Marilyn Monroe Triumphs in Bus Stop
“Hold on to your chairs, everybody, and get set for a rattling surprise,” announced crusty New York Times critic Bosely Crowther, “Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress in Bus Stop. She and the picture are swell! She gives a performance in this picture that marks her as a genuine acting star.”
Monroe’s performance in Bus Stop was a triumph, but during the production, the actress risked it all. As the first film coproduced by her new corporation, Marilyn Monroe Productions, everything was at stake: her business investment, her credibility as a serious actress, her career, and her future. There were many in Hollywood who expected—and even wanted—her to fail. However, Monroe’s pivotal performance that made even the toughest critics acknowledge her as a gifted actress. Released in the summer of 1956, Bus Stop was the first film starring Monroe distributed in over a year and her first opportunity to implement her controversial Method Acting training at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York.
The plot opens with Beauregard “Bo” Decker, a twenty-one-year-old orphaned cowboy rancher traveling from Montana to Phoenix to compete in a rodeo. His fatherly guardian, Virgil, accompanies him. Bo wants to find an “angel” in the big city but has no experience with women, and Virgil worries about his sheltered innocence. At the Blue Dragon Café in Phoenix, Bo meets an untalented showgirl, Cherie, a hillbilly from the Ozarks who dreams of becoming a movie star. Cherie makes up for her lack of talent with tremendous ambition. On a crumpled roadmap, she tracks her career trajectory from her birthplace in Arkansas to Hollywood. Over the course of the story, Cherie tames Bo’s wild nature and transforms him into a sensitive, gentleman, and Bo validates her worth by loving her unconditionally. Having transformed individually and together, the couple leave for Bo’s ranch in Montana.
Early in the film, Cherie shows Vera a roadmap on which she has circled her starting point in River Gulch and has drawn a line that she calls her “direction.” Pointing to her destination, Cherie exclaims, “Look where I’m goin’…Hollywood and Vine!” Her face lights up with hope. Vera asks what will happen at the intersection of those streets. “Honey, you get discovered,” Cherie explains. “You yet tested, with options, and everything. And you get treated with a little respect, too!” The character and scene are somewhat autobiographical to Monroe and her own dream of stardom, although she was born in Hollywood.
As an unaccredited co-producer, Monroe had approval of the story line, cinematographer, and director for the first time in her career. Maurice “Buddy” Adler, Fox’s new production chief. Having successfully altered The Seven Year Itch for Monroe, George Axelrod adapted William Inge’s stage play for the screen and fleshed out the role of Cherie specifically for her, creating the most fully realized of her roles to date. Monroe also selected cinematographer Milton Krasner, who had filmed her beautifully in All About Eve and The Seven Year Itch.
Joshua Logan appeared on her short list of acceptable directors in her newly renegotiated contract with Fox. “I nearly missed one of the high spots of my directing life because I had fallen for the popular Hollywood prejudice about Marilyn Monroe,” Logan wrote in his autobiography, Movie Stars, Real People, and Me. “I could gargle with salt and vinegar even now as I say that,” the director later wrote, “because I found Marilyn to be one of the great talents of all time.”
Logan’s credentials as Method acting alumnus, successful stage and screen director, and patient temperament made him a perfect fit for Monroe. Moreover, he was willing to collaborate with his stars and give them a measure of creative input. Much in the way today’s stars are afforded power, even when they are not co-producing, Monroe had some creative control over ways to stage scenes and position the cameras.
Logan described her as “the most talented motion picture actress of her day—warm, witty, extremely bright and totally involved in her work.” In Bus Stop, Monroe experienced a director who, for the first time in her career, truly recognized her artistry and was open to collaboration. “I’d say she was the greatest artist I ever worked with in my entire career,” Logan said. “Hollywood shamelessly wasted her, hasn’t given the girl a chance.”
Rock Hudson was the first choice for Beauregard “Bo” Decker. With his dashing good looks, virile masculinity, and undeniable charm, Hudson was arguably the male equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. Hudson was manufactured to be Hollywood’s ultimate ladies’ man, much in the same way Marilyn was manufactured to be the ultimate every man’s ideal, the only difference was that Marilyn was straight and Rock Hudson was gay. Monroe could live openly as heterosexual, but Hudson had to live a lie in 1950s America.
