Marilyn Monroe is best known for her comedic roles in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). But what many consider her finest performance is also one of her least known: her portrayal of Cherie in Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop (1956). This critically acclaimed performance was in large part influenced by Monroe’s study of Method acting at The Actor’s Studio.
Marilyn Monroe at The Actor’s Studio
Spurred on by a messy divorce from Joe DiMaggio and the monotony of the roles being assigned to her in Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe left much of her polished persona behind when she moved to New York to study at The Actor’s Studio. She impressed Lee Strasberg, who took her on as a private student; he would later say that “after Marlon [Brando], she has the greatest talent, raw talent, that I’ve ever come across.”
Monroe felt liberated by her studies with the family, telling Susan Strasberg: “with your father for the first time I feel it’s okay to be me, the whole kit and caboodle… now I want to be an artist”. Somewhere between wowing fellow students with her interpretations of scenes from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie and wondering what it would be like to play Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov, Monroe had adapted her acting persona into something that resembled a human being more than it did an airheaded blonde.
Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop: A Less Glamourous Blonde
Bus Stop presented a familiar role to Monroe: a saloon singer with an enticing aura of vulnerability who dreams of a better life. But director Joshua Logan, whom Lee Strasberg had persuaded to cast Monroe, gave Monroe her first opportunity to really express herself as an actress.
Susan Strasberg remembers: “after talking with both my parents, Marilyn was able to follow her instincts, utilize their advice, and assert her creative ideas.” Monroe envisioned a woman whose dancing costume was ripped from use, and whose face was so pale as to resemble a mask. Logan embraced these contributions, and was perhaps Monroe’s most accommodating and enabling director to date.
Aesthetically, this already marked a departure from the immaculately costumed and perfectly groomed, healthy-looking starlet roles of Monroe’s past. The hair is more messily done and tired-looking, the dancing costume is unflattering and threadbare, and the makeup, as mentioned, emphasizes the entertainer’s detachment from reality: she’s pale because she works at night and doesn’t get out in the sun much. Here was a more realistic portrayal of a woman who made her living off singing and dancing, whose most cherished hope was to find true love.
Marilyn Monroe’s Use of Affective Memory in Bus Stop
In accordance with this different angle into the stock character of Monroe’s past, Paula Strasberg, who was Monroe’s on-set coach for Bus Stop, encouraged the star to dig deep into her own memories for inspiration. She suggested that Monroe use the affective memory technique for a pivotal scene on the bus, substituting a memory or image of “this place she longed to go” during Cherie’s monologue about finding a happier life.
The result is an incredibly moving portrayal of a woman whose troubled past fosters doubt in her future. Paula Strasberg told her daughter: “it’s the kind of scene she’ll get an Academy award nomination for. Nobody’s ever seen her like this, an actress with range.”
The Scene in the Bus: Monroe’s Oscar Worthy Performance
The nuances of expression in this scene are remarkable, and stand in vivid contrast to the sharp changes of expression implemented by Monroe in her earlier films, particularly Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Cherie smiles while she is crying, and tells whole stories through expression while still in the middle of a pause. What’s more, Cherie consistently hints at a very particular past as she speaks, seeming to refer back to memories that she doesn’t mention.
There is an obvious incongruity between the ambiguous, roundabout statements Cherie is making and the images she seems to be recalling, and these are revealed through her many unaccountable changes in expression. In this way, the roundness and the complexity of the character is not only apparent, it is achingly obvious.
Similarly, her movements and mannerisms are not restricted to the “pretty”, or even the conclusive. Movements are begun and not finished; Cherie’s face contorts itself with uncertainty and pain.
The Marilyn persona, the sensual innocent that America loved, is still there – but she’s telling the audience more about the actress’s troubled past, and the story is by no means charming.