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Monroe had been Fox's top moneymaking star in the '50s. But her glory days as a box office magnet were in just a few films over a few years, which are all included in Fox Home Video's Diamond Collection (whose title nicely plays on both the 75th birthday and Marilyn's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" ). Her lone popular success after that was "Some Like It Hot," a loan-out to United Artists. Otherwise she treaded water in "The Prince and the Showgirl," a Ruritanian romance co-starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, the dud musical "Let's Make Love," directed by George Cukor, and John Huston's "The Misfits," written by her then-husband Arthur Miller.
All were honorable attempts, the sort of film that demonstrated Monroe's ambition to grow beyond the formula of her old hits. The problem was that she hadn't made any formula hits in between. She needed to flash some of the easy old magic. She still owed Fox a picture, and she was still, for Pete's sake, Marilyn Monroe. So the studio bought the rights to a RKO comedy, "My Favorite Wife," with the creaky premise of a man whose wife has for years been missing and presumed dead, but who returns from a desert island just after he has married another woman.
Monroe began the negotiations by submitting her list of 16 approved directors. It named 15 top auteurs and one wild card: Strasberg, who never had directed a film, and never would, but who had coaxed her into believing she could be a serious actress. Monroe had fled to the Actors Studio in the mid-'50s to achieve something more than the stardom she felt debased her. In a radio interview at the time she made a poignant declaration: "I would like to be a good actress." (The "would like," instead of the more straightforward "I want," is almost heartbreaking.) Lee was also the husband of Paula Strasberg, Marilyn's on-site acting coach in five films, at $500 a week. The couple may have had her best interests at heart, but they could not have been indifferent to the reflected renown Monroe's affiliation earned them. It was as if Elvis had gone to study music composition with Darius Milhaud and brought his teacher to all his gigs.
Fox said yes to Paula and no to Lee, hiring Cukor, an old master of light comedy; in 1940, the year of "My Favorite Wife," he directed "The Philadelphia Story." Arnold Schulman, who had written "A Hole in the Head" for Frank Sinatra and Frank Capra, got the job of updating the script. Marilyn would play the missing wife (originally it was Irene Dunne); Dean Martin would be her husband (the Cary Grant role); Cyd Charisse would be the second wife (Gail Patrick). Supporting roles were assigned to Wally Cox, Phil Silvers, Steve Allen and John McGiver. David Brown was to produce.
Immediately, Monroe and her team started pulling weight and dropping it on the staff Fox had assembled. Her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, helped push Brown out in favor of Henry Weinstein. In the documentary, Brown says that Richard Zanuck, then a Fox producer and soon to be named company president, told him to watch his back. "I did, says Brown, "and there was an arrow in it." (Brown is too much the gentleman to say "knife.") Then Schulman was replaced by Nunnally Johnson, a 30-year Hollywood pro and the writer-producer of "How to Marry a Millionaire." But the entrance to any Hollywood writers' building is a revolving door: Johnson soon gave way to Walter Bernstein, who had recently written "Heller in Pink Tights" for Cukor.
The film could have been shut down, permanently, before it ever began. A few weeks prior to the first day of shooting, Weinstein visited Monroe's home and found her, according to the AMC narration, "unconscious from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills." She was diagnosed with acute sinusitis, but Hyman Engelberg, Monroe's physician, describes her condition as mostly mental: she was "manic depressive." And, one has to add, the cause of it in others.
The first day of shooting, April 23, saw 104 crew members on the set, but not Monroe. She didn't come in for a week. When she did, she was given some silent emoting to do. The rushes show an actress-model in full flower; she had never looked so slim in pictures, her smile never so sweet or enchanting. Marilyn could turn "it" on also the camera, and the audience. It's called star quality.
The next day she collapsed and was rushed home. On May 10, the film was shut down; Monroe had been on the set only two of 18 days. She showed up again on May 14 and, weirdly, was given a scene with a dog! Again, with the cocker spaniel (named Tippy, like a dog she had as a child), she is terrific. Later that week, she worked well and generously with the two child actors playing her the son and daughter she had not seen for years.
When she was there, she was very very good. What's hard to figure is why, as long as his vulnerable star had showed up, Cukor didn't put some important dialogue scenes in the can. One possible explanation, on the evidence of the rushes: she kept blowing her lines. Even here, though, she's cute and sympathetic. And she fairly glows in the film's most famous scene: a nude dip in the family swimming pool. At first Monroe wore a body stocking, then discarded it to go au naturel. Engaging, relaxed, sexy without pushing it, Marilyn is so effervescent here, the pool water could have been Perrier.
Cukor had a short temper, but any director would have felt like Job on this shoot. Marilyn would consult with Paula Strasberg on whether a scene worked or not. To talk with Monroe, he often had to go through her publicist, Pat Newcomb. And even when the star was home sick, she invented cause for complaint. She cattily told Weinstein she had heard that, in a bedroom scene, Charisse was wearing a padded negligee bra.
Her growing relationship by Robert Kennedy added more intrigue and delays. The documentary gives every indication that Monroe had an affair with the Attorney General. Weinstein volunteers a telling anecdote, which might be called An Actress Prepares. Before a date with Bobby, she asked her producer for some intelligent questions to spur the conversation; she even rehearsed some dialogue on the Civil Rights movement. But after a few meetings with Kennedy, she told Weinstein, "I don't need any more questions." In her time at the Actors Studio, she had apparently learned to improvise.