We rehearse in Marilyn’s apartment on the lot.
After an hour, Logan says, “You kids stick with it. It’s going to be splendid.” Then he excuses himself, saying he’ll see me on the set at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. As he leaves, he says, “Will that be all right with you, dear?”
Marilyn smiles. “I don’t know why, Josh, but there are a few things temporarily under my … well, sort of under my control.”
“I’ve gotten a reputation for being late,” she says after Logan has gone, settling into a plain, overstuffed chair. “Late for work, late for engagements.” She hides for a moment behind a shy smile, raising her eyebrows, signifying there’s truth in the rumors.
I’m sitting at the end of a reproduction Danish Modern sofa, three feet away from her. “How old are you?” I can’t believe I said that. “I’m sorry. I have no idea why I … I’m really sorry.”
She giggles. “That’s okay. I’m twenty-nine. I’ll be thirty on the first of June.”
“What will you do when filming is over?” I’m not a lot more pleased with that one, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to edit my careening thoughts.
“Who are you?” she says.
“Just somebody else who’s looking.”
“I don’t know … Any kind of purpose.”
She smiles. “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world.” She runs the fingertips of one hand lightly along the line of her chin bone. “Sometimes I think if I only knew the right questions to ask, I’d be able to learn a few things and maybe that would be enough.” She looks at me as if I may have brought some answers with me. “Everyone wants to know me. Why is that?”
“Because if they can get to understand your story, it’ll make theirs … clearer.”
“Why me? … You mean the movie-star thing?”
“Yeah, but mostly the acting thing—that you do. Sometimes you reveal things to us about ourselves. We’re human and hungry for ways to cope, and we want to know more.”
“How do I reveal myself?” As I try to think how to answer that without accidentally hurting her feelings, she answers it herself: “I mean I’m trying in this movie to reveal this … girl. But that’s a really different thing that doesn’t help me be … what I want to be … Maybe that’s what I’m revealing about Cherie—a girl so open and woundable she doesn’t recognize the answers even when they’re staring her in the face. I mean, Cherie doesn’t seem to be the brightest coin in the collection—but she’s a long way from being dumb, and some serious things are beginning to dawn on her.”
“Yes, and she’s gaining incredible spirit, the way you play her.” Shit.
“How would you know that?”
“I can … I can just tell.”
“I don’t see how.”
“By the way you were when I auditioned and the way you … are … now—your sense of serenity, your dignity.”
“Really?” She smiles again but seems vastly unsure of her dignity. “Maybe it’s the ‘energy and excitement’ thing Josh talks about. He’s always trying to find ways to make me look on the positive side—you know, the side of me that feels that good things are bound to come my way if I just believe it? And along with that comes poise. He says that should be starting to bloom in me.” She stares up at the canopy of a sycamore tree shadowing the manicured lawn outside the window, remembering. Now, she looks back at me. “Anyway, Josh said if he hadn’t been the way he was—like me, he meant, I could tell—he would have missed ‘the sharpest, the rarest, the sweetest moments of his existence.’”
She seems to hold her breath. She’s watching me, seeing what I may have to say to that. But I’m tongue-tied, unable to do any more than smile at her.
She continues to hold my gaze. “This wonderful, poised man—Josh—said, ‘Marilyn’—he spoke my name in such a … kind way. He said, ‘Darling, your sweetest moments are still ahead of you.’ I mean he’s really smart and dear, and if he can say a thing like that—” She sees something in the look on my face.
“And that made you feel better?”
She hesitates, still trying to read a thought I’m glad she can’t read. “More than that, it made me feel hopeful. I mean real hope. Now, if I can only keep it here—the hope.” She taps herself on the forehead. “I know what he said will come true.” She looks at her lap and emits a slow, soundless whistle. “My problem is, the better the advice is, the quicker I do the opposite.”
She shrugs, gazes at me, then stretches both fists up in the air. It’s meant to indicate triumph, but her moment of jubilation is gone now and her “positive side” no longer rings true. “Lately, I really do feel optimistic.” She sighs. “Well, sometimes. But that is who I want to be all the time. Someday, I’d like to be a person who looks at life—at the whole world that way, you know? I just want to feel the hell with all these demons and ghosts and stop having to try to figure out the reason for every little emotional itch. I just want to live. You know?”
“Yes, I do.”
“It’s the way I want to feel every minute.”
“Me too. I want to be alive.”
She smiles a sad, longing smile. “But we are, aren’t we. We are alive.”
Her look darkens. “But in a few weeks I’m not going to have Josh, and …” She shakes her head and looks out the window. “Well, I guess people can’t feel that way all the time.” She leans an elbow against the chair and, resting her chin on her hand, lifts a shoulder in resignation. It reminds me of the French actress Jeanne Moreau acknowledging that life comes without guarantees. “I started out wanting the world to know me,” she says. “Like Cherie, singing at the Dragon Nightclub down by the stock yard. And now people do know me …” She thinks about that. “Photography is so scary. I just go on and on living in pictures, but really I’m like all those people wondering who that girl is.” She shivers. “And that’s not the worst thing …”
She looks down at her hands. “‘The wings of insanity.’ Somebody wrote that.” ‘The wings of insanity over my head.’ Isn’t that a terrible thing to say?”
“Yes, it is.”
She frowns. “What will I do when filming is over?” She shakes her head. “The press is always asking me what I’m going to do next—like they want to know where to go hang out until I get there. And I can’t tell them the real truth—that they might as well save themselves the trouble; that it’s all over now. I’m never going to be better than I am in this movie. And it’ll all be over soon, and they’ll put me wherever they put used sex symbols … Over a year in New York, in and out of therapy and the Actors Studio, and failing in love, and I have new friends and old ones, who are gone now out of my life, and I don’t know—if I’m really honest—why the new ones are any better than the old ones. It’s not enough to have people know you. What you need is for someone to know you’re alive. The only one who knows I’m alive is … oh well.” She smiles, but it’s half-hearted.
“I’ve made you unhappy.”
She stares at me. “You haven’t made me unhappy at all. Everybody’s always interrupting me to give me advice and to tell me what to do.” She looks at me for a long time, then out the window. She laughs, self-conscious. “This is me happy.”
She turns back and looks into my eyes, as if trying to decipher an inscrutable code. “I think I’m having one of my instant crushes on you. I have to watch those, or I get into awful trouble.” She frowns and looks away. “Which did you do first, gemology or acting?”
“That’s nice. It’s good not to make the acting too important. I did a scene from Anna Christie … you know? Eugene O’Neill …? It was a few months ago at the Actors Studio, and I was so nervous, the next morning I woke up with laryngitis. I felt like I’d been strangled. It’s not worth it.” She looks at me for what feels like a long time. “Do you want to run the scene again?”
She sits next to me shyly, looking at me with the same puzzled expression, then slowly begins to tell me about Cherie’s childhood in the Ozarks, hanging out with her sister Nan at Liggett’s Drugstore in River Gulch. Finally, Cherie tells Lawrence he’s a good listener, and he says she’s nice to listen to.
She stops, just before the end of the scene, looks at me for a long time and says again, “Who are you?”
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