My Week with Marilyn
By B. Michael Rubin
Before Gisele and Beyoncé and Madonna, there was Marilyn. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe was possibly the most famous woman in the world. She captured the imagination of anyone who saw her photograph or watched her movies — singing and dancing and exhaling the breath of passion into men all over the world.
For anyone not familiar with the tragic life of the talented Ms. Monroe, there is an opportunity for a “behind-the-scenes” look at the personal life of one of the most famous stars in American cinema history in the new film, My Week with Marilyn (Sete Dias Com Marilyn).
For anyone unfamiliar with the actress Michelle Williams, here is a chance to see why Ms. Williams, who is only in her early 30s, has already been nominated three times for an Oscar, including for this performance. Despite her youth, Williams has appeared in over two dozen films. (She first rose to popular attention in the teen TV series, Dawson’s Creek.)
The setting for My Week with Marilyn is England, where Marilyn Monroe arrives at the age of 30 at the peak of her career to make a movie with Laurence Olivier, England’s best-known stage actor. Olivier is so well-known in England that a company is producing a brand of cigarettes in his name. Like a hidden camera, we observe Marilyn on and off the “set” struggle to live up to her reputation. She is consumed with fear, intimidated by Olivier’s theatrical training and his perfectionist tendencies. It doesn’t help that Olivier is her co-star and the director of the film and twenty years her senior. The framework is a film within a film, with Olivier starring and producing and directing himself in a comedy entitled, The Prince and the Showgirl, which was a real film shot in 1956 and released in 1957. (It’s available on DVD.)
The story of Olivier’s frustrating attempt to capture Marilyn’s talents for the making of The Prince and the Showgirl is told through the eyes of a young man named Colin Clark, who was hired as a “gopher” (“I go for this and that”) on the Olivier film. The entire story is based on fact, as Clark kept a diary of his experiences at Olivier Productions, the first job he ever had in his life. He is a 23-year-old innocent man/boy, who is in love with the movies; and the way he manages to land his first job working for Olivier’s production company, despite his upper class family’s dismissal of Colin’s silly aspirations, opens the film in a spirited and humorous fashion before Ms. Monroe arrives on the scene.
Much of My Week with Marilyn takes place on the set of The Prince and Showgirl, thus providing a stimulating peek at how movies are made. There have been other movies that look at how films are made, for example the Peter O’Toole film, The Stunt Man. Many films also describe the film industry in general and the struggles of actors to find rewarding work and earn money in an industry with 95 percent unemployment. For example, there’s the Dustin Hoffman comedy, Tootsie.
Through Clark’s diaries and thanks to Ms. Monroe’s inclusion of him into her inner circle, My Week with Marilyn offers an extraordinarily intimate depiction of her life. We desperately want her to conquer her constant fear of abandonment and her nervousness and lack of confidence, appeased by her reckless use of pills. (She died at age 36 of a drug overdose.)
Watching delicate scenes of her troubled marriage with the most famous writer of his time, Arthur Miller, are painful. (Miller wrote the play, Death of a Salesman, among others, which has been produced hundreds of times, and is currently playing on Broadway starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.) Miller was Monroe’s third husband, and even though they had only been married a short time when they arrived in England, Miller has already tired of her. He says her enormous needs are keeping him from his writing, and he soon departs England, telling Olivier, “She’s devouring me.” Monroe is left to sleep alone to wallow in the misery of abandonment.
My Week with Marilyn is also an interesting account of Laurence Olivier, (played by the outstanding British actor, Kenneth Branagh) and his desperate attempts to make a simple comedy using the difficult Monroe. She never arrived on set on time, and forced Olivier, whose production company was financing the film, to do many takes of the same scene to redo Marilyn’s mistakes. He despised her lack of professionalism, nervously forgetting her lines and forcing the shooting to fall behind schedule.
On a deeper level, the film offers the startling contrast between Olivier’s age and command of acting and Marilyn’s youthful inexperience. Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, (played by the lovely Julia Ormond) who had starred in Gone With the Wind, appears on set a few times. She tells Marilyn she was hoping to be cast by her husband in The Prince and the Showgirl, but Olivier refused, telling her that at age 43 she was too old.
With Olivier’s company producing The Prince and the Showgirl, he was making clear his desire to capitalize on the fame of film stars. Although Olivier was not new to film acting, he was most famous for his roles on the British stage, particularly in numerous works by Shakespeare. By choosing to direct the film himself, Olivier was secretly confessing that the fame of stage acting wasn’t enough for him.
