Move over Marilyn: BUS STOP's hidden talent

BUS STOP, the 1956 film starring Marilyn Monroe, is one of those frustrating dramas at the mercy of a woman who’s strong and independent at one moment and a doormat the next. Like Shakespeare’s Kate in “Taming of the Shrew” or even Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Monroe’s Cherie, a singer in a saloon, wafts between falling blindly into lust with Bo, a traveling rodeo rider from Montana and then later screaming at him across a crowded bar room “I hate you and I despise you!” after he treats her like one of the cattle he ropes, only to later follow him home to his ranch in Montana, a beaming bride to be.

All this back and forth would be nothing more than a lesson in frustration if the writing wasn’t so good. Based on the play by William Inge and adapted by Hollywood heavyweight George Axelrod (who wrote the screenplays for THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) and PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES (1964)) the film is instead a journey through a complicated, if not always subtle relationship.

I’d never go so far as to say that Monroe was a bad actress, but her breathy delivery and relatively simplistic array of emotional variety (sultry or sweet, angel or devil) has its limitations. Still, she’s thoroughly enjoyable as the dimwitted, hardworking Cherie to Don Murray’s naive and aggressive Bo, played with similar psychological dexterity. However, the real stand out here is neither the leading man nor his lady, but Arthur O’Connell, who plays Virgil, Bo’s guardian and mentor. Perpetually stuck on the sidelines of cinema, O’Connell gave exceedingly good dramatic and comedic performances in film’s like ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959), POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961), THE GREAT RACE (1965), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966) as well as a slew of Anthony Mann Westerns. His body of work seems a veritable ‘how-to’ of acting. How to be funny, how to be serious, how to be subtle, or poignant, or dramatic, or goofy, or how to play to the strengths of the leading actors, how to bolster their performance and let them shine. I know it’s not common practice to watch a film for its supporting cast, but you can catch O’Connell’s performance in BUS STOP on Tuesday, July 5 at BAM as part of their Marilyn Monroe film series.