A young assistant on the film The Prince and the Showgirl describes his brief friendship with Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn Monroe, a movie based on a true (or, whatever) story.
Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) — the guy who wrote the memior on which is the movie is based — is the young, well-educated son of a wealthy and distinguished family. They do not entirely approve when he decides to run away and join the circus — his version of which is going to London to seek a job at Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) production company. He hangs around the office until he is given the position as Olivier’s assistant and as a go-fer on the upcoming movie (which will eventually be known as The Prince and the Showgirl) — a dazzling prospect as it stars Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).
Pause for the hush that falls over the room and the wiping of drool from men’s mouths.
This being the mid-1950s, Marilyn Monroe is the walking personification of sex. She is goddess-like in her appearance and she throws off a vibe that is bewitchingly seductive and brings out the protector in the men around her. Even if you don’t know anything about her personal history, you can kind of guess that this combination of traits makes someone a flaming mess, not to mention a less than reliable person to work with. Olivier is at first dazzled by her — his wife, Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormond), tells Colin that Larry plans to seduce Marilyn (though she also asks him to discreetly let her know if it turns into something). But then work on the production begins. Even during the read-through, Marilyn proves to be a lot of effort. She requires constant direction and reassurance from her acting coach Paula Stasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). When shooting starts, she regularly shows up late and then flubs her lines so that shooting one scene takes forever, driving Olivier half nuts. Only the older actress Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) really makes an effort to befriend her. And as fragile as she seems on the set, her off-set life is just as drama-filled. When she isn’t being mobbed while walking down a street, she’s fighting with her husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), or lost in a haze of pills and drink.
Somewhere in all of this, Colin finds himself thrown into her orbit on a couple of occasions. Though he genuinely likes — and even takes out for a night on the town — wardrobe girl Lucy (Emma Watson, playing a totally non-magical grown-up person — cheers to Emma!), he can’t help being drawn to the light of Marilyn. Quickly, he finds that he has become her new plaything. She believes that, apart from the others on the movie set, he is on her side. Soon, they are spending sun-dappled afternoons together and Colin is lost in a fog of love for her.
How much this fog is Colin’s romantic ideas about the deeply screwed up Monroe and how much is an actual affair the movie leaves a little vague. Colin sees her as this magical, larger-than-life being who for this brief moment needs him. While he does appear to have a few “let me take you away from all this” fantasies, he doesn’t seem to aggressively pursue them. We are seeing a young man’s puppy love, something that everyone around him knows is all Romance (capital R, in the gauzy sunlight and poetry sense) and very little serious emotion, particularly on Marilyn’s part. One of Marilyn’s handlers tells Colin he was madly in love with her for 10 days but eventually these things flame out for her.
I found myself wondering if I’d find more depth in this — a story that’s as much about how a young man feels when he’s in this kind of love as it is about the famous people that populate it — if I were a man. Specifically, if I were a man in his 60s or 70s with a living memory of Marilyn Monroe. As it is, I felt there was some barrier between me and my fully getting this movie. Williams’ Monroe is both very well-constructed and very frustrating in that we get a good look at the constructed Marilyn Monroe character but very little in the way of a glimpse at the real person behind the icon. We’re left with the ’50s bombshell version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (search for it on AVClub.com). And, while I can appreciate that Williams’ inhabiting of Monroe is very well done, I still found it kind of annoying. And, back to the original question of whether a man might view all of this differently, I can’t help but wonder if my irritation at the character comes from a modern desire for her to just get it together already. The movie argues that Monroe is actually a brilliant movie actress hamstrung by her striking good looks. I kept wondering why we couldn’t see any of that in her personality.
This describes my feelings about this movie over all. It is deeply watchable, frequently fascinating and occasionally quite annoying. But watchable! Williams is indeed fascinating, how she crafts the presence of Marilyn Monroe without giving an impersonation. Branagh is quite funny as a frustrated (on many levels) Olivier. And the movie makes an interesting point about Marilyn’s abilities as a movie actress (not quite the more naturalistic actress we’ve become used to in the last 30 or 40 years but something more alive and genuine than had existed in the movie stars who had come before her) compared to Olivier’s skills as a classical stage actor. They are both, in their own ways, masters of the medium but they can’t seem to quite figure out how to use each other’s skills for their own benefit. (Marilyn wants Olivier’s cachet, Olivier wants Marilyn’s popularity).
My Week with Marilyn is, like the legend at its center, maddening but intriguing. B
Rated R for some language. Directed by Simon Curtis and written by Adrian Hodges (from the book by Colin Clark), My Week with Marilyn is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed by The Weinstein Company.