Method or Madness: Marilyn at the Actors Studio

In my second post on Isaac Butler’s new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, I look at the Marilyn’s Actors Studio years, her relationship with the Strasbergs, and their influence on her later career. (You can read my first post here.)

“As the method became the Method, its meaning began to shift,” Butler writes. “Instead of a catchall term for American adaptations of Stanislavski’s ‘system,’ it came to mean the mysterious goings-on of Lee Strasberg and the actors who studied with him … This was particularly vexing to Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, both of whom had joined the Studio before Strasberg was involved and faded away from it as he took over … Strasberg would gain worldwide fame, and even infamy, thanks to James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.”

“By 1954, Monroe’s career had reached a crisis point,” Butler argues. “Her attempts to wrest control of her image and career from Twentieth Century-Fox had instead left her nearly penniless and possibly in violation of a contract that could keep her from working for almost a decade.” After moving to New York, she met theatrical producer Cheryl Crawford at a dinner party in early 1955. A co-founder of the Actors Studio, Crawford arranged for Marilyn to meet Lee Strasberg, and she began attending classes as well as taking private tuition at Lee’s family home.

“She adopted the Studio’s style,” Butler observes. “With Lee, she worked on monologues and scenes, including excerpts from Golden Boy [by Clifford Odets] and a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Lee’s son John. At the Studio, however, she presented work only once, and then only after cancelling the presentation multiple times on account of nerves.” This was a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, once a movie vehicle for Greta Garbo. As Kim Stanley – perhaps the most revered method actress of her generation – revealed later, Marilyn’s performance (in early 1956) drew rapturous applause from her fellow students.

Marilyn ‘in class’ at the Actors Studio (photo by Roy Schatt, 1955)

When Marilyn resumed her movie career, she hired Lee’s wife to replace her former acting coach, Natasha Lytess. “Paula soon clashed with Monroe’s directors,” Butler writes, “coughing during takes if she disliked them, and pushing Monroe to demand extra takes to get line readings right. Marilyn began seeing an analyst who lived in the Strasbergs’ building, and regularly spent the night at their apartment. As her addictions and emotional struggles worsened over the late 1950s, she overshadowed the Strasberg children in their own home and kept Paula on call twenty-four hours a day … [Paula] coached her in both life and art, helped her with her sleeping problems and tried, with limited success, to regulate her pill intake. Monroe responded by lavishing the Strasbergs with gifts.”

“You had to go to the darkest places of yourself to act [with Strasberg],” said Michael Kahn, who trained as a director at the Studio. “She had enough things to think about.” Boris Aronson, a set designer from the Group Theatre era, told Marilyn, “Why are you doing this with him? Stop with this poison you’re putting into yourself.” Actor Ben Gazzara was aghast when Lee told him over lunch that he should do Macbeth with Marilyn. “Marilyn was sitting [next to me] and I couldn’t hear her say ‘good morning,'” he recalled. “How this woman was going to play Lady Macbeth was beyond me.”

“But Lee felt that he ‘had a sense of her talent before it developed,'” Butler explains. “He could see she ‘had a wide range but didn’t know what to do to expedite it,’ and that she was hobbled by insecurities that he and Paula could help her move past. ‘I made Marilyn Monroe an actress,’ he claimed, ‘even though she was already a star. I worked out her problems for her too.'”

A ‘pre-method’ Marilyn in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

“Both of these assertions are dubious,” Butler argues. “Monroe had extensive training prior to working with the Strasbergs, including stints with Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand at the Actors Lab and study with Michael Chekhov, opposite whose Lear she played Cordelia. Her comedic performances required great technical skill, and a little-seen and little-loved 1952 film called Don’t Bother to Knock proved her more than capable of tackling a complete dramatic role. In Don’t Bother to Knock, which also features Studio member Anne Bancroft, Monroe played Nell Forbes, a woman struggling with mental illness … Playing Nell required both emotional fearlessness and, in view of the ludicrous plot, a fundamental believability. Monroe did fine work in the role; her only weakness was the pianissimo whisper of her voice. While watching Don’t Bother to Knock, it is hard not to shake the idea that what Monroe needed was not the Method, but speech lessons to unlock her voice, therapy to boost her confidence, and drug rehab to keep her from killing herself.”

“The best argument for the Strasbergs’ impact on Monroe’s acting comes in Joshua Logan’s film of William Inge’s Bus Stop,” Butler writes. “The film is awful – shrill and broad where the source material is sweet and nuanced – and Monroe is its lone bright spot … Cherie’s confusion at her own kidnapping in the early parts of the film is delightful, and her anguished realisation that she loves Bo Decker is convincing despite being preposterous. In one of the film’s final scenes, Decker leans over Cherie, explaining how they could make a life together, while she rests her head on a bar. Monroe’s face is squashed against her forearm, about as unglamorous as she could be. But Monroe stays there, Cherie’s every conflicted thought rippling over her face. It’s acting in the true Method mould: idiosyncratic, emotionally driven, and somewhat cryptic.”

