Blonde (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Stream of consciousness reimagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life mainlining on celebrity, identity, mental illness and vulnerability and held together by a mesmerizing performance by Ana de Armas. Director Andrew Dominik’s slicing and dicing of screen shape, occasional dips into black-and-white and a special effects foetus won’t work at all as well on the small screen. Monroe’s insistence on calling husbands “daddy” and letters from a never-seen potential father that turns into a cruel sucker punch, threaten to tip the picture into an over-obvious direction.  

A very selective narrative based on a work of fiction by novelist Joyce Carol Oates leaves you wondering how much of it is true, and also how much worse was the stuff left out. As you might expect, the power mongers (Hollywood especially) don’t come out of it well, and her story is bookended by abuse, rape as an ingenue by a movie mogul and being dragged “like a piece of meat” along White House corridors to be abused by the President.

A mentally ill mother who tries to drown her in the bath and later disowns sets up a lifetime of instability. Eliminated entirely is her first husband, but the scenes with second husband (Bobby Canavale) and especially the third (Adrien Brody) are touchingly done, Marilyn’s desire for an ordinary home life at odds with her lack of domesticity, and each relationship begins with a spark that soon fades as she grapples with a personality heading out of control.

That she can’t come to grips with “Marilyn,” perceived almost as an alien construct, a larger-than-life screen personality that bewitches men, is central to the celebrity dichotomy, how to set aside the identity on which you rely for a living. It’s hardly a new idea, but celebrity has its most celebrated victim in Monroe.

According to this scenario, she enjoyed a threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr.  (Evan Williams) but otherwise her sexuality, except as it radiated on screen, was muted. The only real problem with Dominik’s take on her life that there is no clear indication of when her life began to spiral out of control beyond the repetition of the same problems. She remains a little girl lost most of the time.

I had no problems with the length (164 minutes) or with the selectivity. Several scenes were cinematically electrifying – her mother driving through a raging inferno – or emotionally heart-breaking (being dumped at the orphanage) and despite the constant emotional turbulence it never felt like too heavy a ride. But you wished for more occasions when she just stood up for herself as when arguing for a bigger salary for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I wondered too if the NC-17 controversy was a publicity ploy because the rape scene is nothing like as brutal as, for example, The Straw Dogs (1971) or Irreversible (2002), and the nudity is not particular abundant nor often sexual. That’s not to say there is much tasteful about the picture, and you couldn’t help but flinch at the rawness of her emotions, her inability to find any peace, the constant gnaw of insecurity, and her abuse by men in power.

Ana de Armas (No Time to Die, 2021) is quite superb. I can’t offer any opinion on how well she captured the actress’s intonations or personality, but her depiction of a woman falling apart and her various stabs at holding herself together is immense. The early scenes by Adrien Brody (See How They Run, 2022) as the playwright smitten by her understanding of his characters are exceptional as is the work of Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya, 2017) as her demented mother. Worth a mention too are the sexually adventurous entitled self-aware bad boys Xavier Samuel (Elvis, 2022) and Evan Williams (Escape Room, 2017).

While there are no great individual revelations, what we’ve not witnessed before is the depth of her emotional tumult. Apart from an occasional piece of self-indulgence, Andrew Dominik, whose career has been spotty to say the least, delivers a completely absorbing with an actress in the form of her life. Try and catch this on the big screen, as I suspect its power will diminish on a small screen.

Behind the Scenes: “The Misfits” (1961)

Arthur Miller, author of arguably the greatest play of the 20th century,  Death of a Salesman, had gone to Reno to get a divorce so he could marry Marilyn Monroe. While there, he befriended some cowboys who took him with them while they caught horses. He turned the experience into a short story The Mustangs, published in Esquire (October 1957 issue). It provided the basis for the screenplay The Misfits. While the character of Roslyn, played by Monroe, was based on another woman, Miller explained, “I had written it to make Marilyn feel good.”

In July 1958 he sent it off to director John Huston, not just on account of a body of work that included The Big Sleep (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but because he had nursed Monroe through her debut on The Asphalt Jungle (1952) calming her nerves by telling her “if you’re not nervous you might as well give up.” Miller felt Huston would “present Marilyn with the bracing challenge, her fighting her problems through to a fine performance.”

Huston was enthusiastic – he saw the story as representative of a “dog-eat-horse-society” – and called the writer over to his house in Ireland where they spent two weeks putting the finishing touches to the screenplay, except for the last 15 minutes. Originally, it was a lengthy piece, almost an epic, production executives timing it at two hours 47 minutes, too unwieldy for a standard drama, so inevitably compromise would be required.

For tax reasons, Huston wanted to film in Mexico but relented and agreed to shooting it in Nevada. Talent agency MCA, which represented Huston, effectively put the film together as a package. Although Robert Mitchum was initial first choice, when he didn’t respond the screenplay went to Clark Gable, another MCA client, who accepted immediately. Eli Wallach was next on board. At this point, with only six films under his belt and better known for his work on Broadway, Wallach would not have expected to see his name above the title. But he was told that his name would be second to appear on the credits, after Gable.

But as the weeks went by and first Monroe then Montgomery Clift – both MCA clients – signed up his name slipped further down the credits. He consoled himself that his name would be “first position under the title” as that billing position was technically known. That proved an illusion. Thelma Ritter, apparently, boasted greater box office wattage so in the final credit rankings he placed fifth.

Although Monroe was viewed as the most mentally fragile, Clift and Gable also had issues to overcome. Due to the injuries suffered in a car crash and his well-known dependency on drugs, nobody would insure Clift but eventually an agreement was reached. Gable failed the medical, having gained 35lb while filming  It Happened in Naples (1960) in Italy, ballooning his weight to 230lb. But two weeks later he was cleared.

