The first time you see Marilyn Monroe as Chérie, the hillbilly chanteuse, she is sitting in a window having a quiet moment to herself. With her leg cocked up on the sill, skin exposed and fan in hand, her closed eyes suggest a desire for a moment of peace. It’s a quiet moment for herself to get some air, but even here she is being observed as a desirable object as Virgil (Arthur O’Connell), a visiting cowboy, looks on from a neighbouring window. The moment of (observed) peace, however, is further broken as a storm of drunken men burst into the room behind her, clamouring for her presence in the bar where she performs. Her protests are met with violence, as her boss roughly grabs her arms and demands to know why she isn’t out there working. No moment is ever her own, especially when there are the demands of men to satisfy.

 Directed by Joshua Logan, based on the play by William Inge, Bus Stop (1956) is often difficult to watch, mainly due to the painfully and socially inept lone-cowboy Beauregard “Beau” Decker (Don Murray). Leaving his ranch in Montana for the first time since he was a boy to attend a rodeo in Phoenix, Arizona, his friend turned father-figure Virgil Blessing suggests the trip will be a good opportunity to find a wife. Rather than any old “schoolmarm”, Beau decides he is going to find himself an angel. Lacking any social graces, he sets his sights on Chérie, a skittish and not very talented singer at a bar filled with cowboys whom she is encouraged to swindle for drinks. With the confidence that can only come from a boy who has never met an adult woman in his life, he dedicates his time to pursuing her, his angel.

 Although the premise remains dubious, especially to a modern audience, Bus Stop endures as one of Monroe’s most notable films. With a thick Ozark-hillbilly accent, Monroe’s performance as Chérie is transformative, her body movements awkward and unsure. Vulnerable, open, unpolished, this is Monroe as you’re unused to seeing her. Her costumes are run down and torn (a roughness she insisted on, and even fashioned herself); her face covered in white powder that melts away.

 But it’s also Monroe at her most vulnerable and revealing. It was the first film Monroe made after spending a year studying Method acting with Lee and Paula Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. Based on the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski, the Method was a style of acting that encouraged actors to use memories of feelings and emotions from their own life experiences to better embody their character. Monroe’s demons have been well publicised and widely discussed in the formation of her image and legacy. But in Bus Stop, we see them play out in “character”.

 There are a lot of similarities between Chérie and Monroe. Much like in Monroe’s own life, Chérie is constantly at the mercy of the men around her who demand her presence, her body, her beauty, without any regard for Chérie/Monroe herself. As she walks through the bar where she works, men grab at her like a piece of meat. Yet when she goes up on stage to sing “That Old Black Magic”, the patrons continue to talk over her, and no one pays attention. It is only when Beau jumps up on a table and demands that everyone be quiet while she sings that people listen to her.

 It is this act of kindness, a moment of being seen, that first attracts Chérie to the newcomer. After her song they share a secret kiss, but her expression of physical attraction is taken out of proportion. Beau’s innocence and naiveté are sweet, even slightly endearing. Unfortunately, they are also misguided. With a kiss, Beau decides that means they are engaged without any further conversation, not even a thought to ask Chérie herself. Beau often compares the chase for Chérie’s hand to that of the breaking in a wild horse or wrestling a steer. At the rodeo he is competing in, he declares: “I’m just gonna pretend that little ol’ calf is Cherry. I’m goin’ after her and I’m gonna get her.” She is just another stubborn animal for him to tame and conquer. He doesn’t even pronounce her name right.

 Despite Chérie’s numerous rejections, Beau’s proposal and insistence that they are to be married never wane – he even goes so far as to kidnap her with a lasso onto a bus to Montana. Yet, to see Chérie/Monroe fight back is a revelation, a performance of long-awaited agency against all the domineering men and studio execs who tried to control her. After being lassoed onto a bus in the middle of the night, she seeks solace in the front seat with another young blonde girl, Elma (Hope Lange). “I don’t know why I keep expecting myself to fall in love, but I do”, she sighs.

 Beneath the tiredness of a long day trying to shake Beau is also a world-weariness. Although it seems reductive to base a reading of Monroe’s performance on her relationship with men throughout her life, she was a student of the Method, and it is no secret Monroe was unlucky in love. Her short marriage to Joe DiMaggio, which ended in 1955, prior to filming, was filled with jealousy and abuse. Yet 1955 was also one of her most important years: she negotiated a new contract with 20th Century-Fox which demonstrated how large an earner she was and gave her more control over the movies she made, including director approval. Bus Stop was also the first film to be made under the auspices of Marilyn Monroe Productions. Monroe is the one who picked out Joshua Logan; she is the one who built the look of her character. In many ways, she orchestrated the whole thing to show everyone who she was, and what she had.

 Slouched down on a bus seat with her make-up smudged, hair in disarray and wrapped in a musty old coat, the highly desired sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, angelic and rough around the edges, takes a moment to say what she desires for once: “I want a guy I can look up to and admire. But I don’t want him to browbeat me. I want a guy who’ll be sweet with me, but I don’t want him to baby me either! I just gotta feel [that] whoever I’m gonna marry has some real regard for me”, she reveals with a quiet passion. Face wistful, she looks up into the distance, almost as if she can see it. As someone who sees beyond the beauty and the glamour and the “dumb blonde” façade. In the end, this person is in fact Beau. But first, this moment, this dream, this desire is her own, and she’s going to fight for it until she gets it.

Bus Stop (1956 USA 96 mins)

Prod Co: 20th Century-Fox, [Marilyn Monroe Productions] Prod: Buddy Adler Dir: Joshua Logan Scr: George Axelrod, based on William Inge’s play Phot: Milton R. Krasner Ed: William Reynolds Art Dir: Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle R. Wheeler Mus: Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray, Arthur O’Connell, Betty Field, Eileen Heckart, Robert Bray, Hope Lange

About The Author

Claire White is a culture writer and bookseller in Naarm/Melbourne. With a specialised focus on girlhood and youth on screen, her work has been published widely by leading publications such as Little White Lies, Guardian Australia, The Monthly, The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Vogue Australia, and more. She is a MIFF Critics Campus alum and was once a columnist at Junkee.

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