The Strasbergs

“Lee Strasberg
“changed my life more than any other human being that I’ve met including leeeveryone. He helped me a great deal because he said Marilyn, you’re a human being so you start with yourself,” Marilyn explained to an interviewer. It was to the Strasbergs and Method Acting in New York that Marilyn fled after Fox refused to work with her stipulations about trying “serious, dramatic roles.” For Marilyn the escape proved to be a good move. Method Acting was the brainchild of Lee Strasberg. Its strategy was for the actor to draw on his or her own personal life experiences to create a character or act a scene. In Marilyn’s case this was a shaky proposition. Her insecurities and loneliness made her work challenging for Lee and Marilyn but in the end, Method seemed to pay off. Her next role after working with Strasberg was Cherie in Bus Stop, a film that garnered rave reviews for her performance as a serious actress. Marilyn emerged triumphant in her role as Cherie, proving to Fox and the public that she was far from a dumb blonde.

“If you can just concentrate simply, that’s what I mean by being easy,” Strasberg explained to Marilyn. Of course for Marilyn, thinking simply was difficult. The nation’s “dumb blonde” was too intellectual and troubled a person to indulge in simple thinking. Her experiences were so fraught with emotional difficulty that “easy” didn’t come easy for Monroe.Clearly as the next conversation with a corporate lawyer reveals, easy was the last thing Marilyn experienced as an actress:

But I do want to be wonderful you know. When I walked out of 20th Century Fox and I went to New York I stayed for I don’t know how many months, 33 months, I don’t know how many, and the lawyer you know he said oh he was telling me about my tax deductions and I don’t know what. I said I don’t know about that. I only know I want to be wonderful. And that’s at the bottom of everything.

marilynmonroephotossaddayupclosemay2811bWanting to be wonderful, seeking perfection, even after, or especially due, to working with the Strasbergs was a major contribution to Marilyn’s anxiety and her reluctance to get out of bed each day. This is understandable. Think about being billed as the “most beautiful woman in the world”. Imagine the expectations that burdened Marilyn every day. People were eager to get up close to her and find flaws, be it physical or intellectual, anything to tear her down. Then there were her fans who simply believed in her. That faith might have been as difficult as skepticism.Surely it was far easier to pull the covers over her head, and hide from yet another day.

Marlon Brando
The more successful she was, the more unfulfilled she was,” Strasberg commented years after her death. “She was one of the two or three most talented, most sensitive people I’ve ever seen in my life.One of the others is Marlon Brando. To me she had the same kind of sensitivity.”

brandoOnce when Marlon Brando was working at the Actors Studio, Strasberg gave the class an assignment. First they were to behave as if they were chickens, which they did. Then Strasberg directed the class to behave as if they were chickens and a bomb was about to explode. The class broke into a frenzy, all but Brando. Strasberg pulled him aside and asked, “why aren’t you reacting to the news of a bomb?” to which Brando simply replied, “I’m a chicken. What do I know about bombs?” In later years, Brando and Marilyn, Strasberg’s two favourite pupils, had a brief affair. They remained friends all of her life.

Lee Strasberg
“At the Actor’s Studio she did a scene from Eugene O’Neill, Anna Cristie. It was wonderful.The luminous quality that she had on the screen was oddly enough not reduced but some strange way, enlarged in life.”
Strasberg commented. Marilyn however became too dependent on the Strasbergs. They weren’t merely acting coaches. Marilyn was continually adopting families, attempting to make her own missing mother and father. True to form, she saw Lee and Paula as father and mother. Susan, their only child, became Marilyn’s sister. So dependent upon the Strasbergs was Marilyn that she took Paula with her to film her last five films when she left New York, infuriating her directors.Whenever Marilyn was directed to begin a scene, she looked at Paula rather than the film’s director, for approval. One brief scene in Something’s Got to Give has her running up a short staircase. Paul didn’t approve until the scene was filmed 12 times, although it looked perfect to everyone else after only one or two takes. George Cukor was “fuming and fuming and fuming.”

Marilyn never felt she was ready to face the camera Lee Strasberg commented in an historic interview. He described how she spent two hours perfecting her hair and makeup, not out of arrogance, but in an attempt to achieve perfection. He told her to “stop trying to sell sex. You are sex. You are the institution of sex.” Truer words about the screen goddess were never spoken.

Sister Susan
Susan_Strasberg_1950sSadly the Strasbergs ignored Susan, who was a susceptible teenager when Marilyn became her foster-sister. They advised her to go to Europe to gain “experience” and even though she didn’t want to, she went, hoping vainly they would stop her.Susan admitted years later she was “jealous of her personally because she was getting more attention from my father.” In Europe, she walked around her apartment sobbing with loneliness, wishing her parents paid as much attention to her as they did to their famous protegé. Susan recalled that “in a way, I liked the no-makeup side better.” Then came a morning when she awoke to see Marilyn standing nude at a large window in their bedroom, looking outside. She stated “I thought if I had a body like her and looked like her I would be so happy.” Susan herself grew into a sexy, lovely actress and a talent in her own right who went on to make several successful Hollywood films. Susan harbored no ill will against Marilyn, who was her “role model.” She saw Marilyn as  a “manipulative woman [who] did it well enough to create her own production company.”

Paula Strasberg
Susan recalled that Marilyn spent $5,000.00 on the nearly nude dress she wore when she sang happy birthday to JFK. As she rehearsed the song she made it sound sexier and sexier. Paula was horrified. “Marilyn you don’t have to do this, if you want to be respected. Why are you going out and then kind of doing this sexy caricature of yourself?” Paula gained a reputation for usurping director control over Marilyn. Worse, she indulged all of Marilyn’s whims, reminding people Marilyn was a big “Hollywood star.” She was unliked and unwanted on Marilyn’s movie sets.Even Paula’s appearance was odd. She dressed in long, black, shapeless dresses. One director commented “she looked like Dracula’s assistant.” Many people believed Paula didn’t help Marilyn at all and that the Strasbergs simply used her. When confined within the Payne Whitney Clinic, a mental institution, Marilyn wrote Paula a letter, begging her to secure her release. It was Joe DiMaggio who arrived to have her removed from the clnic. Paula slathered phony praise on Marilyn Monroe, even going so far as to state that she was “the most wonderful actress I have ever known in my life. You are divine. Yes Marilyn. All my life I have prayed for a great actress I could guide and I prayed on my knees. And now He has given me you”...Then in an echo of John Lennon’s unfortunate comment to the press, “to many people you are bigger than Jesus Christ,” and fell on her knees.

Enjoy a Paula parody.


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