The last act of most actors’ careers is usually one they wish they could take back; the bitter-sweetness of that fond memory of what they once were - but no longer are - urging the star to prove his/her metal and partake in material substandard to both their talents and personal tastes. Bette Davis said it best, when asked about her role in Dead Ringer (1964). “Not everything I do is art,” she said, “But I pick the best from what I am offered.” Yet the tang of regret is doubly felt in the career of Marilyn Monroe; an actress whose formidable gifts were buried behind a studio-sanctioned image of that bauble-headed sex kitten and bombshell; the woman snuffed out by her own legend in her own time that, in the end, was far too much for the mere flesh and blood to endure, and even more far-reaching since her untimely passing.
Monroe was only thirty-six when she left us – her body of work as yet thankless to her true capacity. She was - and remains - a star, despite some very substandard material along the way. Yet through her extraordinary talents Marilyn was able to rise above such stock characterizations and, more often than not, elevate the material along with her. Movies like The Seven Year Itch (1955) and How To Marry a Millionaire (1953) are today widely regarded as classics. Realistically, however, they’re little more than standard film fodder made memorable exclusively by Monroe’s presence in them and occasionally, by the other star talent accompanying her on the journey. But the material itself is hardly exceptional.
Anyone can have a hit out of mediocrity the first time around – the public swayed by the performer and thereafter willing to overlook even cracks in the performance or the movie as a whole or even the execution of its subject matter. But if one is genuinely gifted, then this trick is not only repeated, but perfected over time; the movie becoming secondary to the presence of its star. And Monroe was a star of the first magnitude. One cannot, for example, think of Mitzi Gaynor or even Jayne Mansfield – the Monroe wannabe and knock off - plugged into either of the aforementioned movies and still have either come out a box office sensation. No, it just wouldn’t work without Marilyn. This is precisely why her iconography endures: because Monroe, for all her faults and flaws behind the scenes, was a very special star indeed.
Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop (1956) is passé entertainment at best – a sort of prelude to Monroe’s deeper delving into the lost woman in a male-dominated outback given its full flourish in John Huston’s sadly underrated 1961’s The Misfits. And yet, as the careworn singer, Cherie, held up in the middle of nowhere and forced to sell her wares amid the pawing and yowling of half-drunken rodeo bucks out for a good time and to cop a feel or two, Monroe is arguably luminous. In retrospect, Marilyn’s own demons seem very close to the surface of Cherie; that character’s desperate need to be loved, understood, but ultimately respected for who she is - at odds with the stud-farm broncos come to ogle and catcall as she cavorts in her torn fishnets – faintly reminiscent of Monroe’s own inability to procure any lasting happiness with the men who briefly shared her life, or convince the powers that be at 20th Century-Fox that she was worth so much more than just a towering billboard of that billowy Travilla skirt blowing high above her knees from the errant breeze off a subway grate.
Because she was such a moneymaker in her current diluted form, the studio saw virtually no reason to tamper with this formula. Monroe was box office gold, even if she increasingly proved something of a handful for her directors and costars; her inability to quell the anxiety from within, coupled with a mounting and chronic addiction to alcohol and pills often left her incoherent and incapable of meeting deadlines. In its heyday Fox tolerated such delays because Marilyn positively glowed on the movie screen and rang cash registers around the world. Perhaps it was all just an illusion – the heads of the studio remaining silent if not entirely complicit in Monroe’s slow, sad self-implosion.
The rumors that Monroe was murdered either by the Kennedy’s or Peter Lawford, or both to silence her from breaking with character and the agreed upon program of keeping her mouth shut over an affair with President John F. Kennedy have marred the last act of Monroe’s private life. Because she left us seemingly with so much more promise yet to come, though never to be, without fanfare or flourish or even a typed suicide note to explain it all away, the mystique that we today regard as Marilyn Monroe has been a tale largely told by others – even those who never knew her in life – who have sought to regale the tragedy of Marilyn with varying degrees of truth peppered in.
However ensconced her image as a superstar was, it is highly unlikely Marilyn Monroe’s movie career would have survived the relentless cost-cutting that occurred throughout Hollywood after 1962; the year of her death. The days when a star could simply delay a project for weeks or in some cases, even months at a time, were being replaced by a more ruthless and fiscally-minded regime of film makers and studio executives to whom the bottom line was the only barometer of star power. In this light, Marilyn Monroe was a relic from that ‘other’ Hollywood – the eternally glamorous Mecca that tolerated any and every form of self-indulgence and effrontery to the six day work week merely to keep the status quo working and happy.
