‘To the Actress’: Marilyn and Her Mentors

In April 1955, Marilyn gave her first (and only) extensive TV interview on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person. The show was recorded live at the home of her photographer friend, Milton Greene, in Westport, Connecticut. A few months earlier, Marilyn had walked out on her long-term movie contract in Hollywood, and established an independent production company with Greene.

While Milton’s wife Amy fielded Murrow’s initial questions about their guest, a visibly nervous Marilyn reflected on her rise to stardom and career goals, as Demetra Nikolakakis writes for Slash Film.

Marilyn reads Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor (photo by Ed Feingersh, March 1955)

“Few stars have cemented themselves as deeply in movie history as Marilyn Monroe … Yet for all her lasting success, Monroe had a rocky start to her career. Early on, the actress managed to nab a few roles here and there, but was generally ignored by film studios — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer even complained that she lacked ‘the sort of looks that made a movie star’ … But while her patience eventually paid off, the star was aware that her career wouldn’t have become such a hit without others’ support (and a couple of leaps of faith).

By 1955, Monroe was a massive sensation … 20th Century-Fox’s Dynamo would report that Monroe’s ‘glamorous personality’ had ‘brought her more publicity than any foreign queen has ever received in the American press.’ However, the actress didn’t insist that she had done it alone.

‘[A] number of people have contributed greatly. I think when John Huston wanted me for the part in Asphalt Jungle, and I think when Billy Wilder wanted me for the part in Seven Year Itch, I think that was very important. And also working with my coach Natasha Lytess, she helped me very much from the very beginning. And I also got a great deal from attending classes with Michael Chekhov.’

Even though Monroe wasn’t yet a huge star when she met with most of the people who were named, she nevertheless seems to have dazzled them. Most notably, Natasha Lytess … although Monroe only knew Michael Chekhov, her Method acting teacher, for a few short years (from 1951 to his death in 1955), he helped support her throughout her rise to fame.

When she auditioned for a relatively small role in The Asphalt Jungle, the then-unknown actress was overcome with nervousness … However, director John Huston wasn’t thrown off by Monroe’s panic … ‘I thought of it as a role that Marilyn could play. She was at a stage in her life when, really, nobody was about to give her a dramatic role because she was essentially a comedian and a light fluff. And I knew better, and it was sort of a gift to her at a certain point.’

Evidently, Billy Wilder was impressed by Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch. Several years later, the actress would go on to star in Some Like it Hot, another of Wilder’s films (though production was famously difficult and the director would later turn on the star).”

Clockwise from left: Marilyn with acting coach Natasha Lytess, and directors John Huston and Billy Wilder

Among the others who deserve credit at this point in Marilyn’s career were Johnny Hyde, the powerful agent who helped her gain a foothold in Hollywood; and of course Milton Greene, who supported her efforts to gain independence from the studio system.

The young Norma Jeane was guided by strong women like Ana Lower, whose deep spiritual faith inspired the girl to follow her dreams; and Emmeline Snively, who signed her to the Blue Book Modelling Agency in 1945.

Among her early photographers, David Conover ‘discovered’ her at work in a factory; while the artistry of Andre de Dienes spurred her own creativity.

Musicians Phil Moore (below, top left) and Hal Schaefer (bottom left), and choreographer Jack Cole (below, at right) helped Marilyn to hone her song and dance skills for the movies. (Honourable mention goes to composers Fred Karger and Lionel Newman, pianist Al Guastafeste, and mime artist Lotte Goslar.)

The success of The Seven Year Itch, released in June 1955, gave Marilyn bargaining power over Fox and a new contract was finalised on December 31st. Marilyn also began studying with Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio, and by 1956, his wife Paula had replaced Natasha Lytess as her on-set acting coach.

After Marilyn’s partnership with Greene was dissolved in 1957, the Stras­bergs became the dominant influence on Marilyn’s career, alongside her third husband Arthur Miller, who wrote The Misfits for her. In her spare time, Marilyn painted and wrote poetry, encouraged by her friend Norman Rosten.

Returning to Los Angeles in 1961, Marilyn increasingly depended on her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson – who even became a consultant on her ill-fated last movie, Something’s Got to Give. And when Marilyn died in 1962, the Strasbergs inherited the bulk of her estate. (Among the other beneficiaries were Michael Chekhov’s widow, Xenia, and Norman Rosten’s daughter, Patricia.)