Michael Chekhov & Marilyn Monroe

Extract from: MONROE, MY STORY.  From pages 134-135

It is interesting to note that even though Chekhov’s system  was developed for the stage, it became very useful for film actors.  Chekhov was never pleased with the work being done in Hollywood during his time there. He felt that the work was too commercial and that the focus was more on mass entertainment than on genuine artistic creativity.  However, he was pleased that any actor could use his system, and he was willing to help those film actors get the most out of their performance.

Perhaps Chekhov’s most famous and, on the surface, most unlikely student during his years in Hollywood was Marilyn Monroe. Monroe began studying with Chekhov in the fall of 1951 at the suggestion of another successful actor enamoured with Chekhov, Jack Palance.  Monroe was very interested in improving her acting talent and wanted parts that challenged her ability,  Chekhov was impressed with her acting potential from the beginning and encouraged her to develop her artistic gifts.  As it turned out , Chekhov had a profound impact on her personal and professional life.

Not long before her death, Monroe gave a manuscript  which she intended to develop into her autobiography to Martin Greene.  Greene was a photographer and was responsible for forming Marilyn Monroe Productions, her own film company. In this uncompleted manuscript, which Greene published in 1974 under the title My Story by Marilyn Monroe, she devoted a whole section to Chekhov. The section is entitled A Wise Man Opens My Eyes. In it she explained how Chekhov enabled her to see herself and her talent in a new light.

She had many acting lessons with Chekhov, who she called ”the most brilliant man I have ever known.”  At times she jeopardised their relationship by not showing up for  lessons or arriving late. This problem grew worse until Chekhov suggested she stop meeting for a while.  She apologised with a note saying, “Please don’t give up on me yet - I know (painfully so) that I try your patience.  I need the work and your friendship desperately.  I shall call you soon.”  Their lessons resumed on a regular basis.

One afternoon Monroe and Chekhov were working on a scene from The Cherry Orchard when he suddenly stopped and asked her if she were thinking of sex  while they were playing the scene.  This took her completely by surprised, and she said that she was not thinking of  sex, that her whole concentration was on the scene.  

He walked up and down a few minutes and said “It’s very strange . All through the playing of that scene I kept receiving sex vibrations from you.  As if you were a woman in the grip of passion.  I stopped because I thought you must be too sexually preoccupied to continue.”

I started to cry. He paid no attention to my tears but went on intently.  “I understand the problem with your studio now, Marilyn, and even understand your studio.  You are a young woman who gives off sex vibrations - no matter what you are doing or thinking. The whole world has already responded to those vibrations.  They come off the movie screens when you are on them. And your studio bosses are only interested in your sex vibrations. They care nothing about you as an actress.  You can make them a fortune by merely vibrating in front of a camera.  I see now why they refuse to regard you as an actress. You are more valuable to them as a sex stimulant.  And all they want of you is to make money out of you by photographing your erotic vibrations.  I can understand there reasons and plans.”

Michael Chekhov smiled at me.

“You can make a fortune just standing still or moving in front of the camera and doing no acting whatsoever.”  Michael said.

“I don’t want that.” I said.

“Why not?” he asked me gently.

“Because I want to be an artist,” I answered, “not an erotic freak.  I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.  It was alright for the first few years.  But now it is different.”

This started my fight with the studio.*

After this encounter with Chekhov, Monroe began a long period of struggle with 20th Century Fox over her desire to play more meaningful roles. 

It is tragically ironic that Chekhov had such a positive influence on her life, but at the same time, provided her with the personal revelations about herself and her career that in part contributed to her early death.

© Graham Dixon 2017