Hudson chose to pass on the logically good fit of Bo in Bus Stop and instead, accepted George Stevens’ 1956 epic, Giant, alongside James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, for which he would receive an Academy Award nomination. Allegedly, Hudson had made a sexual advance toward Monroe’s business partner, Milton Greene; Greene casually dismissed the incident, but Hudson apparently remained embarrassed.
Finally, Fox cast newcomer Don Murray. During the early years of Monroe’s fame, he served as a social worker for orphans and war casualties in refugee camps in Europe, seeing her films dubbed in Italian. “From my pay of thirty dollars a month, I saved up fifteen cents a week to see a movie in the poorest neighborhood,” Murray recalled in 2012. “One movie I had to save up three weeks for was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” When Fox executives thought Murray was too loud and too boisterous, Logan fired back, “I want Attila the Hun and that’s who we have.”
Logan also influenced Fox’s pick of Eileen Heckart as Vera. She received rave reviews on Broadway in The Bad Seed as Hortense Daigle and stole two scenes as the intoxicated bereaved mother of a young boy killed by an eight-year-old psychopathic serial killer with blonde braided pigtails. Heckart recreated the character in the 1956 film adaptation and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Hope Lange made her screen debut as Elma in Bus Stop and married co-star Don Murray during a pause in the production.
Monroe and Logan met with designer William Travilla to review his design sketches for Cherie’s costumes. Having dressed the glamorous pre-Method Monroe, his watercolor renderings depicted elegant outfits befitting an MGM Technicolor musical but completely devoid of realism. With feigned enthusiasm, Monroe approved the designs. After Travilla left the room, she turned to Logan. “You and I are gonna shred it up,” Monroe announced. “Pull out part of the fringe, poke holes in the fishnet stockings, then have ‘em darned with big, sprawling darns. Oh, it’s gonna be so sorry and pitiful it’ll make you cry.” As a Method actress, she searched the studio’s wardrobe department for pieces that authentically reflected Cherie’s meager salary as a saloon singer and snatched a gaudy gold blouse with black-lace overlay originally been worn by Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart (1952). She also selected a tattered gold lamé coat and asked the wardrobe department to add a border of moth-eaten rabbit fur. When Travilla’s green and gold showgirl costume was completed, Monroe distressed it with a pair of scissors and ripped the fish net stockings with her hands. At her request, wardrobe seamstresses darned the holes for increased realism.
Monroe also conferred with Allan Snyder about makeup suggestions. Since Cherie slept during the day and performed at the Blue Dragon all night, her skin was rarely exposed to sunlight and appeared white. Snyder used a mixture of clown white in the foundation and urged Monroe to allow him to darken the shade to make her look more attractive, but she insisted on realism over vanity. When Buddy Alder viewed the costume and makeup tests, he balked at the pallor of Monroe’s skin, but she convinced him of its appropriateness for the character.
For added realism in the saloon scene where Bo watches Cherie perform “That Old Black Magic,” Logan dispensed with the typical practice of the performer pre-recording the song and lip-synching to a playback during filming. Instead, Monroe sang live with an orchestra while two cameras filmed from different distances. Monroe interpreted Cherie as singing off pitch and using trite theatrical gestures. The character creates her own lighting effects during her act by kicking floor switches with her gold high-heeled pump to turn off the nightclub’s lights and to turn on colored spotlights. “She did it with almost instinctive comic genius,” Logan recalled. Monroe waved a silk scarf in an old vaudeville move taught to her by a makeup lady and used corny hand-gestures to act out some of the lyrics, including. At one point, Cherie even flinched when she hit a note far off-key. “We had a memorable musical sequence, primarily because we gave a great artist, a superb comedienne, the freedom to perform the way she felt,” Logan said.
In a mock-up of a bus against a rear projection screen, Monroe sat beside Hope Lange for her longest speech in the film. As Bo sleeps in the rear of the bus, Cherie explains her abduction to Elma and shares her life story, hopes, and dreams. It is the caliber of soliloquy that begets an Oscar nomination. Fox’s executives edited a portion of the soliloquy because it slowed the film’s pace, but Marilyn felt betrayed by Logan and held him responsible for failing to fight for the integrity of her performance.
