In My Week With Marilyn, out Nov. 23, Marilyn Monroe is portrayed as a shy, pill-popping star who’s bullied by her husband, Arthur Miller, and director, Laurence Olivier, during filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. She then spends a romantic week with Colin Clark, a young assistant on the film. Actress Vera Day, who costarred with Monroe in Prince, now reveals what really happened—from the pill rumors to the one-line scene that required 30 takes.
I’d only been in show business for under a year, and it was my fourth time in front of the camera. They wanted three gaiety girls to be Marilyn’s friends, and at that time, I’d just sort of made a name for myself for my “physical attributes” and had been called “Britain’s Marilyn Monroe.” My agent put me up for the part, and I went in to see these two iconic figures of British film—Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Alexander Korda. The first thing Olivier said was, “Oh, my God! We can’t use her. She’s so like Marilyn.” But we got over that, I agreed to wear a brown wig, and I got the part.
I thought Marilyn was just beautiful. I used to gaze at her and couldn’t take my eyes off her. But she did give everyone a headache because she was late, didn’t turn up, and those types of things. Because of that, Beatrice Dawson, who was the dress designer, called me in to measure me up and made this amazing, figure-hugging dress for me just to annoy Marilyn. I was only 21, and I was so green. I sashayed onto the set, and she went, “Oh, my God!” and was whispering into her husband Arthur Miller’s ear and pointing at me. She was so upset!
Marilyn had a huge entourage: Milton Greene, her own photographer; Paula Strasberg, her acting coach; and her husband, the great Arthur Miller. All these people surrounded her, and I think she just thought she could do whatever she wanted. Marilyn didn’t mix with other people. She was invited to all sorts of social things. I invited her to a big party in Mayfair, but she would not mix or talk with anybody. She didn’t really make herself popular with everybody. Her hairdresser was a lovely gay guy, and he’d say, “What with the Russians and with Marilyn, I don’t know what I’m going to do today!” She really did drive everybody mad!
Sir Laurence Olivier was a lovely, lovely man. He possibly was a little bit hard on her, but Marilyn was very, very difficult. He had a hard time with her and would go out of his way to direct a scene, and then Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Paula Strasberg, would call Marilyn over, whisper in her ear, and go, “Marilyn, forget about all that. Just think about the little boy and the Coca-Cola.” So she’d have this great direction and then she’d throw that away, go to the side, and do her “method” thing about the little boy and the Coca-Cola. I’d never noticed any bullying of Marilyn on set, and it was not overt that Olivier was a bully.
She really was always late. We all used to sit in our condominiums—Dame Sybil Thorndike and all the other actors—and they’d all carry on moaning about her. I’d say, “Wait a minute—we’re all getting paid a daily rate, so we’re making fortunes here out of her being late!” People used to think she was late because she was frightened or intimidated by all these British actors—Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Sybil Thorndike—because they were all top, Shakespearean-trained actors. So she wouldn’t go on set, and rumor has it that she had sleeping pills to get her to sleep, and then she’d be taken to work in the morning and she’d be fast asleep, so she’d need pills to wake her up.
Marilyn even flounced off one time from the set and went back to her caravan and wouldn’t come out after a dispute between her and Sir Laurence Olivier. He was old school, and she was this brash American woman who was discounting everything he’d said. There was one scene where Marilyn said, “I just don’t ‘see’ it,” and Sir Laurence Oliver said something like, “Stop saying that, and just say the bloody line!” That was a little bit embarrassing for her. And there was one scene in the abbey where she needed 30 takes to do just one line! She was pretty unprofessional, but when she “got it” and did the scene right, she just came alive and was fantastic. She’d get that look in her eye like, “Ah!” and then the rest of the cast would be like, “Ah, thank God she’s got it!”
The one time she showed a glimmer of humor was when her strap broke. There’s a lineup scene where we’re all standing there being introduced to Sir Laurence Olivier, who’s playing the prince, and the strap of her dress broke and she said to the grips and electricians, “Do any of you guys have a safety pin on you?” It was great because she showed a little bit of humor and acknowledged that there were other people working there besides her.
I didn’t witness anything between Marilyn and Colin Clark [as in the film]. I actually don’t remember him on the set at all. There weren’t any rumblings of them being together on set. She was very, very into Arthur Miller, and they were on their honeymoon. Goodness me, no. Whatever he said about that … I mean, I can’t accuse him of lying, but I very much doubt there was anything going on there. She was with [Miller] all the time, and when she wasn’t she was working, and he was on the set all the time with her.
She was very beautiful, voluptuous, and, apart from the 38-24-36 stuff, she had this amazing innocence and light about her where women loved her as much as men liked her. But being a great actress? I don’t know. For me, she was a great “film star.”
But it was not a particularly happy film for her or Sir Laurence Olivier.
—As told to Marlow Stern