July 30, 2012
My Week With Marilyn (2011)
My Week with Marilyn is one of these movies: a film where the acting comes first and the story, or the editing of it, comes later to the detriment of the overall product. My Week is no masterpiece of storytelling and that is a shame, because it has potential and makes all the right moves BUT it is a masterpiece of acting, including two performances in which the actors are utterly transformed and another, a thankless role really, that carries the picture (and goes far more unrecognized).
My Week depicts the production phase of a film that would become neither remarkable or memorable: The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), directed and starring Laurence Olivier along with the hottest star on Earth, Marilyn Monroe in the lead role of the Showgirl. Anticipation was high for the film both professionally and personally for Olivier, as he thought he'd score a hit and score some tail.
Little did Olivier know but he would be inheriting a star with baggage: her own acting coaches, her own flexible schedule, her drug problems, and the fact that her performances were more manufactured through hours of time then from any inherent talent. Oh, and in regarding his own personal conquests, a star who had infatuations not with power, but with the lack thereof, hence her sudden and rapid affair with third assistant director Colin Clark.
*The film that brought Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier together
*The film about the making of the Prince and the Showgirl
The film showcases Olivier's frustrations, Clark's fantasy come to life, and Monroe's inner demons. Sounds like heady stuff, yet somehow it all appears a bit shallow (or, for lack of a better phrase, poorly edited). Stuff happens to fast for us to really feel the pain of any of the characters and, in some cases, some previous knowledge of these real-life celebrities is needed. I'm sure most people know who Monroe is and maybe a large amount of them know of her issues. However, I suspect a fewer amount know the history, relevance, and awesomeness of someone like Laurence Olivier.
I'll start with Olivier and make it brief, mainly because I will be focusing on Oliver in this film for the introduction into my forthcoming book. Olivier, played, ironically, by Kenneth Branagh, is a performance you only see a few times in a career: a complete transformation. Branagh not only looks like Olivier, without makeup required, but has the mannerisms, voice, and ambition down to a science. It's simply ironic because from 1989 to 1996, Branagh was basically considered the 'next' Olivier.
And speaking of transformations, Michelle Williams is an absolute gem in this one, also making herself inseparable from the icon she is depicting. There were many times I had to literally pause the movie and remark how spine shakingly sexy Monroe was. . .but I was watching Williams (who, admittedly, I have considered a top 5 beauty on my 'list' for some time; my crush on Williams knows no bounds).
Both Williams and Branagh were nominated for Oscars for their participation in this film and both lost (Williams lost in true bullshit fashion to Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady while Branagh lost to Christopher Plummer, who deserved the shit out of his Oscar). Together, the two actors are now 0 for 8 in the Oscar department (Branagh losing now for acting, directing, and writing).
The superficial way to look at this movie is the performances however. If you go in wanting to see top of the line performances then you'll get it of course but the story does attempt to go a bit deeper then simply providing a vintage, perfect-copy Monroe and Olivier on the screen. They try to get into the world of being a celebrity. The key word in this exploration is 'devour'.
In one quiet scene during the film, Arthur Miller, Monroe's then wife, tells Olivier that he has to go home to America because Monroe is 'devouring him'. She is, according to him, sucking out his soul of creativity, patience, and love (if it truly existed). This theme, less spoken, is provided throughout the film in all the major characters.
Olivier is shown as being devoured by ambition. In the script's one moment of benefiting from hindsight, main character Colin says that the film The Prince and the Showgirl won't work because it won't make people consider Olivier a star or Monroe a serious actress. This, to me, seems more a plot driven line then one that could be realized at the time. Olivier was still considered a drawable talent and Monroe was Monroe. But it does let us see, with hindsight, of course, what drives Olivier.
Regardless of the type of movie he is making, in this case an extremely light comedy, Olivier is doing it for the art and craft of acting. Olivier's main problem with Monroe is that she uses method and theory to get into character, something Olivier bitches about endlessly throughout. But Olivier's desire for pure craft is also backed up by a sizable ego. He not only wants to remain famous but he wants to acquire fame as assets. He sees Monroe as a piece in the game of celebrity life. If he could win her sexually, he could further his brand.
And though that last point is focused on less in the film then Olivier's production frustrations, Monroe's use as a tool is perhaps the biggest arc for the character/person (hard to say what she is) in the film. Monroe was, herself, in a bizarre marriage to Arthur Miller, a marriage built on 'getting ahead'. Monroe also, as previously mentioned, came into talent as opposed to just having it. Her looks got her in the door and, through many tricks and lots of takes, the talent came out.
The movie wisely focuses solely on Monroe's production schedule and provides no graphic detail of her tortured life as Norma Jean nor her bumpy rise to superstar. We see the aftereffects instead (the drugs, the drinking, the inability to function without constant help, and the surprisingly wounded ego) as Monroe puts on a hundred faces.
Indeed, Williams manages to never show you the true Monroe mainly because she is 'acting' for each person she encounters. Even young Colin, the 3rd assistant who becomes her somewhat-lover/confidant in the film, is seeing his fantasy come to life. In these sequences, we see Monroe as a tortured yet over exaggerated beauty, seducing men with ease and without effort. And though we see her longing for a 'normal' life, we also see her devoured, there is that word again, by the lure of fame.
In a way, Colin receives no real benefit from his relationship with Marilyn as his goal, whether he knows it or not, is to score with the hottest woman ever ('devoured' by fantasy). He is a nice man who cares, of course, but he is, in the end, an enabler allowing Monroe to shirk responsibility. But this brings up the facets of Monroe I mentioned before: who is she? Does she know she wields the ultimate power of sexuality? Or is she a desperate creature begging for attention from anyone that will listen (and if it's the young, naive, innocent boy who isn't totally looking at her as a human, then so be it)?
Sadly, the film is so short and poorly edited that me explaining what I saw is probably me knowing a bit of Monroe's history and filling in the blanks. Monroe's character study comes across as shallow mainly because there is no pacing with her storyline. It kind of jumps around and makes us feel more annoyance with her then sympathy.
And because of this, we can't really appreciate Colin, played by Eddie Redmayne. His thankless role is the carry the film and be underexposed to the breathless chameleon performances of Williams and Branagh. He also has to balance the two characters on his shoulders as each want something from him, though what they need varies in severity.
The rest of the cast of the film is solid. Emma Watson gets to drop the wand and be a real girl for a change though she is basically the representation of 'reality' for Colin who basically dumps Watson's costume-girl character when Monroe, the fantasy, comes calling. Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, and Toby Jones show up but mostly make themselves scarce. Only Julia Ormand as Olivier's aging wife, wary of Olivier's wondering eye, brings some depth to the background, showing that the new
hot thing' with lesser acting chops always trumps the current aging ruler.
You must see this film for Williams and Branagh but you must also read up on some history of the players involved in this drama: you'll likely get more context and better details.