feel the impact she was having on an entire generation of young women who could see how fiercely intelligent and strong she was. Jamie Lee Curtis would once note something along the lines that she didn't love Marilyn Monroe for the dumb blond roles that she played but that she was intelligent enough to play them smartly and with humanity. It was this quality that separated her from the many blond copycats that have followed in her path.
Marilyn Monroe would not get an Oscar Nomination for BUS STOP, in fact she never got an OSCAR NOMINATION nor has she ever been honored with a posthumous lifetime achievement award from them. The film would garner several awards and nominations and would be a solid hit in 1956. Monroe would follow the film with THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) where her increasing naturalness and ease would easily steal the film from the stiff and stately Laurence Olivier. 1959 would of course bring the great SOME LIKE IT HOT where Monroe would again be ignored by the Academy although it's harder to think of a more defining and important performance from the fifties.
I think a lot of younger film fans just haven't seen BUS STOP or I am guessing many Marilyn Monroe films at all so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by the lack of respect from this particular film board. Like Elvis and James Dean, her image has been marketed to the point where her considerable achievements and importance have been nearly forgotten by many people. May I highly recommend BUS STOP for anyone who perhaps only knows Marilyn Monroe through her photographs or imitators. She was a wonderfully warm and effective actress and BUS STOP is one of her most enduring films. It is currently available on a nice Widescreen Fox dvd and can be found for under fifteen dollars through most vendors.