The producer for such a heavyweight production was an industry lightweight. Frank E. Taylor’s main claim to fame was that he had been Miller’s publisher before he achieved fame as a playwright, working for the small company that published the author’s non-fiction work Situation Normal (1944) and the novel Focus (1945). Taylor had some Hollywood experience, but after four years employed there managed only one credit, John Sturges’ film noir Mystery Street (1950).

The original plan to start filming in September 1959 was scuppered by the incompletion of It Happened in Naples so it was shelved until the next spring. The next start date – March 3, 1960 – was an unexpected casualty of the Actors Strike which had delaying shooting on Monroe-starrer Let’s Make Love by five weeks. So when that film finished on July 1, there was little of a break for Monroe what with costume and wig fittings and test photographs before reporting on July 18, 1960, for what was expected to be a 50-day shoot, for The Misfits.

The budget was set at $3.5 million – a substantial amount for a black-and-white picture – with $1.6 million going to the principals. Clark Gable was down for $750,000, Marilyn Monroe and John Huston $300,000 apiece – although a generous profit participation scheme could see the actress earn as much as Gable – and Arthur Miller on $225,000. It was shot mainly on location in Nevada at Reno, Dayton and Pyramid Lake (a misnomer because it was all dried out) with a couple of weeks’ studio work at the end. Unusually, it was being filmed  in chronological order to assist Monroe achieve her characterization.

Taylor had achieved a publicity coup by convincing famed photographic cooperative  Magnum to cover the shoot in depth. Photographers of the calibre of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath and Eve Arnold worked in teams of two, each for a 15-day stint. Bresson would say of Monroe’s ethereal beauty: “I was struck as by an apparition in a fairy tale.”

Before a foot of film was exposed, the movie was in crisis. The script had been refused approval by the Production Code, the self-censorship system to which all studios subscribed. Code head honcho Geoffrey Shurlock complained that “the illicit relationship involving Roslyn and Gay seems to lack effective compensating moral values…(with the) difficulty that your story readily accepts illicit sex rather than condemning it.”

While there was publicity value to be gained from a tussle with the Production Code, it would not sit well with the distributors. The lack of a rating would inhibit many cinemas from risking a booking, despite the box office appeal of the cast.

Everyone had known going into production that getting Monroe on the set at all never mind in a condition to work would be a considerable achievement. Aware of her inability to rise early, Huston had shifted the daily start time by an hour to 10am. Sometimes shooting was restricted to only a couple of hours per day and since she was in most scenes there was a limit to how much the director could shoot around her.

Among the cast nobody knew her better than Eli Wallach. He had met the actress several years before when she had popped backstage after his performance in Teahouse of the August Moon on Broadway. He recalled: “She looked nothing like the movie star I’d seen onscreen; she wore a simple dress and had short blond hair. She was pale, shy, and wore no lipstick.” They became friends and would go out dancing. He introduced her, gradually, to The Actors Studio where she met Lee Strasberg, husband to Paula who became her acting coach.

“By the time we began to work on The Misfits in 1960,” said Wallach, “she seemed to have become a different Marilyn than the one I had known in New York, and the action that happened off-screen during the making of the film seemed to rival what was happening onscreen.”

Even so, the early part of the shoot went well. Commented Wallach, “Her mood waned and she began to lose her self-confidence.” For one scene where she was to do nothing more difficult than cross the road, she kept stopping halfway through. She had forgotten her motivation. Huston advised, “Your motivation comes from your need to cross the street without getting hit by any of the cars.” The next take was perfect.

But the signs of trouble were there from the outset. The evening before her first scene a nervous Monroe nearly took an overdose of Nembutal. Her unpredictability meant that on some days she only managed an hour or two, other days nothing at all. On August 27 she collapsed and was sent to Westside Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment, where she could be weaned off her addiction to barbiturates under the care of her analyst, not returning until September 6. On September 12, 13 and 19, she was indisposed and didn’t turn up for work.

If this was a case of life imitating art – her marriage to Miller was falling apart – she seemed to react to some lines as if the words were intended for Marilyn and not the character she was playing. In one scene Gable says, “You’re the saddest girl I ever met. What makes you so sad?” Monroe burst into tears. Wallach surmised, “Marilyn seemed to feel that the camera could detect her innermost thoughts.” In another scene, where Monroe and Wallach dance she “seemed upset and unhappy.”

Apart from casting her in The Asphalt Jungle, Huston had “saved her from the casting couch” by prior to that film setting up a proper screen test for her opposite John Garfield, providing her with a calling card that would reduce the requirement for her to jump into bed with a producer to get a part. But even on The Asphalt Jungle, she seemed dependent on her acting coach, at this point Natasha Lytess. “At the end of a take,” recalled Huston, “Marilyn would look to her for approval. The coach would nod her head.”

Monroe was taking pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up in the morning. The doctor on location eventually refused to give her any more, but of course she found them elsewhere. After visiting her in hospital, Huston was convinced the worst was over. But her renewed effervescence didn’t last.

“Marilyn returned to her old ways as though she’d never had a break,” recollected Huston. “One Sunday afternoon I visited her in her suite to get an idea of what to expect in the week ahead. She greeted me euphorically – then went into a kind of trance. She was the worst I’d ever seen her. Her hair was a tangle; her hands and feet were grubby; she was wearing only a short nightgown which wasn’t any cleaner than the rest of her.”

