Marilyn, mara­cas and the mad­ness

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - SAM LEITH

BILLY WILDER put it best. Looking back on the film­ing of Some Like It Hot – a process that pro­duced one of the fun­ni­est movies of all time but damn near killed the di­rec­tor – he said: “We were in mid-flight when we dis­cov­ered there was a nut on the plane.”

That nut was Marilyn Mon­roe.

On set, MM soon stood for Miss­ing Mon­roe. A re­porter joked that she “did the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble by arriving half an hour late aboard a Trans World Air­lines plane that was on time”.

She turned up to one din­ner party at 11.20pm. If her call at work was for 11am, she’d turn up at 3.30pm and re­tire to her trailer.

One day, af­ter she’d been work­ing there for a month, she claimed to have got lost on the way to the stu­dio. On other days she wouldn’t show up at all, or would refuse to come out of her trailer, where she glugged ver­mouth from a flask.

Even when she was on set, she was trou­ble. She’d blow her lines, burst into tears, blow her lines again, and dis­ap­pear into hud­dles with her ghastly voice coach Paula Stras­berg. It took her 81 takes to speak the line: “Where’s that bour­bon?”

Tony Cur­tis re­counts this feel­ingly in his new book Some Like it Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie, co-writ­ten with Mark Avier. He was the one stand­ing up in high heels, calves in agony, while he waited for her to nail the scene. And yet, as Cur­tis and Wilder had to ad­mit, when she was on cel­lu­loid she was mag­netic.

Tech­ni­cally, Mon­roe was a sup­port­ing ac­tor in the film, but she be­came the cen­tre of it; and though she’s a sup­port­ing ac­tor in this mem­oir, it comes to re­volve around her. Ev­ery­thing does. One of the things about stars is that they have very pow­er­ful grav­i­ta­tional fields.

Mon­roe yearned to be taken se­ri­ously. She was fed up play­ing dumb blondes. Wilder roped her in by ly­ing about the film, say­ing it wasn’t go­ing to be treated as a farce.

So in scene af­ter scene, there she is, method-act­ing away, which for her seems to have meant wig­gling her hands a lot be­fore she goes on cam­era.

Cur­tis once shared a flat with Mar­lon Brando, but he hasn’t much time for the method: “I thought it was phony... This idea of try­ing to re­mem­ber when your sis­ter stole your peanut but­ter sand­wich so you can give an an­gry per­for­mance is bulls***.”

Be­tween method and mad­ness, though, the film came to­gether. At the first test screen­ing no­body laughed. But then it grew – and grew. And when he pauses from mar­vel­ling at Marilyn, Cur­tis has in­ter­est­ing things to say about Wilder’s con­sum­mate tech­nique as a film-maker.

In one scene he equipped Jack Lem­mon with a pair of mara­cas, sim­ply to give him some phys­i­cal busi­ness to fill in the gaps be­tween laugh lines. He knew ex­actly how funny his film was go­ing to be – and he didn’t want the au­di­ence’s laugh­ter to ren­der the next line of di­a­logue in­audi­ble.

Cur­tis’s mem­oir is sel­dom flat and he has a nice, if some­times bizarre, turn of phrase.

Mus­ing on Mon­roe’s sex ap­peal, he writes that she was: “A lit­tle girl – with this in­cred­i­ble body. And I mean in­cred­i­ble. A body that had ev­ery­thing a man would want. She had hips like a Pol­ish wash­er­woman...”

He would per­haps know best. He was well ac­quainted with those hips.

Cur­tis dated Marilyn when they were young ac­tors and they climbed back into bed to­gether while mak­ing Some Like It Hot. Cur­tis was mar­ried, in­creas­ingly un­hap­pily, to Janet Leigh. Marilyn was mar­ried, in­creas­ingly un­hap­pily, to Arthur Miller.

Cur­tis’s dis­like of Miller is strong. He re­calls how he “made a fool of him­self ” by lec­tur­ing Billy Wilder on com­edy, and how “there was al­ways a lit­tle su­pe­ri­or­ity, a lit­tle hos­til­ity” in his at­ti­tude.

Mind you, he points out: “He was kind of a strange guy. He looked like Abra­ham Lin­coln. But then all of Marilyn’s husbands did.”

When Miller learned that Cur­tis had cuck­olded him, there was a show­down in Marilyn’s trailer. The play­wright threat­ened: “I can beat the hell out of you.”

“This guy was full of s***,” writes Cur­tis. “He didn’t know who the f*** he was deal­ing with. I crossed my arms. ‘Yeah?’”

The scene could only have been more per­fect had Cur­tis still been in cos­tume as a woman.

This book is a slight thing, but it doesn’t out­stay its wel­come. It ably gath­ers old (and, you sus­pect, well­bur­nished) sto­ries and weaves them in with new ones, and it is fleshed out with dozens of pho­to­graphs. It’s good to have from the horse’s mouth what Hol­ly­wood was like 50 years ago. – The Daily Mail

CLOSE: Tony Cur­tis and Marilyn Mon­roe dated when they were young, and had an af­fair dur­ing the film­ing of Some Like it Hot.

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