How Marilyn shook off shackles of studio system
During a showdown with movie moguls Monroe managed to turn herself into America's sweetheart, which helped her carve out a deal that caused a showbiz sensation
Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30
The letter was from Frank H Ferguson, assistant secretary of Twentieth Century Fox, and couched in the no-nonsense language of a legal document.
"Dear Miss Monroe," it began. "Under date of January 16, 1954, we instructed you to report to our studio on January 20, 1954. Your representatives have advised us that, subsequent to the date of such notice, they have been unable to communicate with you.
"Therefore, you are hereby instructed to report to Mr. Sol Siegel on January 25, 1954, at the hour of 12:00 Noon at his office... for the purposes of rendering your services in connection with our motion picture tentatively entitled "PINK TIGHTS", in respect to which you have heretofore been assigned to portray the role of 'Jenny'."
Unfortunately for Mr Ferguson, the Monroe in question - Marilyn, of course - was not prepared to portray the role of "Jenny" or star in a film tentatively entitled Pink Tights.
For a start, her co-star, Frank Sinatra, was set to earn $5,000 a week against her $1,500. Even more insulting was the fact that Fox, the studio she had been tied to since 1951, had refused to let her see the script.
But, to top it all, the order from Fox just confirmed her suspicion that the studio had no respect for her and thought she could only play dumb blondes. So she ignored the letter and continued her one-woman strike.
Today, a movie star who wants to be taken seriously as an actor might make a brief foray into independent film-making, take a turn on the West End stage or film a guest spot on a high-calibre TV show. Under the studio system that prevailed when Marilyn was at her peak, however, there were no such options.
The studio signed actors to a contract, stuck them in a niche, and played them out until the public stopped caring. It could be soul-crushing, and it was Marilyn, so often dismissed as a blonde bimbo, who played a big part in taking it down.
By the mid-1950s, thanks to films such as How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe was the biggest star in the world. She was mobbed by fans when she stepped out in public, guarded by police in crowds and on the cover of magazines and newspapers almost daily. But privately, she worried that she was being typecast and her career was at a dead end.
According to the standard contract she had signed with Fox, Monroe was being paid a fraction of the money of her peers and was obliged to work for Fox in whatever roles she was assigned. She was prohibited from all other radio, TV and theatre work, unless loaned out by the studio, and Fox could cancel her deal at any time. For a driven, determined star, the result was misery.
The truth is that Monroe, despite her airy innocence and sexy exterior, had worked hard to become a success. She stuck to an exercise regime when such a thing was rare. She had her teeth straightened and minor plastic surgery to correct a small bump on her nose and soften her chin. She endured daily hair and make-up sessions, determined to look the part of "Marilyn Monroe" - a figure she sometimes spoke of in the third person, even when emerging from hospital or stepping out to announce a devastating divorce.
And she worked on the interior, too. Monroe took acting classes throughout her career, keen to understand character and motivation, and read James Joyce's Ulysses and vast quantities of Russian literature.
She was not above media manipulation; when nude shots taken early in her career were published as a calendar in 1952, it was Monroe who secretly stage-managed the whole scandal. But she also wanted to play more serious roles.
Unfortunately, Fox chief Darryl Zanuck, who never particularly warmed to his star, saw no percentage in allowing her any creative freedom. And the contract she had signed in 1951 meant he didn't need to.
Variation in the terms of such contracts was not unheard of by that time.
Olivia de Havilland had successfully sued Warner Brothers in 1943 after it tried to extend her contract beyond seven years, and James Stewart had negotiated for a share in profits, in the sort of production deal that became common among the major male stars.
But by the beginning of 1954, after Millionaire and Blondes, when Monroe wanted a more dramatic role, she was instead assigned the Western, River of No Return, where she played a saloon singer. "I think I deserve a better deal than a grade Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the CinemaScope process," she said.
The final straw came when the studio ordered her to do Pink Tights. After her strike, Zanuck sent her the script, but her reply, in a telegram, was unequivocal. "I am exceedingly sorry," she wrote. "But I do not like it."
She never did the film.
Instead, while on honeymoon with her new husband, sports legend Joe DiMaggio, Monroe agreed to make an impromptu side trip to Korea, where she entertained 100,000 US troops in 10 days. By the time she returned, she was America's sweetheart. She had enjoyed a month of positive coverage and Fox had no choice but to make concessions. The studio offered her a role in There's No Business Like Showbusiness.
After that, she was promised the lead in The Seven Year Itch, with a bonus of $100,000 and a new contract to follow. An uneasy peace descended. Monroe started shooting The Seven Year Itch in September, during the death-throes of her marriage to DiMaggio, and established Marilyn Monroe Productions with her friend, photographer Milton Greene.
With work still to be finished on The Seven Year Itch and its publicity tour to come, Fox was over a barrel. The agreement it signed with MMP meant that Monroe would, in future, receive $100,000 plus a share of the profits on each of four films she would have to make for Fox in the next seven years, a huge improvement in financial terms. But for a woman who repeatedly claimed: "I don't care about money, I just want to be wonderful", even more important was her approval over subject matter, director and cinematographer.
She was also allowed to make one film elsewhere for each one she made at Fox, and to appear on recordings, radio and television.
The deal caused a sensation. A television interview soon afterwards with America's most respected newsman of the time, Edward R. Murrow, was another coup for Monroe. "It's not that I object to doing musicals and comedies," she told him of her new venture. "In fact, I rather enjoy them. But I'd like to do dramatic parts, too."
"There is persuasive evidence that Marilyn Monroe is a shrewd businesswoman," wrote Time magazine in January 1956. Monroe and Greene had thrown a launch party for their business, printed matchbooks and begun work, and if the company never amounted to much more than a vehicle for Marilyn herself, it at least achieved the aim of freeing her from Fox's grasp.
Armed with her new freedom, Monroe made fewer films, but, on average, better ones. The new company's first film was Bus Stop, her finest dramatic role and one of her darkest. She followed that with The Prince and The Showgirl, co-starring Laurence Olivier. Then came the near-perfect Some Like It Hot.
During these years of freedom, Monroe collaborated with her eventual third husband Arthur Miller to make The Misfits and spent much of her free time studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where acting guru Lee Strasberg considered her on a level with Marlon Brando. She suffered from crippling anxiety and perfectionism in her performances, always convinced she would let people down, but what emerged on screen was invariably magic.
Marilyn Monroe is remembered as an icon, a sex object, a star. But she wanted to be remembered as an actress, and it was that legacy that she laboured to secure. In the end, her tragically early death came just as she was beginning to strike out alone and find her feet. But her example helped break the studios' power, and ensure that the stars of the 60s and 70s could take risks in a way she never could.
How many blondes does it take to change an unfair system? Maybe just one, if she's Marilyn.