Despite her personal problems, Monroe was an extremely skilled actress. Observed Huston, “She could be marvelously effective. She wasn’t acting – I mean she was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing. She would go deep down within herself and find it and bring it up into consciousness.”

Huston, not necessarily known for accommodating actors, turned on the charm, always agreeing to another take if Monroe or Paula Strasberg (paid $3,000 a week) asked for it. Although most people disparaged Paula’s presence on the set or, more correctly, Monroe’s dependence on her, Huston acknowledged that without her his job would have been more difficult and he called a halt to crewmen nicknaming her Black Bart after her choice of clothing, habitually a black sack dress and black hat. So integral was Strasberg to Monroe’s life that the actress later moved from a hotel room shared with her husband to Strasberg’s apartment.

When even Strasberg failed to control her client, her husband Lee, the inventor of the Method School of acting which had revolutionised American drama, was flown in from New York. He had a different take on the situation. The problem wasn’t with Monroe but Huston. The director’s – refusing to deal directly with Paula. Raged Lee:  “I will not tolerate this treatment of her, she is an artist,” threatening remove his wife from the picture.

Miller saw it differently: “Coach (Strasberg) was a little crazy, she was an opportunist I thought and not competent to help.” However, there was a very real issue to be addressed. Monroe had never come to terms with her fame and could not cope with the pressure of being the screen character with whom the world was infatuated.

Monroe’s technique was very individual. “I don’t want to discuss the Method. I don’t believe I have the experience. I try to use Method to the best of my ability. It makes working more possible…The writer has done the words then it’s up to the actor…I can’t work unprepared, I’d shoot myself. I can’t memorize words by themselves. I have to memorize the feeling.”

Clark Gable was on a career high, at least in terms of remuneration, earning $750,000 a picture, on a par with John Wayne and William Holden, the highest-earning stars at the time. Gable had the privilege of being paired with some of the top female stars – But Not For Me (1959) with Carroll Baker, Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet (1958) and Sophia Loren on It Happened in Naples, the title a twist on his star-making picture It Happened One Night (1934), and more than holding his own against Burt Lancaster in war picture Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).

Despite his commercial appeal he held to a particular ethos when choosing a role. “If I hadn’t liked this story I wouldn’t have done it no matter how much money they offered me,” he said. “I have to like the story or I won’t do it…I never select a part for the part itself. I always look at the overall story first.” Of his character, Gable observed: “He’s the same man but the world has changed. Then he was noble. Now he is ignoble.”

The press was salivating over the prospect of The King falling for The Blonde Bombshell. But regardless of her physical attractions, Gable was put off the actress by her untidiness and her lack of personal hygiene. But he was not perturbed by her behavior. “I’m just unhappy about her problems, her fears, her personal life, but if I were to chastise or criticize her it would only deepen her despair,” he said. When, largely thanks to Monroe’s hospitalization, shooting continued past the original completion date he was compensated to the tune of an extra $48,000.

With the male actors, Gable had a tendency to get off on the wrong foot. Initially annoyed with Montgomery Clift for fluffing lines, they became good friends after trading insults. But it took John Huston to end an unexpected rift between Gable and Eli Wallach.

Prior to their first day working together, Eli Wallach was surprised to answer a knock on his hotel room door to find Gable’s assistant Bama Davis who asked him to read to the visitor the scene they would perform the next day. Somewhat puzzled by this behavior and worried this approach was indicative of the actor, Wallach did not speak to Gable when they first met. It fell to Huston to break the ice by handing both actors a shot of Jack Daniels.

Gable was more sensitive to his own performance than you might imagine. He asked Huston to reshoot the scene where he wakens up Monroe because he “didn’t think he showed the love that was necessary.” He refused a stunt double for the scene where Gable, Wallach and Clift try to throw the mustang. In the film the mare dragged Gable and Wallach around the lake floor. In reality, in long shot it was stunt double Tom Palen being dragged by an actual horse. For close-ups of Gable while there were no horses in sight, the star was still dragged at 35mph for 400ft behind a truck. It took 28 cuts of Gable for the stallion fight to be matched with second unit footage.

Gable was angry at the way the second unit treated Tom Palen. After the stuntman had already endured two injuries Gable drew the line on hearing that he was called upon to be smashed on the face by hooves.

Gable was immensely proud of his work. “I have two things to be proud of in my career – Gone with the Wind and this one.”  He later amended that to, “This is the best thing I did in my life.”

John Huston and Reno, where the film crew were housed, were a match made in heaven. The director was an inveterate gambler. He lost $25,000 one night but won it back the next and some. Overall, he left with less than when he arrived.

But he had an artist’s instinct when it came to film. He was not one for giving much direction. Huston expected “actors to be themselves, he didn’t interfere very much with their interpretation.” He prided himself on telling an actor as little as possible. “When I have to step in, I feel defeated.”

But he knew what he wanted and how, technically, to get the best out of an actor. At first Wallach played his drunk scene with rage until Huston pointed out that drunks always try to pretend they’re sober. And Huston knew what he didn’t want. Which was unwanted advice from an actor. For one scene with Monroe, Wallach expected a close up and committed the cardinal error of pointing this out to the director. “Never,” growled Huston, “never tell a director where to set up the camera.”

For Montgomery Clift’s first scene where he is seen talking to his mother in a callbox, Huston wrapped it after the first take, ignoring Clift’s pleas for another shot. ‘You’ll never do it better,’ said Huston, ensuring he did not fall prey to Clift’s lack of self-confidence either.

