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The gentleman who did not prefer Marilyn

The full extent of Laurence Olivier’s hatred for Marilyn Monroe is revealed in a new biography of one of Britain’s most renowned film-makers.

Britain’s leading actor regarded Hollywood’s greatest star as an utter “bitch” who lacked talent and sex appeal. Lord Olivier’s damning verdict of his co-star is demonstrated in a memoir of Jack Cardiff, the double Oscar-winning cinematographer, who worked with the stars on their 1957 film, The Prince and the Showgirl.

Cardiff reveals that Olivier developed a hatred for the American actress which he carried to his death.

Twenty-five years after they made the film together, and despite her own tragic death, the actor would still privately refer to her as a “bitch”.

Cardiff, 88, is not the first person to comment on the fraught relationship between the stars during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, their only collaboration. His detail about the extent of their mutual hatred, however, make his disclosures significant. His senior position on the set ensured that he developed close friendships with both of them.

At the time the film was shot in London, Oliver, 50, was at the top of his profession, having been knighted and having starred in and directed acclaimed adaptations of Hamlet and Richard III.

He regarded Monroe, then 31, the star of films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch, as his inferior. Cardiff says that Olivier went out of his way to be a “pain in the arse” to the American, deliberately seeking to antagonise her by “unwisely” allowing his wife Vivien Leigh, the star of Gone With The Wind who had played the part of the showgirl on stage, to attend the shoot.

Leigh’s presence visibly “terrified” an already nervous Monroe and almost certainly affected her state of mind.

Olivier’s hatred of his co-star seems largely to have been based on her refusal to socialise with the cast and crew, and her obsession with method acting, which led her to question every decision he made as the film’s director. Monroe resented his treatment of her and was particularly hurt by his refusal to acknowledge even her status as a sex symbol.

Cardiff, whose Oscar-winning films include Black Narcissus and The African Queen, says: “From the first, it was evident that Marilyn was going to be a problem for Larry on the film. Most actors will come on the set and chat, but she would never come on the set. She went through so many agonised times with Larry because he was, to her, a pain in the arse. She never forgave him for saying to her once ‘try and be sexy’.

“Marilyn had this ghastly obsession with method acting and was always searching for some inner meaning with everything, but Larry would only explain the simple facts of the scene. I think she resented him. She used to call him ‘Mr Sir’, because he had been knighted.”

Cardiff adds: “I saw Larry years later on The Last Days of Pompeii, which was made for television in 1984. We talked a lot on set and I asked him one day what he had thought about Marilyn and he just said ‘she was a bitch’.

While Cardiff is sympathetic to Olivier, who died, aged 82, in 1989, he remains loyal to Monroe. He paints a picture of a sex symbol who had an almost child-like quality off screen. He insists that her legendary inability to turn up anywhere on time was not arrogance, but shyness.

He recalls how a trip to the theatre could be enough to push her over the edge: “When we got inside, we were sitting in the stalls about 10 rows back and everyone sitting in front was just turned around looking at Marilyn. During the interval, to stop us being mobbed they had fixed up a private little room for us. The first bell to signal the end of the interval went, and we got ready to go, but Marilyn asked for another drink. Then the second bell went and she still wouldn’t go. I looked at her and she was obviously terrified of going back.”

Cardiff’s last meeting with Monroe, in a Hollywood hotel just months before her death, gave him a revealing insight into her private turmoil. He recalls: “I went over and it was a big room with just one dim light and she was wearing dark glasses. We sat together on the settee and had a drink and she told me what a terrible time she had been having.

Cardiff believes that the actress, who apparently committed suicide in 1962, was murdered because of her brief affair with President Kennedy. He is convinced that a reported sighting of Robert Kennedy at the star’s Hollywood bungalow is crucial to the mystery.

He writes: “Marilyn, who was always very silly, had kept a diary while she was with Jack Kennedy, before Bobby got involved, and in the diary Jack had told her a lot of stories about the Bay of Pigs episode [the 1961 CIA-backed invasion of Cuba], which was hot stuff. But she put it in her diary, and Jack had wanted that back. It [the murder theory] makes sense to me because she had the diary.”

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