It’s hard to watch the film “The Prince and The Showgirl,” even with the glowing presence of Marilyn Monroe captured in celluloid under the loving eye of cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Thanks to TCM, there is a fascinating documentary on Cardiff’s life. See the documentary, if you’re a movie buff.
In the film, Marilyn is adorable, cute, self-consciously emoting, acting the dumbish slash-blonde for which she was so perfectly cast. Marilyn gave this performance under the eye of her acting mentor, Paula Strasberg, who was blamed for pulling strings on the set. It was Paula who was M.M.’s lover-interpreter for what we see on the screen.
Marilyn being consistently late to work irritated everyone on the picture, especially her co-star and director Laurence Olivier. His irritation helped flog a petulant and gamely theatrical performance. He stuttered vocally “vit a mittle-European” accent while sporting a monocle. They were like two oddly matched coquettes at a varsity music-hall show. I turned off the dial on my TV set. Marilyn, however, won the match by her sheer beauty.
Billy Wilder once explained star quality: “It’s a matter of flesh, it’s that simple. The camera chooses... which flesh. Marilyn Monroe had camera flesh. So did Alice Faye and Betty Grable, the shop girl’s dream, they photographed beautifully... in a cheap sort of way.”
In a similar effort to satisfy her longings, Marilyn expressed a heartfelt desire to play the part of the seductress Grushenka in “The Brothers Karamazov” and was rejected by producers. They cast Maria Schell. Marilyn would not have given such a lackluster performance. But she had only just met Paula and her true believer Lee Strasberg. She was just emerging from her “koochie koo” period at 20th Century Fox. Eventually , in “Bus Stop” Marilyn proved all the previous critics wrong and she evened the score.
The other night, while making dinner for my son, I saw a film that I wished I’d seen all the way through. It was “Capone” with Rod Steiger. There isn’t anyone, maybe outside of Marlon Brando, that can top Steiger’s talent. I say maybe Brando, because by the end of his career you could see his tricks overriding his performance. His porcine body said something about an attitude toward the world and acting he learned from his father that turned out to be hurtful to him and those that loved him.
Not so with Rod Steiger, his performances lived from the inside out. Every other actor unfortunate enough to be in the cast with him looked artificial, mannered or dated. They just didn’t survive his natural incandescence. Steiger wasn’t handsome; he was simply staggering to watch. See him in “Doctor Zhivago”; he wipes everyone else off the screen, especially Julie Christy who comes across like a Carnaby Street fashion model.
Steiger was a better actor than even Spencer Tracy. With his star quality and that fire in the belly, he always hit the perfect tone every moment on the screen. He was utterly believable, all the time.
I remember meeting Steiger on the lot at Universal Pictures when he was portraying the disreputable funnyman WC Fields in “WC Fields and Me.” He never quite lost the monotone stage voice of Fields between his dressing room and the stage (even during lunch). He was also quite personable, open and genuine to me. He didn’t have to show me his Chagall etchings like Kirk Douglas to underline his star status.
(more to come)