Marilyn’s Last Screenwriter: Walter Bernstein Dies at 101

Screenwriter Walter Bernstein has died aged 101, the Hollywood Reporter announced today. Born in Brooklyn in 1919, he studied at Dartmouth College before serving in the US Army as an international correspondent for Yank magazine during World War II. But in 1951, he was blacklisted from writing for television due to his past membership of the Communist Party.

In 1959, Bernstein earned his first screen credit in several years for Sidney Lumet’s That Kind of Woman, starring Sophia Loren. And in 1961, he wrote the jazz-themed Paris Blues, directed by another blacklist survivor, Martin Ritt, and starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (The film had originally been developed by photographer Sam Shaw for Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando.)

Then in March 1962, Twentieth Century Fox hired Bernstein to rewrite Nunnally Johnson’s script for Something’s Got to Give, at the behest of director George Cukor, who thought Johnson’s updated version inferior to the original story, first filmed in 1940 as My Favourite Wife. This displeased the film’s star, Marilyn Monroe, who had worked closely with Johnson.

Monroe Vs Bernstein: illustration from Esquire, 1973

At the time, the studio was nearing bankruptcy due to its wildly over-budget production of Cleopatra. As the only film being made on the lot, Something’s Got to Give was Fox’s last hope to recoup their losses on Cleopatra. However, the romantic comedy was fraught from the start, not least due to Marilyn’s repeated absences from the set as she battled numerous health problems. Bernstein would recall his work on the film in ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Last Picture Show,’ a 1973 article for Esquire magazine (scanned in full below.) He was also interviewed for a documentary about the ill-fated movie, Marilyn: Something’s Got to Give (1990), later repackaged as Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days  together with 40 minutes of surviving footage.

As Keith Badman revealed in The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe (2010), Bernstein found himself caught between warring factions on the set.

“Cukor instructed him to rewrite entirely his predecessor’s script, but in stark contrast to Cukor’s directive producer Henry Weinstein told Bernstein not to make many changes to the script but just do ‘a little polishing here and there’ … Bernstein then suggested that, since the actress did not have script approval, they should press ahead with the changes anyway. It was a fruitless suggestion. ‘You don’t understand,’ Weinstein retorted. ‘Marilyn doesn’t need script approval. If she doesn’t like something, she just doesn’t show up.'”

On April 13, Marilyn attended a script meeting at Fox. “She was in good spirits, and full of energy,” Bernstein recalled, “Her enthusiasm seemed spontaneous and she included everyone in it … She was not glamorous. She was not even pretty. But her appeal was genuine, a child’s appeal, sweet and disarming.”

Marilyn had also consulted Lee Strasberg, her mentor at the Actors Studio in New York, who agreed with her that Johnson’s screenplay only needed ‘a few more jokes’ – a suggestion which infuriated Bernstein. On April 23, the first day of shooting, Marilyn was absent from the set. “She’s sick,” assistant director Buck Hall confirmed. “She caught a cold from Lee Strasberg.” That night, a doctor found Marilyn suffering from laryngitis, headaches, and blurred vision – but the studio refused to postpone the shoot until she recovered.

On May 14, Bernstein was invited to a story conference at Marilyn’s new home in Brentwood.

“She was very charming and accommodating. She showed me proudly around her new house, and she was really lovely to be with. Things she had to say about the script were right on target. ‘Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t do this,’ she said, and ‘Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t make this kind of move, they’d come to her,’ and so forth. Some of this was typical movie star ego, but she was very shrewd about what would play and what wouldn’t. Perhaps most of all, I remember her saying, ‘Remember, you’ve got Marilyn Monroe. You’ve got to use her’ … On the other hand, also like an actor, many of her ideas were good for her and not so good for the story. But if I hinted at this, her face would go blank for a second, as though the current had been turned off, and when it was turned on again she would continue as though I had said nothing at all, not disagreeing with me, not even referring to what I had said, simply going on with what followed. I had met this reaction before. It is the normal, uncomplicated self-involvement of the movie star.”

Bernstein submitted his revised pages, and was dismayed when Marilyn returned them with a caustic note: “This writer may be good, but not on this movie.” Alongside another line, she wrote, “Sentimental schmaltz.” Bernstein was then obliged to make further revisions, as Gary Vitacco-Robles noted in Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe (2014.)

“Once production began, couriers arrived each night at her hacienda to deliver Walter Bernstein’s daily rewrites of scenes scheduled for filming the following morning. The studio printed the new pages on blue paper for differentiation from the original script, written on white paper. Marilyn spent evenings in bed memorising new lines and planning every gesture. The gradual deviation from the original plot and last minute changes angered her … Henry Weinstein schemed to have the new revisions transcribed from blue to white paper, but Marilyn noticed his deception. Since the colour of the revised pages was the same as the original script, Marilyn did not have the benefit of a clear prompt for modified dialogue, making it difficult to identify and learn new lines. It is unclear why studio executives would sabotage her preparation and risk the film’s financial success.”

Although her sensational rendition of ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at Madison Square Garden, and the release of photos from a daring nude scene had ignited public interest in Something’s Got to Give, Fox executives resolved to cut their losses and fired their ailing star in June. Following Marilyn’s fatal overdose in August, Something’s Got to Give was remade as Move Over Darling in 1963, with a new cast and crew including Doris Day as leading lady, and another team of writers.

Bernstein believed that Marilyn’s tightly-knit inner circle, including the Strasbergs and her psychiatrist Dr Ralph Greenson – who had been an advisor on the set – were partly to blame for the film’s failure, and her tragic death.

“I always felt that she had become an investment to people like him – an investment not only financially, in caring for her, but even in the fabrication of her illness. It had become a need for him and others that she be considered sick, dependent and needy.”

Walter Bernstein in 2005

In 1976, Bernstein reunited with Paris Blues director Martin Ritt for The Front, a film about the blacklist starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel; and in 1980, he wrote and directed Little Miss Marker, a remake of a Depression-era movie, starring Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis. Bernstein’s memoir, Inside Out, was published in 1994. Married four times and with four children, Walter Bernstein served until his death as a visiting instructor at New York University.

Thanks to MM History on YouTube and Stacy at Everlasting Star