Stranger than fiction
Arthur Miller’s last play is set in Reno, but it hasn’t been staged here—yet
Finishing the Picture is a play about a famed actress who, making a movie in Reno in 1960, is so crippled by self doubt, pills and mistreatment by others—including her husband, who wrote the screenplay—that she causes the filming to fall behind schedule. Wherever could Miller have gotten such an idea?
In 1956, Miller obtained a quickie Nevada divorce from Mary Slattery, his wife of 16 years, so he could marry Marilyn Monroe. This was in the days when Nevada had a divorce “industry” because it required only a six-week residency. During his short stay, Miller lived at a divorce ranch at Sutcliffe and became interested in the divorcees and hangers-on that the divorce trade attracted.
He eventually wrote a screenplay for Monroe—The Misfits. Location shooting in and around Reno took place in 1961. While not well-reviewed, The Misfits achieved a certain mystical status because it was Clark Gable’s last movie and Monroe’s last completed movie. (Claims that it was also Montgomery Clift’s last film are incorrect.) The location shooting involved a certain amount of difficulty caused by Monroe, and she became a lightning rod for criticism when the picture had difficulties. Some even blamed her for Gable’s death of a heart attack shortly after the film was finished, though Gable had incautiously lost 30 pounds in a short period to prepare for the very rigorous scenes.
Monroe and Miller were later divorced, and Miller dealt with some of his feelings about the marriage in After the Fall, a 1964 play in which people from the protagonist’s past—wives, lovers, business associates, friends—move in and out of his life, and he comes to grips with his guilt over his first two wives, even while preferring his third. (One critic called it a “diatribe against women.") But the play also dealt with the Holocaust and Miller’s own encounter with congressional red-baiters. Finishing the Picture is solely about the Misfits filming.
The play turns on Monroe (here called Kitty), but it is more about those who revolved around her, with the result that she is seldom seen in the play. In the first act, she appears once, nude and in bed.
There are characters who, while their names are changed, are important people in Monroe’s life, such as Misfits director John Huston and her Actors Studio instructors, Lee and Paula Strasberg. Gable is not present onstage.
Scene changes in the play feature black-and-white footage, mostly of desert scenes.
The play premiered Sept. 21, 2004, at Chicago’s acclaimed Goodman Theatre with Heather Prete as Kitty/Marilyn. The star-studded cast included Harris Yulin, Linda Lavin, Stacy Keach and Matthew Modine as “Paul” (Miller). The London Guardian’s review said, “In its first run here at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago, it is stirring up more speculation, gossip and rampant curiosity than any Miller play has received in years. … Business at the box office, meanwhile, is brisk, and many of those who have seen the play feel compelled to talk about it, to rehash and review it on their own.” It may be impossible for the works of those who draw on their personal lives for inspiration to be judged solely on the plain content, detached from the events that inspired in the first place.
The play was directed at the Goodman by Robert Falls, who had also directed the 50th-anniversary staging of Miller’s Death of a Salesman. If Miller was trying to work out his relationship with Monroe by writing the play, he didn’t spare himself.
After Miller’s death, Falls said, “Finishing the Picture is, to me, like Arthur’s Winter’s Tale or Tempest. It clearly feels like a final work, bringing together all the themes that he’s been obsessed with his entire working life. It’s a play about dignity and about the art and humanity versus commerce. Everybody is abusing this girl—including the author/character who’s only managed to get the funding for this picture (an art film) because she’s agreed to star in it. I mean, it’s an incredibly self-lacerating portrait of the author.”
Paul, the Arthur Miller character, says at one point, “I hardly slept last night trying to see all this as she does. There’s a kind of monster walking step for step behind her whispering in her ear never to trust anyone; and the trouble is he has a point. Everyone wants something from her; we’re no exceptions; we want a beautiful film, so we insist she wake up bright and fluffy even when she feels like dying—our careers, the months and years we put into this project are redeemed by her fluffiness. Or that crowd of our technicians wandering around the lobby waiting to go to work—they also want fluffy. Plus the magazines and newspapers that sell her fluffiness, and the salaries of their staffs, and distributors and truck drivers; plus of course her agents and their lawyers, plus movie house stockholders and their staffs, in addition to the Internal Revenue Service that tax her fluffiness, not to mention the churches, synagogues and mosques and their staffs who live by condemning her fluffiness.”
Time magazine called the Goodman production “surprisingly evenhanded and convincing” and said it took “no easy potshots at Hollywood.”
Finishing the Picture never made it to Broadway, possibly because of Miller’s death in February. Nor has it been played in Reno, the town that provides its setting.
In fact, few Renoites even know of the play’s existence. Even University of Nevada, Reno art professor and former film critic Howard Rosenberg was taken by surprise when told of the storyline, which seems tailor-made for a Reno staging.
“I would think it would be worth its weight in gold around here,” he said.