Monroe seemed to instinctively understand – and approve of – Huston’s technique. “He watches for the reality of a situation and he leaves it alone and he waits until he needs more or less before he comes in.”

Monroe wasn’t the only one whose illness shut down the set. Shooting on October 3 was cancelled because Huston came down with a recurrence of bronchitis due to the alkali dust on the dry lake. He was missing again the following day.

But if the actors in general appreciated Huston’s technique, Arthur Miller did not. It was unusual for a screenwriter to be present during the entirety of a shoot. For all that he brought certain extra intensity to scenes he re-wrote and his improvisation resulted in at least one great scene – Monroe’s paddle-boarding was not originally in the script but incorporated after watching her play with the toy between takes – Miller was generally a pain in the butt.

With no experience of moviemaking he clearly regarded himself as something of an authority and failed to recognise the distinction between the production of a play – where the writer was top dog – and a movie, where he was not.

Miller complained to Huston and Taylor about the lack of atmosphere, calling for more long shots “to constantly remind us how isolated these people are.” He had the temerity to criticize Gable’s performance. For one scene he observed that the actor had not “shown sufficient expression in his eyes.” Gable patiently explained that actions had to be minimized because they would be magnified a hundred times on the screen. “He turned out to be right,” conceded Miller, “he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable a few feet away.”

“I learnt from John,” said Miller, “ that he would pack the lens with material and let the camera choose…he put a lot of elements in front of the camera and let it find its way. So there’s not a lot of cutting from one face to the other ion conversation.” (In fact, this was old-school filmmaking where characters were grouped together rather than filmed apart). But he complained vociferously about the director’s positioning of Monroe fifty yards from the camera for her “Murderers! Murderers!” scene.

Miller thought such distance would ensure she wouldn’t be heard. But when Miller saw the rushes he realised the director was right. Huston wanted to portray Monroe at this point “as if she were a voice lost in the wilderness.”

Miller also wanted one scene which fades to darkness. Huston had to explain the practicalities. “You can only have one light in any given scene. In plays you can dim the light through a scene but not in a motion picture. You’re asking for values that aren’t there.”

His presence certainly wasn’t doing his wife any good. It might have been better if he had been absent, since the marriage appeared to disintegrate under their noses. He was being prophetic when he said of her first scene: “I couldn’t help feeling her disappointment not only in her character’s marriage but in her own…I had sensed something withdrawn in her, not merely in the character she was playing.”

He was prone to rewriting, in part with what he believed were better ideas, but also to emphasize developments he perceived in the characters as their screen personalities unfolded. By October 6 Gable had enough of the constant script changes and refused to film anything that had been written after September 20. Luckily, he relented and agreed to shoot the much-revised final scene. But even Miller received his come-uppance on a personal level. One day on location miles into the desert, Huston came upon a stranded Miller, abandoned by Monroe and her entourage.

Four-time Oscar nominee Montgomery Clift had an extraordinary success rate in pictures. Up till now he had appeared in only thirteen pictures but at least half were gems – Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), I Confess (1953), From Here to Eternity (1953), Raintree County (1957), The Young Lions (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). But a bad car accident in 1956 exacerbated his drug and sexuality issues and he was considered an unexploded grenade. “He’s the only person I know who’s in worse shape than me,” said Monroe.

In fact, perhaps encumbered with helping nurse Monroe, he was able to put his own problems to one side. Apart from the early tiff with Gable, his most difficult point was when he received rope burns during his part in the mustang chase. He had forgotten to put on gloves at the start of the scene and he couldn’t suddenly appear with them on when he had to haul on the rope.

The longest scene lasting all of five minutes. The longest Huston  had ever shot and one of the longest ever committed to camera was shot “day for night,” the effect achieved by a red lens opening and using red and green filters. The shooting area was covered by a black tarpaulin to kill the direct rays of the sun. Big 10k lights were hauled in to give the effect of moonlight on Monroe and Clift. Second unit director Tom Shaw was on standby with insect spray to keep insects off the actors.

But the long stretches of dialog defeated the actors and finally to save film on wasted takes Huston sent them off to rehearse by themselves. After several takes they completed the scene without missing a line. But there had been a problem with Clift’s bandage so the scene required reshooting. First Clift fluffed a line, then Monroe, then Huston interrupted, objecting to the camera position, “that’s a most unflattering angle.” After Clift fluffed a line once again, it was done.

For another scene at the lake also shot “day for night,” the cowboys did not actually build a camp fire, that was artificial, lit underground using gas, while trees and bushes were planted for the occasion.

If you ever wondered how movie crews get the bashes in bashed cars, the answer is they put them there. Monroe’s new Cadillac was battered by sledgehammers to represent a vehicle dented by admirers wanting to attract Monroe’s character’s attention by bumping into her.

It wasn’t just Monroe who caused problems. Two forest fires on August 20 saw Reno covered in black smoke with 200 firemen attending the blazes. Within a day the fire had consumed 35,000 acres and caused $200 million in damages and cut the power lines to Reno.  However, the crew reacted by bringing a lighting truck and generator from Dayton.

On October 24, the crew was shipped back to Hollywood for scenes and footage requiring back projection. Landscape scenes of Pyramid Lake, for example, were screened behind the aeroplane and for scenes taking place in cars. Huston had commissioned 360-degree stereopticon shots of the lake so that single head shots could be used with rear projection.

Among the reshoots was the dance sequence at the Stix house “to show more joy and abandon” and the scene on the truck bed between Gable and Monroe in which Miller had complained “there was a lack of interaction between the two players.”

