[Note: the following is one of two pieces that were written in commission for a project that changed direction.]
WHAT IF THEY’D LIVED? MARILYN MONROE
On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe received her long-wished-for gift from God. She awoke in a Los Angeles hospital, having been revived from an accidental overdose of the barbiturate Nembutal. According to doctors, she’d been legally dead for three minutes. For the insecure actress suffering from multiple nervous conditions both real and imagined it seemed like a miraculous second chance.
The previous weeks and months had been nightmarish, both for her and for those around her. Her public firing from the 20th Century Fox production Something’s Got to Give had opened up a floodgate of tabloid scrutiny, not to mention industry backlash. If it hadn’t been for her co-star, Dean Martin—who immediately quit the project after she’d been replaced by Lee Remick—who knows what would have happened to her career. She was still under contract with Fox. Something’s Got to Give would be the third of her four-picture deal and she had the distinct impression that they were eager to be rid of her.
Not that she blamed them. But didn’t they understand? She was sick. Sinusitis, the gallbladder surgery. She thought back to her ruined marriages, the husbands who never understood her.
Then she thought of Clark Gable. She used to tell people growing up that her father looked like him. She used to fantasize that Gable was her father. And then she met him on The Misfits, and he was nothing like the father in her fantasies. He was old. He was sick. And she was…
She treated him horribly. She treated everyone horribly. Not that she ever meant to. Didn’t they understand how hard she worked—staying up all night to learn those lines, was it any wonder she couldn’t get up the next morning? And all those lines! Lines that would just slip away the minute the cameras pointed towards her. Those cameras, their unblinking eyes. And the people behind those cameras, all of them, staring at the “sex goddess”, waiting for her to fail.
The pills were an accident. Stupid. Dr. Greenson told her, over and over again in their sessions, that it was miraculous that she could quit any time without withdrawl. She had strength, didn’t she see?
Taking a deep breath, she thought about what to do about it all.
Filming on Something’s Got to Give resumed in October. Marilyn—still “Norma Jean” in her head—avoided the press in the interim, though she collected the things that were slowly coming out. Cosmopolitan’s interview with her was non-judgmental, for the most part. Bert Stern’s shots of her came out in Vogue. She thought the nudes were tasteful and pretty and she was surprised they hadn’t used more of them. But the outside world was still outside.
Fox held up their end of the deal. Cukor was gone from Something’s Got to Give and they brought in Jean Negulesco and things were better. She liked Jean. Cukor made her nervous, and he didn’t like Paula Strassberg being around her all the time. He didn’t understand that she, Marilyn, needed Paula. Paula was her acting coach. She was trustworthy. She knew her. She knew Norma Jean. Jean Negulesco understood. Dean understood. Dean was nice to her. Dean was…
Her resolve had strengthened after the hospital. More or less. She got sick. She still missed days of shooting. Those camera eyes still chased the lines from her head. But the movie got done. Jean finished it.
It didn’t do well. Fox, finally, released her from the contract.
But it was okay. Billy Wilder made good on his word and Irma La Douce turned out to be a smash. He still got exasperated with her, just like he had on Some Like It Hot, and he made it perfectly clear that her outbursts “would not be tolerated”. She didn’t come in the next day after that little lecture, but things got better. They didn’t fight as much. His direction made more sense to her this time around. Even Paula said so. Towards the end, she even made it to the set on time. A couple of times, anyway.
What a Way to Go! didn’t do as well. The reviews weren’t as good this time around. “Lightning doesn’t strike a fourth time for Wilder and Monroe,” said Louella Parsons. But it was okay. Her favorite scene was with Paul Newman. She loved his eyes and he said he liked her laugh. Sometimes, and she didn’t know why, he made her think of Arthur. Still, she thought the reviews were the reason Billy didn’t ask her to do Kiss Me, Stupid, but that was fine. She didn’t want to do that kind of role again anyway.
Reviews for A Big Hand for the Little Lady were better. She knew full well that Fielder Cook had wanted Joanne Woodward but Warner Brothers wanted Marilyn. And Warner got what it wanted.
