In 1949 Marilyn Monroe was a model with a couple of movies and two failed film contracts behind her. By the end of 1950 she would be on her way to stardom. We ask what happened that year to make the difference?
Getting a new agent: Johnny Hyde
When Monroe first met Johnny Hyde at the very end of 1948 she knew what it was to be rejected – her first film contract with 20th-century Fox had been terminated in 1947 and she had also seen her time with Columbia Pictures end in rejection. Hyde would make a huge difference to her career – he was one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood with 30 years in the business, and he would use it to get the 24-year-old Monroe noticed.
Much of his desire to help her was driven by the fact that he was also in love with her. He was 31 years her senior with a wife and family, but by 1950 he had left them and set up home with Marilyn in Palm Beach. It was here that he arranged for her to be photographed by Earl Leaf. He proposed to her more than once but she always refused, claiming that although he promised her wealth and security, she simply wasn’t in love with him.
Nevertheless, Hyde devoted himself to promoting her, despite having been warned by his doctor to slow down. He arranged for some minor plastic surgery to her chin and nose and with Natasha Lytess (the drama coach she had met at Columbia Pictures), he honed her acting skills. There were more modelling assignments, work on advertisements and finally, more movies.
The release of The Asphalt Jungle - 12 May 1950
“Marilyn didn’t get the part because of Johnny. She got it because she was damned good.” John Huston
In 1949, Johnny secured Monroe an audition for a small part in John Huston’s new film, The Asphalt Jungle. Contrary to Monroe’s life-long ability to always be late, she did take her role as an actress seriously and she worked hard for the audition, spending three days and nights preparing with Lytess. The part was, in some ways, a cliché – the crooked lawyer’s young mistress – but she made Angela Phinlay more than just a gangster’s mole. There was a naïve innocence to her portrayal and she made the best of her short appearance.
“I played a vacuous, rich man’s darling attempting to carry herself in a sophisticated manner in keeping with her plush surroundings…I saw her as walking with a rather self-conscious slither and played it accordingly.”
The film’s release in May 1950 got Marilyn noticed. Although it didn’t generate immediate offers for big roles, people had begun to take notice of her:
‘There’s a beautiful blonde, too, name of Marilyn Monroe, who plays Calhern’s girlfriend, and makes the most of her footage.’ – Photoplay
Life magazine photoshoot - August 1950
Monroe would become one of the defining faces of Life Magazine during the 1950s, but her first photoshoot is almost forgotten. The studio got her a session with Life photographer Ed Clark who took her to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. She read poetry in a shirt embroidered with MM and posed in a bikini top while reclining on a bench.
The photos were never published – Marilyn was not yet famous enough – but things had changed by 1 January 1951 when she appeared in the magazine for the first time as part of a story entitled ‘Apprentice Goddesses’ as ‘Busty Bernhardt’.
She would go on to appear on its cover six times, the first being in April 1952.
The release of All About Eve - 13 October 1950
“I felt Marilyn had edge. There was breathlessness about her and sort of glued-on innocence about her that I found appealing.” Joseph L Mankiewicz
A month before The Asphalt Jungle’s release, Monroe began filming All About Eve. She had done a couple of movies earlier in the year (Right Cross and Hometown Story), neither of which had done well at all, but this film was in a whole different league.
All About Eve starred Bette Davis in the lead role and Anne Baxter in support. Davis was coming out of a bad break with her long-term studio, Warner Brothers, and it was pure luck that she was cast.
Margo Channing, an aging star of the theatre, takes a young aspiring actress under her wing only to discover that she is scheming to steal her crown.
Monroe’s part as a young starlet was smaller than the one that she had in The Asphalt Jungle yet was far more significant in terms of her future. She was sharing scenes with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and reaching a bigger audience than ever before.
It wasn’t all easy sailing for Monroe and she notoriously struggled with the scene filmed in the theatre lobby. It took 11 takes to say her few lines, incurring the wrath of the frustrated Davis. She was so shook-up that she promptly returned to her dressing room to be sick.
Despite her struggles, she played the role perfectly. She is ditsy and flighty, with not much more than her prettiness to advance her career, but unlike Eve, she has nothing to hide. She is a perfect contrast to the conniving and underhanded Eve who is prepared to steal husbands and parts to get to the top.
The film was released on 13 October 1950 to critical acclaim and won six awards, including Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars in March 1951.
At the same ceremony, less than a year after the release of The Asphalt Jungle, Monroe was now famous enough to be asked to present the award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording.
A triumph and a tragedy - December 1950
As Johnny predicted, All About Eve got her noticed. The head of 20th-century Fox, Darryl F Zariuck, was impressed and prepared to give her another chance at the studio. With Hyde at the helm of the negotiations, she passed the screen test and, on 10 December, she signed a 6-month contract with the studio that had rejected her in 1947.
1950 had changed Monroe’s life forever and set her on the path to stardom. But it ended in tragedy.
A week after having signed her new contract, Hyde suffered a heart attack and died.
His estranged family insisted that Monroe stay clear of the funeral, but she went anyway and, unable to contain her grief, collapsed over the coffin.
Monroe’s mental health was fragile, compounded by her mother’s own illness, the sexual abuse she suffered and feelings of inadequacy and isolation.
Little wonder then that she found Hyde’s death almost impossible to deal with. On top of her own fragility, she was also suffering from profound guilt – she had declined to stay at his house the weekend of his death and felt that she was responsible.
Not only had Monroe lost her lover, but also her friend and mentor. She owed her fledgling career to him and losing him meant not only personal grief but also professional uncertainty.
The day after the funeral, Monroe attempted suicide by swallowing the contents of a bottle of barbiturates. It’s unlikely that this was the first time she had tried it and it would mark a long and painful cycle of attempts until she finally succeeded in 1962.
Monroe would survive the ordeal plus 20th-century Fox kept its contract with her meaning that, even without Johnny, she still had a chance to continue her career. Through 1951 and 1952 her fame would continue to grow and her visual style and breathy delivery were gradually established.
By the end of 1953 she was established as one of Hollywood’s top earners and its biggest sex symbol.