The scene where Gable was trampled by the horse was reshot with artificial hooves. Buckets of actual alkali from the lake were spread on a wooden platform, the artificial legs in the end manipulated by Huston. The last scene shot was a retake of Gable and Monroe in the station wagon. “For the first and last time on the picture,” observed journalist James Goode, “Huston didn’t ask for another take.”

Final scene was shot on November 4 – 40 days behind schedule and $500,00 over budget. One week later, Miller and Monroe announced their separation. Twelve days after shooting ended Clark Gable was dead.

Although the general impression given was that Taylor was a competent producer, in fact he saw his role in a different light. “I have this absurd Machiavellian function…the screenplay here has been a vindictive instrument which Arthur and John are using to attack each other.” He noted: “All the energy is going downhill when it should be going up,” adding,  “the writer is blaming the director and the director is blaming the writer.”

Taylor was enthusiastic about the completed film. He told his Max Youngstein of United Artists, “It’s like an express train. It has a pace, a speed you don’t see in the screenplay itself. The script will get an Academy Award and Clark…this is a major-size hero we have on our hands.” But Youngstein was disappointed, concerned it lacked the Huston touch.

In post-production the Production Code situation was exacerbated by the fact that the completed film could, conceivably, contain a scene where Marilyn Monroe showed her right breast. This appeared to have come about by accident.

Nudity was certainly not in the script as no mainstream studio at that time would greenlight a film showing naked breasts. For the bedroom scene on September 21, as Monroe rises from the bed to put on her bathrobe, nine takes in all were filmed. In Take 7 she revealed her right breast. That was the one originally printed.

There were arguments that the nude scene should be included at least for the overseas market where censorship was seen to be less onerous. But Frank Taylor argued that Take 7 should be included for the domestic market. Since the movie was on course anyway to be denied the Seal of Approval from the Production Code there seemed little to lose by including the nudity.

Although Arthur Miller was undecided, Marilyn Monroe was happy enough. “Gradually, they’ll let down censorship” and she suggested that nudity was one way of pulling viewers away from television. Max Youngstein of United Artists was enthusiastic. It was Huston who nixed it, commenting, dryly, “I have always known girls have breasts.” And finally Taylor gave ground after realising that the film would be forever remembered as the one where Monroe revealed a breast rather than for its artistic merit.

The distribution approach was risky. Usually, at that time, big films went out slowly, launched in one or two cinemas in the major cities, and held over there for weeks at a time until ready to slip down the food chain. Instead, UA planned to make available 1,000 prints simultaneously, a distribution technique known then as “saturation” – what today we would term “wide release.” But that was traditionally reserved for low-budget offerings of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety where the movie had vanished before bad word of mouth could spread. UA had precedent for taking this route. It had used saturation for The Magnificent Seven (1960). But that had been a flop. In the end The Misfits did decent enough business, though not at the level you would have expected from the cast.

In writing this article I delved deeply into the James Goode book, which I can highly recommend, on the making of the film, especially as he goes in for the kind of detail normally excluded from “making-of” books.

For example, he provides a complete breakdown of costs. Apart from the $1.6 million already mentioned, other costs include $200,000 for production, $85,000 for sets, $45,000 for lighting, $39,000 for sound, $150,000 for transportation, $32,000 for negative film (200,000 feet at 0.454 cents a foot), and $25,000 for positive prints. There was $750 per week to rent the generator, $225 per week for the small camera dolly, $400 per week for the motorized camera crane, $200 per week for folding chairs and $200 per month for Monroe’s trailer.

Hiring Boots the stunt horse cost $150 a week against a 10-week guarantee. There was a $10,000 bill to build the rodeo ground, $500 to rent the saloon, $15,000 went on renting the Stix house and $1,000 for use of the lake. The production paid for 17,570 lunches at $2.75 a head. There was $6,000 for hotel accommodation and $2,000 for the Dodge truck used in the lake scenes.

As many as 1,500 extras were called up and paid immediately. Stunt doubles, whether on contract or salary, were paid a base sum plus a bonus according to how much work they did on a given day. Sometimes the media was given a daily meal allowance, but other times not, the same being true for accommodation.

The final cost of the picture was $3.995 million. I found that a fascinating figure. Sure, it was nearly $500,000 over budget. But the film shot for 90 days instead of 50. In other words, shooting the extra 40 days cost proportionately little. Yes, Clark Gable accounted for another $48,000 in overtime but did this really mean that contracts were so tight that it effectively ensured that everyone, once signed up, could not leave until the movie was finished and not receive compensation on a pro-rate basis?

SOURCES: James Goode, The Story of The Misfits (Bobbs Merrill, 1963); Arthur Miller, Timebends,  A Life (Grove Press, 1987); Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and Me (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005); David Bret, Clark Gable, Tormented Star (JR Books, 2010); Arthur Miller, Serge Toubiana, The Misfits (Phaidon, 1963); John Huston, An Open Book (Macmillan, 1981); Arthur Miller, “Monroe Miller Magnificent Misfits,”  Washington Post, December 13, 1987.

The Misfits (1961) *****

A knockout. Stone cold five-star gold label classic. It’s rare for a non-western to turn into one of the greatest westerns of all time. Forget The Wild Bunch (1969) and Once Upon a time in the West (1969) and every other paean to the dying of the Old West. This is all you need. A true insight into just what is left for the cowboy once civilization and modernization have run their course.

What’s perhaps most astonishing is that three major Hollywood stars plus a top director and  one of the three greatest American playwrights of all time combined to make an indie. There’s no high drama of the kind Hollywood usually requires, no love dashed, no death or murder, nothing dramatic enough to be called narratively gripping. Made today, it would be the kind of picture that would traipse from film festival to film festival, hoping for a break at Sundance. The cast would be no-namers unless a star, fed-up with actioners, wanted to gain some artistic credibility.