But then they savaged her. Just…savaged her. Too old, they said. Too old to revisit that old blonde bubblehead character in Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number! She only took it for a chance to work with Bob Hope, who she’d loved on the radio and was always so nice to her at the parties. Maybe the role was beneath her, but “too old”? She was thirty-nine! How could that be “too old”? Maybe that’s what Wyler had meant when he told her she was “wrong” for the part of the girl in The Collector. And she’d campaigned so hard, worked so hard to convince him. But, she was “wrong” and Samantha Eggar was “right”.
When The Cincinnati Kid finally came out, after the delays and the turmoil, she was exhausted. She was relieved with Peckinpah was fired. What a monster he was! And black and white? That movie needed to be in color. Still even Norman Jewison, blessing that he was, couldn’t take the chill out of the air when McQueen was on set. Christ, he just hated women, didn’t he? Natalie Wood had even told her—“Watch out for him. He’s worse than a wolf. He’s…” she never finished the sentence.
The thing that clinched it, though—what truly put her over the edge? That script Embassy sent her. The one where they wanted her to play a middle-aged mother seducing her daughter’s boyfriend! No-name actor in the lead, green director. Yeah, okay, Nichols had been nominated for Virginia Woolf, but really, you don’t direct the Burtons, you just aim them! Isn’t that what Parsons said to her? Or was it Arthur…?
So she “retired”. She couldn’t do it quietly, of course. Life ran the story on the cover, it quoted her—misquoted, actually—when she gave a variation of her “fickle fame” speech. What she’d actually said, this time, was that “she was no longer in love with fame.” Not “in lust”. But coverage is coverage and she was… she was just very, very tired.
Arthur called her. He was embroiled in some experimental theater of some sort, kept asking her for her take on things. And she’d ask him why he wouldn’t just ask Inge? “She’s your wife, Arthur. Don’t treat her like Daniel,” and she almost regretted saying that. But she forged ahead. “Don’t lock her away like you did him. It wasn’t her fault. Daniel wasn’t your fault, either. God does these things sometimes.”
Why? He asked her. After a while. “Because God is cruel,” she said, finally. And for the first time, having said it many, many times, she really meant it.
Arthur encouraged her to write, put some of these thoughts down on paper. Then put them on stage. She smiled at the thought. Then tried it out. It didn’t really go anywhere, but it was nice to just be alone for a while, to sort some of this stuff out.
She’d heard through friends that Robert Redford had also turned down The Graduate. Good for him. She finally met him through Paul at a party for Butch Cassidy and the … something Kid. She didn’t see it, but Bob was nice. So was Lola. His wife. And Bob didn’t run around.
Nichols, however, was still driving her crazy. The Graduate had been a hit for him. And maybe he didn’t like being turned down. Or… whatever the reason, she read Carnal Knowledge, to get him off her back. But she wasn’t interested in acting any more. She hadn’t spoken to Paula in… how long? Two years now? Paula had other students. No time for “friends”.
The script was just so rude. That was the only way she could describe it. But “Bobbie” was such a wonderful character. She saw so much of herself in there—of “Norma Jean” in there. The nudity didn’t bother her. The language—Wilder said she had the mouth of a sailor! Finally, she called Nichols. “You don’t think I’m…” she paused, “Too old?”
She couldn’t go to the Awards ceremony. She was too sick. The nerves had gotten the best of her again. And the doctors said there was something wrong with her liver. She’d need tests. But she watched on TV, right up until they announced her name as Nominee for Best Supporting Actress in Carnal Knowledge. Then she switched off the television. She didn’t care if she won. She really, really didn’t. Norma Jean didn’t. Marilyn might have. But Norma Jean was happy. What was the saying? “It’s an honor just to be nominated?” Besides, if she heard someone else’s name that night, she’d know just how cruel God was, and he’d been pretty nice to her lately. She listened to the ocean, just outside her window and decided to go to bed early.
Marilyn Monroe passed away, in her sleep, on August 5, 1971. Official cause of death was heart-failure, possibly related to her earlier abuse of drugs and alcohol. She left behind her a legacy of both good films and bad and was considered one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. Today, she’s considered a cultural icon, possibly because she died so young at the age of 45.