Yesterday, June 1, was Marilyn Monroe’s birthday. Here is a look at an under-rated performance, that of the babysitter in “Don’t Bother to Knock”, co-starring Richard Widmark.
“I rather think that had she endured, had she come ten years later, maybe it would have been different. But at that time – I mean, she came in at the height of the Hollywood system – and she was not alone feeling debased by the whole thing. It was a common complaint. Like [the way] John Garfield was a terrific actor – yet he did nothing but scream and howl. There was some demeaning aspect to the whole thing. So most of them went with it. They simply adopted the contempt with which they were treated. I think that’s what happened. Pretty hard to withstand – a culture of contempt. I think it helped destroy her.” — Arthur Miller on Marilyn Monroe
Seeing Monroe’s performance in 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, as Nell, the psychologically shattered and borderline psychotic babysitter in a plush hotel, makes you wonder about roads not traveled. It makes you think of her courage in putting up with contemptuous projects like Let’s Make Love or The Seven Year Itch (one of the meanest spirited movies she was ever in) and wonder what might have happened if she had been allowed to experiment. Now I’m not saying that her work, as it exists, in comedic gems such as Some Like It Hot is somehow lesser, or somehow lacking. But Don’t Bother to Knock hints at another kind of career that this woman could have had. Who knows, maybe she wouldn’t have wanted it. She wanted the love of the audience, she needed that love, it had to happen. I still wonder, though.
Billy Wilder said this about Monroe (this is a transcription of a conversation he had with Cameron Crowe):
She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her. That, I think, was very important. And she automatically knew where the joke was. She did not discuss it. She came up for the first rehearsal, and she was absolutely perfect, when she remembered the line. She could do a 3-page dialogue scene perfectly, and then get stuck on a line like, “It’s me, Sugar”… But if she showed up, she delivered, and if it took 80 takes, I lived with 80 takes, because the 81st was very good …
She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. Fright. She was afraid of the camera, and that’s why, I think, she muffed some lines. God knows how often. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.
We all have magic in us. But Marilyn Monroe had movie magic. And, like Wilder said, “…she automatically knew where the joke was.” That kind of sensibility cannot be taught. And in the same way that it is rare to find a man as outrageously good-looking as Cary Grant who is also a comedic genius, it’s rare to find a bombshell who can nail jokes in the way she does (even when she is the butt of them)! But she is always the one who comes off smelling like a rose, even in nasty pictures like The Seven Year Itch, which tries to make a joke out of her, and fails.
So I love Marilyn’s funniness, it’s one of the most spontaneous things about her. However, she always yearned to show more of herself, more of what she could do (especially as she got more serious about acting as a craft). Don’t Bother to Knock is early Monroe. Her stardom hadn’t “hit” yet.
Who knows what demons Monroe battled on a daily basis. All I know is that sadness and fear flickers across her face in Don’t Bother to Knock in a neverending dance. She seems dangerous at times. She never seems to push the emotion, it seems to just happen to her. She (Nell) is not fully control of herself and neither is Marilyn. I don’t know if Marilyn was “tapping into” her own wealth of miserable memories, or if it was her talent allowing her the ability to portray such fragility … it doesn’t matter “how” she got there. What matters is the end result. It’s a stunning performance, and most often not even mentioned when Marilyn Monroe’s career is brought up.