From the start, Olivier is astonished how someone with little formal training in acting like Marilyn Monroe could be so famous, and his envy of her “box office appeal” creates nonstop tension between the two. Their professional backgrounds and approaches to the craft of acting couldn’t be more divergent. Olivier and all British stage actors of that time were trained classically for years in the rigorous British system, performing Shakespeare hundreds of times on stage.
Monroe, who travels to England bringing her own acting coach, has just begun acting lessons in the Stanislavsky technique, developed by a Russian actor of the same name and brought to the US by the acting teachers Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. (Lee Strasberg once commented, “I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of actors and actresses, and there are only two that stand out way above the rest. Number one is Marlon Brando, and the second is Marilyn Monroe.”) This acting technique soon came to be known as The Method, or method acting, and was later adopted by many of the great modern film stars of Hollywood such as Brando and Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, but which in 1956, Olivier considered trivial and possibly even destructive for the way the American director Elia Kazan used it to influence Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh. Olivier waged numerous fights on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl with Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife, convinced that Paula’s direct access to Monroe at all times was taking over Olivier’s job as director of the film.
However, during the course of reviewing the “daily rushes” (the scenes of the film that have just been shot that day), Olivier and the rest of the cast and crew eventually understand that despite the wasted time and money, Monroe is worth the risk. When viewing the scenes where she performs well, everyone is mesmerized. She has unquestionable talent, and “the camera is in love with her.” At the conclusion of filming The Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier is forced to admit that all of his classical stage training means nothing on film, and that some gifted individuals, such as Marilyn, are able to capture a film with a natural instinct that transfixes the audience. However, Olivier is too proud to tell Marilyn this, and even goes so far as to tell Colin Clark, “I won’t tell her. If she knew it, it would ruin her talent.”
Unfortunately for Ms. Monroe, she never trusts her natural acting instincts, and she is utterly intimidated by the power and formal training of Olivier and the other British cast members. With the exception of Dame Sybil Thorndike, (played by the fabulous Judi Dench of the recent James Bond movies), all the other members of the British cast find Ms. Monroe annoying. Her lack of confidence and need for attention and affection drive her to rely on the “kindness of strangers” such as the production assistant whose diary provides this story. Colin Clark falls in love with her the instant she utters, “Please, call me Marilyn” and does everything he can to help her function under the demands of Olivier on the set and the confines of her enormous fame whenever she is out in public. She is instantly recognized wherever she goes and while enjoying the attention, finds the confinement of fame overwhelming for her fragile personality. The only moment of happiness for Marilyn during the week of filming comes when she flees the set and spends the day in the British countryside with Clark, abandoning the need to “play the part of Marilyn” and simply being herself, flirting with Colin and allowing him to see her naked.
My Week with Marilyn also exhibits a complex perspective on Marilyn’s delicate emotional state by providing small but important details of her life. We learn that Marilyn never knew her father, which caused her great distress, and that she had been raised by friends and relatives after her mother, who worked as a film editor in Hollywood, was institutionalized for mental illness. Her lack of a normal childhood partially explains her burning desire to continue acting and attracting fame, rather than quitting the profession she found so stressful to become a full-time wife and mother with one of her three husbands.
In the scene in the countryside, where she goes skinny-dipping (swimming nude) with Colin Clark and exchanges a kiss with him, it is immediately obvious how vulnerable she is and in need of love and attention, grabbing at the heartstrings of the nearest male. And in one brief glimpse, we see on her bedside table that she has been reading Ulysses by James Joyce, one of the most difficult books in English ever written. She lacked education and training, but she was very intelligent.
If you are interested in the life of Marilyn Monroe, this movie is worth seeing. If you are a fan of great acting, this movie is a gem for the performance of Michelle Williams. Attempting to capture the labyrinthine personality of Marilyn on screen is an enormously difficult task. This film was astoundingly fortunate to find an actress the same age as Marilyn, who could capture what it was that made Marilyn Monroe so extraordinary. It is the job of an actress to portray a character on screen, but portraying a character as grand and sweeping as Marilyn isn’t easy. Ms. Williams has done it better than anyone with the exception of Marilyn herself. Never once during this movie do we think of Michelle Williams. Instead, we see only the sexy, charismatic, alluring, troubled, nervous, insecure, talented, complex, kind, and intelligent actress the world knew and loved as Marilyn Monroe.My Week With Marilyn (Sete Dias com Marilyn) Director: Simon Curtis Starring: Michelle Williams
Now available as DVD rental in Curitiba
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.