Bus Stop April 13, 2017
“Hold onto your chairs, everybody, and get set for a rattling surprise,” read the opening lines of Bosley Crowther’s review of 1956’s Bus Stop. “Marilyn Monroe has finally proved herself an actress.”
The statement, made by an infamously cruel film critic, has been spotlighted countless times by biographers and historians intending to cite the specific film that marked a turning point in Monroe’s short-lived career. After years of making her name as sometimes vampy but mostly cartoonish girlish blonde bombshells, Bus Stop was one of the few times wherein the star was able to break free from the chains of her sexualized persona and show herself off as the capable actress she never stopped aspiring to prove herself as.
The resulting performance, following a 1955 completely dedicated to studying method acting with Actors Studio head Lee Strasberg, is nothing short of magnificent: Bus Stop features one of Monroe’s best performances, toying with the sexpot facade that so often undermined her. In the film, she is a woman tired of being exploited, tired of being treated like a one-night lay with nothing better to do than cater to a man’s desires. The sadness in her eyes palpable, we’re prone to pulling out a hankie whenever Monroe’s character talks of her frustrations and her shabby dreams.
Unfortunately, Bus Stop is grating. Not because of the sensational Monroe, but because of Don Murray, her male co-star (even worse than her The Seven-Year Itch co-headliner, Tom Ewell), and because of the plot’s rapey way of dishing out of the “no means yes” cultural misconception.
Disturbingly, the feature devises less a love story and more a harass-the-woman-you-think-you-love-until-she-loves-you-back story. Which makes it the definition of unbearable, especially when being viewed by an audience member who’s grown up in an era in which the despicability of rape culture is finally being addressed. I couldn’t stand Bus Stop for most of its length, particularly when in the presence of scenes that see Monroe’s character distressed thanks to another man’s unwillingness to back off when she says she’s not interested.
Disappointingly, George Axelrod and William Inge’s screenplay, a loose adaptation of the stage play of the same name (which I hope isn’t nearly as misogynistic), chronicles the “romance” between a beautiful, fragile woman and a piece of shit she hates for 90 minutes of the film’s 94-minute running time.
As Bus Stop opens, we’re introduced to Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) and Beau (Murray), a pair of cowboys making their way to the city to participate in a rodeo. As he’s Beau’s guardian, the kindly Virgil additionally puts it upon his quasi-son to also look for a lady love while in town, given that he’s 21 and has never so much as been on a date. Beau clings to the challenge like a tot trying to sneak the last crumb in a cookie jar – he refuses to leave the area until he finds his “angel.”
And the finding of that angel comes rather quickly. Shortly after his and Virgil’s arrival, he stops at the quaint Blue Dragon Theater, a Phoenix-based joint featuring talentless saloon singer Chérie (Monroe), a blonde who wants nothing more than to travel to Hollywood and make it as an actress. Problem for Chérie is that she becomes the apple of Beau’s eye the second he sees her. And once you become the apple of Beau’s eye, there’s no turning back – either you welcome his affections, or he won’t stop badgering you until you do. Or until you give up and pretend you’re interested. Whichever.
And Bus Stop, like Beau, doesn’t let up, either. It does little else besides watch as its villain – or, I guess, “protagonist” – hounds Chérie to the point of no return. I suppose I’d take more of a liking to the film if it were a thriller and Chérie had to take matters into her own hands to get rid of the guy she’d like to disappear. But that could also be my hatred of Beau speaking.
Trouble is is that Bus Stop is apparently a romantic comedy. Only the romance is more a long-winded perpetuation of the pathetic “boys will be boys” excuse and the comedy is less comedy and more watch as Murray overdo what he thinks is “physical comedy” and try to strangle laughs out of us. (In a strange twist, Murray, who is unspeakably awful – think sexist orangutan who happens to look like Tab Hunter’s cousin – was nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actor category while Monroe was only nominated for a Golden Globe.)
Bus Stop is inarguably a high point for Monroe, but there’s no denying how unwatchable it’d be if she weren’t a part of it. She is luminous, heartrending. Everything else, when not highlighting just how fucked-up gender dynamics were in 1956, is tone deaf and shoddily made, typical expensive studio fluff with no artistic imagination behind it. (Joshua Logan, long said to be one of classic Hollywood’s worst successful filmmakers, only helps increase the movie’s detestability.)
The way Bus Stop undercuts Monroe’s great work doesn’t just disappoint – it infuriates. Once again, the actress, who never stopped being undervalued throughout her career, gets her cake but sees massive chunks of it eaten by a gaggle of uninvited vultures. She gets to enjoy some, sure, but thanks to the thoughtlessness of a select few, that enjoyment is cut short. Had Logan, Axelrod, and Murray refrained from letting their egos get in the way of the actress’s mastery, perhaps we’d be sitting in the presence of the best film in her oeuvre. C-