Marilyn Monroe often played either naive breathless girls, easily taken in, a bit dopey, or vaguely trashy showgirls, who somehow have managed to maintain their sweetness. She never played bitter. She never played a wisecracker. That was not her thing. And whatever “experiences” she had had in her life, it had not touched that diamond-bright innocence inside her. Nothing could kill it. But she never played – except in Don’t Bother To Knock – a truly damaged woman. I suppose a woman with a body like that and a face like that was made to be a fantasy for audiences and audiences don’t really want to see their sex goddesses as damaged. Marilyn knew that better than anyone. She had a love-hate relationship with her beauty. It was her ticket to fame, she knew that, and she was grateful for it, and she knew how to use it. She was a master at creating her persona (and she knew how to turn it on and off). But it was also what tormented her, and gave her such intense stage fright that she wouldn’t come out of her dressing room for sometimes hours, staring at herself in the mirror. What was she looking for? How hard was it for her to drag up that sexy goddess on days when she didn’t feel like it? There are those who respond to such questions with, “Oh, boo hoo, cry me a river, she was famous, we all should have such problems!” I think it represents a truly ungenerous and stingy attitude, not to mention a lack of understanding of “what it takes” to be “on”. And not just “on”, but the most beautiful woman in the world, etc. ad nauseum. Monroe would lock her dressing room door, and refuse to come out, knowing that within her was an abyss of sadness that nobody wanted to see. It had to have been horrible. I can only imagine. I don’t have that kind of beauty. I have no idea what that must be like. She was often very afraid of directors, who could get impatient with her constant bungling of lines (most likely the result of undiagnosed dyslexia) … but (and this is important) she absolutely loved the crew, who loved her right back. They were her audience. They were not stingy. She would walk out of her dressing room, all dolled up, after having made everyone wait for hours, and the crew – hanging off their scaffolds – would catcall and whistle, and she ate it up. It was friendly. Marilyn was loved by those guys; they represented her fan base. Directors loved her too, in spite of themselves. They loved her because, like Billy Wilder said, even if it took 80 takes for her to get a line, she was Marilyn Monroe, after all … so that’s why she was paid the big bucks, and that’s why you sucked it up and tried not to mind having to wait around for her to get over her stage fright or whatever it was. I see both sides. I can see why a director would tear his hair out with her shenanigans. But this is a post about Marilyn Monroe, and there were certainly demons there, demons that sometimes took over. In Don’t Bother to Knock, she was asked to reveal some of that stuff.
Monroe plays a resolutely unglamorous part. She lives with her parents. She is recently out of an institution (we learn this later). Her uncle has gotten her a job babysitting in the hotel where he is a doorman. She shows up on her first day, wearing a simple cotton dress, low heels, a little black beret – and when she gets on the elevator for the first time and we see her from behind, her dress is a little bit wrinkled, like it would be for any woman who had just taken a long subway ride. It’s touching. Alex told me that she read in some Photoplay magazine she owns that Monroe had bought the dress herself at a five and dime for the movie. Monroe had seen it, and known that it was “Nell’s dress”. It shows her intelligence of her choice for the character, as well as a lack of vanity.
Nell’s backstory unfolds slowly. When we first see her come through the revolving doors, we see a pretty woman, who seems unsure. Her step is hesitating. She looks like a raw nerve, everything making an impression on her, the air, the molecules leaving marks on her, as though she hasn’t been out in public for a long long time. This turns out to be true but watch how Marilyn is playing it in the first scene, before we know anything about her. That’s building a character.) If we know the rest of Marilyn Monroe’s work, we may be forgiven for thinking that Nell is just another one of her naive breathless creations. She meets up with the elevator man, who turns out to be her uncle, who has gotten her a job babysitting for a child of guests in the hotel. The uncle seems solicitous, perhaps overly so. He says, “You won’t have any trouble babysitting, will you, Nell?” A bottomless look of sadness battling with fear comes over Marilyn’s face. It’s startling. This was my first clue that Nell was going to be a little different than Marilyn’s other characters. She says, “Of course not. Why would I?” She’s not defensive, only unbelievably sad that his question even needs to be asked. It seems to suggest that there might be something … wrong with her.
Nell is brought into the hotel room, and meets the parents of Bunny, the little girl she will be babysitting. The parents swirl out, leaving simple instructions. Nell reads Bunny a fairy story before she goes to bed. There is something touching here, and also not quite right. Marilyn reads the story in almost a monotone, a dreamy uninflected voice, as though she is trying to imagine herself into the story she is reading. She’s cut off. From the sweetness of the experience, and also from her self. We can’t even guess what she’s thinking. Bunny, however, is riveted.
Once Bunny goes to bed, Nell is left alone in the apartment. She’s aimless. When her face is in stasis, and when she is alone, all you see is the sadness. And, more than that, more disturbing, the restlessness. In the introduction to the parents, and in her dealings with her uncle, she tries to keep it together, and put on a social happy expression. But once alone, the mask is off.
Marilyn was so rarely without her mask, and so it’s amazing to watch.
Another thing that is fascinating about this film, and also singular in Marilyn’s career, is that she gets the opportunity to show anger. Real rage. I can’t think of another film where she gets angry in a similar way, where she pushes back, where the helplessness suddenly pushes OUT, lashing out in fury at those who try to contain her. It’s terrifying.
