DVD/Blu-ray / Film Reviews / The Classics

Marilyn Monroe the Actress: Bus Stop (1956)

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There is a moment in Bus Stop (1956) that is a striking testament to the worth of Marilyn Monroe as a serious actress. It lasts only a moment or so, but like all great screen moments, it seeds itself into your subconscious, rendering it impossible to forget. Having been relentlessly chased down by an overblown, chest-thumbing cowboy, the two-bit (but beautiful) nightclub singer Cherie (that’s sher-ee, not cherry, and don’t you forget it!) has a quiet moment of rest at a bus stop diner. She’s frightened, fragile and fighting back tears—visibly on the verge of breaking completely. And as she rests her head on the counter, director Joshua Logan pushes in for a bold, invasive close-up. Monroe’s ash-white face fills the frame completely. Her suitor has appeared after having been taught a lesson over his brute behavior, and employs a change of tactic. We can hear his voice, but all we see is the Monroe’s haunted face in quiet agony. Bo is apologizing, telling he loves her, wants to marry her, that he needs her. They’re not words a hardened girl like Cherie is accustomed to hearing.

Her mascara runs. A string of saliva falls from the corner of her perfect mouth. And it’s heartbreaking because it is all too obvious that Monroe’s tears aren’t make-believe. This isn’t Marilyn Monroe the sex symbol, this is Norma Jeane the actress bearing her soul, nakedly, in a fashion that even so-called ‘better actresses’ could not duplicate. “Creativity has got to start with humanity,” Monroe once said, “and when you’re a human being, you feel—you suffer. An actor is not a machine, no matter how much they want to say you are.” These are the words of a method actor–a technique that, by the time production of Bus Stop began, Monroe had dedicated herself to.

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Prior to Bus Stop, a machine was precisely the way she’d been treated by her home studio of Fox. Darryl F. Zanuck made no secret of his distaste for her, famously calling her “a dumb tomato and crazy to boot.” Monroe’s close confidant, Montgomery Clift, said after her death (and not long before his own) “Fox wanted to keep a tight grip and drain her dry. Marilyn had a right to make the choice not to demean herself. But the boss wouldn’t let her. They didn’t want an actress. … They sat at their round table and decided that Marilyn wasn’t capable of making a relevant decision.” Her first starring roles were meaty and dramatic–Don’t Bother to Knock and Niagara–but it’s the blockbuster string of lighthearted Technicolor extravaganzas that followed that turned her into an icon. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and The Seven Year Itch— all feature Marilyn as the world remembers her: a sexy dumb blonde.

But contrary to what Mr. Zanuck thought, Monroe was hardly a dumb blonde, and she was about prove it. Tired of being fed an endless fare of fluff, and hungering to prove her worth as an actress, Monroe took her career into her own hands by brazenly going to war with Hollywood. Monroe defied Czar Zanuck and left Hollywood right in the middle of her contract in order to start her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, taking up shop in New York to study under the Strasbergs at the Actors Studio. Two years later, Fox finally relented and negotiated with Monroe’s production company, and Bus Stop was the project they two entities decided on for Monroe’s next project.

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Bus Stop was a Broadway play written by none other than William Inge, and had starred Broadway darling Kim Stanley, although the film version is only loosely based on it. It is the story of Bo (Don Murray) a cocksure cowboy, accustomed to having his way, who comes to town to compete in a rodeo. He spies Cherie at a sleazy saloon and decides right then and there to make her his wife. Cherie, who is on her way to try her luck out in Hollywood, is initially attracted to the strapping strong-man and doesn’t realize at first just how much trouble she’s unwittingly found herself in. But the more she tries to dodge Bo, the more determined he becomes to possess her until Cherie realizes that if she doesn’t bolt town, and quick, he’s going to do something drastic: actually force her to marry him. The character of Bo is bombastic, obnoxious, and insufferably self-absorbed. And to that end, Murray certainly gets it right. He is in fact so skin-crawlingly embarrassing in everything he says and does, the viewer is constantly rooting for Marilyn to make a break for it. Or at least fight back. And the moments she does fight back are Method Marilyn at her best.

With the aid of her only friend in town, and by Bo’s ranch hand Virgil (Arthur O’Connell), she nearly escapes, only to be physically lassoed by the snarling cowboy who takes her captive onto a bus. She’s nothing more than a possession to conquer, like one of his bulls. Virgil, began by sneering at the cheap looking Cherie, but by the time Bo’s outrageous behavior reaches epic proportions, Virgil is solidly Monroe’s ally, and shouts at the snarling cowboy, “At first I thought she wasn’t good enough for you. But now I know you’re the one who’s not good enough for her!” It takes a dose of tough love from Virgil– and an obliging bus driver– to literally knock some sense into Bo. To Murray’s credit, for all of his cringe-worthy cartoonish antics, his performance manages to somehow betray a tender naivete suggesting he’s really just an overgrown toddler who never learned to share. Bo is a grown up little boy, a virgin who’s never so much as kissed a girl–and the girl he’s settled on is, well, quite experienced. He understands at length that Cherie is not a possession to be lassoed, but someone to cherish and treat with respect.

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We know deep down that Cherie will probably never find anyone in Hollywood who will be willing to actually change for her as Bo does, and the ending is therefore fairly believable: Cherie accepts Bo’s hand. At least that crazy, childish cowboy will  protect and love her–something that surely will not happen to her in Hollywood.

Monroe knows this. Intimately.

She was adamant that Cherie be far from glamorous. Here, Monroe is obviously lived-in, her cheap clothes are in need of a good mend, and that famously breathy elocution is replaced with an Ozarks twang. She may be common as the cold, but her heart is 24 karat gold, and Monroe nails it. She knows that Cherie hasn’t a scrap of talent, but also knows that her character believes so strongly in her dreams she’s willing to risk everything to at least try. Monroe’s performance in the nightclub of “That Old Black Magic” is intentionally awful. “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” this is not. She sings like a screeching cat, her coordination awkward and clumsy; not even her extreme sex appeal can keep the crowd of onlookers scratching their heads.

Monroe knew exactly how much was at stake with this role and her obsession to get it right put her in a constant state of high anxiety on the set—more so than usual, which is saying something for the skittish actress. She had chosen Joshua Logan, and even though their working relationship was far from perfect—as was the case with all of her directors—Logan lavished time on Monroe and knew how to help her sustain confidence in a take, a notoriously shaky quality of hers.

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Logan later wrote “I found Marilyn to be one of the greatest talents of all time. She struck me as being a much brighter person than I had ever imagined, and I think it was the first time I learned that intelligence, and yes brilliance, have nothing to do with education.”

But it was Murray who walked away with the Academy Award nomination–despite critical praise for Monroe, only the Golden Globes decided to recognize her for her efforts with a nomination. (Can you say ‘typical Academy’?) No matter. Every inch of this film belongs to Monroe. She is a spectrum of emotions that unravels as the film progresses–and unravels still even more upon repeated viewings.

Bus Stop is not necessarily great, but Monroe’s performance most definitely is, and for that reason it is required viewing. Fox has given the film a pristine Blu-ray transfer, which showcases all of its grand Cinemascope scape and Logan’s carefully curated color palettes. It is a flawless Blu-ray transfer from Fox–Monroe’s home studio–although lacking in extras.

But hey, who needs extras when you’ve got Marilyn?

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