Larry, Vivien and Marilyn

Details about Laurence Olivier’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, and also Marilyn’s relationship with Vivien Leigh.

Excerpt from The Marilyn Encyclopedia by Adam Victor
Submitted to by Jenn

The first movie lined up by business partner Milton Greene to be made by Marilyn Monroe Productions was The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) – on paper an enticing combination of world-renowned Olivier and the world’s most popular sex symbol. It was also a bold move in the process of Marilyn’s reinvention as a “serious” actress capable of working with and matching the most accomplished talent in the business. Joshua Logan, who had directed Marilyn the previous year in Bus Stop (1956) remarked ”It’s the best combination since black and white.” According to biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles, Olivier was initially approached only to act, but insisted on making the screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince his non-Shakespeare directorial debut.

Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh flew to New York to conclude negotiations. When he arrived at Marilyn’s Sutton Place apartment on February 7th, 1956, Marilyn kept him, his agent Cecil Tennant, and playwright Rattigan waiting for an hour and a half, but Olivier was bowled over anyway: ”One thing was clear to me: I was going to fall most shatteringly in love with Marilyn. She was adorable, so witty, and more physically attractive than anyone I could imagine.” This was generally held to be the first meeting between Marilyn and Olivier, though it is sometimes said that they had previously come across one another in 1950, at a dinner dance to which Johnny Hyde escorted a petrified Marilyn.

The press conference held two days later at the Plaza Hotel saw the two actors trading compliments. When asked what he thought of Marilyn as an actress, Olivier replied ”She is a brilliant comedienne, and therefore an extremely good actress. She has the cunning gift of being able to suggest one minute that she is the naughtiest little thing, and the next minute that she is beautifully dumb and innocent.” Marilyn summed up her enormous respect for Olivier in a simple sentence: ”He has always been my idol.” On this occasion, however, Marilyn stole the show thanks to the spaghetti-thing strap of her dress snapping in mid-conference.

Another press conference, on July 15th at the Savoy Hotel in London, was held to announce production of The Prince and the Showgirl soon after Marilyn’s arrival in England, accompanied by new husband Arthur Miller. However, the fine words and compliments ceased almost as soon as production began. Observers at the time were not surprised to learn that Marilyn’s devotion to method acting clashed titanically with Olivier’s laissez-faire attitude. Against the agnonized introspection, the trawling of sense memories which Marilyn brought to the interpretation of her character, Olivier just told her “All you have to do is be sexy, dear Marilyn.”

This comment acted as a red flag to the bull. Marilyn took refuge in the lateness and grudging cooperation for which she was famed. Soon enough Olivier had cause to believe her to be petulant, unreliable, and in his words “a professional amateur.” Miller, who found himself increasingly called upon to mediate in this battle of wills, observes that at the heart of the ill-feeling ”There was a genuine conflict…between two different styles not merely of acting but of life.”

As Miller himself later had occasion to find out, when Marilyn lost faith in people, it was total and forever: ”As she had done with so many people, she had idealized Olivier, who as the great and serious artist must be above mortal considerations of the kind so common among the Hollywood flesh mongers she thought she had escaped.” Once she felt betrayed, nothing would convince her that Olivier was not an enemy. Despite – perhaps because of – his mediation, Marilyn accused Miller of not backing her up enough against Olivier, and even, out of some kind of cultural affinity, taking Olivier’s side.

In his autobiography Miller ventures that as filming continued, Marilyn began to believe in some way, like a rival actress, Olivier was competing with her for the limelight. Olivier, in the meantime, had to contend with the presence of Paula Strasberg, to whose advice and indications Marilyn paid far more attention than his own direction. Marilyn began to have doubts about Olivier’s motivation for doing the picture at all, and started to think he was only there for the money. Sarcastically, she referred to him as ”Mister Sir”.

Years later Olivier still recalled Marilyn as a ”thoroughly ill-mannered and rude girl…I was never so glad to have a film over and be done.” But with the advantage of time, he acknowledged that ”She gave a star performance. Maybe I was tetchy with Marilyn and myself because I felt my career was in a rut…I was as good as could be, and Marilyn! Marilyn was quite wonderful, the best of all. What do you know?”


Vivien Leigh had all the critical acclaim that Marilyn, in her insecurity, lacked.

The contrast must have been immense when, in 1956, Marilyn took on the role of Elsie that Leigh had famously performed in the original stage version of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).

Though Marilyn and Arthur Miller were nominally the guests of Leigh and her husband, Lawrence Olivier, they met almost exclusively on formal occasions: at the airport, and at a party given by Terence Rattigan.

Marilyn and Leigh did not develop anything beyond a rivalry. Marilyn expressed displeasure when Leigh turned up at Pinewood Studios to watch shooting. Meanwhile, Marilyn felt ill-treated and sneered at by director Olivier. Susan Strasberg said “Marilyn could play this role with her eyes closed, but Olivier seemed to feel that she should play it like Miss Leigh and he was infuriating her with his exacting and specific direction.”

The two actresses did share some similarities. Throughout her life Leigh suffered ill-health and battled depression. She, like Marilyn also suffered a miscarriage. In the first weeks of work on the movie, Leigh, then forty-two, told the press she was expecting her first child with Olivier. Before the month was out, she lost the child.

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Comments (1)

  1. I have heard the problems on the set of the prince and the showgirl film. Olivier did say the frustration he had trying to get a performance out of Marilyn Monroe which i think he felt she could achieve. I.personally think Marilyn gave a very good performance as the showgirl. I think the camera loved her and the watch ability was evident. Olivier was also very good as the prince although they never really got on together and tension between them boiled over at times I believe regarding their different approach to acting methods. I think it was a pity really as they could have learned so much from each other regarding their chosen profession.

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