My Week with Marilyn

Shallow, slight, and cliché-ridden, “My Week With Marilyn” is nonetheless a sporadically charming and mildly enjoyable film, a fluffy chronicle of a crucial week in the life of the iconic star.

The movie may appeal to the art house crowd due to its sensationalistic subject, the tumultuous relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” and the likeable performance of Michelle Williams.

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You may wonder what such a slight, frivolous, overly familiar piece of showbiz is doing at a prestigious venue such as the New York Film Festival, and the only explanation for that is that the festival may have needed a light fare, a crowd-pleaser as counter-programming to such intense and terrific dramas as “Melancholia,” “The Descendants,” “Shame,” “Footnote,” and “Policeman.”  (I have seen about 18 or 19 of the 26 features in this year’s edition and, for me, it’s the weakest film in an otherwise very strong lineup).

Serving as the centerpiece of the New York Film Fest, “My Week With Marilyn” will be released by the Weinstein Company in early December.  It’s hard to predict exactly the commercial success of this HBO-like feature, though it’s safer to say that it’s certainly not a “critics film.” 

An actress with an already established impressive range (Oscar nominee for “Brokeback Mountain”), Michelle Williams gives an immensely endearing performance as Marilyn Monroe.  The good thing about her work is that though she does not try to impersonate the iconic figure, she very much captures the essence of Marilyn the movie star—if not the “real life” woman; the faults are in the writing rather than in her acting.

The tale is set in a crucial era in Marilyn Monroe’s professional career–the height of her fame and stardom, and personal life, in the early summer of 1956, when “The Prince and the Showgirl” went into production.

The tale’s protagonist is not Marilyn but Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young (“almost 24” as he says), handsome, Oxford grad, determined to make his way in the film business.  His first job is as a third assistant director on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl,”  Marilyn’s first film as a producer, and as it turns out, one of her last and least popular films.

Shot in London, this film famously (and notoriously) united Sir Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh, who’s miscast) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), the actor, to quote the script “who wanted to be a movie star,” and the movie star “who wanted to be recognized as an actress.”  (“The Prince and the Showgirl” did nothing for either performer).

According to the text, most of the production’s problems were fuelled by the lack of communication, understanding and respect between the two stars.  Marilyn’s erratic behavior and notorious tardiness were exacerbated by her addiction to alcohol and prescription medication.  In contrast, a staunch traditionalist and rigid pro, Olivier refused to accommodate Marilyn’s idiosyncrasies, or her devotion to Method acting, which she practiced under the systematic guidance and ever watchful eye of Paula Strasberg; Olivier was known for his aversion to Method acting.

Marilyn was at the time on her honeymoon with her new husband, the playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, one-dimensional).  Though the marriage has just begun, it is already on the rocks.

Nearly 40 years later, Colin Clark’s diary account, “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me” was published. However, one week was missing, a week which was later published as “My Week with Marilyn.”  The movie is a rather detailed chronicle of that week, which was both frustrating and rewarding, depending on whose perspective you adopt.

When Arthur Miller (all too conveniently) leaves England, claiming that “I can’t work, I can’t rest, Marilyn is devouring me,” Colin becomes Marilyn’s most reliable and trusted companion.  There are some intimations of romantic infatuation and perhaps even sexual encounter, though the most intimate images of the couple on screen depict them swimming in the nude, embracing in bed, holding hands in the backseat of a car, and so on.

The duo spends what could be described an idyllic week, in which Colin escorts Marilyn on and off the job. The star is desperate to get away from her retinue of Hollywood hangers-on and the pressures of work.  The irony is that, no matter where she goes (libraries and colleges, not just streets and shops), she attracts immense attention and mass adoration. 

She’s especially desperate to get away from the clutches of Olivier, her director and co-star, whom she regards as unnecessarily harsh–her “enemy.”  According to this saga, Olivier could require numerous takes of the same line (or gesture) over and over again.

Schematically penned by Adrian Hodges, based on Clark’s two personal volumes, the script consists of  an excessive number of  clichés.  Unfortunately, with the exception of Marilyn and Colin, the narrative contains largely one-dimensional, stereotypical characters.

As Colin Clark, the young assistant, who is warned by his superiors of Marilyn’s manipulative nature and erratic, insecure behavior, only to fall head over heels for her, Eddie Redmayne gives a compelling performance.  You do believe that a 23-year-old lad, who has not really experienced love or passion in his life, would do anything to spend time with the gorgeous star.   To that extent, Colin neglects his loving girlfriend Lucy (Emma Watson), forgets his dates with her, and almost loses her completely.  All too submissive, Lucy shows understanding of her beau’s feelings for the star.

(This subplot reminds me of my interview with Simone Signoret, while researching my biography of George Cukor, “Master of Elegance.”  Cukor directed Marilyn and Yves Montand (Signoret’s husband) in the film “Let’s Make Love,” in 1960. Told that her husband had an affair with Marilyn, Signoret said: “Do you blame Yves?  Do you know any man who would not sleep with Marilyn–given the opportunity?).

Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier completely from the outside, and if his performance is truly disappointing, it is not just because he doesn’t look or sound like Olivier, but mostly because he is given one-liners to recite, such as “Her talent is strictly instinctive.”

Of the principal characters, Paula Strasberg (wife of Method guru Lee Strasberg), who was Marilyn’s acting coach, present on the sets of each of her pictures, comes off the worst–as a Jewish Yenta.  You can’t blame Zoe Wanamaker, an otherwise terrific actress, for rendering such a weak performance.

The secondary cast, including Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller, Judi Dench as the famous British actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, and others are all stuck with narrowly defined roles, played in one or two scenes.

At the risk of sounding too critical, may I suggest that those who know Marilyn’s life and Hollywood history of the 1950s, will be vastly disappointed, for the movie doesn’t contain a single note, or fresh observation, which are not already familiar from the vast, mythic lore (and folklore) of docus, books, biographies, memoirs, and albums about the legendary star, who died in 1962, at the age of 36.

Title cards inform that after “The Prince and the Showgirl” both Olivier and Marilyn achieved great success, she in Billy Wilder’s comedy, “Some Like It Hot,” and he in John Osborn’s play (and then a movie), “The Entertainer.”

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