Finally Marilyn did her first exercise in class, a “song and a dance.” My dad [Lee Strasberg] had developed it to deal with inhibitions and expression that was often tied up when the actor got in front of an audience. Most actors just sang “Happy Birthday” because they were afraid they’d forget the words. Marilyn picked a harder song. She stood up there alone and began to sing, “I’ll get by as long as I’ve got you…” Well, the tears began to pour down her face. She kept her concentration, not wiping them away. She was sobbing and singing, and when she finished everyone in the room wanted to run up onstage and hold her. She beamed a luscious smile through her tears. There were still some skeptics—“Well, thats not acting”—but she had won over some of her toughest critics. These kids were snobs. They looked down on movie actors. They were in theater.
Next she did her first scene in the private class. She’d been watching for over a year. It was from Odet’s Golden Boy. Sometimes when she was nervous, she’d erupt in hives. Other times she’d relapse into a childhood stutter. Marilyn’s great fear was that under pressure, in front of people, she might freeze as she’d done on movie sets. Some people thought she was dumb when she was just plain terrified.
She was scared. Even my father was nervous, though with his phlegmatic manner it was hard to tell. Attendance was on and off in classes. That day the room was full, SRO. Everyone had brought along their “show me” attitude. They were going to see if Pop had sold out his ideals for fame and notoriety with the greatest sex symbol in the world.
She was playing Lorna Moon, a woman who wants desperately to change from her old life of conniving and hustling because she has fallen in love. Marilyn started slowly. The scene opened on a hot stifling day, and she created the heat of the day so well, she actually began to sweat.
The initial jealousy and resentment of the other students melted as the scene began. She moved around, doing bits of business. This was a Marilyn no one had ever seen on the screen. Her movements were natural, graceful, not the exaggerated sexy walk she was famous for. She was a real person. When she spoke, there was nothing to dispel the humanity and simplicity of that impression. She gazed at an imaginary road before her. “Look at all those cars…” She was gutsy, vulnerable, charming, sad, in love, desperate, soft, with an edge…no whispering or breathiness, just herself.
The scene ended. Before his critique, Pop couldn’t resist turning around to the roomful of students and asking, “So, was that excellent or not?” She’d proven herself that day before one of the toughest audiences she would ever have. She was justifiably proud of herself afterward, like a kid who’d crossed the street for the first time. It was obvious my father was proud, too. He also looked relieved. “You were wonderful,” I told her. I meant it.