Truman Capote called Sunset Tower, an art deco triumph on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, “a very posh establishment … where every scandal that ever happened happened”. In 1953, its residents included the English poet Dame Edith Sitwell, who was visited there one afternoon by Marilyn Monroe.
Sitwell had been commissioned to interview the star for Life magazine. Their meeting was engineered, she later wrote, because “it was obvious that we were born to hate each other, would do so at first sight, and that our subsequent insults to each other would cause a commotion when reported”.
That scandal never materialised. Instead, the pair hit it off – Sitwell praising Monroe’s “natural dignity”, intelligence and sensitivity – and they later met again as friends. But what did they talk about on that first encounter? For his debut audio drama, Simon Berry takes some details from Sitwell’s memoir and rearranges the timeline of Monroe’s rise to movie-goddess stature to create a lightly comic and occasionally touching conversation between an odd couple who turn out to have quite a bit in common.
Emma Thompson plays the brisk, no-nonsense poet as a fish out of water, grumbling that “Dame Sitwell” makes her sound like a panto star and furious that her interviewee is five minutes late. Sinead Matthews, riotously good as the nurse in the Park theatre’s Loot revival in 2017, is a suitably breathy Monroe, her voice instantly conjuring wide-eyed wonder and earnestness. Sitwell’s withering stance soon softens as the pair team up to get rid of a fawning representative from the magazine and Monroe’s officious handler from the studio. They celebrate this conspiratorial victory with a cocktail, Monroe gurgling with laughter at Sitwell’s “bottoms up!” toast.
Each character’s diction bemuses the other: Sitwell, unafraid to breezily drop “subterfuge” into a sentence (“such wonderful words!” responds Monroe) is stupefied by the American star’s casual mention of a “quarterback in the pro bowl” – a line Thompson repeats with exquisite bewilderment. When Monroe reveals she attended Sitwell’s recent recital, the poet purrs not just from flattery but the prospect that there is more to her guest than expected. Their conversation covers Freud, Rudolf Steiner and the plays of Monroe’s future husband Arthur Miller. Sitwell’s semi-religious love for poetry is matched by Monroe’s devotion to moviemaking.
The real-life meeting took place in January. That summer Monroe had her hand and footprints done outside Grauman’s Chinese theatre and by Christmas she was the first Playboy cover star. Both of those events are imagined by Berry to have already happened, allowing him to emphasise Monroe and Sitwell’s suspicions of the other as a “prude” and “hussy” respectively, and to dwell on Monroe’s exploitation, the machinations of the industry and her limiting sex-bomb persona. But the arguments could just as easily have been made using Monroe’s experiences before 1953.
The controlling grip on stars within the studio system and the painful physical procedures to which actresses were subjected in the name of Hollywood makeovers (so gruesomely detailed in Joyce Carol Oates’ Monroe-inspired novel Blonde) are evoked but without great depth. Both women keenly feel the cruelty of the press: Sitwell is haunted by a critic’s quip that she was “as ugly as modern poetry”.
Sitwell’s relationship to her body and her appearance is powerfully explored, as she recounts being taken to have her spine straightened with a brace she called “my bastille”. When Monroe effectively takes over the role of interviewer (“who have you loved?” she inquires) it is Sitwell who emerges as the more intriguing character. Her comic and rather melancholic answer to that question is Peaky, a peacock she once knew, but you yearn to hear more of her relationship with her former governess, Helen Rootham, who is fleetingly mentioned.
The relationship that doesn’t quite convince is between Marilyn and pre-fame Norma Jean Baker. When she talks about herself in the third person, and suggests Marilyn is a persona she turns on and off, there is no strong sense of disconnect. Sitwell wrote of a “ghostly beauty” in Monroe’s face but aside from evoking the troubled feelings she has about her mentally ill mother, Berry never fully draws out her worries. There is little consideration, either, of Sitwell’s feelings about her stature as a poet in this late stage of her career. But, with lively support from Stuart McQuarrie, Joseph Mydell and Danusia Samal, this is a compelling, rather tender hour shared by two women as the sun shines brightly on one career while slowly setting on the other.