Meanwhile, another story goes on in the film. Richard Widmark plays Jed, a cynical pilot, who’s been dating Lynn, played by Anne Bancroft. Lyn is a lounge singer in the hotel, Jed flies in on the weekends. It’s obviously a “friends with benefits” type situation, and Lyn has been okay with that, up until now. She’s portrayed by Bancroft as an intelligent and compassionate woman, who is not above having harmless fun, and she’s not the type to put the pressure on him to commit. But there are qualities she senses in Jed that disturb her, and she finally has come to the decision that she can’t be with him anymore. It’s his coldness, the way he treats people. Jed sees through a cynical lens, and any act of kindness is assigned a base motive. You can see it in how he treats Eddie, the elevator man, who tries to joke with him. You can see it in the contemptuous way he treats the woman who wants to take their photograph. Richard Widmark (he’s so sexy in this film) only has a couple of specific moments where these qualities can be displayed, and he nails them. We can see Lyn’s point. Lyn says, “You lack what I need. You lack an understanding heart.” They “wrangle” back and forth in the bar of the hotel, and she’s pretty certain that she needs to walk away. He’s the kind of guy who has a little black book of names, always in his back pocket, but there’s something about this Lyn woman that has gotten under his skin. He can’t admit it yet. He’s too proud. But her calm and reasoned explanation leaves him restless, pissed.
Jed finds himself at loose ends back up in his hotel room, while he can hear the lovely strains of Lyn singing torch songs (or, to say it another way, Anne Bancroft lip syncing) through the radio on the wall, connected to the bar downstairs (a nice omnipresent touch). He pours a drink. He sprawls on the bed. He throws his black book on the floor. He’s cranky. He thought he would be getting laid, and now he won’t be. He then catches a glimpse in the window across the way, of Nell, dressed up in a gown, dancing around by herself. A private moment. Jed is struck dumb. Eventually she notices him, and they begin a conversation across the space in-between. He figures out her room number from the floor plan on the back of the door, and calls her. They sit and talk on the phone, staring at each other from window to window. It’s hot. There’s an ache to the scene, in their separation, the mystery of the connection.
Now one of the things that I really love about this film is Richard Widmark’s journey through it, and how he treats Nell at first, and then watching him adjust to the reality before him.
Here’s the thing: Marilyn had an aura about her that clued you in to the fact that inside, she was about 11 years old. She had a woman’s body but a child’s mind. I think that’s one of the reasons why pairing her up with someone like John Wayne wouldn’t have worked. Wayne required a grown-up, and his best romantic pairings were when he was somehow equally matched. No kid’s stuff for Wayne. Only grown-up dames need apply. The thing about Marilyn, the captivating and also complicated thing, is that she was a little innocent girl in that sex-bomb of a body. And here, in Don’t Bother to Knock, Richard Widmark’s Jed, a guy out for a good time, a guy looking (in this moment anyway) to fuck his loneliness away, only sees the body at first. But don’t we all? I can’t judge him for that. It’s quite a body. He looks at Nell, and sees … well … Marilyn Monroe … and he thinks: I have hit the jackpot. There’s also a certain passivity in Nell (at first), a certain willingness, that makes you think she would be “easy”. Monroe had that. She was soft, she would yield. And so Jed, who’s not in the mood for a fight, or even a seduction, thinks that it will be pretty easy to capture this woman for the night. And that’s what he wants right now. No more problems, for God’s sake.
But over the devastating course of their next couple of scenes, when he invites himself over to her room (not knowing, of course, that it is not her room at all), he begins to realize that something is not right. They flirt, they drink, they kiss … and through their interactions, something opens up in Nell, a ferocious need is unleashed. She projects onto him all of her hopes and dreams, which is alarming, so early in the game, and calls to mind Fatal Attraction, except perhaps with more subtlety. She needs too much. She loves him immediately. She clutches and clings. But instead of ignoring the red flags and taking what he thinks he deserves anyway (after all, she invited him over, she’s in a negligee, she knows exactly what he wants!), he turns her down. And in so doing, Jed becomes a better man. He shows his “understanding heart”. He doesn’t realize that that is what is happening in the moment, he just knows that seducing this woman would be wrong. Kim Morgan, in her wonderful review of the film, writes:
In real life, most men wouldn’t so sensitively resist.
