Film director John Huston notoriously lived his life with the intensity of several lesser men yet (although Clint Eastwood's film White Hunter, Black Heart dealt with a thinly disguised biographical episode) to my knowledge this is the first time a sizable play has been written about him. More precisely, Alex Finlayson's piece deals with the shooting of Huston's film The Misfits, and so inevitably Huston the director is overshadowed by his cast – which included Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift – and especially by the deteriorating marriage of screenwriter Arthur Miller and female lead Marilyn Monroe.
The part of Monroe in any stage or screen project is a poisoned chalice, but Lisa Eichhorn acquits herself with honour, capturing the sense of constant, fluid movement and the confused bouillabaisse of emotions in her voice (although not the softness of its timbre). Marilyn, fuelled by booze, pills and a desperate need to prove herself as a "real" actress, is childishly dependent on the counsel of her Method guru Paula Strasberg (Paola Dionisotti) rather than either Huston or her husband. Miller, meanwhile, is obsessed with writing the Great American Movie, handing in daily rewrites and stuck for an ending until the film is well behind schedule. The constant delays caused by Monroe's (and to an only slightly lesser extent Clift's) nervous dissipation and Huston's frequent gambling sprees on location in Reno give Finlayson considerable scope for human drama.
She hits the bullseye only fitfully, largely because her Arthur Miller (as played by Christian Burgess) comes across as a disembodied brain with frustrated ambitions to be a heart instead. Consequently, Marilyn's confrontations with him are at best one-sided affairs in terms of passion: truthful perhaps, but lacking in spark. Finlayson's urge to untangle Monroe's psyche extends to writing a disconnected hospital scene in which she gives physical presence to both Marilyn's brassy teenage and insecure childhood selves. However, the pivotal scene is a gem: Marilyn and Monty open up to each other in a hotel room late one night while Miller single-mindedly pounds at his typewriter next door. The mannerisms of James Clyde's Monty (younger and perhaps even more effeminately homosexual offscreen than the 40-year-old Clift) fall away until all that remain, huddled on the bed, are "two little people in a little boat lost on a great big sea."
Gregory Hersov's production and Laurie Dennett's design make up in verve what Finlayson's script may miss in insight. Boom mikes, a make-up trailer and a Dodge truck are wheeled on and off, and one scene is bookended by takes of a movie shot in which Gable supposedly ropes a mustang: in a simple but bold and hilarious stroke, Ray Lonnen as Gable (who elsewhere gives a gracious performance) appears through one door of the heptagonal theatre, is dragged at high speed on his stomach across the stage, and disappears out of the opposite door. Hersov goes full tilt for the chaos which surrounded both the shoot and its "downtime", and if Stephen Yardley concentrates on the tyrannical aspect of Huston and neglects his seductive side, this is still a man whom one could imagine holding up production in order to ride in, and win, a camel race (sadly not reproduced onstage).
The film The Misfits (Gable's as well as Monroe's last picture) is a haunting, underrated work, and Finlayson's play does depend for its full impact on knowledge of the movie, although not to a crippling extent. Monroe's philosophical farewell to Miller – "You wrote me, and I took it, and we finished" – as he stands alone on a darkening sound stage is an obvious but perfect ending. There have been a number of films about stage shows; it's about time the balance was redressed.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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