Archive for May, 2016

Marilyn Monroe vs. Laurence Olivier: A Steel Cage Match

Posted in Uncategorized on May 8, 2016 by tom


Shocking revelation I just learned online!!

Sir Laurence Olivier–one of the most highly regarded actors and directors of our time–found working with Marilyn Monroe on “The Prince and the Showgirl” to be excruciating. The guy who has four Oscars (two honorary, two for Hamlet) also directed the film and was frequently purple-faced with rage, since Ms. Monroe was always late, never knew her lines, and acted like she had no idea what she was doing.

Granted, Olivier is considered possibly the greatest Shakespearean actor of the Twentieth Century, whereas Ms. Monroe might have heard of Shakespeare at some point (probably confusing The Bard with Spencer Tracy). Indeed, one of the highest honors in the storied British theater world is now called “The Olivier” in his honor.

Then again, Andy Warhol never made iconic art containing Olivier’s face. To my knowledge, nobody has an image of Olivier portrayed on their body–not his face, his signature, or any iconic picture of a subway grate blowing wind up his trouser legs and blasting his genitals.

Without a doubt, Olivier is a once-in-a-lifetime actor, with boundless talent and an incredible work ethic, while Marilyn’s finest acting was probably making third husband Arthur Miller think he’d actually made her cum (her acting was so erratic, though, that she might have acted the big O while the couple did dishes or gardened or something). Olivier was an actor’s actor, one whose work contemporary stage geniuses like Kenneth Branagh or Chiwetel Ejiofor study and try to emulate. Marilyn Monroe?
I can’t imagine a serious actress alive who’d try to copy the Monroevian acting technique (which seemed to be breathless lines, giggles, and conical boobs). Sure, MM hit the occasional cinematic home run, typically in comedies–Seven Year Itch? Some Like it Hot? Bloody brilliant–but again, if you’re looking for an actress role model? Meryl Streep would be a good place to start, or pick a Hepburn, either Hepburn.

Which brings me to the point. Nobody cares that Olivier couldn’t stand working with Marilyn Monroe. Nobody who’s not a film nerd or, especially, a theater geek will remember Sir Laurence on the 100th anniversary of his death. On August 5, 2062, I guarantee there will be news reports, retrospectives, etc, all noting Marilyn Monroe’s legendary, enduring status. In 2062, there will probably still be women getting various Marilyn tattoos on their various parts, even if they’ve never seen her movies.
In college, I took a course called “Shakespeare’s Later Plays” for my major. These included many of his most celebrated tragedies, and it taught me one thing, if nothing else. Ye gods, it must be nigh-on impossible to memorize and perform one of those damned plays. The dialogue and soliloquies flowed off the tongue as naturally as…well, something that doesn’t flow naturally off of the tongue, like epoxy or roofing nails or something. Brilliant plays, and beautiful language, but how do you manage to get those words out without sounding like you have a huge stick up your ass?
Olivier did. Indeed, one English playwright noted that Laurence Olivier could speak William Shakespeare’s lines as naturally as if he were “actually thinking them.” That’s some skill. Serious skill and talent. AMAZING acting, but I doubt anyone (except Turner Classic Movies, if they’re still around) will have a big retrospective July 11, 2089. (If they do, I imagine they’ll note the pinnacle of his career not as his King Lear, Henry V, or Hamlet, but when he worked with Marilyn Monroe in “The Prince and the Showgirl”)

There are legends, and then there are those for whom “legend” is not a sufficiently large word. You’d need something like “super-legend,” or “ultra-legend,” or “Immortal.”

Sir Laurence Olivier was a true legend. As an actor, he had few people even approaching his level, like Secretariat, only slower and not as well-hung. He was simply that good.

But Marilyn Monroe is a super-ultra-legend, a true Immortal. There is not a performance she ever gave on screen that some other actress couldn’t have done better, technically speaking. She had that dreadful baby-girl voice, and she always came of as kind of addled to me. Yet she had something Olivier–for all his gravitas and talent–never had.

She had star-power.

Olivier was a legendary actor, winning awards for stage, screen, and television. He was a legend.

But Marilyn was a star. No. Marilyn IS a star. She’s been dead nearly fifty-four years, but nobody pops to my mind who has replaced her as being the ultimate movie star. Oh, there have been scads of better actresses, more beautiful women, etc., but they were merely good actresses and pretty women.

Eva Marie Saint, for example, gave one of my all-time favorite performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, “North by Northwest.” Her character was smart and very sexually forward (for 1959, especially), and she showed more acting ability there than Marilyn ever did. Eva Marie Saint won the Supporting Actress Oscar for playing opposite Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” These are two amazing performances, two of the best ever, but I can’t imagine anyone reading this and thinking, “Oh yeah!! Eva Marie Saint! Now SHE was a movie star!”

She wasn’t. Marilyn Monroe is a movie star.

Marilyn Monroe is THE movie star.

