Acting changed forever during the 1950s. Just as the beat movement captured a newly existential spirit in America, the Actors’ Studio emerged to define the way those stories appeared on screen. Rather than simply reading lines, Studio actors studied the Method and aimed to inhabit the emotional life of their characters. That was a messy, deeply psychological process — and Jane Fonda and Marilyn Monroe were ready participants.
The Actors’ Studio
The Actors’ Studio was founded by the theater directors Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis in 1947 but acting coach Lee Strasberg took over in 1951: the same year that Kazan directed Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Nothing was ever the same after A Streetcar Named Desire. To see the young Brando, hunky and hulking and seething in tight tee shirts, affected an entire generation of budding actors. They came to New York City in droves, all hoping to discover the gift of the Method. Many of them ended up at the Actors’ Studio.
Strasberg, like many of his contemporaries, was inspired by the Russian character actor and theorist Konstantin Stanislavski. Taking Stanislavski’s lessons into account, Strasberg co-founded the Group Theater in New York in 1931. It was there that Strasberg specified his own Method technique.
The Method is what Strasberg preached at The Actors’ Studio. It requires an actor to access the deepest parts of themself, mental, physical, and emotional, in order to meaningfully convey the character’s personal experience. To do this, students would dig deep into past memories… and buried trauma.
Often the term Method, as Strasberg intended it, is used interchangeably with the Stanislavski System: a different technique championed by another Group Theater co-founder Stella Adler. It was Adler — not Strasberg — who most affected Brando’s own style, and she drifted away from the Actors’ Studio crowd due to disagreements over Stanislavski’s true intentions.
According to Adler, the key to unlocking a character resides primarily in the world of the script — not within the person acting. Adler placed more emphasis on the context of a story, encouraging students like Brando to study and live in that character’s world. For example, when preparing for a Broadway role in 1945, Brando would dump a bucket of ice bucket water on his head before performances to better emulate swimming in a cold lake. (As his character did in the play, Truckline Cafe.) Robert de Niro also takes after the Stanislavski approach; he worked as a real taxi driver to prepare for his iconic role in 1976.
“Drawing on the emotions I experienced — for example, when my mother died — to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it,” Adler once said of Stasberg’s Method. But it was Strasberg’s Method that won over so many performers in the 1950s and ’60s. Performers like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda.
And boy, did they have a lot to unpack.
Marilyn Monroe Meets Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda was Hollywood royalty when she joined the Actors’ Studio in the late ’50s. As Henry Fonda’s daughter, her name represented a style of acting that was classic and successful. But Jane, ever the wild child, resented her father and went to forge her own movie legacy.
She’d had a brutal childhood. Her mother, Jane Seymour Frances, committed suicide when Jane was 12 and Henry had little time for her or her brother Peter. Growing up, she struggled with body image issues and by the time she was a young adult had a crippling eating disorder: bulimia. At the time that she began classes at the Actors’ Studio, Jane was self-conscious and severely malnourished.
So she had something in common with her new classmate, Marilyn Monroe, whose self-image defined her famous existence. Monroe also came from a tough background. Born Norma Jean Mortenson (also called Norma Jean Baker) in 1926, she suffered through a tormented childhood, full of foster homes and family abuse. Her own mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, was the first perpetrator. Though little is known about Gladys’ exact abuse, Arthur Miller told BBC in 1968: “Her mother tried to kill her three times.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that both women were drawn to the introspect Method teachings of Lee Strasberg. A sex symbol from The Seven-Year Itch, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and more, Monroe hoped to earn a reputation as a serious actor.
She was already a superstar when she became invested in the Studio and crossed paths with Jane Fonda. But you wouldn’t have known it based on her presence in class. “She was as scared as I was,” Fonda told David Letterman in a 2011 interview. In fact, Monroe was so nervous that she would not even get up to do a scene. As Fonda describes it, she sat there with no makeup on, wrapped up in a scarf. Despite the shyness, though, Fonda said Monroe was “luminous.”
Fonda idolized her. “I loved her persona,” she told Letterman. Fonda lovingly recalls a party at Strasberg’s when Monroe sought her out right away — meanwhile the men in the room were physically shaking to be even near the blonde bombshell. But Fonda says that Monroe waltzed past them all, drawn to Fonda in particular because they were both like “little girls” back then.
In class, all the students were made to perform “private moments.” These were intense individual performances meant to unlock something deeper within each actor’s subconscious. Fonda’s first private was about her bulimia and she paced around a chair covered in newspaper, meant to represent a toilet, until she broke out into a cold sweat. But, according to the podcast You Must Remember This, Strasberg was not impressed. So for her next scene, brought a cut wine glass up to her throat, mimicking the way her mother took her own life.
This type of exercise was standard fare at the Actors’ Studio. Over the years, many former classmates have shared stories of Monroe bursting into tears during her own private moments, sobbing hysterically.
“She was extremely insecure —way more than me — and she didn’t have my resilience, unfortunately,” Fonda said of Monroe more recently on The Howard Stern Show. Fonda eventually outgrew the method in her own work but it would continue to dominate Monroe’s short life.
After Marilyn Monroe’s Death
Throughout the end of her frantic life, Marilyn Monroe came to rely on Lee Strasberg’s wife, Paula Strasberg, for everything. Paula was part-coach, part-companion, and part-employee for the messy Monroe whose addictions were spiraling out of control. Meanwhile Lee maintained an intense hold on the actress. He gave her away at her wedding to Arthur Miller in 1956. And during the following years, he set up, and guided, Monroe through a series of psychoanalysts. When Monroe died in 1962 at age 36, she left her estate to the Strasbergs.
This included an extensive archive of Monroe’s own poems, letters, and diary entries, which became public in 2010. The illuminating trove of writing reveal Monroe’s disturbed and dependent state; she describes nightmares where Lee appears as the “best finest surgeon” who cuts her open — to find nothing inside. “There is absolutely nothing there— Strasberg is deeply disappointed but more even— academically amazed that he had made such a mistake,” Monroe wrote.
Elia Kazan, who maintained a complicated respect for Lee over the years, has also commented on the strange relationship. “The more naïve and self-doubting the actors, the more total was Lee’s power over them. The more famous and the more successful these actors, the headier the taste of power for Lee,” Kazan once said. “He found his perfect victim-devotee in Marilyn Monroe.”
Of course, Lee didn’t see it that way. At least, not exactly. He provided his own sad words at Monroe’s funeral:
“She was a member of our family… It is difficult to accept the fact that her zest for life has been ended by this dreadful accident… In her eyes and mine, her career was just beginning. The dream of her talent, which she had nurtured as a child, was not a mirage.”— Lee Strasberg’s eulogy for Marilyn Monroe