Photographer of Marilyn Monroe's Famous Nude Photos Discusses the Icon's Calculated Bid for Publicity and Her Final Days (Q&A)

Marilyn Monroe Pool Black and White - H 2011

Marilyn Monroe Pool Black and White - H 2011

THR talks to Lawrence Schiller, whose famous shots of the actress months before her death in 1962, are on exhibit at the Duncan Miller Gallery.

It's been almost 50 years since Marilyn Monroe shot Somethings Gotta Give, a film that was never finished due to the star's death on August 5, 1962.

What have been eyeballed are the famous nude shots of the star taken on set by photographer Lawrence Schiller.

A set of 12 of those photos, which he did not release to the public until years later, are currently on view at the Duncan Miller Gallery in Culver City, Calif. (10959 Venice Blvd.), through Dec. 17. The gallery will hold a reception tomorrow night, Saturday, Nov. 19, from 7 to 9 p.m.

The nude photos, which won her the cover of Life magazine, were taken at a time when Monroe was jealous of the attention — and higher salary — Elizabeth Taylor was winning during the production of Cleopatra.

THR spoke with Schiller — who went on to become an Emmy-winning producer (The Executioner's Song) and writer and is currently president of the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Mass — about Monroe's calculated bid for publicity, her final days and how celebrity skin scandals have evolved from nude shots that seem demure today to all-out porn tapes. Next spring, Taschen will publish a book of Schiller's photographs of Monroe that will include a 25,000-word memoir of his time with the star.

The Hollywood Reporter: Were you surprised when she took off her clothes during the movie’s pool scene?

Lawrence Schiller: It looked spontaneous but it was planned in detail. She had approval of the shots. She handpicked the photographs.

THR: Why did she do it?

Schiller: Liz Taylor was getting paid a million plus ten percent of the film for Cleopatra and Marilyn feels that she is as good as Liz and is only being paid $125,000 for her movie and she wants to show Fox that she can generate the same type of publicity. She very calculatedly decided to do it in opposition even to the advice of her press representatives. She went and sang "Happy Birthday" to the President for the same reason. This all takes place at the same time she's having an affair with Bobby Kennedy.

THR: Did it have a sense of desperation?

Schiller: Yes, I mean, she can't prove to the studio that she's a talented actress. They won't accept her for that. So she decides to take this scene in which she's to wear a nude bathing suit and take that suit off piece by piece which is not required for the scene.

THR: How much of a scandal was there when the shots were released?

Schiller: It was incredible. The San Francisco Chronicle runs a headline, "The Nude Wars," because Liz Taylor had this semi-nude picture as Cleopatra in a bathtub in which handmaidens are pouring water over here. Newspapers ran front-page stories. It runs on the cover of Paris Match and Stern.

THR: How much time did you spend with her?

Schiller: I knew Marilyn over a two-year period. I met her first on a movie called Let’s Make Love. I photographed her at that time on and off through the time of her death. I was 22 years old and she was 34 or 35. The relationship was not a sexual relationship. It was very much a relationship of a young guy who isn't even that good of a photographer yet and how she teaches him how to take pictures of her. She shows me how the light would be better from this angle or that angle.

THR: What were your early impressions of her?

Schiller: She was a woman who is totally in control in 1960 and then the relationship follows her through her demise and how she is slowly slipping away. You constantly felt like you wanted to protect her and that you wanted to save her and that's what made her attractive more so to women than even to men. That’s why she’s still with us. Marilyn Monroe never offended a woman.

THR: Was there a different person behind the image?

Schiller: The dumb blonde was a great performance. She had shaped this voice to go with it.

THR: How close did you become?

Schiller: I remember an intimate conversation before she shot The Misfits [during which Monroe had a miscarriage] in which she discusses her previous miscarriages. I'm talking to her about my wife having a baby and she tells me that her body rejects a child every time she became pregnant.

THR: You have said that you don't think that Monroe was beautiful. Do you mean that?

Schiller: She has this really incredible body. She's a well-proportioned beautiful girl and worldwide sex symbol. Of course, you find her very sensual. Marilyn is what the boy next door would like to associate with. She's just lovable, huggable enough but she's not a true cultured beauty like Catherine Deneuve is. I don't think you'd say that Sophia Loren is a beautiful woman but she’s certainly outstandingly attractive.

THR: Whom do you find compelling today as photographic subjects?

Schiller: I just don't see a Bette Davis or a Deborah Kerr around. Those are two actresses I photographed. They were just extraordinary. There are great, fine actresses today, don’t get me wrong but not exciting for still photographers. A close friend of mine, Annie Leibovitz, who I’ve known for forty years, photographs celebrities every single day of the week but they all seem to look the same even though she’s one of the most creative photographers alive. They all just look the same. Brad Pitt is a great actor but all the pictures of Brad Pitt look the same.

THR: How did we get your Monroe shots to today's celebrity sex tapes?

Schiller: It’s part of the evolutionary process. Society became more free with sexuality and technology allowed people to be more daring. Sometimes they are extreme. When stars shoot the sex tapes with the full knowledge of they are going to bootleg or release them as a form of publicity, what they are really saying is 'I don't believe in my own talent or ability.'

THR: That would definitely seem to apply to Kim Kardashian.

Schiller: Well, I know all three of the Kardashians. I was very close to their father. They were alway playing on the steps of the house where Bob was living after he divorced his wife. I saw the girls growing up. Robert was a very, very religious person and their mother was a former I think airline stewardess and you know, developed a different lifestyle. With good management from their mother, they became a brand. I don’t know what their talent is and I'm not saying that negatively. They may have a have a great deal of talent, maybe what we see is great talent.

THR: Did you ever see Kim's tape?

Schiller: No, I'm being honest with you. I've only seen the sex tapes of Russian spies.

THR: What spy made sex tapes?

Schiler: Robert Hanssen, the FBI mole for the Russian government. He was caught in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. He was a devout Catholic and Opus Dei member and he videotaped his sexual activities with his wife and showed it to his friend. Those sex tapes really interest me because it has to do with how a man can compartmentalize his mind. He was preserving his sexual activities with his wife without her knowledge.

THR: What did you think of Lindsay Lohan doing those photos with Bert Stern in which they recreated his famous nude shots of Monroe?

Schiller: I mean, that's desperation on Lindsay Lohan's part, even to go select the same photographer.