Poor Marilyn. The press hounded her. Fans would tear off pieces of her soul if they could. Co-stars and directors dissed her. Men wouldn't leave her alone (not that she wanted them to). And now Simon Curtis is holding yet another Monroe seance -- her soul will never rest in peace -- with his feature film debut My Week With Marilyn (2011), a "true" story about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).
True must come with quotes. The film is based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, the third assistant director on the "lightest of comedies" directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Can we trust the awestruck account of a young movie dreamer's version of his friendship and quasi-romance with the world's most famous actress? My Week With Marilyn emphatically does despite the amusingly placcid (if repetitive) moonyness with which the talented Eddie Redmayne portrays him, as if he's just as doped up as Marilyn, but much smarter about his cocktails of choice.
Clark was 23 going on 24 when he met the immortal bombshell while hustling into the movies, landing his first job on a set through the help of his father's connections, despite the fact that the father did not approve of him 'running off to the circus'. The details of Clark's adventure in the movies are both acted out and explained to us in voiceover in the film's inelegant screenplay, which prefers for the characters to state the obvious or speak their psychologies aloud. Sometimes they even speak Marilyn's aloud; in the great transitive powers of true celebrity, everyone on earth is her psycho-therapist. Sometimes this obviousness of speech has comic payoffs (the film works best as a comedic clash between proper British theatrical training and idiot-savant American stardom) and once it even pays off both dramatically and comedically in a sadly funny scene where Colin Clark tells it like it is, succinctly, to Marilyn. He understands Marilyn and Olivier's mirrored goals and prophesies the failure of the movie.
Most of the time however this Thought Balloon style of dialogue is frustrating. Julia Ormond, in particular, is charged with the very thankless job of reducing the great Vivien Leigh (whose actual psychology was just as fascinating as Marilyn's) to a stand-in for all Actresses Past Their Primes and Worried Hollywood Wives With Unfaithful Husbands.
There's a lot that's very easy to enjoy about My Week With Marilyn particularly if you, like me, thrill to movies about showbiz. The scenes on set are generally the strongest, as they aren't overreaching for psychological effect but are closer to the light comedy attempted in the 1957 film. On the set Dame Judi Dench gives texture to peace-keeping Dame Sybil Thorndike, Kenneth Branagh amply rewards his brilliant casting as the fuming, exasperated and vain Sir Laurence Olivier (ink him in to the Best Supporting Actor shorlist) and Michelle Williams beautifully captures Marilyn's deer in the headlights terror, her blinding self-doubt amplified by paranoia. (Many paranoid people have the sensation that all eyes are on them. In Marilyn's case this was fact).
Marilyn Monroe herself is first introduced on the (literal) screen as Clark watches her perfoming a musical number in a movie. Michelle/Marilyn's entrances then and throughout the film are often jazzed up with flashblub freezes, heavy scoring, lighting tricks, and much onscreen fuss. For a good long while it's hard to see Williams's actual performance through all the gimmicky myth-making sweat of the filmmakers. Williams isn't quite a born mimic but she does a worthwhile enough and engaging approximation of Marilyn's mannerisms and voice and even does a fine job singing Marilyn's songs! (Here's another famous actress who can sing! Hollywood has zero excuses left to not be making more musicals). Williams is, no surprise, most impressive in the dramatic scenes and absolutely heartbreaking once she's playing the goddess muted, slurring and narcotized.
Still, Marilyn Monroe can often be successfully caricatured (which Williams avoids) but never quite recreated. She was too much of an original, her own performative masterpiece. Late in the film there's a moment where Marilyn asks Colin if she should "do" Marilyn while they're out in public. Williams immediately starts posing and blowing kisses and the like, amping up the Marilynness of Marilyn, as the legend herself was known to do. But this scene and others like it have a curiously artificial feel in comparison to the quieter scenes. "Marilyn" was, famously, a character that Marilyn Monroe herself was always performing. But Monroe's genius was that this character never felt like a performance even while the character (MARILYN) performed other characters in the movies (Sugar, Elsie, Lorelei, Roslyn, etcetera), sometimes strenuously. To repurpose Dolly Parton's self assessment: Marilyn may have looked fake, but she was real where it counted.
You could, with some qualifications, say the same thing about Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. Williams looks fake as Marilyn (the padding sadly shows and though a beauty herself, she can't replicate Marilyn's carnality) but she's real where it counts especially when detailing Marilyn's painful dreams of being a Great Actress. Unfortunately she can't conjure Marilyn's most pitiable and most miraculous of contradictions; for all her torturous effort on set there was in Marilyn as Marilyn, a breathtaking effortlessness of being.
Effortlessness is not something one can claim for the movie either, though it's promisingly "frothy" for its first half. Eventually it becomes clear that My Week With Marilyn is less interested in comedy and eager to be something like a besotted double hagiography. It shows you Marilyn's terrible behavior on set but expects quite adamantly that you be "on her side" and it also plays like a strange ode to Colin Clark himself. It can't quite bring itself to end. In one of the too-many endings it comforts you with another Marilyn & Colin moment, after she has dismissed him for good and then cruelly toyed with his affections by promising to wink at him later on set. Their last scene together coddles you with "see, she did really love him!" but it's better to have us wondering what was real and fake about the goddesses's affections than to give us extra time to ponder what is real and fake about the self-flattering memoirs we've just seen illustrated. C+
Previously on NYFF
Shame is found electrifying and somewhat lacking by Michael.
Martha Marcy May Marlene inducts Nathaniel in its growing cult.
The Kid With a Bike races into Kurt's hearts.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World is music to Michael's ears.
A Separation floors Nathaniel. A frontrunner for the Oscar?
The Student makes Nathaniel cram for quizzes that never come.
Carnage raises its voice at Nathaniel but doesn't quite scream.
Miss Bala wins the "must-see crown" from judge Michael.
Tahrir drops Michael right down in the titular Square.
A Dangerous Method excites Kurt... not in that way, perv!
The Loneliest Planet brushes against Nathaniel's skin.
Melancholia shows Michael the end of von Trier's world.