Dec. 22, 2011
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
There are countless beautiful actresses in Hollywood, but as we are reminded by director Simon Curtis’s “My Week with Marilyn,” based on the fond remembrance by Colin Clark, none with the mystique Marilyn Monroe possessed. The inscrutability lives, nicely evoked in this latest effort to make sense of the je ne sais quoi and its associated tragedy.
While we all acquire a coming of age tale, Mr. Clark’s passage to maturity, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, just happened to intersect with the famous siren in question. Though the story starts off slow, centered around the combative meeting of Marilyn and Laurence Olivier on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl (1957),” in good time we are seduced.
Of course it can’t help being a tad gossipy, streaming meaty allusions to the favorite myths and lore and offering a few more to contemplate in the bargain. It’s all done within a dreamy but nonetheless sober framework — Mr. Clark doubtlessly, and perhaps melancholically, attempting to make unique his bittersweet tête-à-tête with the starlet.
Problematic at first, we quickly realize that Miss Monroe’s beauty cannot be successfully imitated (otherwise somebody would have). But giving credit where it is due, though her facial features more resemble Ava Gardner’s (just color the hair), Michelle Williams does capture much of the allure that was Marilyn. It’s a complex challenge, met rather well.
The same goes for Kenneth Branagh as Olivier. Though nowhere near as possessing of the great thespian’s handsomeness, the noted Shakespearean is otherwise a natural. Pompous and outraged, but all the same as smitten by the blonde bombshell as is the young storyteller to be, his Sir Larry provides the filmmaker with excellent balance.
The setting is Pinewood Studios and the British countryside. The kingdom is all-abuzz with the fair damsel’s visit. And both stars, exact opposites at their craft, expect no less than total Sturm und Drang. Witnessing the self-fulfilling prophecy is our fledging movie biz wannabe, having gained his front seat to the fireworks through pure determination.
Even Colin’s landed gentry folks couldn’t get him anything higher up than 3rd assistant director and personal gofer to Mr. Olivier. But that’s just fine for the star struck young lad who soon finds himself a buffer between Monroe and those forces — real and imagined — bent on destroying her. She has brought her curiously sad craziness to the scene.
There’s nothing very new here aside from the details surrounding the making of the movie Mr. Olivier, much to his exasperation, chose to direct. However, by portraying several matters and situations in an objective context, the mostly sympathetic look at Marilyn does establish an angle from which viewers might draw their own conclusions.
The pathology is your familiar, hackneyed, little girl abandoned syndrome. Now grown, she’s an idol, with lots of power. Hence, subconsciously or not, Marilyn will wreak her revenge on anyone who becomes enamored of her. Dare fly near the flame and you might be consumed. Poor hubby Arthur Miller, fleeing the set, bellows, “She’s devouring me!”
We can only hope Colin doesn’t become Pip to Miss Monroe’s albeit beautiful variation on Miss Haversham. Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), her business partner (whose real-life son is currently contending Clark’s work is complete fantasy), warns Colin. He’s been there. Since discarded and relegated to gatekeeper, he assures the same fate awaits Colin.
Meanwhile, as filming trudges arduously, often delayed by Norma Jean’s tardiness or Olivier’s outbursts of impatience, a war between the orthodox thespian and the method actress ensues. Adding fuel to the pyre, Marilyn’s acting coach, confidante and advocate, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), is forever meddling.
What makes the enmity especially engaging, however, is the rather ambiguous mutual admiration society that evolves. Annoyed when Marilyn can’t do a scene because she “doesn’t feel it,” he drones, “That’s why it’s called acting.” Yet, when she gets it right, he marvels at her natural instinct. Terrified, she so wants to please the theatrical legend.
So, to a backdrop continually emphasizing what an international celebrity and showbiz phenomenon Marilyn is, we become engaged in a quandary of fame, privilege and the currency that is beauty. Let’s face it: If Miss Monroe was just plain Jane Doe and acted out her anxieties with such resultant disquietude, we’d doubtfully issue her a pass.
It’s a familiar conundrum…a disservice often attending famous folks cruising for a bruising. Still, while neither profound nor revelatory, Mr. Curtis’s seemingly responsible treatment offers a buffet of food for thought. And thus, viewers with a taste for mulling such matters will want to put “My Week with Marilyn” on their movie-going calendar.
“My Week with Marilyn,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Simon Curtis and stars Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne. Running time: 99 minutes