This is as misleading a tag line as you could get. Admittedly, selling the movie’s core sadness
in the early 1960s would have been tough.

By some freak of Hollywood magic this was greenlit. There’s plenty good dialog but nothing that’s going to make it into the Classic Line Hall of Fame and there’s only a handful of finely wrought scenes. So beyond the astonishing mustang sequence, what reverberated was the acting, with each big star producing a scene of the highest quality, for pure emotional impact possibly unsurpassed in their entire careers.

The story itself is pretty slim. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) in Reno to get a divorce hooks up with washed-up cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) and grieving car mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach). They repair to Guido’s cabin in the country, unfinished after his pregnant wife died because he didn’t have a spare tire. They are joined by hard-drinking man-hungry Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). Roslyn shacks up here with Gay, brightening up the place with decorative ideas and planting vegetables.

At the rodeo they stake drunken Perce (Montgomery Clift), a tough guy with mother issues, self-destructing one rodeo at a time. At various times the trio nurse and console each other, but mostly they get drunk. The three men take Roslyn along to show off their cowboy skills, catching wild mustangs. This is less old-fashioned than you might imagine. It’s more like tracking down the great white shark in Jaws (1975), a primeval battle between man and beast. Man has the advantage of being able to use Guido’s biplane to drive the horses down to Gay and Guido waiting with lassoes.

And tires.

What are the tires for you might well ask? Well, they fulfil the same function as the barrels in Jaws, to weight down the animals so they are easier to track, perhaps exhausting them so much they might just topple over and die. So the odds are not exactly even.

The guys are further disadvantaged by Roslyn’s presence. When she learns of the horses’ fate – not as you might expect to become working horses on a ranch like current television series Yellowstone – she is horrified. The critters will end up as pet food. So much for the Wild West.

This is an absolutely fantastic sequence and I’m surprised it doesn’t turn up on critical lists at all as one of the great western segments of all time. It says more about the end of the West than all the violence of The Wild Bunch or operatic fervour of Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s a companion piece to The Old Man and the Sea, man, for all his endeavors, ending up with virtually nothing.

There’s a few twists and turns to this sequence so I won’t spoil it for you except to say it is one of the very few sections in movies where character plays out in action.

And this isn’t even Gable’s greatest scene. The moment when, drunken out of his skull already, he bleats in the street about his kids carries awesome power. What he’s saying doesn’t even make a great deal of sense, which is the beauty of it, because what drunk ever makes sense, most of the time he’s effectively addressing the demons inside.

Clift has a horrifically comic scene. His brain is as washed away as his body. He wakes out of a drunken stupor and can’t remember why he has a huge bandage round his head and proceeds to unravel it, again with a monologue that reveals his inner catatonic state.

Monroe is mute in her best scene. She just stares in horror at the mustang incident unfolding. And she has another terrific scene, probably the most ordinary thing she ever did in her screen career, battering a ping-pong.

The title is actually a rodeo term apparently for, unsurprisingly, a horse that was too small or weak to work. I would have preferred something less obvious because it’s quite clear from the outset all the characters are misfits.

This is probably the closest Monroe got to playing a character who reflected her inner turmoil. Roslyn’s beauty brightens up lives but mostly she is depressed, thinking that even when you win you lose, too fragile to cope with reality, and inclined to need consoled as much as she is willing to nurse the others. Gay is a superb creation, who despises men who earn “wages,” that is have a regular job and lose their freedom. Even if freedom means no female companionship and being reduced to catching horses for the few bucks they will bring in from pet food manufacturers, he would rather do that. Perce is just so battered by life he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The self-serving Guido whines.

Put all these characters together and they still live in world of their own, and although they occasionally cross the border into another’s existence by and large it is without understanding.

Without John Huston’s empathetic direction it would be unbearably sad, but with virtually nothing in the way of real plot he draws us inexorably in to their small lives. Given its budget and the box office potential of the stars, it was a flop on release. Now it’s a masterpiece.    

However tragic or premature, few Hollywood stars could have gone out at the top with a picture of this quality as did Gable and Monroe. Possibly as a result of his exertions on the film, Gable died a few days after shooting completed, Monroe eighteen months later, but what a final legacy.

Female Earnings – The Inconvenient Truth

Last week’s headline-grabbing articles about how few women featured in the rankings of top-earning movie stars, suggesting this was an age-old problem, overlooked one inconvenient truth. A century ago, actresses were the biggest earners in Hollywood.

In fact from Hollywood’s inception around 1910 and for the next sixty years actresses from Mary Pickford in the 1910s to Elizabeth Taylor either out-earned or equalled the male pay packets. I know. I wrote a book about it – When Women Ruled Hollywood (Baroliant, 2019). It was subtitled – “How Actresses Took on the Hollywood Hierarchy – and Won.”

The simple fact of the matter is that a woman – Florence Lawrence – in 1910 became the first Hollywood star, on the princely (or should I say princessly) salary of $50 a week, at a time when 77% of the female workforce survived on less than $7 a week. She was the equal highest-paid earner of the day.

Taylor earned $3 million for Cleopatra.

When movies began, movie stars were not as highly paid as those who worked on stage. But, again, women were by far the highest paid earners. The number one star in vaudeville – the U.S. version of music hall – was Gertrude Hoffman on, wait for it, $3,000 a week (about $90,000 equivalent now).  In 1911 the number one spot was shared – by two women. Sarah Bernhardt and Gaby Deslys now took home $4,000 a week. The following year Bernhardt was top dog again, on $9,000 a week and the next year again as the highest earner she pulled in $22,000 a week.