Bus Stop doesn’t really enhance our appreciation of Monroe - the actress - so much as it maintains the elusiveness of her resilient stardom – the film a rather turgidly scripted and even more languorously directed melodrama in which Monroe deliberately sings off key and attempts to emote buckets of angst, self-doubt, dismay and finally acceptance for her own lot in life; that the best her Cherie can hope for is a man – even one as rough around the edges as Beauregard 'Bo' Decker (Don Murray); still very much a boy inside and quite incapable of fully appreciating the woman who long ago has sacrificed her schoolgirl daydreams for life’s proverbial happy ending, long-since proven to be anything but.
What Bus Stop has, then, is Marilyn Monroe looking washed out, haggard, slightly disheveled and mostly worn to a frazzle; the flashy image of the bombshell watered down into a trashy knock-off of her former self. It’s a deliberate distillation, one designed to show off more of Monroe - the actress - and less of Marilyn - the star. The effort is not entirely successful, mainly because by 1956 Monroe had gone too far down the rabbit hole with her ingrained image of the platinum sexpot to ever fully let us forget she still had the moneymakers and knew exactly how to shake them. But Bus Stop gives us Monroe doing her damnedest to make us remember the creature first glimpsed in a more honest and revealing light in films like Niagara, The Asphalt Jungle and Don’t Bother To Knock – roles that ironically led to a kind of stardom as that other ethereal, though intellectually stunted blonde vixen trapped within her own curvaceous and buxom frame.
There’s no getting around it. Monroe’s Cherie is a tart – twenty-cent and day old off the rack. She’s made the rounds and played the circuit, putting in her time, giving everything to her art and having lost practically all of her own heart’s desire in the process. It’s a sad trade off; one Cherie isn’t entirely certain how to pull back from, if – in fact – she can resist it at all. The battering of her soul hasn’t made her more hearty or impervious to disappointment, but that much more vulnerable to having her spirit completely broken.
Again, one senses a lot of Monroe – the woman – invested in this part; a reflection on her own stardom slowly creeping into the rearview mirror of Cherie’s life and its resounding errors in judgment that have contributed to an even greater unhappiness. This, arguably, never entirely went away for Marilyn. Where the character ends and Monroe begins (or vice versa) is a mystery that the film never addresses or perhaps even more cleverly disguises. It’s one of the reasons – if not the only reason – why Bus Stop continues to fascinate Monroe movie fans to this day; because it all seems somehow so tawdry and yet very real; truer to Monroe and her place in Hollywood than Cherie and the Blue Dragon café where she nightly warbles sad little tunes for the paying clientele: a forgotten nobody catering to nobody’s audience.
Bus Stop is based on two short stories by William Inge – People in the Wind and Bus Stop. The screenplay by Inge and George Axelrod (who adapted the The Seven Year Itch for Marilyn too) concerns itself primarily with a thoroughly rambunctious but socially inept cowboy; Beauregard ‘Bo’ Decker played by Don Murray. At twenty-one, Bo is still a virgin but so ramped up on testosterone and youth that he is perhaps an elixir to Virgil Blessing (Arthur O’Connell); an aged one-time rodeo star living vicariously through his young protégée's naiveté. Virgil and Bo have come from Montana to Phoenix to partake in the rodeo, Virgil’s initial goading of Bo to take a more proactive interest in women is at first outwardly dismissed, then casually fluffed off by Bo who can think of no finer feeling between his legs than the smooth edges of his careworn leather saddle strapped to a mountain of bucking bronco.
To placate Virgil’s insistence, Bo sets about to find himself ‘an angel’ – one he will know at first sight and who will immediately fall in love with him. It’s such a misguided premise that it just might work, particularly after the pair find their way to the Blue Dragon Café – a seedy watering hole where Bo immediately becomes smitten with its talentless but ambitious singer, Cherie (Monroe). They’re both naïve in different ways – him, in believing that by forcibly manhandling a woman and planting a kiss upon her cheek he has somehow struck a blow for a lasting arrangement to marry and live happily ever after; she, by still thinking her woeful lack of talent will be enough to jet propel her from Phoenix to Hollywood with just the right break waiting around the corner. Neither is about to have their wishes granted.
Bo’s insistence is not only uncouth but painfully boorish. His determination mildly frightens Cherie, who is simultaneously attracted to him because, after all, he is rather handsome in a rugged – if unrefined – sort of way. Bo tells Cherie that as soon as the rodeo is over he will come to collect her at the café and take her back with him to Montana; a move counterintuitive to her own grandiose plans for the future. Bo, however, doesn’t listen to reason…or anything else for that matter. He’s too full of himself and his own misguided notions about love, women, life and living it beyond his own wants and desires.
