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Monroe, Miller Magnificent Misfits

By Arthur Miller
Los Angeles Times Syndicate
Sunday, December 13, 1987; Page M01

When playwright Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, he knew she was a troubled woman who would require a great deal of emotional support. He was committed to helping her, but soon found it a nearly impossible task. His film "The Misfits," made in 1960, was a last-ditch effort to save his marriage and Monroe's life. The following was excerpted from Miller's autobiography, "Timebends."

IN HER FIRST shot in "The Misfits," Marilyn stood on a Reno bridge over the Truckee, a stream into which newly divorced women customarily tossed their wedding rings to celebrate freedom. Thelma Ritter, her inept, tough-sounding landlady, is trying to lift her low spirits. Watching Marilyn, I couldn't help feeling her disappointment not only in her character's marriage but in her own, and probably in herself. After the finish of the second take I went to her and told her it looked good; she glanced up at me ironically, as though I were lying. When she did that, she could make you feel you were. And to a degree it was true -- I had sensed something withdrawn in her, not merely in the character she was playing. But I insisted it was only her insecurity showing; surely we still had a future, and the work on this film, "The Misfits," would somehow help to make it happen.

John Huston, heartily satisfied and bubbling with congratulations overrode her wish to shoot the scene a third time, thereby unwittingly suggesting to her that he might be intending to settle for "good enough," and setting off an alarm bell in her mind. The miasma was threatening to swirl in again, but this time I felt as she did, that the scene lacked vitality. As simple and direct as it was, I wondered if she was not trying to give it too much meaning; already it was verging on the effortful. Huston probably sensed it would only get heavier the more times he shot it, and rather than register a backward step on the first day he elected to push on. From her viewpoint, however, she had not been exhaustively used.

Never far from sight stood her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, dressed for the heat of Reno in a black sack dress; black, she insisted, was cooler than the white the laws of physics would seem to have indicated. The crew promptly named her Black Bart, or simply Bart. Huston quickly took to ignoring Paula's presence by offering absurdly elaborate congratulations -- on her wearing a black dress in this terrible heat, for example -- and by listening to everything she had to tell him with a seriousness so profound as to be ludicrous.

From the outset he insisted on treating Marilyn not as a patient but as a professional actress who did not need any condescending encouragement from him. This seemed to show signs of fortifying her and revived the illusion with which I had begun writing the film, that it would provide us our chance to live and work in partnership. The Huston I saw relied on a certain ultimate resiliency or even courage in people, probably because he saw himself as a lifelong fighter against impossible odds. He would present Marilyn with the bracing challenge of fighting her problems through to a fine performance in a role for which she had every resource.

At some point, the rhythm of our workdays began to stumble as Marilyn was unable to appear until later and later each morning. I had no inkling of what to do or say anymore and sensed she was in a rage against me or herself or the kind of work she was doing. She seemed to be filling with distrust not only for my opinions of her acting but also for Huston's.

Huston at a certain point began to stir as the hours grew longer when she simply could not get ready to work. Her lifelong wrestling with the fact of time had thrown her to the mat finally, had nearly immobilized her now; she had always been one of those people for whom time is a sticky entanglement that they don't want to touch, perhaps in denial that a past exists. He took Paula aside and asked what she proposed to do about her charge.

Her control over Marilyn was now so complete that Marilyn had moved from our apartment in the hotel into hers. This might clear the air, I thought, and free Marilyn to concentrate solely on the work as she now said she wanted to do. The one real dread I had was that Paula would accede too easily to Marilyn's demands for more and more sleeping pills, but she promised she would not give in, and I tended to believe her because she was clearly in fear of a catastrophe herself.

Cinematographer Russell Metty's worry that close-ups were showing Marilyn's exhaustion finally forced matters to a head. Paula, now in control and thus unavoidably open to blame, quickly announced that her husband, Lee, on whom Marilyn was almost religiously dependent, was at last coming out from New York. Such was Huston's desperation that he very nearly welcomed this news. I certainly did, if only because Lee would now have to assume at least some direct responsibility for her unrelenting uncertainty as an actress in this role. Despite her utter reliance on his every word, he had managed to keep a safe distance through all her difficulties.