“Whether Monroe benefited from her relationship with Lee and Paula or not, she thought she needed them,” Butler reflects, “and her colossal fame blasted both the Studio and the Method into the stratosphere.”

With Don Murray in Bus Stop (1956)

Kim Stanley, who had played Cherie in the Broadway production of Bus Stop, would make her movie debut in The Goddess (1958), which as Butler acknowledges, was “a thinly veiled fictionalisation of the life of Marilyn Monroe … The film is structured like a rock skipping over the surface of its story, and thus calls on Stanley to fight, or rage, or break down, or weep, or scream every ten minutes, but the performance never feels repetitive. Stanley brings to the film a formidability Monroe could never muster. She is solid and forceful … But when the material calls on her to reach out like a wounded child for something to hold on to, a complete transformation takes place.”

In her last completed film, The Misfits (1961), the strain of Marilyn’s private turmoil was starting to show. “Monroe’s voice, always soft, now registered ten to fifteen decibels below those of her castmates, and the film’s sound department struggled to compensate,” Butler writes. “Monroe sometimes strained to breathe life into Roslyn, but her performance is for the most part convincing … Monroe is doubly burdened within the film, not only with the artificiality of her character, but with Roslyn Taber’s vagueness.”

“The one moment that is firmly about Roslyn – and it seems, Monroe – comes toward the end of the film,” Butler argues, citing the powerful scene when Roslyn discovers that her cowboy friends are trapping mustangs to sell them for slaughter. Appalled, she runs away into the Nevada desert and screams at them from a distance. “Yet even here, at the emotional climax of a film written for its female star, The Misfits remains firmly with the men,” Butler observes. “[John] Huston’s camera imitates our culture itself, observing her as one would a pinned butterfly, unsure how much empathy or understanding to extend to her as she screams and begs for us to take her seriously.”

With Paula Strasberg during filming of The Misfits (photo by Ernst Haas, 1960)

“After The Misfits, and her divorce from Arthur Miller, Marilyn drew even closer to the Strasbergs,” Butler writes. “Lee wanted to direct her in a television production of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, but the prospect came to nothing. Before she died, Lee apparently ‘extracted a promise’ from her that she would talk to him if she was thinking of killing herself. He insisted afterwards that her overdose must have been accidental … She told him everything, after all. The Strasbergs were the closest thing she had to family; when she died, she left them the bulk of her estate, including all of her personal effects.”

“To its detractors, careers like Kim Stanley’s, Montgomery Clift’s, and Marilyn Monroe’s made it clear that the Method was ruining the American actor,” Butler comments. “Yet little could dislodge the Method from its place of prominence.” In June 1962 – just two months before Marilyn died – Lee Strasberg announced plans for an Actors Studio Theatre. Although initially successful, a disastrous London tour stopped the venture in its tracks. Meanwhile, Elia Kazan had resigned from the Actors Studio to found the Lincoln Centre for the Arts. His inaugural production was Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964), a confessional play looking back on his doomed marriage to Marilyn.

With Lee Strasberg at an Actors Studio benefit in 1961

In 1966, Paula Strasberg died, aged 57, from bone marrow cancer. “Paula had always been the social force of their lives,” Butler writes. “At the age of 64, [Lee] still had difficulty relating to the world, and without Paula, he often seemed lost.” A year later, he married a young student, Anna Mizrahi, and after a lecture tour in Europe, he returned home filled with enthusiasm. “His career as a director might be over, but he was now a world-renowned teacher,” Butler writes. “The time had come to build a proper school, which would be eventually be called the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute … That school would, unlike the Actors Studio, train the whole actor. Over three ‘phases’ of study, actors would learn everything from tai chi to acting for the camera. But the emphasis in the Institute’s acting classes remained on the inner life of the character and of the self … With campuses in Los Angeles and New York, the Institute provided Strasberg first with financial stability, and then wealth.”

Strasberg briefly returned to acting in The Godfather Part II (1974) after its star, Al Pacino, campaigned for him to play the film’s antagonist (although director Francis Ford Coppola had wanted Elia Kazan for the part.) Describing his Oscar-nominated performance as “compellingly odd,” Butler notes that the “real affection” between Lee and Pacino, a former student, gave them “great onscreen chemistry.” Strasberg died in 1982.

Today’s leading actors draw upon multiple disciplines, and method acting is now predominantly associated with Robert De Niro’s role as prizefighter Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980.) The actor trained to a professional level, and then purposely gained seventy pounds to portray the boxer in decline. But in her review of Isaac Butler’s book for the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz returns to The Misfits: “At the start of the film, Monroe’s character, an adrift divorcée, gets to talking about her parents. ‘They both weren’t there,’ she says. Her face darkens, then crumples; she seems to disappear into her past. Monroe’s whole life is in that line, and so is all of the Method.”