Views on its impact range from beneficial to detrimental with some supporting Marilyn’s love and admiration for them and others condemning them for not realising Marilyn’s personal struggles.
Lee Strasberg, a figure as influential as he was controversial, shaped the acting careers of numerous stars including Al Pacino, James Dean and Jane Fonda who once remarked, “I’m not sure I even would have become an actress were it not for him.”
However, the role the Strasbergs played in Marilyn’s life and career remains far less clear-cut which was recognised by many including Marlon Brando, who worked with the Strasbergs himself.
He stated: “Lee was criticized–and correctly, I think–by his role, and that of his wife, Paula, in the grooming, I suppose we can call it, of Marilyn Monroe. I called it remedial tutoring, and any actor who requires round-the-clock ministrations in the reading of a line or a call sheet is not a serious actor. Marilyn was a lovely and sad woman, but she needed help that extended far beyond the exercises given to her by Lee and Paula. Lee and Paula wanted the reflected fame that came by being in Marilyn’s orbit. They were seduced and betrayed and battered.”
Did Lee, Paula, and The Method serve as catalysts for both Marilyn’s personal life and professional career, or did they impede the former while advancing the latter?
THE EVOLUTION OF AN ARTIST: THE INFLUENCES THAT SHAPED MARILYN’S CAREER
Admired for her naturalism, Marilyn had a long-standing fascination with Italian stage actor Elenora Duse. Photographs from 1951 and 1952 often show her framed picture of Duse placed conspicuously on her bookshelf or bedside table. Marilyn considered Duse’s commitment to art and refusal to compromise as inspirational, and these sentiments were echoed in her own career.
Even prior to her Strasberg tutelage, Marilyn had already established herself as a remarkable talent. In films like How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she had demonstrated her exceptional timing, musicality, and movement. Directors like Billy Wilder praised her aptitude for comedy, stating, “The greatest thing about Marilyn is not her chest…It is her ear. She can read comedy better than anyone else in the world.”
Marilyn’s earlier dramatic performances, such as in The Asphalt Jungle and Clash by Night, were also critically acclaimed, showcasing her emotional depth. Initially coached by Natasha Lytess, who was a student of Max Reinhardt, Marilyn had praised Lytess for her early guidance on Edward R. Murrow’s show Person to Person. However, due to Natasha’s interference of her private life and rumoured book about Marilyn, she was replaced.
Another key influence during Marilyn’s years with Lytess was Michael Chekhov, a student of Stanislavski and nephew of the famous playwright Anton Chekhov. Marilyn revered Chekhov, dedicating a chapter to him in her posthumously published memoir, My Story. According to Marilyn, working with Chekhov elevated acting from a profession to “a sort of religion.”
In Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, even though she wasn’t the lead, Marilyn dominated the screen, captivating audiences as both a femme fatale and a victim. Hathaway, known for being exacting with actors, lauded her, describing her as “marvellous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better.”
Marilyn was undeniably a skilled actress but yearned for roles that would offer her greater artistic satisfaction. During her final interview with Life magazine in 1962, she spoke candidly: “We not only want to be good; we have to be.” She also shared a personal anecdote about nervousness, revealing Strasberg’s insight that “nervousness indicates sensitivity.”
THE NEW YORK CHAPTER: REBIRTH, REBELLION, AND REALISATION
Despite having iconic roles in films like Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire, Marilyn felt both underpaid and pigeonholed. Her discontent led her to decline a role in The Girl in Pink Tights, resulting in a suspension from Fox Studios in 1954. Ultimately, she returned to the fold with There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), a blockbuster that solidified her celebrity status, yet her dissatisfaction lingered. By late 1954, she had moved to New York City to establish Marilyn Monroe Productions with her friend and photographer Milton Greene announcing this formation to the press in January 1955.
It was during Marilyn’s time in New York, that Marilyn and the Strasbergs relationship began. Isaac Butler, in his seminal book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, indicates that Marilyn’s path to the Strasbergs was facilitated by theatrical producer and co-founder of the Actors Studio, Cheryl Crawford. According to Butler, “Crawford took a liking to Marilyn and brought her to the Actors Studio. Soon Marilyn began studying with Strasberg at Malin Studios.” Marilyn’s commitment was such that she eventually took private lessons from Strasberg, forming a familial bond with the couple and their family.
Butler also cites Lee Strasberg as claiming: “I made Marilyn an actress… even though she was already a star. I worked out her problems for her too.” Butler counters these statements as “dubious,” pointing out that Marilyn had already received considerable training before her association with the Strasbergs. Butler asserts that regardless of the debate, Marilyn herself believed she needed them, and their alliance unquestionably propelled both the Method acting approach and Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio to new heights of recognition.
Although not officially produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions, Marilyn enjoyed her newfound power and brokered a more favourable contract relishing increased creative control with her first collaborative project, Bus Stop. Distributed by Fox, Bus Stop was a pivotal film that allowed her to work with Paula Strasberg on set for the first time. Adding to the allure, the film’s director, Joshua Logan, was a Stanislavski protégé, a fact Marilyn relished.
Public and industry opinion initially scoffed at Marilyn’s bold career shifts, but perceptions evolved as her artistic ambitions became evident. A glowing 1956 cover story in Time magazine reported her enriching experience studying under Strasberg in New York. Notables like Elia Kazan praised her acting prowess, and Marilyn herself said, “For the first time, I felt accepted, not as a freak, but as myself.” Time’s profile concluded with tantalising glimpses into her future projects, like a TV adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and her desire to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. The project had long been a dream for Marilyn, ever since she read the book in 1949. “That book was the most touching thing I’d ever read or heard of,” Marilyn recalled. “I asked Natasha whether it would make a good movie. She said yes, but not for me – yet.” Although an opportunity arose for her to take on the coveted role, Marilyn was compelled to decline. Discord between her business manager, Milton Greene, and her husband, Arthur Miller, coupled with Miller’s impending court case, created an untenable situation. Consequently, the film was ultimately released in 1958 with Maria Schell assuming the leading lady role that Marilyn had so deeply desired.
Marilyn’s shift to New York and her dalliance with Method acting significantly altered her image. No longer merely a Hollywood starlet, she became an emblem for actresses striving for artistic respect. Her actions emboldened others in the industry to challenge their typecasting.
NAVIGATING THE DEPTHS: MARILYN AND LEE STRASBERG’S METHOD
Lee Strasberg co-founded New York City’s Group Theatre in 1931 and took over as director of the Actors Studio in 1951. His techniques encompassed a range of practices including improvisation, sense memory, and affective memory. Strasberg even encouraged psychotherapy to delve into one’s personal history to evoke a more authentic emotional response on stage or screen. Marilyn, already in psychoanalysis, found some of these methods to be both revelatory and at times painful. Beyond the hyperbolic claim of making Marilyn an actress, Lee Strasberg noted in interviews that Marilyn “can call up emotionally what is required for a scene. Her range is infinite.”
The question is: was the deep self-examination a catalyst for creative expression or a source of further emotional complications? Marilyn’s on-screen performances indicate a newfound depth, suggesting a positive impact. In a 1960 interview with Marie Claire France’s editor-in-chief, Georges Belmont, Marilyn revealed Strasberg’s transformative influence on her life: “Lee Strasberg, I think he probably changed my life more than any other human being that I’ve met.”
The complexity of Marilyn’s relationship with the Strasbergs and her journey through the world of method acting reflects not just her quest for artistic excellence, but also the nuances of her personal struggles and triumphs. Whether it was her evolving relationships with acting coaches or her courageous forays into challenging roles, Marilyn remained a compelling figure, constantly striving for more, both as an artist and a human being.