The next afternoon Bo does indeed come back for Cherie. What to do? Well, she makes a feeble attempt to run away. It doesn’t last very long, and Bo forcibly drags Cherie onto the bus bound for Montana; a move that alarms Cherie, infuriates Virgil and makes a spectacle of all three to the other passengers travelling back east. When the bus makes a pit stop at Grace’s Diner, Cherie tries to get away again while Bo is fast asleep. Too bad the road ahead is blocked by snow, the approaching storm forcing everyone to remain at the isolated truck stop overnight. By now Virgil, the bus driver and the café owner’s sympathies are all with Cherie. Things reach a critical point when the driver (Robert Bray) takes it upon himself to challenge and subdue Bo, a move seconded by Virgil who also forces Bo to confront him. Defeated and frankly embarrassed by having his headstrong male initiative pummeled by a total stranger and backed by the man he regards as his surrogate father, Bo at last settles down and begins to behave like a man instead of an overgrown boy.
Virgil tells Bo that the only way he can make things right is to humble himself before Cherie and ask for her forgiveness – something Bo is sheepishly unwilling to do because he thinks it makes him less of a man. The night is rife for contemplations however, first between Bo and Virgil with Bo finally coming to the realization that his mentor is right. The next morning Bo musters up all the confidence he has left for a very sincere and heartfelt apology made to Cherie. More than simply telling her what he thinks she wants to hear, Bo has had a minor epiphany about the way the world works – at least how it ought to between men and women. After wishing her the very best, Bo makes ready to go the remaining length of the journey without her.
The last act of Bus Stop is all about farewells: the retirement of boyhood folly that gives way to a more adult male perspective on life; the self-sacrificing gesture made by Bo to give up the only woman he’s ever known, however briefly; Cherie’s surrender of a lifelong dream to be a great star; and finally, Virgil’s rather sad goodbye to Bo, akin to letting go of the last vestiges of his own youth by living vicariously through Bo’s lack of experience, perhaps even detrimentally encouraging it in their father/son-esque relationship.
Cherie confesses to Bo that she has had far too many ‘boyfriends’ and is probably not the type of girl he ought to take an interest in. He admits to his lack of experience. It’s all rather tender and touching – each believing the other is more worthy than they are to themselves. In the end Virgil elects to stay behind. His roaming days are over. It’s time to move on and prepare for the twilight of a man’s life. Cherie realizes how much Bo truly loves her and tells him “Why…I’d go anywhere in the world with you now” – the two boarding the bus for an uncertain, but infinitely more promising future together than the one that seemed so impossibly destined for failure only yesterday.
Bus Stop is, at times poignant and sentimental though never maudlin. Don Murray overplays his hand during the first half of the movie – his Bo much too garrulous and as dense as cement to ever come to the conclusion he inevitably reaches before the final fade out. The transformation from slug-head to suitable mate is awkward at best, but once Murray passes that point of no return he’s rather convincing for the last act. Marilyn’s Cherie isn’t quite the revelation the studio’s PR attempted to trump up at the time. There’s too much Monroe in Cherie (and vice versa) for the star to entirely vanish into her character. At times Marilyn almost pulls it off. But then we get a flash of a nuance here or a gesture there that reminds us it’s Marilyn again, just Marilyn in cheap cotton and rags, performing a pantomime or mere masquerade for our benefit – we’re never quite certain of which – but definitely one or the other. Marilyn can’t escape the Monroe persona carefully crafted by herself and cleverly marketed at Fox in countless other movies from the 1950s. After Bus Stop she never again dared to try.
Bus Stop comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p hi-def transfer that seems just a little ‘off’ to me. The image is extremely impressive in its clarity. Fine details pop. I noticed fabric, skin and hair I never saw before. Really good stuff, actually. But the color is a different matter entirely, favoring a blue/beige palette that I firmly trust is in keeping with the original cinematography, but with a slight tinge of teal that I don’t think was intended. Again, I cannot in all good conscience say this isn’t how the movie looked theatrically; but reds in particular seem very anemic to my eyes, as do flesh tones that, at times acquire an almost cadaver gray/yellowish hue or very ruddy orange complexion. If this is the result of Milton R. Krasner’s ‘mood lighting’ it certainly didn’t set any particular mood for yours truly.
Contrast also seemed a tad less robust than I was expecting, but grain was very film like and pleasing. The aforementioned anomalies described herein are brief and not terribly distracting. For the most part I appreciated the effort put forth on this disc. It’s not visually perfect but it is more than competent. The 4.0 DTS audio gave a good representation of the original Westrex 4 channel Cinemascope audio, occasionally directionalized, hearty and robust. Fox has stiffed us again on the extras. Nada – except for a trailer. Given Marilyn Monroe’s supremacy at the studio and her enduring iconography throughout the world I would have thought Fox might have given us a definitive biography on the star somewhere in the canon of movies they have already committed to Blu-ray. Sadly not. Oh well. We’ll wait in hope for a better showing of Monroe at a later date. Please, Fox. Pretty please.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)