My theatre college professor once told me, “Marilyn Monroe was one of the greatest film actresses to have ever lived.” I remember it so vividly because, in all honesty, I thought she was joking. I grew up knowing this person through pictures on t-shirts, cups, and various other memorabilia. She wasn’t real to me. It wasn’t until I got older and watched her in films Some Like it Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that I became in awe of her work. It’s very hard to effortlessly play a dumb blonde whilst also embodying a childlike vulnerability. Sex appeal didn’t seem to have much to do with it. Instead, her guile and enthusiasm made it impossible to watch anyone else on screen but her.
The pure success of My Week with Marilyn goes hand in hand with the success of Michelle Williams. Her layered performance as the damaged, insecure icon is flawless. Williams gives such an intimate, heartbreaking portrayal of Marilyn. Her work alone is what keeps the film entertaining. With red lipstick, blonde hair, and a classic smile, she brings the tragic figure to life. The film is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark: The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) is the son of a prominent English family. He has decided to “join the circus” as he puts it — getting his first job as the third assistant director on the film set for The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). The film is directed by Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Olivier is the closest thing to royalty among British actors. He has cast Marilyn Monroe as Elsa in the role opposite himself.
As the filming begins, Marilyn is growing deeper and deeper into a depressed mental state. She’s hours late for filming, and will not get out of her dressing room without confidant Paula Strasberg (wife of method acting guru Lee Strasberg). When Marilyn does appear on set, she forgets her lines constantly. She joined the acclaimed Actors Studio under Lee, and demanded that Paula be with her on every set for every moment. This angered Olivier — who despised “the Method” and considered it to be bloody nonsense. When Marilyn has trouble understanding her character, Olivier insults her by asking if she could “just try to be sexy.” Wanting to be looked at as a serious actress, Marilyn leaves the set embarrassed. Her work ethic is considered abhorrent to the theatrically disciplined Olivier. As a result, he loses his temper on more than one occasion.
The only one who truly shows patience with her on set is Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judy Dench). As weeks progress and the production goes on hiatus, Marilyn’s new husband — playwright Arthur Miller — arrives to be by her side. Their marriage begins to deteriorate rapidly during this time. Marilyn found his diary, in which he scribbled cruel misgivings for having married her. The following week, Miller left. 30-year-old Marilyn asks the worshipful 23-year-old Colin to join her alone at a getaway cottage. He was utterly mystified by her presence. They go to Windsor Castle, and then decide to go skinny-dipping in the lake. That’s about it.
There’s a hint that they had sex, but the movie is coy about it. Their time together was more like a gift. Aware of what she meant to someone like Colin, Marilyn was grateful for his kindness and protectiveness. She desperately needed the company to wash away her inner demons — even for a relatively brief moment. She essentially took mercy on him. Marilyn was quite smart, though her confidence was sorely lacking. She was always in search of father figures (Joe DiMaggio, Miller) and mentors to fill that void. Tormented by repeated miscarriages and severe mental illness, she turned to barbiturates to numb the pain.
Being gifted with this one-on-one time, Colin records every moment and memory in his diary. He falls in love with Marilyn, and desperately wants to save her from the cruel world. For Mr. Clark, the week he had with Marilyn Monroe will forever hold a spell over him that he just can’t seem to free himself from.
Fifty-five years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains as seductively alluring as ever. The film, directed by Simon Curtis, is a delicate construction with no plot to speak of. Redmayne is well cast as Clark — playing him as a young, vibrant, but somehow unworldly character. Branagh is amusing and superb as Olivier. Branagh, who is probably best known for his work on the stage, grasps Olivier’s physicality and diction perfectly.
My Week with Marilyn does seem to be an accurate re-creation of The Prince and the Showgirl, but it hardly matters. What happens during the infamous week doesn’t matter much either. The performance by Williams is the headliner. She evokes every ounce of Marilyn — whether it be public, private, real, or fantasy. We never knew Marilyn, but I have to believe she must have been something like this portrayal.
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