Movie stars of neither gender were earning that much but everyone knew what vaudeville stars earned so there was no shortage of precedent for actresses in the burgeoning movie business to ask for more. They employed a simple technique. They held studios to ransom. Give me more money or I jump ship.

In 1915, Mary Pickford broke all records for movie star earnings by taking in more than $150,000 a year. This was far more than male sensation Charlie Chaplin and even as his salary leapt upwards so did hers. In 1918 she picked up $1.8 million a year.

Despite the advent of top males in the 1920s of the calibre of Valentino, Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, Harold Lloyd and John Gilbert, women topped the earning chart once again. Gloria Swanson would have easily been the top-ranked earner had she accepted an offer of $18,000 a week but turned it down preferring to retain her independence. In her absence Corinne Griffiths came out of top with a $13,000 a week salary at First National.

Hepburn was on a cool $1 million per picture.

In the early 1930s Greta Garbo topped the heap with $500,000 a year – for a 40-week deal. In 1935 Mae West took home $480,000, not just the highest earner in the movies, but the second highest earner, $20,000 behind publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, in the whole of the United States.

In 1936, when Gary Cooper came top with Ronald Colman second, women occupying the next three spots. In 1937 when Fredric March took the top spot, women placed, second, third, four, fifth and sixth. In 1938 Claudette Colbert was number one and Irene Dunne the topper in 1939.

Bing Crosby topped the bill in 1940, and the next year it was Colbert again. The war inflicted a number of anomalies on the business, mainly the arrival from radio of Abbott and Costello, top earners in 1942, with Fred MacMurray, without even taking top billing in most of his films of the period, hitting the earnings peak for both 1943 and 1944.  Ginger Rogers was top in 1945, Joan Crawford in 1946 and except for a parachute payment to stop him leaving Warner Brothers Humphrey Bogart would have been pipped at the post by Bette Davis, with chanteuse Deanna Durbin top of the heap in 1948.

With demise of the studio system in the 1950s, female earnings tumbled except for Marilyn Monroe who ran top earners John Wayne and William Holden close. But in the 1960s Elizabeth Taylor out-earned everyone by a huge margin and Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Julie Andrews either earned or equaled the earnings of top male attractions like John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

The advent of action pictures, which sold more easily around the world than comedies or dramas, ensured that from the 1970s onwards men mostly ruled the earnings game. But still stars like Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock held their own. And it was not so long ago that it was the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, thanks to The Hunger Games franchise, beat everyone.

You can buy my book on Amazon for about £10 and $12.

Let’s Make Love (1960) ***

Despite a luminous performance by Marilyn Monroe (Some Like it Hot, 1959) , in revealing outfits half the time, this backstage musical drama barely staggers over the line. Whatever relationship the actress enjoyed off-screen with co-star Frenchman Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966) fails to register here. In this fish-out-of-water tale of the Broadway intrigue involved in putting a musical together, watching klutz billionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Montand) getting his act together as neophyte actor-cum-singer fails to fly.

It’s always difficult observing a good actor trying to be bad. If he’s a really good actor, it’s going to be an awful watch. And unless he’s got the comedic chops to trigger a bucketload of laughs it’s painful to observe. Gregory Peck reportedly quit this role in favour of The Guns of Navarone (1961) because there was too much Marilyn Monroe in it, and possibly an awkward Peck would have been more fun to watch though comedy was scarcely his forte, but without Monroe the movie would have been virtually unwatchable.

The story’s familiar, a twist on Cinderella with Clement being the ugly duckling in terms of talent. The billionaire businessman, notorious for his love life, attends a rehearsal of a show intending to register outrage at its veiled portrayal of him. Instead, he is mistaken for an auditioning actor and offered a role. He falls for Amanda (Monroe) but she shows little interest, either obsessed with her knitting or trying to improve her education at night class, and appears far more interested in her stage co-star Tony (Frankie Vaughan).

In order to sharpen up his act, Clement hires a bunch of well-known thespians: Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly.

This is where the show could be get interesting. Genuinely learning the secrets of a great comedian, singer and dancer should at the very least provide a fascinating insight into their skills. Of these, Crosby is the pick, demonstrating the importance of raising or dropping your voice at various points in order to maximize the emotion in a song, in other words a singing masterclass. Berle has too much screen time and does little to justify it.

Whatever, regardless of what the script says, Clement seems to take on board little of what he is taught. Montand was a gifted crooner in any case, having begun his career as Edith Piaf’s protégé, and it just seems like he switched instantly from being a bad singer to a good one. In contrast, when Amanda has to take direction, she immediately shows how simple it is to improve a number by adding some actions.

Luckily, Monroe is such a mesmeric screen quality that she can rescue any indifferent movie.  This would work better with a more charismatic leading man – and the prospect of Peck teaming with Monroe was intriguing – but regardless of who she acts opposite Monroe will always blow them away. This is a different kind of role for her because in a sense she is neither the girl adored nor the victim of romance gone wrong. For the most part she’s just a career girl focusing all her attention on getting on. She’s almost just the foil in the dramatic sequences for Montand. But once she has the stage or screen or to herself she dazzles.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Behind the Scenes: “The Girl on a Motorcycle” / “Naked under Leather” (1968)

Although multi-country co-productions were very common in the 1960s, British-French co-productions were particularly thin on the ground, as if the cultural identities were so far apart there was nowhere they could ever meet. This was only the third such co-production in three years. British Lion, a long-established operation, had recently been overhauled with a new boss in John Boulting, a renowned filmmaker of Boulting Brothers (The Family Way, 1966) fame.

