– Sir Laurence Olivier directing Marilyn Monroe in “The Prince and The Showgirl (1957)
Did Olivier humiliate Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl?
What’s my motivation in this scene, Mr. Sir?”
“To finish it without fluffing your lines – and try and be sexy, darling.”
The Trouble with Larry:
when an immovable object meets an irresistible force
Laurence Olivier was Britain’s finest actor and the golden boy of a theatrical generation who was admired and adored by millions. Strange then that he should have been so troubled by a mere slip-of-a-girl from America who had risen to fame from a distinctly unprivileged background. Norma Jean Baker had spent her childhood in foster homes, sans father with her mother in a mental institution, a situation she feared for herself and was a driving force in the creation of her alter-ego, Marilyn Monroe – the woman who had asked Olivier to costar with her in The Prince and The Showgirl, a rather apt title for their partnership. Oliver, then 50 to Monroe’s 31, was at the height of his fame, having been knighted following a glittering career on stage and screen. He reportedly regarded Monroe, the star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bus Stop, and Hollywood’s hottest property, as his inferior.
It was already know that all was not well on the set of The Prince and The Showgirl. The spectacle of the world’s most glamorous movie star residing in the sleepy English countryside of Surrey to make a film with the world’s most distinguished stage and film actor and knight of the realm, was not without public or media interest and word soon began to leak out that Sir Larry was becoming frustrated with his co-star.
It’s reported he was engaged as director without consultation with Marilyn and she was unhappy because she felt it altered the balance of power between them.
From what is known, Monroe undertook the project in good faith, tired of the dumb-blonde treatment from the Hollywood studios, she had quit, joined the Actor’s Studio in New York, set up her own production company and began the search for a project that allowed her more creative control. Unfortunately for Monroe, Olivier did not seem to treat her as an equal in their joint enterprise and expected her to just take direction.
Famed cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, whom Monroe personally asked to photograph and light her for the film, wrote in his memoir Conversations with Jack Cardiff by Justin Bowyer, “Marilyn had this ghastly obsession with method acting and was always searching for some inner meaning with everything, but Larry would only explain the simple facts of the scene. I think she resented him”.
Jean Kent, was not impressed by Marilyn and told The Daily Mail, “She never arrived on time, never said a line the same way twice, seemed completely unable to hit her marks on the set and wouldn’t do anything at all without consulting her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, whose presence was clearly resented by Larry Olivier, who was directing as well as co-starring.
“Fortunately I had only two brief scenes with her, but I think poor Larry must have aged at least 15 years during the making of that film. She caused Richard Wattis (the man from the Foreign Office) who had a lot of scenes with her, to take to drink because takes had to be done so many times.”
If you passed her in the street, you would never have thought: ‘There goes the world’s number one sex symbol’, said Kent.
Cardiff says that Olivier went out of his way to be a ‘pain in the ass’ to Marilyn. “He invited his wife, Vivien Leigh, the star of Gone With The Wind, who had played the part of the showgirl on stage, to the set – her presence visibly terrified an already nervous Monroe.” Olivier’s dislike of Monroe, according to Cardiff, seems to have been based on her refusal to socialise with the cast and crew, and her obsession with method acting, which led her to question decision he made as the film’s director. Monroe resented his treatment of her and was particularly hurt by his refusal to acknowledge even her status as a sex symbol.
“From the first, it was evident that Marilyn was going to be a problem for Larry on the film”, said Cardiff. “Most actors will come on the set and chat, but she would never come on the set. She went through so many agonised times with Larry because he was to her also a pain in the ass. She never forgave him for saying to her once, ‘Try and be sexy’.
Cardiff adds: “I saw Larry years later on The Last Days of Pompeii, which was made for television in 1984. We talked a lot on set and I asked him one day what he had thought about Marilyn and he just said, “She was a bitch”.
Olivier was simply jealous and spent most of the time competing with her like a coquette.” – Arthur Miller
So what was Sir Larry’s problem with the sexy blonde superstar? Could it have been good old upper-class English snobbery? Or his relative inexperience as a film director? Sure, he could handle armies of men but Marilyn Monroe was a different proposition. He failed to appreciate her need to be taken seriously (the reason she abandoned Hollywood) on the first film under her new company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, a project that she obviously very much wanted to succeed. Billy Wilder showed only a few years later how to get the best out of her in Some Like it Hot – with support and a lot of patience being part of the essential requirements. The fact that Monroe questioned his directions suggests she may have had ideas of her own that were ignored. Her input may well have made it a better film.
Or perhaps it was all just a storm in a teacup – a mad moment in history when a Hollywood Cinderella went to an English ball, met the Prince but they didn’t fall in love – in fact, he called her a bitch! So she returned home hurt and died of a broken heart a few years later. Or maybe Olivier was right in his observations and behaved like any reasonable person would in a similar situation? People have different views,
He does, however, seem to have reached some kind of closure in his 1983 autobiography Confessions of an Actor – upon meeting Marilyn before production of The Prince and the Showgirl, he was convinced he was going to fall in love with her. During production, however, Olivier bore the brunt of Marilyn’s famous indiscipline and wound up despising her. However, he admits that she was wonderful in the film, the best thing in it, her performance overshadowing his own and that the final result was worth the aggravation – as has been acknowledged by others who worked with her.
Olivier also said. “Her work frightened her and although she had undoubted talent, I think she had a subconscious resistance to the exercise of being an actress. But she was intrigued by its mystique and happy as a child when being photographed; she managed all the business of stardom with uncanny, clever, apparent ease.”
Jack Cardiff and Monroe were personally good friends and he remained loyal to Monroe in his memoir. He describes her as genuine, intelligent and possessing an appealing child-like quality at times. He described visiting her for the first time where she emerged from her bedroom with tousled hair and no make up and had the face of a child.
I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.” – Marilyn Monroe
See also: The Prince and The Showgirl review
A Rumbling of Things Unknown: Jacqueline Rose on Marilyn Monroe
“She was a brilliant comedienne. ‘We need her desperately,’ Sybil Thorndike is reported to have announced on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl when she was driving everyone mad by being late: ‘She’s the only one of us who really knows how to act in front of a camera.’
Even Billy Wilder, likewise maddened, had to concede: ‘She was an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue … Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.’ She couldn’t see it. She didn’t realise that the audience were laughing, not because she was ridiculous but because of the genius with which she played her part. It was in fact her unique talent to play nearly every part she played as if it were a mockery of itself.
But it was not what she wanted. ‘I had to get out, I just had to,’ she said about the huge commercial success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, ‘The danger was, I began to believe this was all I could do – all I was – all any woman was.’ Women could do better. It was because Laurence Olivier had insulted her by telling her just to look sexy, that – by her own account – she started to be late: ‘If you don’t respect your artists, they can’t work well. Respect is what you have to fight for’, she said.
– Jacqueline Rose: A Rumbling Of Things Unknown