xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #33: Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, by Susan Strasberg
In Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, Susan Strasberg tries to tell what it was like to have Marilyn Monroe enter her life and the life of her family. Her father was Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio, and guru to many of the film and stage actors of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, James Dean, Elia Kazan, Eva Marie Saint, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, etc.) Her mother was former actress Paula Strasberg, who became Marilyn’s personal coach and factotum. For a short spell their home was a haven to Marilyn, who had fled Los Angeles after her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn was looking for a new life as an actress, and was scheming with photographer Milton Greene about starting her own film production company, which would free her from the dumb blonde roles that her studio Twentieth Century-Fox was determined to lock her into.
Written approximately 30 years after Marilyn’s untimely death at the age of 36, Strasberg is still able to write from a teenage perspective. She may have been in awe of the glamorous movie star, but she was mostly envious of the attention her father payed her. Even while in the throes of a passionate love affair with Broadway costar Richard Burton, Strasberg can’t help but complain how available her father made himself for Marilyn at all hours. Once Marilyn moved to New York and started taking private acting lessons with Lee, she used the Strasberg home as her refuge — before, during, and after her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller.
Paula became a surrogate mother, but Lee was her barometer — she constantly sought his approval. Apparently everyone in his orbit felt the same way, including his daughter, who seems to have fought a lifelong battle with resisting but desiring his help and input in her own work. Marilyn managed to get his attention more than most. That is what Strasberg is most jealous of. She idolizes her father, but she doesn’t seem to want to truly understand him. When he does offer her praise she doesn’t believe him, and becomes even more insecure. She had more in common with Marilyn than she realized.
|Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe and Susan Strasberg visit backstage (Cort Theatre) in 1956.|
Strasberg may be unwilling or unable to personally criticize her father, but she does allow others to share their viewpoints:
Johnny Strasberg: “He [Lee] was really fascinated by her, but that’s like saying about someone who is so fascinated by animals they put them in a cage so they can study them. In that sense you could say he loved her. He did have this great generosity in his work, although usually he never considered the needs of anyone else before himself. His gift to Marilyn, his great gift, was that he took her seriously in her work, and even personally, too, up to a point. Marilyn was there more than anyone before had been. Lee adored her; at least he seemed to do anything to please her.”
Strasberg does share a story that shows just how brainwashed and dependent everyone became on Lee. She was offered the role of Allison in Peyton Place (to be filmed at Twentieth Century-Fox, Marilyn’s studio, and the same one that once fired Lee) for $150,000. It was a great part and a great sum — Marilyn hadn’t made that much per picture yet. She asked her father if she should take it. He said no. When the family objected, he then told her to ask for more money. The studio refused to pay more, but still wanted her at the original sum. She debated about whether she should take the part anyway, without his permission (she was 19 and already her earnings were helping support the family.) Strasberg ultimately turned it down, and regretted it, but also justified her decision by saying she was avenging her father’s previous firing at Fox. Lee was using both his daughter and Marilyn to try and avenge his wounded ego. Strasberg doesn’t seem to see how her early success on stage (at age 16, in The Diary of Anne Frank) may have threatened her father. She didn’t study with him (although her mother coached her.) She never seems to consider that he may have helped her behind-the-scenes. Marilyn and Me is almost better reading between the lines.
|Marilyn congratulates Susan backstage at The Diary of Anne Frank on opening night|
As much as the Strasbergs offered Marilyn a second home, they may not have been the best port in the storm, as they had their own problems, including a strange way of expressing and dealing with anger. Lee would rage so much he would sometimes get a nosebleed, scaring everyone. Paula would get hysterical and threaten suicide. Susan would hide in a closet, silently screaming. But none of this would have mattered to Marilyn, who had finally met someone who showed her some respect:
Marilyn, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when your father took me seriously. I’ve always wanted for people to see me, not the actress, the real person. Your daddy does. He treats me like a human being. … I worked with this woman in California for years [her first acting coach, Natasha Lytess]. She taught me, educated me, like your father, gave me books to read, but even she thought I was a dummy. He doesn’t, and the most important thing is, with your father for the first time I feel it’s okay to be me, the whole kit and caboodle, you know, the whole mess.”
Once Marilyn gathered the courage to attend classes at the Studio and to even do scenes, her confidence increased, if only temporarily. Strasberg ran the Studio as a place where actors could experiment, be free. People may have thought she was a joke when she said she wanted to play Lady Macbeth, but they might have reconsidered if they had known Lee’s ideas for her in the part. He envisioned Lady Macbeth as “a sensitive, driven, compulsive woman, who used her sexuality and power to get her husband to do these terrible things. It was a side Marilyn possessed, but that she had never shown in her work.”
Strasberg is never able to truly focus on Marilyn without dragging herself into the picture, as she does when telling about Marilyn recounting her horror story of being locked up in a psychiatric hospital ward by her New York shrink Dr. Marianne Kris: “‘I was always afraid I was crazy like my mother or that I’d get that crazy with age. You know women sometimes to go nuts then, but when I got in there with really crazy people, I realized I had problems, but I saw I wasn’t as bad as they were.’ She made it sound as if it hadn’t been that bad. Yet I had heard that it had been worse. Was she trying to protect me from how horrible life was, or didn’t she trust me? Who was she lying to? Me or herself? Why?” It’s not all about you, Susan.
With all of Strasberg’s competitive neuroses, she still comes across as likable, and as someone, who with all the envy, did care for Marilyn. “[Marilyn] took ordinary black-and-white light and reflected it back to us in Technicolor, in epic proportions. Yet she kept it accessible. As famous as she was, she remained human.” Marilyn and Me is a very human book about the star and an entertaining read. Strasberg may have been jealous of her, loved her, but she never ceased to be amazed by Marilyn and her power. At the 1962 Golden Globes, when Marilyn attended to accept the World Film Favorite Award, “There was a room full of the biggest stars in the world, and when Marilyn walked in and made her way slowly to the table, her dress was so tight she could barely move; some people in the room stood on chairs, just to get a look at her, like kids. I’d never seen stars react to another star like that.” Strasberg’s judgements and impressions may not always be accurate, but they do offer a personal glimpse of a woman and a movie star who for most, still remains a mystery.
You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e