Nancy Olson is best-known for her Oscar-nominated performance as Betty Schaefer, a level-headed script reader who lends a hand to a down-at-heel screenwriter (William Holden) in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950.) In the same year, she married songwriter Alan Jay Lerner, and they had two daughters before divorcing in 1957.
Nancy went on to star in Disney’s Polyanna (1960) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961.) In later years she played guest roles on television, and joined the all-star cast of Airport 1975. Her second marriage, to Capitol Records executive Alan W. Livingston – with whom she had a son – lasted from 1962 until Alan’s death in 2009.
At 94, Nancy has published her autobiography, A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood, and the Age of Glamour. In it, she devotes a full chapter to her bittersweet memories of Marilyn. Admitting that writing about Marilyn is “a daunting challenge almost impossible to execute,” she also reflects on how fragile actors are so often destroyed by the celebrity machine.
“Creating stars sold tickets. The studios were constantly hyping the qualities that created an irresistible commodity. This was particularly possible when someone had not only all the tangible and obvious assets (beauty, personality, etc.) but also the most important quality of all, vulnerability. A perfect example was Marilyn Monroe. We have to acknowledge that people who are willing and cooperative about making themselves accessible to exploitation are both accessories to the crime as well as being victims …”
Nancy goes on to describe an early meeting with Marilyn…
“One evening I was invited to a small cocktail gathering at 20th Century Fox with some producers and a group of young up-and-coming actors being groomed for screen stardom. I was there for about twenty minutes when I noticed everyone turning and watching a young woman making a somewhat awkward yet utterly fascinating entrance. She was blonde and fair and had a distinctively pretty face as well as a body that highlighted a more-than-ample bosom and an extremely provocative round bottom. Who was she? What was she? What was there about her that was so riveting? It seemed clear to me that she was terrified, even knowing that she was making an incredible, if somewhat bizarre, impact. But her voice and what she said made the greatest impression on me. She talked like a little baby – cooing, beguiling, pleading, flirting, hanging onto the arm of the person she was talking to (always male, of course). If I had closed my eyes, I would have assumed that this was a child of maybe six or seven years old talking to her beloved uncle.
I was always intrigued with her as her career developed and blossomed into superstardom. I never forgot her vulnerability and wondered what would become of her …”
Nancy then recalls a later encounter “at a large party at the home of Lee and Paula Strasberg on Santa Monica Beach.” The Strasbergs were based in New York, but Paula coached Marilyn on all her later film shoots and Lee sometimes joined them.
“She was now married to Arthur Miller, the renowned American playwright, a union I could never quite understand. When she saw me, she recognised me and, holding onto her husband’s arm, cooed, ‘Daddy, it’s Nancy Olson! You remember her from Sunset Boulevard. If I had closed my eyes and only listened to her voice, I would have said that a young girl of about eleven or twelve was trying to please her father with a wonderful discovery for him. Miller was not impressed or interested.
Marilyn was the quintessential result of a thousand pieces pasted together to create a super ‘movie star.’ Each piece was put in place by the magicians of the industry: the publicity manipulators feeding the hungry press; the producers offering opportunities to appear on-screen after sexual favours were delivered; the makeup artists; the light and camera crews, lighting and filming her at just the right angle; the directors who understood how to use her; the professional actors giving her the space to deliver what she uniquely could; and most of all, the history of poverty, abuse, lack of love and trust and family and education, all of which created a vulnerability and an insatiable need for the spotlight at any cost.
I think of Marilyn with great sadness – a tragic figure who haunts us all.”
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