In the elevator to the Strasbergs' apartment I rehearsed my complaints. Lee answered my ring. The absurdity of his costume blew all my plans out of my head; in this hundred-degree weather he was in a stiff brand-new cowboy outfit -- shiny boots, creased pants, ironed shirt with braided pockets and cuffs -- but with the same whitish intellectual face and unexercised body.

"That's quite a get-up," I said.

He grinned adventurously. "Yes, it's very comfortable."

"The boots too?" I doubted that pointy Western boots could be comfortable on first wearing.

Lee's expression turned to a frown. "We have to have a serious talk, Arthur."

"Yes, I've been hoping to do that for some time."

"Yes, the situation has become impossible."

"I know." He must already have worked out a new approach that would save the day, such was the impacted drive I sensed moving within him. For an instant I happily thought I had had him wrong and that he indeed possessed a secret that could restore a Marilyn whose soul was falling through space even as we spoke.

"Yes. If something isn't done immediately I will have to take Paula off the picture." He looked directly at me, as though demanding a statement.

Paula? Was this about Paula? I glanced over to her on the couch, where she was grinning contentedly as though she had at last ceased to be ignored.

"I don't get you, Lee."

"Huston has been refusing to talk to her. This is insulting! I won't permit her to go on unless it is agreed that he show her respect. I will not tolerate this kind of treatment of her. She is an artist! She has worked with the greatest stars! I simply will not allow her to be treated this way!"

Stunned, I floundered trying to grasp his meaning. Had Paula not told him that Marilyn was in extremis, that perhaps her very life was in danger, and certainly her ability to finish the film in question? How else could he stand here complaining about his wife's not getting respect from a director? Or was it possible that Paula was so insanely self-obsessed as not even to have noticed that Marilyn was in very bad trouble?

It was impossible to address him, it was demeaning to speak seriously to him, infatuated as he was by his own importance and his wife's. Marilyn's suffering was a distant star that might occasionally be glimpsed as it dimmed out far, far away, but not more.

"I must get this settled before I can do anything else, Arthur."

"You can't expect me to settle it. It's between her and John."

"It's your picture, you must act."

"My script, not my picture. There's nothing I can do about it, Lee. John is not used to dealing with an actor through a third party, and I doubt he'll change. Are you going to be talking to Marilyn?"

"Then I will have to take Paula home with me."

"It will probably mean the end of the picture" -- and of Marilyn, I needn't have added, if she failed to finish it -- "but I guess you have to do what you have to do. But I hope you get to talk to Marilyn, she needs help now. Will you?"

"I'll talk to her, yes," he conceded. I understood the rules he was laying down -- he would do what he could but was not going to take responsibility for her under any circumstances, most especially not when she was on the ropes. And he was the only person she trusted. Such was the perfection of her fate.

Whatever Lee said to Marilyn, it had apparently left her unchanged as far as her ability to work was concerned, and now he had gone back to New York. I went up to Paula's apartment, afraid that in her opaque, absent-minded way she might be failing to at least keep watch. It was still unclear whether Paula understood how sick Marilyn was. I was never sure that she was truly listening.

She let me into the living room with her finger against her lips, then walked into the bedroom, and I followed. Marilyn was sitting up in bed. A doctor was feeling the back of her hand, searching for a vein into which to inject Amytal. My stomach turned over. She saw me and began to scream at me to get out. I managed to ask the doctor if he knew how much barbiturate or other medicine she had taken, and he looked at me helplessly, a young scared fellow wanting to give the shot and get out and not come back. Paula was standing beside the bed in her black shift, hair freshly brushed and pinned up, looking healthy and powdered and maternal, and vaguely guilty, I thought; yes, now she must know that she had made a bad bargain and was not in control anymore, and she wanted help and she wanted credit for her mothering love even as something in her could not care less because it was all hopelessly disconnected. I thought to move the doctor away from the bed to stall off the injection, but the screaming was too terrible, and her distress in my presence canceled out any help I could hope to give, so I left and stood in the living room and waited until the doctor came out. He was astonished that she could remain awake, having given her enough for a major operation, but she was still up and talking. He believed he was the last doctor in the area to be called in, but he would not agree to any more shots of anything, fearing for her life now that he had seen what he had seen. I went back into the bedroom and she looked at me, ravaged but slowing down at last, merely repeating, "Get out," as in a dream.

