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Finishing the Picture: Miller, Monroe and The Misfits

Finishing the Picture, Arthur Miller’s last play, opened in Chicago in October 2004, a few months before his death. It was inspired by Miller’s own memories of The Misfits, the movie he wrote for his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe. The play is based on actual events that took place during the shoot: the fire that halted filming in Reno, causing power to be cut throughout the city – except for in Miller’s hotel suite, where he stayed up all night rewriting scenes from his script. Miller revisits that evening to explain why another ten days passed before work resumed.

The characters are closely related to the main players on the set: Edna Meyers is probably based on May Reis, Monroe’s secretary at the time, though she also resembles another friend, Hedda Rosten. Phillip Ochsner recalls Frank Taylor, producer of The Misfits, in that he is a newcomer to film. But whereas Ochsner, who has previously worked in the trucking industry, is an outsider, Taylor had been Miller’s editor. Furthermore, Ochsner, unlike Taylor, is a widower, and his budding romance with Edna is, presumably, fictional.

Derek Clemson is a straightforward snapshot of the larger-than-life director, John Huston, while Jerome and Flora Fassinger represent Lee and Paula Strasberg – Monroe’s dramatic coach and guru at the time – broadly parodied by Miller, who considered them shallow and manipulative. Cameraman Russell Metty is shown here as Terry Case, a hard-headed survivor. Finally, Monroe and Miller appear as troubled actress Kitty and her desperate husband, writer Paul. Though much of the play focuses on Kitty and her desire to ‘finish the picture’, she speaks only one line.

Hollywood Misfits

‘Life isn’t real to movie people,’ Edna tells Ochsner. ‘Not like it is to you.’ This is why, she believes, ‘movie people’, like Kitty, are so insecure. Flora sees it in loftier terms: ‘If you were of our world you would understand that as the star’s coach it reflects on her that I am stuffed into some room.’ She uses her influence over Kitty to pressurise Ochsner into giving her a bigger hotel suite.

‘Kitty is tough, like every real star I knew,’ says Case. ‘A star is an animal; you control it with love and threats.’ Case’s belief that ‘her glory and her power’ lies in her physical appeal, and not her talent, has led to a fatal rift. The actress has rebelled against the Hollywood system that created her. But Clemson, Kitty’s director, believes she is ‘a woman of honor’, and Ochsner sees ‘a miracle in her face.’ The burden of responsibility has paralysed Kitty. ‘It’s hard to judge her condition,’ Clemson admits. ‘She always looks like dawn over the Garden of Eden.’

Even psychoanalysis cannot cure her ‘terminal disappointment’. Embellishing Kitty’s plight, Jerome laments, ‘You, darling, are not surrounded by culture or by love but exploitation, by people digging out pieces of your flesh!’ Jerome’s brief visit rouses Kitty, but with his departure, all hope is lost again. His flattery, and extravagant gestures, are insincere. Like his wife, Flora, Jerome is a parasite, his monstrous ego sustained by Kitty’s fame. To her exasperated director, Kitty’s endless delays are ‘some kind of a power trip.’ But, as Edna perceptively remarks, ‘Maybe one can’t expect people who’ve been kicked around to suddenly behave like people who’ve had love and affection.’

‘It’s not a business,’ Clemson says of film-making. ‘It’s an art pretending to be a business. But it’s never been any different; the artist dies in his work, the businessman carries his work into the world.’ And though Kitty does indeed ‘finish the picture’, there is a lingering sense that she may not survive it.

Love and Other Demons

Beyond art and money, relationships are also explored in Miller’s last play. The Fassingers are united in ambition, if not affection; Kitty and Paul are mutually disenchanted, heading for divorce. It is left to the most unassuming characters, Edna and Ochsner, to find love in a lonely, embittered world. ‘Sentiment turns me off,’ Ochsner declares, yet he longs to be moved. ‘She’s a girl of tremendous sensitivity,’ Edna says of Kitty. ‘Reality has to intervene sooner or later,’ Clemson warns, of the disconnectedness that all the characters share.

Despite her isolation, Kitty is the first to notice Edna’s warm feelings for Ochsner. ‘You see through everything,’ Edna wonders. When Case accuses Kitty of deliberately blowing her lines, Edna defends her: ‘They teach that only emotions count,’ she explains, referring to the ‘Method’ which Kitty studies with the Fassingers. Paul concurs: ‘She’s so busy looking for the emotions that she sometimes forgets the lines.’

‘My Jerome is the only one who I would say – yes, he understands.’ Flora is her husband’s greatest promoter, and she basks in his reflected glory. ’But I am only Jerome’s deputy, I do my best, but I have no illusions that I understand.’ The Fassingers treat any person with influence over Kitty as their natural enemy. ‘He’d dislike anybody who got between him and his wife,’ Flora says of Paul. ‘Now you see why she’s suffering; he’s hard as nails.’ Paul’s advice to Kitty – ‘to stop blaming everyone and look at herself’ – threatens their hold on her, built on suspicion.

‘We each promised to cure each other of his life,’ Paul says of his ruined marriage to Kitty. ‘But we turned out to be exactly who we were.’ The picture will be finished, and their love will die with it. In life, unlike art, there is no certain reconciliation. Kitty and Paul will soon part, both sadder and wiser. ‘I wonder if there maybe was just too much hope,’ Paul tells Edna. ‘We drank it, we swam it. And for fear of losing it didn’t dare look inside.’

Laying Ghosts to Rest

Despite his considerable achievements, Miller’s public image never fully escaped the shadow of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He wrote about her in his autobiography, Timebends (1986), and she inspired at least three of his works; The Misfits, After the Fall, and Finishing the Picture. Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits was a misty-eyed homage to Miller’s then-wife. He celebrated her beauty – and recognised her sadness – but underestimated her strength. Though Miller denied that Maggie in After the Fall (1964) was based on Marilyn, the parallels are obvious. Maggie is a self-destructive singer, and this darker portrait offended some of Monroe’s close friends.

In Finishing the Picture, Miller attempts to solve his ‘Marilyn problem’ by silencing her. As Enoch Brater notes in his introduction to the play (published in Arthur Miller: Plays Six), Kitty is ‘more of a conversation piece than a character’, more a subject than a person.  This could be the fate of any icon, but it suggests that even Miller was finally a stranger to her. Finishing the Picture had opened to mixed reviews in 2004. Writing for the New York Times, critic Ben Brantley found it ‘refreshingly free of shrill self-justification and self-blame,’ but lacking intimacy: ‘this is largely a presentation of conflicting theories of a star’s personality.’

‘As usual with a new play of mine,’ Miller responded, ‘the critics managed to misunderstand what it’s about…However, I’m far past the time where I give a damn about them or about anything except the work itself.’ By insisting that his play was ‘not a documentary’, Miller defended his own subjectivity (his harsh view of the Fassingers – aka the Strasbergs – being a case in point.)

Marilyn Monroe was Arthur Miller’s dangerous muse. Even mute, as in Finishing the Picture, she dominates the discourse, and by distancing himself from her, Miller only magnifies her presence. Ultimately, the task of ‘humanising’ Marilyn falls to the audience – and in his later work, Miller also began that journey.

Further Reading

The Misfits and After the Fall by Arthur Miller, published in Arthur Miller: Plays Two

The Story of The Misfits by James Goode, 1961

The Misfits: Story of a Shoot by Serge Toubiana/Magnum Photographic Archive

Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold