Peggy Lee once said that when people in her profession were asked who the greatest jazz singer of all time was, the answer was always the same: “You mean, aside from Ella?”
There is a fine documentary on Netflix about the triumphant and troubled life of Ella Fitzgerald, but this column isn’t about her. It is about a woman who had a significant impact upon her career.
In the late 1950s, Fitzgerald’s manager was trying to get his client an engagement in a trendy Hollywood nightclub, but even in fairly liberal California, the club’s owners weren’t going to risk hiring a black entertainer. One prominent member of the movie community took great exception. She told the club’s managers that, if they didn’t hire Ella, she would never set foot in the place again. She would see to it that none of her friends did either.
They relented, booked Ella, and Marilyn Monroe was often seated at a ringside table listening to the greatest jazz singer of all time.
Young people probably hazily remember Monroe's untimely death. It was interwoven with whispers of scandalous sexual liaisons, drug dependence, and/or mental instability. It’s a little like only remembering the smoke after the fire has been extinguished. For those of us of a certain age and for all of us who love the movies, there was never anyone who could set the screen ablaze quite like Marilyn did.
When she died at the age of 36, she accomplished what she could never have done in life. Marilyn never had to grow old in the minds of the millions of people who loved her. She was arguably at the height of her beauty in 1962 and that image would remain frozen there. She would never have to don grotesque make-up to play a character like Baby Jane Hudson or wistfully reminisce about her lost youth and beauty as Vivien Leigh did so mercilessly in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” and “Ship of Fools.”
I would wager that more ink has been expended trying to analyze Monroe than anyone in film history. What drove her? What was wrong with her? It could very well be that the answer to the first question is inherent in the second question. Authors from Joyce Carol Oates to Norman Mailer have written entire books about her and I am certainly not going to attempt to follow those revered literary lions down that twisted jungle path.
George Cukor, who directed “Let’s Make Love” and Marilyn’s uncompleted last movie, prophetically titled “Something’s Got to Give,” didn’t bother with attempts at in-depth analysis.
“She was mad,” said Cukor. “The mother was mad and so was Marilyn.”
She was causing expensive delays on the film, constantly calling in sick and necessitating numerous retakes when she flubbed her lines. Her co-star, Dean Martin, was invariably kind to her, but everyone’s patience was wearing thin. Monroe was finally fired.
When Fox indicated they would replace her with Lee Remick, Martin evoked a clause in his contract that gave him co-star approval. Without Marilyn, he said, there would be no Martin. There were some attempts at restarting the picture, but Marilyn was dead a few months later and it eventually evolved into a vehicle for Doris Day.
Marilyn was never an easy actor to work with, but the problems on the movie, like the ones that ran up the costs on “The Misfits,” her last completed film and the most expensive black and white film made up to that time, were not entirely her fault.
Twentieth Century Fox was on the brink of bankruptcy. There was only one other film in production during the time Cukor was directing “Something’s Got to Give.” It was originally intended as a modest $2 million remake of a 1919 Theda Bara warhorse about the life of Cleopatra starring Joan Collins. The film had ballooned into a production that was hemorrhaging money after Elizabeth Taylor replaced Collins on the throne of Egypt. “Cleopatra” eventually cost the studio $44 million (around $370 million in today’s dollars).
Fox simply couldn’t afford two cinematic grand dames and, at the moment, Marilyn was more expendable.
The imperious Otto Preminger blamed problems he experienced with Monroe while directing “River of No Return” on the “(expletive deleted) studying she had done in New York.” Marilyn’s deeply ingrained insecurities necessitated the constant presence of an acting coach in the person of Paula Strasberg, the wife of the founder of the famed Actor’s Studio in Manhattan. She wouldn’t do the slightest gesture without first consulting with Strasberg. The umbilical dependence led to monumental clashes from the wounded egos of directors on her films.
Billy Wilder, who made two of Monroe’s most warmly remembered films, “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” had what was probably the kindest assessment of her from a professional standpoint.
“It was all worth it,” said Wilder, “when you saw what was up there on the screen.”
The final word about Marilyn Monroe, however, may have come from a very unlikely source. Marilyn went to England in 1957 to co-star with Laurence Olivier in a light sophisticated comedy called "The Prince and the Showgirl." She was constantly late, subject to illnesses real and imagined, and had difficulties with the pseudo-Noel Coward dialog. Olivier, who was also directing, was a consummate professional. Exasperated by the erratic conduct of his leading lady, he uncharacteristically reprimanded her in front of the cast and crew.
When the admonishment was over, Sybil Thorndike, one of the great ladies of the British stage, who was also in the film, drew him aside. "Take it easy on her, Larry," Dame Sybil told him. "After all, she's the only one of us who really knows what she is doing."