I moderated a Q and A with Harvey Weinstein after the NBR screening of Marilyn – it was a far ranging and quite energetic discussion.
Originally published on December 23rd, 2011 on the website of The National Board of Review.
My Week With Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis (Cranford, A Short Stay In Switzerland), is the possibly fictional but entirely moving story of a young British man from good society who meets, and falls in love (maybe not in that order) with the woman behind the great American 1950’s icon of sex and pleasure. It’s a story that works best as fantasy yet is based on two books by Colin Clark that recount the experience – the first (The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, 1995) a recounting of the pretty obviously disastrous pairing of Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in the cinematic restaging of The Prince and the Showgirl and the other a further exploration of the event that focused on a special week with Monroe (My Week with Marilyn, 2000). Although he became a successful filmmaker of the arts Clark lived beneath the shadow of his father (Sir Kenneth Clark) a famous art historian and his younger brother, the conservative politician Alan Clark. Published two years before his death, My Week With Marilyn offered an experience unique enough to draw the spotlight from politics and art and shine it directly on him (and Marilyn).
My Week With Marilyn is brisk, witty, a bit sad and filled with excellent actors having a great deal of fun (even when they are spending most of their time worrying about Marilyn’s emotional instability). It is shot well, set in many of the original locations in and around Pinewood Studios, and edited in a snappy way that highlights the comic and keeps the story moving. Kenneth Branagh portrays Olivier with a flair for the melodramatic, as a man lost in the theater who cannot understand why those around him won’t simply trust the script and do the job. By 1956, when The Prince and the Showgirl was produced, Olivier had made his name as one of the great actors of British theater and expected that he would find that same success on the big screen. But his instincts were old fashioned – whatever he thought he saw in the adaptation of the play to cinema was completely ill suited for his purposes. Watched today the original film feels like a parody of everything bad that can happen to a play when it is brought to the screen – stiff overacting, sets that are obviously studio inventions, stereotypical portrayals of royalty and commoners. The irony was that Monroe brought the project to Olivier, thinking it would work for both of them. Colin Clark’s character says it best to Marilyn in the film: “You’re a movie star who wants to be a great actor, he is a great actor who wants to be a movie star. This film won’t help either of you.” Branagh gives Olivier a sense of desperation that is very likable and quite humanizing. As a director he has been given access to a talent that is pure gold in terms of cinematic value – but he has no idea how to develop the visceral and intuitive skills that Monroe brings to the table. In one agonizing sequence he stops what most likely would have been a wonderful and film enriching performance by insisting that Monroe speak a completely unnecessary word – crushing her performance with every take. It would be as if George Martin, the legendary fifth Beatle who molded their sound with love and patience, decided that they should not write their own songs and that sitars and backward sound loops would be banished from the recording studio. Most deliciously, Olivier finds himself caught between the agony of working on set and the terror of the screening room when his wife, film star Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormand) breaks into tears at the sight of Monroe’s onscreen beauty (and Olivier’s supposed admiration of it) and tells him that she hopes Marilyn makes his life hell.
Colin Clark, the film’s storyteller, is handled nicely by Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shephard, Black Death). He’s a good (23-year-old) boy who wants to break free of his upper social class and find out what it is like to “run away to the circus”. Filmmaking is his circus and the first part of the My Week With Marilyn is a hugely entertaining sequence that follows his attempts to use his connections (he briefly met Olivier and Leigh at a cocktail party) to break into the business. He has pluck and patience, which help, but he also has something more valuable – the ability to evaluate what needs to be done and to act on it. Not only can he think creatively when tasked with digging up a phone number that does not exist in the directory but he can also foresee the problems that will descend upon them via Monroe’s immense fame and work proactively to find solutions. Redmayne is sympathetic as Colin Clark because he is sincere and extremely selfless – except for standing up the wardrobe girl (Emma Watson) because of his relationship with Monroe (but that is a “guy” thing and we suspect he will get his punishment in the end). What makes Clarks’ character both likable and somewhat problematic is the great degree of “reactivity” he displays. As both a blessing and a curse, he is able to judge the needs of others and quickly react in ways that make things better – especially with the emotionally needy and supremely unconfident Monroe. She needed someone to separate her from the obligations of acting and the curse of fame and he became a chaperone who could be trusted. But Clark is also a somewhat willing pawn in everybody’s game, which is part of the deal when you are the third assistant director. Likable as Vivian Leigh’s character is, it becomes clear that she has advocated for Clark to ensure that she has a set of eyes on set to keep watch over her husband’s relationship with Monroe. When Olivier realizes that he has lost control of Monroe he is shameless in using his one sphere of influence, her attraction to Clark, to keep constant watch on her – even expressing in wonderfully vulgar terms the fact that he doesn’t care what he does with her – just make her happy on set. And Clark’s very relationship with Monroe is only cemented when he agrees that he is on “her side” and will tell her what is going on behind the scenes.
Judi Dench is perfectly cast as Dame Sybil, a theater legend who immediately understands that Monroe is in over her head and offers her support in numerous and creative ways (including dressing down Olivier when necessary). Zoe Wanamaker is quite believable as Paula Strasberg (wife of acting/teaching legend Lee Strasberg), the live-in method acting coach who is essentially a life therapist to the confused star. Emma Watson, in one of her first major roles outside of the Harry Potter series, works well as Lucy, the wardrobe girl who has already having had her heart broken by someone like Clark but still falls for him. There are other effective roles in the film, including a nice cameo by Derek Jacobi and Julia Ormand’s previously mentioned turn as Vivian Leigh, and Toby Jone’s continued development of the refreshingly nasty characters he has played in films such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Oliver Stone’s W.
The success or failure of My Week With Marilyn ultimately depends, not surprisingly, on the ability of Michelle Williams, who has previously lit up the screen in, among other films, Blue Valentine, The Station Agent, Shutter Island, and Meek’s Cutoff. Williams has an inherent grace and vulnerability that would seem to make her an ideal choice for the role – and it turns out that she is. The story makes much of the various levels of Monroe’s personality – the small girl from the Midwest, the actress who went to Hollywood to make a career for herself, and the star persona that was created for/by her underneath the powerful lights of the Hollywood system. The story choice – the clash of old and new represented by Olivier’s traditional theater and Monroe’s adherence to the method system of acting (the intellectual versus the intuitional) – is ideal for highlighting the peaks and valley’s of Monroe’s day to day life. Overwhelmed by Olivier’s terse manner of working she can only find solace in being alone – and being alone means leaving responsibility behind. Clark, seven years her junior, offers a way that that she can pretend to reconnect with her youth, with the simple times when laying in bed with a man felt like two spoons fit nicely together and when a walk in the country could be as simple as holding hands and laughing about the world. Williams creates a character who is innocent, spoiled, controlling in a passive-aggressive way that is both amusing and terrifying, and ultimately completely insecure about her place in the world and her talents as an actor. For those who are not completely steeped in the lore and legend of Marilyn Monroe the film is also an eye-opener – which she was already in so deep with self-medication six years before her death 1962 casts a disturbing light on her life and career.
My Week With Marilyn begins to drag a bit when it approaches the inevitable conclusion – the end of Clark’s own week with Marilyn. But it is a snappy, well-directed affair that succeeds as the kind of fantasy that each of us, whether imagining ourselves in the naive shoes of young Colin Clark or in the talented body and confused mind of Marilyn Monroe, can have a great deal of fun with. Not a bio-pic (there are more than enough of them) My Week With Marilyn is a fantasy that feels true and honest, rendering the question of whether it is true completely moot.
Thomas W. Campbell