At the climax of the film, when Bo professes his love and Cherie realizes she has fallen in love with him, Logan envisioned extreme close-ups of the principal actors’ faces from forehead to chin to highlight the intensity of the emotions. The widescreen process did not easily accommodate extreme close-ups due to a distortion in the edges of the frame, but Logan wanted to experiment with the CinemaScope lens to capture Monroe’s beautiful face. He believed hers was one of the great faces of all time, and he wanted the world to really see it. Excited, Monroe danced around the set like a child in anticipation of a big close-up like Garbo’s in the traditional square lens format of the 1930s and ’40s. Logan started with Murray. Following Logan’s direction to bring the camera close, cinematographer Milton Krasner announced that the top of Murray’s head was not visible in the lens—the camera was too close. “Everybody knows he has one,” Monroe said logically. “It’s already been established.”
In a tight shot of Cherie and Bo together, Monroe rests her head on the bar counter, and Murray rests his head beside hers. Both of their faces are visible in the elongated frame. “I like ya the way ya are, so what do I care how ya got that way?” Murray says to her. Monroe nervously brings her hand to her mouth, bursts into tears, and replies, “That’s the sweetest most tender-est thing anybody has ever said to me.” As she pulls her hand away from her mouth, another string of saliva spills to the counter. “She was very real,” Don Murray said. “She tore your heart out. It’s one of the best performances in the history of talking films.”
Logan completed the final, touching scene of Cherie and Bo boarding the bus to Montana. Cherie clutches the box containing her wedding ring as she shivers in the cold. Bo notices her discomfort in a tattered coat and offers her his heavy, fleece-lined coat. She looks surprised as he stands behind her and opens the coat. Slowly, Cherie slides each arm into the sleeves, and Bo lovingly wraps the coat around her. Logan directed her to imagine slipping into a warm bubble bath. Monroe relishes the moment as if it were an embrace. She leans back against Murray, closes her eyes, and tilts her head back. She turns her head to the side and opens her mouth—her eyes remain closed. Bo pulls her closer to him. She draws his hand around her.
In London filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier, Monroe missed the premiere. Critics unanimously agreed the performance was a triumph. Playing off advertising for Anna Christie (1930), “Garbo Speaks,” Louella Parsons’ headline in the Los Angeles Examiner announced, “Marilyn Acts.”
“Monroe had finally succeeded in delicately balancing being wildly funny, and in the next minute, tender and fragile,” began the Hollywood Reporter. “There has been a good deal of comment and some knowing laughter about Miss Monroe’s attempts to broaden her native talents by working at her acting,” “It should be some satisfaction to the lady that she now has the last and very triumphant laugh.”
Monroe lived up to Lee Strasberg’s endorsement of her being on par with Marlon Brando. She moved audiences. Without doubt, Monroe drew from her identification with Cherie. Like Norma Jeane (the young girl who changed her name to Marilyn Monroe), the character dreamed of escaping her mundane existence by becoming a Hollywood star and living happily ever after. Cherie doesn’t make it to Hollywood but finds contentment with a man who loves her, and Monroe achieved stardom but never found eternal love.
“Fox’s promotion of Deborah Kerr in The King and I had been a deliberate snub to the year’s most conspicuous non-nominee, Marilyn Monroe, whose tragicomic performance in Bus Stop had widely been deemed worthy of Oscar consideration,” wrote Anthony Holden in Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards.
In his film debut, Don Murray received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. “I was astonished,” he admitted on the fiftieth anniversary of Monroe’s death. “But still more astonishing, Marilyn’s superb performance was overlooked.”
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association honored Monroe and Bus Stop with nominations for Golden Globe Awards. Unfortunately, Monroe lost to Deborah Kerr, whose singing was dubbed by Marnie Nixon, in The King and I. The Directors Guild of America nominated Joshua Logan for Outstanding Directorial Achievement. “Marilyn is as near a genius as any actress I ever knew,” he wrote. “She is an artist beyond artistry… She is the most completely realized and authentic film actress since Garbo. Monroe is pure cinema.”
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.