023:23 minutes/seconds into Bus Stop, the essence of the film reveals itself to you. If you’re a fan of Marilyn Monroe’s earlier work (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch) her lackluster stage routine as Chérie will not impress you, nor is it meant to.
Towards the beginning of her relationship with Arthur Miller, Marilyn was in a fight against the studio system. She had previously been under breach of contract for not making films the studio wanted her to make. In the spirit of her resolve to be celebrated as a serious actress, Monroe chose Bus Stop, it would be her first film under her new contract.
The film, based on a screenplay by playwright, William Inge, was her first completely solo project. When the first titles open (by 20th Century Fox), you can almost feel the earthquake anxiety of Darryl F. Zanuck’s company—a throbbing heart attack with the constant question— “will this film be the kiss of death for us?”
Marilyn pays no mind. As the film moves along (surprisingly comfortable in itself, in spite of its limitations), she becomes entrenched in her character of Chérie. For the film, she learned an Ozark accent and downplayed her skills as a singer and dancer. She tapped into her maternal family’s journey from the Podunk towns of the Midwest to the sunshine states.
Don Murray stars as Beauregard “Bo” Decker, a famous rancher from Timber Hill, Montana who unwittingly meets Chérie at her saloon outside Phoenix, Arizona. During her lackluster performance of “That Old Black Magic”, Chérie is booed off stage. Bo urges her to escape, despite the saloon’s rules.
Marilyn gives her most honest performance yet. By 1955, she was an avid follower of the Strasberg Method, a school of acting derived from Konstanin Stanislavski’s practice of using one’s life experience to inform their cinematic and theatrical performances from their own emotional well.
James Dean, Sal Mineo, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and Natalie Wood (as well as Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward) were huge fans of this practice. Eliza Kazan, Nicholas Ray, and Robert Mulligan were fanatics for the cinéma verité aspect of filmmaking. Bus Stop director Joshua Logan kindly dipped his toes into this unorthodox style at the behest of Marilyn Monroe, whose warmth and compassion melted away any sort of dissonance Logan might have had concerning the production.
Monroe’s performance as Chérie unearthed a side to her that her familiar gossip columnists (notably Sidney Sklosky and Hedda Hopper) had demurred or otherwise ignored. One could argue, Chérie’s acceptance to go with Bo is a sort of metaphor for Marilyn’s coercion to return back to Hollywood after her self-imposed exile in the late 50s.
With dampened eyes, Chérie climbs aboard the bus to Los Angeles and she looks back at the desert life she’s known. “What’s better than here?” her indigo eyes whisper as the double lenses of tears form over her irises. The whole world seems to melt away.
The errant and artificial joy of the film dissolves as quickly as the salt water lands against the windows of a bus traveling from the packed humidity of the Arizona desert into the perforated and fragranced warmth of California.
And she wonders: “is this the promised land?”
Abby Sheaffer is a columnist for Cinema in Paradise.