Marilyn explores relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Simone Signoret
Major new play from Sue Glover examines life of American actress
Fifty years after her death Marilyn Monroe remains an object of endless fascination. Later this year Michelle Williams will portray her in the film My Week With Marilyn co-starring Dougray Scott as playwright Arthur Miller. This month, Frances Thorburn faces the challenge of bringing her to life in Marilyn, an eagerly awaited new play from Sue Glover. Every biographer seems to find something fresh in their examination of Monroe’s short and often tragic life, variously hailing her as feminist icon, earth mother or naive victim of shadowy political conspiracies. She remains the archetypal American sex symbol of the 20th century: honey-blonde, blue-eyed, with a fulsome figure and a manner that combined childlike innocence with brazen, husky-voiced provocation.
Sue Glover’s play is set during the spring and summer of 1960. Monroe had returned from New York to Hollywood to film Let’s Make Love. She shared a three-apartment bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel with husband Arthur Miller. Her co-star Yves Montand was also her next-door neighbour in an apartment he shared with wife Simone Signoret who had recently won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a seductive older woman in Room at the Top.
Glover’s play speculates on the relationship between Monroe and Signoret, played by Dominique Hollier, as it is observed under the watchful eyes of hairdresser to the stars and confidante Patti (Pauline Knowles). It offers an exploration of fame, fortune and the lives of two icons who may have had more in common than we had previously considered.
‘They are as different as they are similar,’ suggests Glover during a break in rehearsals. ‘I think Marilyn certainly envied a lot about Simone; how cultured she was, her vast circle of friends, her self-assurance and the fact she was a mother. She would have wanted all of that. Simone may also have been envious of Marilyn. Simone was only five years older than Marilyn but she was approaching middle-age and may have felt insecure and jealous of a younger woman. Interestingly they were both very independent but also both enthralled by their men. They both needed to be married and both of them endured a lot because of that.’
Signoret is certainly known to have tolerated Montand’s philandering ways in a marriage that endured from 1951 until her death in 1985. They were the golden couple of the French arts, famed for their commitment to left-wing politics and liberal causes. It was the kind of match that Monroe hoped she had found with Arthur Miller.
Signoret was born in Wiesbaden to French parents and had worked as a teacher and a typist, surviving the worst of times in wartime France before beginning her acting career. An attractive, languorous blonde, she brought a warmth, wit and alluring sensuality to classics like La Ronde (1950), Casque D’Or (1952) and the thriller Les Diaboliques (1954). It was said she was cast as the older woman who loved and lost the ruthless Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top (1959) because no English actress could match her allure and sophistication.
In her lifetime, Monroe rarely received the respect that her performances merited. Her childhood was an unhappy one spent largely in foster homes and scarred by her mother’s mental illness. Like Signoret, she worked as an extra in her earliest films. A nude calendar shoot and a hunger for fame propelled her into bigger roles and better opportunities. Her delightful flair for comedy was proved time and time again in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How To Marry a Millionaire (1953) and the immortal Some Like It Hot (1959). In The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) she even eclipses Laurence Olivier with a performance that is a light soufflé compared to his stodgy pudding.
Sue Glover believes that when Monroe met Signoret in 1960 it was a defining moment in both their lives. ‘Marilyn had lost a child during the filming of Some Like It Hot the previous year. The marriage to Arthur Miller was ending and her unreliability at the time was notorious. I think this was the beginning of her losing it in all senses of the phrase,’ she explains. ‘I also think in a way Signoret never recovered from what happened that summer. It was a huge moment in their lives.’
Monroe died in August 1962 at the age of 36, leaving a final film uncompleted in which she appeared lovelier than ever. She did not grow old as Signoret grew old. It’s hard to imagine where Monroe’s career might have gone. Could she have played in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Would she have been cast as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate? Would there even have been a place for her in the era of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H*? Hollywood is notoriously unwelcoming to an older woman and few of Monroe’s contemporaries (Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Ava Gardner etc) found many worthwhile roles beyond the age of 40.
Signoret seemed unafraid to show her age or to embrace her status as one of Europe’s most distinguished character actors with a string of unforgettable performances from the drug-addicted countess in The Ship of Fools (1965) to the aged prostitute in Madame Rosa (La Vie Devant Soi) (1977). ‘I got old the way that women who aren’t actresses grow old,’ she once remarked. Signoret also proved herself an accomplished writer, especially in an intelligent volume of autobiography La Nostalgie N’est Plus Ce Qu’Elle Etait (Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be) (1976).
In many respects, Signoret led the life that Monroe might have wanted, filled with strong friendships, political activism, professional achievements, a lasting marriage and a loved daughter. Signoret certainly seemed to exhibit an almost maternal concern for Monroe, noting: ‘She seemed to have no other happy professional memories. None of those moments of uproarious giggles among pals, none of those practical jokes, none of the noisy hugs and kisses after a scene when everyone knows all have acted well together.’
In simplistic terms, Marilyn Monroe is a very American object of desire while Signoret represents a very European sense of sensuality. Both paid a price for their fame and the life that they wanted. It is not hard to imagine an affinity between them especially when you read Signoret’s autobiography where she reveals: ‘She’s gone, without ever knowing that I never stopped wearing the champagne coloured silk scarf she’d lent me one day … It’s a bit frayed now, but if I fold it carefully, the fray doesn’t show.’
Marilyn, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 17 Feb–Sat 12 Mar; Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Tue 15 Mar–Sat 2 Apr. Les Diaboliques, starring Simone Signoret, is re-issued in cinemas from Fri 18 Mar.