What happens when you put the world’s greatest Shakespearean actor together with Hollywood’s sexiest starlet? You get heaven and hell in the form of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” this week’s Moviezoot watch list film with Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Made in 1957, this film featured a snobbishly cantankerous and domineering Olivier directing a fragile, insecure, method-acting Monroe, whom he described as a “professional amateur.” Marilyn Monroe Productions, which had been formed in 1955, produced the film, and possibly led the actress to believe she would have more control over the filmmaking process.
“Of all the things I’ve done in life, directing a motion picture is the most beautiful. It’s the most exciting and the nearest than an interpretive craftsman, such as an actor can possibly get to being a creator,” Olivier once said. He may have had some doubts though with the tumultuous creating of “The Prince and the Showgirl” and all of its ensuing dramatic problems with Monroe.
In fact, the 2011 drama “My Week with Marilyn,” which starred Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Redmayne, is based on the books by Colin Clark, that chronicle the stormy making of the film. This film focused on a week of shooting with Monroe being escorted around London by Colin (Redmayne), after her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) left for the United States. It depicts her bouts of self-doubt and depression, obvious drug and alcohol use, late scene arrivals, flubbed lines, and even a miscarriage. It was filmed at Saltwood Castle, White Waltham Airfield, and other London locations, including the same studio where they filmed “The Prince and the Showgirl” originally in 1956. It was a difficult, trying period for both stars to say the least.
In his 1983 autobiography “Confessions of an Actor,” Olivier writes that when he met Marilyn Monroe prior to the production, he believed he would fall in love with her. During production, however, he became tired of Monroe’s legendary diva-like lack of discipline and her constant questioning of his directions and wound up despising her instead. He admitted later though that her performance overshadowed his own, even going so far as to say that she was the best thing in the film and that the final result was worth the aggravation.
How this unlikely pair came together for this romantic comedy is another story. Named the #6 Actress on The American Film Institute’s 50 Greatest Screen Legends, Marilyn Monroe was a noted American actress, comedienne, singer, and model. In 1949, she posed nude for the now famous calendar shot, which appeared in Playboy in 1953.
She was the first centerfold in that magazine’s long history. Monroe went on to become one of the world’s most enduring entertainment icons, remembered for her charming personification of the Hollywood sex symbol and her tragic personal and professional struggles within the industry. With unmatched magnetism and childlike vulnerability, Monroe was a true movie star long before the film’s 1957 release.
After seeing Monroe in her small part in ”The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast her in “All About Eve” (1950), resulting in a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox. “Niagara” (1953), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953) and “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) solidified her status as a superstar.
Unfortunately, Monroe wasn’t happy with her sexpot image and she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Her work began to slow down around this time though, due to her habit of being continually late to sets, her bungled scenes and forgotten lines, her constant illnesses, and her unwillingness to cooperate with her producers, directors, and other actors. In 1955, after a failed marriage to baseball great Joe DiMaggio, Monroe moved to New York from Hollywood in an attempt to ditch her sexy image and become the serious actor she dreamed she could be. While there, she worked with director Lee Strasberg at New York’s The Actors Studio.
She also began psychoanalysis to learn more about herself. Sadly, she’d spent most of her childhood in foster homes and orphanages while her mother was committed to a mental institution. Critics recognized her artistic and dramatic acting transformation in 1956’s “Bus Stop,” though many were shocked by her marriage to serious playwright Arthur Miller.
Monroe has said, “My problem is that I drive myself … I’m trying to become an artist, and to be true, and sometimes I feel I’m on the verge of craziness, I’m just trying to get the truest part of myself out, and it’s very hard. There are times when I think, ‘All I have to be is true’. But sometimes it doesn’t come out so easily. I always have this secret feeling that I’m really a fake or something, a phony.”
In 1957, Monroe flew to Britain to make the film, which was far from a success financially and critically. Unfortunately it didn’t make as much money as anticipated considering the two box-office draws, and many critics panned it for being too slow moving.
Named the 2nd Greatest Movie Star of all time by Premier Magazine, behind #1 Cary Grant and before #3 Tom Cruise, Monroe once said, “Fame is fickle, and I know it. It has its compensations but it also has its drawbacks, and I’ve experienced them both.” While she only acted in 30 films before her tragic death by suicide, her legend lives on in film history forever. There are over 600 books and several songs written about her.
Unlike Monroe, Sir Laurence Olivier was an actor’s actor. Named the #14 greatest actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends list by the American Film Institute and considered by many to be the greatest English-speaking actor of the twentieth century, Olivier’s career was built on his many roles in Shakespeare adaptations. A handsome man with a rich, smooth speaking voice, he often played noble and fiercely proud leaders and royal figures, including the role of Charles, the Prince Regent in “The Prince and the Showgirl.” He often directed himself in films. All five of the films that he directed were adaptations of plays: “Henry V” (1944), “Hamlet” (1948) and “Richard III” (1955) were all based on the plays of the same names by William Shakespeare; “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) was based on the play “The Sleeping Prince” by Terence Rattigan; and “Three Sisters” (1970) was based on the play of the same name by Anton Chekhov.
Olivier also starred in 1940’s “Rebecca” and 1948’s “Hamlet,” both Best Picture Academy Award winners. He was the first actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in five different decades, from the 1930s to the 1970s. He was nominated 13 times for the Academy Award, nine times as Best Actor, once as Best Supporting Actor, twice for Best Picture, and once as Best Director.
Despite his success and peer and critic accolades alike, Olivier seemed unhappy with his fame and struggled with his own self-esteem much like Monroe. His oldest son, Tarquin Olivier claims in his 1993 memoir “My Father Laurence Olivier” that his father was dissatisfied with his career and felt a failure. Olivier disparaged his own achievements, pointing to Cary Grant’s career as the prime example of greatness. As fate would have it, Grant presented Olivier with his career achievement Oscar in 1979, though they were never friends.
Olivier was familiar with mental illness due to his marriage to bipolar actress Vivien Leigh, whom he cared for during her manic episodes. Olivier once said of Monroe, “There were two entirely unrelated sides to Marilyn. You would not be far out if you described her as schizoid; the two people that she was could hardly have been more different. She was so adorable, so witty, such incredible fun and more physically attractive than anyone I could have imagined, apart from herself on the screen.”
Check out Monroe and Olivier now in The Prince and the Showgirl on MovieZoot.com.