In 1956, Colin Clark, son of famed art historian Kenneth Clark, used the family name to land a job as Laurence Olivier’s third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film featuring the improbable romantic pairing of Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Nearly 40 years later, Clark published his diary from the set, a dishy account of the five-month-long production, which ended with Olivier loathing his doped-up, often bewildered star. The third assistant director regarded Monroe with a fonder, if skeptical, eye (“MM looked a bit straggly”), but described her transformation on film as “magical, and there’s no other way to describe it.”
At no point did the real Clark cuddle, go skinny-dipping or make out with “MM.” In director Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn, a brisk, highly romanticized adaptation of Clark’s 1995 book The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me, Colin (Eddie Redmayne) does all that and more. Monroe (Michelle Williams) is so incandescent (there’s nothing straggly about her here) that he ditches a quite fetching wardrobe girl (Emma Watson) the minute the star requests his presence for a day in the country. “I want this to be the perfect date,” Monroe says, taking his arm and casually casting another hook into another heart.
She’s silly as can be, but she sells the line, and naturally, as with legions before him, young Colin is smitten. Monroe had entranced writer Arthur Miller (dead ringer Dougray Scott) and married him shortly before going to England. Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) fantasized about her following their first meeting in New York, according to his resigned wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). But of course, Monroe had trouble persuading any man to go the distance with her. Fed up with holding her hand on set, Miller heads back to America not long into the production. Even Colin, portrayed as almost saintly sweet by Redmayne (The Good Shepherd) could well have started to tire after a week of the Sisyphean task of trying to keep Monroe upright and content. As Miller says, she’s “devouring.”
Curtis puts Williams through the paces of the famous Monroe poses, the images made both iconic and distant by tragedy and time. He lingers on her lips, which spread so precisely into a smile yet somehow remain puckered, as if awaiting a kiss. It’s nothing new to see replicated Marilyns; it seems as though every year some magazine produces a photo spread of some rising star dolled up as Monroe. And although Williams isn’t an obvious physical match — she’s slender, narrow-hipped and has a distinctive but different bee-stung-lips look of her own — Williams has learned to use her body, particularly her breasts and hips (padded, she’s said in interviews) the way Monroe did, positioning them as offerings to the audience.
But it’s the compassion of her performance that makes her end up not just looking but feeling like Marilyn Monroe. The rest of My Week with Marilyn is nothing more than a lively confection, but Williams locates a central truth, the contradictory allure of this utterly impossible woman — mercurial, vain, foolish, but also intelligent in some very primal way and achingly vulnerable. You like her, but you wouldn’t want to work with or for her.
That’s because on set, Monroe is the embodiment of high maintenance. She can’t remember her lines, even with her sycophantic acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) whispering into her ear between every take, and is either crushed by Olivier’s direction or baffled by it. She never shows up on time and pops pills on and off set. None of those nightmare qualities show up on film. Monroe is enchanting in the final product – in both Curtis’ version of it (he cuts to people watching the rushes regularly) and the real thing, which you can view chopped up in little bits on YouTube – controlled, smart and magnetic. Even Olivier knows how ruinous it can be to stand next to such a light. “I look dead in these bloody rushes,” groans Branagh (one of many lines that come straight from Clark’s diary). By the time of 1961’s The Misfits, her last movie, there is a melding of the on- and off-screen Monroe, as she barrels toward tragedy. But as portrayed by Williams, the 1956 Monroe is in possession of her gift. “Should I be her?” she teasingly asks Colin as they suddenly come upon a small crowd of admirers before shifting into public sex-goddess mode.
Certainly there’s some serious sugar coating going on in My Week with Marilyn – in Clark’s book, Monroe’s parting gifts to the resentful cast and crew all end up in the garbage – but for those of us who never quite “got” the whole Marilyn thing, Williams’ portrayal is a revelation. In the spring she played a Westward bound pioneer in Meek’s Cutoff, sunbaked and wary. In this role, she captures the elusive mystique of this most famous actress, lifting her gracefully out of the limitations of the damaged-ditz persona. To steal from the real Clark, magical might be the best way to describe it.
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