Marilyn lay down and shut her eyes. I watched for signs of labored breathing, but she seemed at peace.

It was the first quiet time we had had together in so long, and in the silence the idea of her trying to work in this condition was plainly monstrous -- we were all crazy, what could possibly justify it? I must find some way to halt the picture. But I could see her indignant fury at what she would interpret as an accusation that she had caused the picture to be canceled, something that might break her career besides.

I found myself straining to imagine miracles.

What, I wondered, if she no longer had to be this star, could we live an ordinary decompressed life down on the plain, far away from this rarefied peak where there was no air?

And then the shocking egotism of my thought stared me in the face -- her stardom was her triumph, nothing less; it was her life's achievement. How would I feel if the condition of my marriage was tractability, the surrendering of my art? The simple fact, terrible and lethal, was that no space whatever existed between herself and this star. She was "Marilyn Monroe," and that was what was killing her. Since her teens she had been creating a relationship with the public, first imaginary and then real, and it could not be torn from her without tearing flesh.

I realized now, as I longed for a miracle, that I had come to believe no analysis could reach into her. Perhaps only a shock of recognition, a quick but convincing sight of her own death, could rouse her to a desperate attempt to trust again. Somewhere in her she seemed to know this, inviting these drugged temporary deaths whose threat would deliver her at last.

I had no saving mystery to offer her; nor could her hand be taken if she would not hold it out. I had lost my faith in a lasting cure coming from me, and I wondered if indeed it could come from any human agency at all.

One thing only was sure; she must finish the picture. To fail would confirm her worst terror of losing control of her life, of going under the pulverizing wave of the terrible past. She went on sleeping. I wished again that I knew how to pray and invoke for her the image of that which only knows love. But it was too late for that too.

Houston took the bull by the horns, the unfinished film being now at the point of abandonment, and arranged to have Marilyn flown to a private hospital in Los Angeles where she could go off barbituates under the care of her analyst. In some ten days she was back -- her incredible resilence was almost heroic to me now -- and looking wonderfully self-possessed if not yet bright-eyed. Without discussion we both knew we had effectively parted, and I thought a pressure had been removed from her, and for that much I was glad.

The final shot was also the closing of the picture. It was a studio process shot done in Los Angeles; a filmed track in the desert rolled away through the truck's back window, coming to a stop when Marilyn jumped out. Clark Gable was supposed to watch her with a mounting look of love in his eyes, but I noticed only a very slight change in his expression from where I stood beside the camera, hardly ten feet away.

"Cut! Fine! Thanks, Clark; thanks, Marilyn." Huston was brisk and businesslike now, in effect refusing any sentimental backward look. I asked Gable if he thought he had shown sufficient expression in the final shot. He was surprised. "You have to watch the eyes. Movie acting is all up here" -- he drew a rectangle around his eyes with his finger. "You can't overdo because it's being magnified hundreds of times on the theatre screen." He turned out to be right, as I was relieved to see in the rushes; he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable a few feet away in the studio.

Now, about to say goodbye, he told me that he had seen a rough cut the night before and that he thought "The Misfits" was the best picture he had made in his life. He was grinning like a boy with an excitement in his eyes I had never seen before. A friend of his was standing by to drive him north for a week of fishing and hunting. He turned and got into a big Chrysler station wagon and was off. He was dead in four days of a sudden heart attack.

Marilyn came out of the building moving with such alertness in her face and manner that I wondered again whether I had made too much of her difficulties. After all, she had suffered in much the same way in each of her last three or four pictures. Maybe I had let myself feel guilty about her necessary travail and anger, and in that way had failed her. "Men like happy girls." Anyway, we were leaving in separate cars, which stuck me as very nearly funny.

Except that I believed she could not be done with her mother's curse. Now that she was serious about acting, she was asserting her value through her art, and that was forbidden, sinful. No less a conflict could have been the cause of such torture in this role through which she was, in a word, proclaiming herself a dignified woman.


© 1987 The Washington Post Company