The image of Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) as the personification of Hollywood glamour, beauty and desirability, is perhaps the most iconic in popular culture. After a troubled childhood – her mother was diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia” when Monroe was eight, relegating her to the care of foster parents and, for a time, an orphanage – she began her career as a pin-up model at the age of 19. After a series of minor film roles, Monroe signed a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox following her memorable supporting appearance in All About Eve (1950). By 1953, she was voted the top female box-office star, captivating the gaze of audiences with the same seeming effortlessness with which her characters attracted admirers in the films themselves. Yet Monroe was not simply “the ultimate embodiment of the desirable woman” (Richard Dyer) but, as has become more widely acknowledged in the years since her untimely death at the age of 36, a witty, intelligent and receptive performer who elevated her roles beyond their often ostensible simplicity on the page and craved recognition beyond the objectification to which she was relentlessly subjected. Joshua Logan, who directed Monroe in Bus Stop (1956), said of the star: “[She] is pure cinema… Watch her work in any film. How rarely she has to use words. How much she does with her eyes, her lips, with slight, almost accidental gestures.” This season focuses on the wide range of Monroe’s work in the 1950s, working with major directors of Hollywood’s golden age including Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang, as well as her soulful, final completed film written by her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller, and directed by John Huston: The Misfits (1961).
7:00pm GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
Howard Hawks (1953) 91 mins – G
Monroe sparkles as the eternally blonde showgirl Lorelei Lee alongside Jane Russell as her sharp-witted brunette best friend. The two form “a pair of cartoon gold diggers” (J. Hoberman) in Hawks’ effervescent musical comedy, based on the novel and stage musical written by Anita Loos. Monroe’s comic prowess is in excellent form in this fancifully escapist narrative, bolstered by bright Technicolor, iconic costume design by Travilla and a delightful score (including “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”). With Charles Coburn as a loveable millionaire.
8:50pm CLASH BY NIGHT
Fritz Lang (1952) 105 mins – PG
A hardened city girl (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home from the big city, marries a good-hearted fisherman (Paul Douglas), but falls for a cynical and violent film projectionist (Robert Ryan). This tough, emotionally wrought, highly atmospheric and precisely observed Cannery Row drama, partly shot on location in Monterey and based on Clifford Odets’ play, is meticulously directed by Lang and buoyed by a stellar cast, including a strong supporting performance by Monroe in her first above-the-title role.
7:00pm THE MISFITS
John Huston (1961) 125 mins – PG
Monroe’s last completed film (also the final movie to feature Clark Gable) was written by then-husband Arthur Miller, who used his perception of the real Marilyn to shape her character – one of many causes of on-set friction. Huston overcame considerable production difficulties to create one of the last masterpieces of classical Hollywood, an elegiac paean to those who outlive their times played with emotionally naked perfection by a cast of cinema legends (also including Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter). Russell Metty’s capturing of the light and space of Nevada is peerless.
9:20pm DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK
Roy Ward Baker (1952) 76 mins – PG
Appearing a year before Monroe’s elevation to superstardom was sealed with the release of Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondesand How to Marry a Millionaire, this claustrophobic, psychological noir was Monroe’s 13th credited film but her first headline role (Richard Widmark shares top billing). Underappreciated on release, Monroe’s performance exhibits an anxiety and emotional fragility that defines the darker side of her own meteoric rise. Now considered a key role, it suggests what she may have gone on to achieve had her career not been tragically cut short a decade later. With Anne Bancroft and Elisha Cook Jr.
7:00pm MONKEY BUSINESS
Howard Hawks (1952) 97 mins – G
Hawks’ mid-career screwball comedy features Cary Grant as a research doctor who inadvertently discovers a serum that reverses ageing, thanks to the meddling of a lab test monkey. The witty, fast-paced script was one of a number of collaborations between Hawks and screenwriters Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday<) and Ben Hecht (Scarface), and provides a delicious play on stardom and the cult of youth. With Ginger Rogers, a delightful Monroe, Charles Coburn and an opening off-screen cameo from Hawks himself!
8:50pm BUS STOP
Joshua Logan (1956) 96 mins – PG
Monroe’s Chérie, a saloon singer from the Ozarks, runs rings around a hayseed rodeo rider (Don Murray, in his breakout role). A CinemaScope mix of musical, drama and comedy, the film – acclaimed at the time for Monroe’s nuanced performance – provides fascinating evidence of the actor breaking free from earlier typecasting. She’d just renegotiated her Fox contract, was heading her own production company and, onscreen, was trying out the new techniques she’d been studying at the Actors Studio. With a screenplay by The Seven Year Itch’s George Axelrod, based on William Inge’s hit 1955 play.