In 1955, Marilyn Monroe was determined to put behind her, the series of flighty comedies she starred in, despite the amazing commercial success of her films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes(1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire(1953). Her ability to read comedy better than anyone, playing the world’s most famous dumb blonde, had become a little tiresome. With one swift stroke she severed her ties with 20th Century Fox and moved to New York and enrolled into Les Strasberg’s Actors Studio for a year to develop her skills as an actress. (Marilyn would later come to a new agreement with 20th Century Fox following her ugly split with them, that eventually saw her make many of her own decisions, including the formation of her own production company.)
Marilyn’s abilities as an actress took a while to mature as she tried desperately to sort out her own feelings and emotions. She was a young woman tormented by her past, stuck somewhere they say between adolescence and adulthood. With so much arguably at stake, Marilyn apparently set upon her acting classes with a dogmatic vengeance. Did the lessons help? Her detractors eagerly pointed out that she was wasting her time, but Marilyn must have done something right. She left the Actors Studio and validated her yearlong stay by producing one of her finest performance in the film Bus Stop (1956) that earned her a global globe nomination.
In Bus Stop Marilyn played the role of café singer Chérie, who has a map, a plan and a dreams of a life as a Hollywood star. Unfortunately everything is turned on its head, when she meets Beauregard “Bo” Decker (Don Murray), a socially blundering idiot in pursuit of an angelic wife, who whisks (kidnaps) her away on a bus trip back to Montana (his home town). The film plays out to its final conclusion, with Marilyn delivering a rare dramatic performance, which most critics agree is surprisingly brilliant. The New York Times said, “Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress in “Bus Stop.” She and the picture are swell! This piece of professional information may seem both implausible and absurd to those who have gauged the lady’s talents by her performances in such films as “Niagara,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and even “The Seven Year Itch,” wherein her magnetism was put forth by other qualities than her histrionic skill.”
Interestingly, while critics like Bosley Crowther of The New York Times were really starting to warm to Marilyn’s dramatic ambitions, Hollywood or more specifically the Academy was not. Many including Marilyn’s co star Don Murray were surprised when she didn’t receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role. In a reflective mood in his twilight years, Murray once said: “I never understood why she was not nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Bus Stop.’ It was won by Ingrid Bergman, a wonderful actress, there’s no question about that, but Marilyn’s performance in ‘Bus Stop’ was so much richer, it had so much more variety and it was so much more interesting than Ingrid Bergman’s character in ‘Anastasia’.”
It’s fair to say Bus Stop marked a turning point in the career of Marilyn Monroe. For the most part Marilyn as Chérie moves between wonderful moments of humour, sadness and vulnerabilty with ease, making Bus Stop a must see Marilyn picture. It really is an astonishing and beautiful performance for an actress who had been undervalued by Hollywood her entire career to that point.
Beyond all of this, Bus Stop has something interesting to say about how we treat women as property and/or objects of sexual desire. Chérie wants it to be known that she is her own woman and that no man can force her into something she doesn’t want to do. “I just got to feel that whoever I marry has some real regard for me, aside from all that lovin’ stuff.”
Interestingly throughout film history we have seen this story play out before and despite Bus Stop’s troublesome happy ending, we always knew we would predictably end up there, with Bo and Chérie as two lonely misguided souls finding each other.