As I watched this silly Top Ten Movie Couples Who Truly Loathed Each Other thing on YouTube, I was mildly surprised by some of them. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing”? Okay. Hmm. Weird. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in “Romeo and Juliet”? It was funny how they described their dislike: Claire thought Leo wasn’t serious enough when they weren’t shooting—he was joking around with the crew, etc.—while Leo found Claire to be priggish and uptight. I get that. Richard Gere and Debra Winger in “An Officer and a Gentleman”? Hardly a surprise: two great actors, with egos as big as their careers were at the time.

But when the countdown hit Sir Laurence and Marilyn, I laughed my ass off. “Of freakin’ COURSE they didn’t like each other!! He’s possibly the greatest stage and screen actor of last century, and she has all of the acting skill you’d expect from the 1947 Miss California Artichoke Queen!” (To be fair, Olivier was knighted by the Queen of England, but he was never an Artichoke Queen, or King, or Jack, or whatever the male equivalent is when dealing with artichokean honors)

Levity aside, Marilyn Monroe had one thing working for her that other glamorous stars of her age never did. I had a film professor say once—and while I understood what he meant when he said it, I could really only really grasp the truth years later (like now!)—that the absolute best thing James Dean ever did as an actor was die in a spectacular car crash at age twenty-four. Harsh? Cold? Yes, undoubtedly,

But think about how amazingly sexy and vibrant Marlon Brando was in “Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront.” He held-up fairly well through middle age, I guess—at least in “Last Tango in Paris”—but he became a bloated parody of himself toward the end of his life. Elizabeth Taylor—considered one of the most beautiful women of her age—aged horribly before our shocked eyes. We saw her grow old and frail, her body shot from drugs and alcohol. She kept the Betty Ford Clinic in business for years, and we saw her being pushed around in a wheelchair, such a far cry from the young, beautiful girl who’d ridden horses so gracefully in “National Velvet,” and who had such beauty and chemistry opposite Rock Hudson in “Giant,” alongside James Dean.

Rock Hudson ended up wasting away from AIDS, and Elizabeth Taylor had this slow, sad spiral toward the inevitable old lady’s death.

But James Dean never got old. Oh, they aged him (badly) with makeup on “Giant,” but that was just a movie role. When “Rebel Without a Cause” came out, that’s the image forever cemented in our minds of James Dean. Young and handsome, not sure where he was headed yet, but crackling with energy and Zeitgeist. It’s different for men, too. Olivier grew old gracefully, dignified, not like Elizabeth Taylor.

Like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe never grew old. She was thirty-six when she OD’d, and yeah, she had lost some of her wattage. The drugs and stress were taking their toll on her, but in the end, it didn’t matter. We never had to witness her aging. Or dying an old woman’s death.

Their legacies are the point here. Nobody will ever be able to take anything away from Sir Laurence Olivier. Nobody can say he didn’t deserve his accolades and his sterling reputation. His body of work speaks for itself. He had natural gifts, but he also worked amazingly hard. He made perfection look easy, even if it wasn’t always, and the roles he made look so easy were some of the most difficult ever in the English language.

If there is a Hell, it would probably be having to watch Marilyn Monroe play Lady MacBeth. (To be fair, on the other screen in Hell would be Lord Olivier playing the Tony Curtis role in “Some Like it Hot”)

But God, what a movie star. I just tried to think of an equivalent movie star, and I couldn’t. She made thirty films—that’s it. Thirty. In the first four months of 2016, I’ve seen three films with Robert DeNiro. A third of a year, and that was 10% of Marilyn’s entire output. And most of her work was forgettable. She wasn’t like Harrison Ford, where every film is an epic.

But for sheer movie stardom? She’s the one whose candle really won’t blow out, despite the lyrics to “Candle in the Wind.” “Your candle burned out long before, your legend never did.”

That candle will stay alight forever. Unless and until some miraculous confluence of events occurs, the candle that burns representing Marilyn Monroe’s untouchable stardom will never be snuffed out. The legend, of course, will be never-ending. There will always be framed posters, and expensive, beautifully rendered tattoos.

Really, the latter seems most fitting of all. Marilyn’s immortality is forever emblazoned on our psyche, that it’s not a big stretch to have her immortal image forever inked into our skins.

When Laurence Olivier died, I remember the People Magazine cover, because it had the most perfect headline: Good Night, Sweet Prince. It’s from Hamlet, Act V Scene 2: “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

As perfect as that headline was for Olivier, all of “Candle in the Wind” is the perfect tribute to Marilyn..Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s composition is one of the best pop ballads ever. As much as it’s a fitting tribute to Marilyn Monroe, my favorite line is the very first. “Goodbye Norma Jean…”

Norma Jean—or whatever tiny shards remained of her—SHE died in 1962. Norma Jean was the 1947 Miss California Artichoke Queen. What she became, this huge force of nature—Marilyn Monroe? She will never die. She will never age. She will never fall to pieces. She will always sparkle.

And regardless of Laurence Olivier’s opinion of her, she will always be the brightest star in the Hollywood sky.

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