Friday, November 25, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Fifty years after her death at age 36, Marilyn Monroe continues to fascinate. How else to explain that the Marilyn Monroe industry – biographies, biopic movies, Warhol paintings, “lost” nude photographs, fashion layouts with the likes of Lindsay Lohan posing as Marilyn, and memoirs by anyone and everyone who had the most glancing contact with the world's most famous cinema sex symbol? Yet somehow, we are no closer to understanding the ineffable appeal of Marilyn. Her traits and mannerisms – the breathy, childlike sex-kitten whisper, the come-hither smile, the voluptuous hourglass figure – have been endlessly imitated but never equaled.

That hasn't stopped filmmakers from continuing to build monuments to Marilyn. The latest, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, presents Michelle Williams as Marilyn circa 1956, during her semi-disastrous filming of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL in England with Laurence Olivier. Most of Marilyn's films were hellish in the making, because the star was famous for arriving on set, if she arrived at all, late and ill-prepared. (The same behavior, along with illnesses, got her fired from the never-finished SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE and was said to have hastened co-star Clark Gable's death after THE MISFITS). Her erratic behavior frustrated and enraged Olivier, the film's exacting director and star. The “me” of the film's title is Colin Clark, whose memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, entertainingly recounted the movie's backstage drama and the unlikely friendship Marilyn struck up with Clark when he was a young production assistant.

The feature debut of director Simon Curtis, the film attractively captures the mood and settings (rakish MG autos, Windsor Castle, the English countryside) of mid-'50s England, where Marilyn is such a sensation that she's mobbed by repressed men, housewives and Eton schoolboys. Colin (Eddie Redmayne), an eager, freckled young man of 23, is also enthralled by the movies and Marilyn. Longing to be part of the movie business, he defies his wealthy, disapproving father and talks his way into a job with Olivier's production company as a third assistant director, essentially a “gofer.” Olivier (played here by Kenneth Branagh) is directing the film version of his stage success, The Sleeping Prince. Movie star Monroe has been cast in the role played onstage by Olivier's then wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond in a stiffly written portrayal), who at 43 has been deemed too old for the part of the chorus girl who charms Olivier's Carpathian prince in 1911 London. (The movie was not a critical or box office success.)

One of Colin's first jobs is to secure secret lodging for his screen idol Marilyn, who arrives in London with her entourage, including her sycophantic acting coach, Paula Strasberg (acting guru Lee Strasberg's wife), and Monroe's new husband, playwright Arthur Miller. The tensions between Marilyn and her Actors Studio “Method” aspirations and Olivier, who disdains the New York notion that acting is anything but pretending, are immediately evident. Marilyn's insecurity and unreliability cause her to blow take after take, while Olivier, initially attracted to Marilyn, becomes increasingly exasperated, making Marilyn all the more insecure and frightened of this stern father figure.

Vulnerable and reliant on pills and booze, Marilyn needs constant bolstering, by the Jewish-motherly Strasberg, who at one point actually kneels in tribute to her; by Miller; by regally sympathetic co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench); and by Colin, whose innocence appeals to the lonely orphan girl in Marilyn. She selects Colin to be her special chum, eventually inviting him to share her bed (albeit chastely, like a teddy bear). Arthur Miller, unable to handle his wife's neuroses, heads back to the States. Marilyn shares her insecurities with Campbell -- her childhood of being bounced from home to home and the framed picture of Abraham Lincoln she keeps at her bedside (near the Tuinal bottle), pretending he is her father.

Adrian Hodges' script has some tasty dialogue, but all too often has characters mouthing paragraphs torn from the standard Marilyn biography. Marilyn discovers Miller's notes-- perhaps for After the Fall , his play based on his marriage to Marilyn -- and is traumatized. She suffers what may be a miscarriage and complains that everyone she loves leaves her (presaging her divorce a few years later from Miller). “Don't fall for the 'little girl lost' act,” cranky Olivier cautions Colin. The movie would have done well to heed the advice.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is amusing when depicting the backstage agonies, presumably the crux of Clark's memoir. But sadly, it insists on focusing on Colin's puppy love. Colin jettisons a budding relationship with Lucy (Emma Watson), his cute but comparatively mousy colleague, for Marilyn, whom he compares to "a Greek goddess." When Marilyn invites him to accompany her on a day in the country, which includes skinny-dipping and requisite views of the star's nude backside, the story becomes a little sticky and embarrassing. Colin's point of view is valuable when he is witness to the gossipy studio goings-on; less so when we are asked to identify with him as besotted schoolboy.

Olivier, watching the daily rushes, admits that for all the difficulties she presents, the camera adores Marilyn; she has a natural charisma he wishes he had. The same can't be said of Michelle Williams, who acts up a storm trying to evoke Marilyn but, like every actress who's attempted the feat, remains only herself in glamorous gowns and makeup. Love her or hate her, Marilyn was an original, and it may be time to admit that no one can truly capture her. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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