The film was based on a prestigious prize-winning French novel by Andre Pieyre de Manidargues. The budget was set at a modest $1.5 million with location shoots in Geneva, Heidelberg and Strasbourg with interiors shot at Shepperton. Director Jack Cardiff (Dark of the Sun, 1967) had originally hired a German actress, a Playboy centerfold,  for the leading role of the young girl who marries a timid young man while obsessed with a less conventional ex-lover. But the actress suffered a drug overdose and dropped out. Ironically, Marianne Faithful, her replacement, was also a drug addict and famed as a singer and as girlfriend of Mick Jagger.

Although her acting  experience was limited to television film Anna (1967) and a small part in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname (1967), Cardiff was captivated by her sensuality which was ideal for her character. Bear in mind that Cardiff knew what a camera captured. He had made his name as a cinematographer and worked with great beauties like Ava Gardner (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Sophia Loren (Legend of the Lost, 1957) and Marilyn Monroe (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957) so if he thought Faithfull fitted that category then there was no reason to doubt his assessment. He commented: “Never since I saw Marilyn Monroe through the camera lens have I seen such irresistible beauty. To focus on her is to focus the camera on your innermost heart.”  

Cardiff took advantage of a new trend to film movies in both English and French to open up distribution channels. Claude Chabrol’s The Road to Corinth (1967) was shot in this manner as was Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) with Charles Bronson and Alain Delon.   

Faithfull could not ride a motorbike so a stunt double was utilised for long shots. But instead of resorting to back projection, for medium shots and close-ups the actress was towed on a trailer behind a camera car. Not having to worry about the controls also meant that Faithfull could look dreamlike while driving and with Cardiff not having to think about the actress he could turn the camera in a 360-degree pan while she rode along.

Since Faithfull was going to be seen on a motorbike for long sections of the movie, Cardiff came up with a method of creating variety. One of the techniques employed was “solarization.” This was, in effect, a half-positive half-negative exposure, but it had only been used in the past in very small doses, nothing like what Cardiff had in mind. BBC boffin Laurie Atkin had invented a computer system that allowed solarization to be used more extensively. Footage shot during the day was taken immediately to the BBC lab at night where Cardiff could tinker about with creating his effects.   

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this technique were the sex scenes. Without the solarization which hid naked bodies under a psychedelic whirl the sex scenes would never have got past the censor.  There was an unfortunate downside, however. The Girl on a Motorcycle had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Critical approval there would have given the picture artistic momentum. Unfortunately, delays caused by the laboratory work meant the film missed its scheduled screening slot. Even so, French critics gave it the thumbs-up. British critics, on the other hand, gave it the thumbs-down. Lack of critical estimation did not appear to matter to British audiences who came out in their droves.

But it was a different story in the United States.

No wonder that to some extent this is one of the great lost pictures because Warner Brothers could not find a way to sell it in the U.S. Having paid a record $1.5 million advance, the studio (known at that time as Warner-Seven Arts) was hit by a double whammy. The picture was the first to receive an X-rating from the newly-established MPAA censorship system which replaced the previous Production Code. The new system was supposed to allow filmmakers greater latitude in terms of sex, violence and language.

Theoretically, that should have been a marketing bonus and the film should have ridden the “sex-art” wave and turned into an arthouse hit with the mainstream, captivated by solid grosses, to follow.  In reality, many exhibitors refused to touch it, regarding the X-rating as a separate category catering for the worst of the adults-only smut market. Newspapers refused to carry advertising for films so rated. Critics hated it, all the New York critics giving negative reviews.

Warners slotted it into a handful of arthouse houses before pulling all prints out of circulation in May 1970 and sending to back for re-editing with the intention of re-submitting it, shorn of some of the nudity, to the MPAA in a bid to win a more acceptable R-rating. In other words, to “re-gear the picture for the general market rather than the adult sex-art trade originally in mind.”  

To ensure that its reputation was not “soiled” the picture was re-titled Naked under Leather – if the content was tamer, the title was certainly not. Initially, that appeared to do the trick when it was re-released a full year later. It pulled in a “boff” $125,000 (worth around $864,000 now – a whopping $36,000 per-screen average) in 24 houses in wide release in Los Angeles, was “hot” in Denver and “tidy” in Chicago and found a few bookings elsewhere. But then it stalled and could not find the extra gear. In reality it did not do much better than on initial release. In the 1969 annual box office chart it featured at No 231 and for the corresponding 1970 chart it placed at number 253.

Sources: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour, Faber and Faber, 1996, p242-243; “New British Lion Mgt. Gets Motorcyle Rights in UK,” Variety, October 18, 1967, 23; “Stylistic Dash Marks Cannes Films,” Variety, May 22, 1968, 26“British Lion Wraps Up Distribution Deal with W-7 for U.S., Towa for Japan,” Variety, August 28, 1968, 29, “Features Passing Through MPAA,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 20; “All Imports; N.Y. Critics All Bad,” Variety, December 4, 1968, 7; “Recall and Re-Edits W-7’s Motorcycle; X-Rating Now R,” Variety, January 29, 1969, 7; “Computer Tally of 729, 1968,” Variety,  May 7, 1969, 36; “Naked under Leather,” Variety, April 22, 1970, 4; “L.A. First Run Healthy,” Variety, May 13, 1970, 9; “Top 330 Pix in U.S. for 1970,” Variety, May 12, 1971, 37.

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