That, to me, is the most moving part of the film: Widmark’s growing realization that Nell is sick, and his decision to help her, rather than just add to the hurts she’s experienced. Marilyn Monroe is usually a friendly girlie bombshell, eager, open-eyed, innocent, and yet smokin’ hot. There is never any concern for how she might feel, being treated like a walking-talking blow-up doll. It is assumed that she is on board with it – and, like I said, Marilyn, for the most part, was. She was a movie goddess. We don’t want to know that movie goddesses might have contradictory opinions about being ogled over in film after film. Marilyn’s power was in strolling through that kind of gantlet and coming out unscathed, and yet still glowing. She did it in film after film. But in Don’t Bother To Knock, she is actually human, and Widmark, at first distracted by the boobs and the face, ends up seeing her as she really is: a damaged sad little girl, trapped in a pin-up model’s body. It’s incredibly moving to watch that transformation happen in Widmark’s face. Marilyn has never been treated so kindly as she is in this film.
Don’t Bother To Knock had a short shooting schedule, and Marilyn actually is not in a lot of it. It feels like she is, she dominates the film – but the scenes with Widmark and Bancroft take up quite a bit of time as well, and so Marilyn only really shot for 2 weeks. She was so enamored with Anne Bancroft’s acting that she would show up on the set to watch Bancroft’s scenes being filmed. Bancroft was a “real” actress, and this was at the point in Marilyn’s life (with the encouragement of her good friend Shelley Winters) that Marilyn was starting to learn her craft, and taking acting classes at The Actors Studio. Bancroft represented the serious side of the business, the actresses, who got to act, rather than just show their awesome silhouettes, and giggle and simper and wear bathing suits, etc. Marilyn so wanted to be considered a real actress.
Like I said in the beginning, I love her comedic stuff (“Maybe somebody’s name is Butler…” – her worried line from All About Eve that makes me laugh every time I see the movie). I love her musical numbers (“File my Claim” from River of No Return is my favorite). I’m a fan, regardless of the material. She’s got “it”. When Monroe was put in projects like Some Like It Hot, projects that were worthy of her talents, she was very happy. She hated some of the stuff she was forced to do (Let’s Make Love, for example), and she hated that she wasn’t able, most of the time, to show the full spectrum of her emotions. Her idols were not other bombshells. Her idols were real actresses.
We are a couple of years away, at the time of Don’t Bother to Knock, from Monroe’s famous disappearing act, when she dropped off the face of the earth, and wasn’t heard from for a month or so until she re-emerged in New York, having moved there to study with Lee Strasberg, and to develop her own projects. She formed a production company. She wanted to do The Brothers Karamazov. It was a hugely rebellious act, and was treated with disdain by the powers-that-be, but it was her way of saying, “I do not like the movies I am being put in. I am taking control of my career.” A reporter asked her at the press conference she held to announce her plans: “Do you know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?”
The guts that woman had. To tolerate such condescension. Monroe laughed at the question, however, and said, “Have you read the book? There’s a wonderful part in it for me, a real seductress.”
She was right, not only in her belief that there was a part for her in any version of Brothers Karamazov that would come to the screen (Grushenka, naturally), but also in how she handled the snotty remark from the reporter, who probably hadn’t even read the book, or if he had, he certainly didn’t remember it clearly.
Don’t Bother to Knock, although a big flop at the time, and not well-remembered at all, is evidence of the many shades of Marilyn Monroe; it is a nuanced terrifying performance, and her crack-up at the end is excruciating to watch. She walks across the hotel lobby, and her arms look stiff and un-usable, she is vaguely unsteady on her feet, as though she is learning to walk for the first time, her face is wet with tears, and she blinks up at the lights of the lobby, alarmed, squinting at the glare. She goes down the steps, one step, two step, her body slack and yet also rigid, she cannot move easily. Her psychic pain emanates not just from her face, the ending of the film is not done in closeup anyway, it’s a full-body shot … and her physicality is eloquent. It tells the whole story.
The glass has shattered. The character is in pieces. Her psyche has fragmented, parts of herself trailing behind her as she crosses the lobby. Her sorrow and fear is in her pinky finger, her waist, her calves, her posture … It surges through her and makes it difficult to even walk.
You know who plays a scene that well and with that much specificity as well as abandon?
A real actress does, that’s who.