My Week With Marilyn

Women and Hollywood Screening
December 1, 2011
Bryant Park Hotel, 40 West 40th Street
production web site

Think of the lot of ’em, and there are many of them — movies or plays that tell a story presented as fact or presented as fiction based on real events, capturing a star a pivotal moment in time, evoking an era, revealing a life, engaging a usually youthful earnest underling who provides a sense of the life on the other side of the tinsel and glitter, and the star returns to their tumultuous life at the story’s end.  A few examples.  My Favorite Year (1982) gives us Peter O’Toole playing a guest star on a “My Show of Shows” kind of television comedy show set in the 1950s in New York and a youthful Mark-Linn Baker as the staffer set to watch over him (and whose family provides the star a look into stable ordinary life).  A recent play imagines just such a late career pause during a London engagement involving Judy Garland, her last husband, and a fictional accompanist who has delusions of taking her away from her chaotic life (The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, on its way to Broadway).  Similarly focused (a week in a movie shoot schedule, a pause in a career, a moment in a lifetime), the new My Week With Marilyn draws upon a memoir crafted by a young assistant to Laurence Olivier who observes filming and interacts closely with Marilyn Monroe during the creation of what eventually is titled The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).  Beautifully shot, simply acted, parsimoniously told — reputations delicately handled.  A parade of figures from British and American movie and theatre and literary history, and a simply delightful cinematic adventure.

In the early moments of this film story, Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) hires Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young aristocrat with visions of a life in the arts, as the “third assistant” on his new film involving a prince and showgirl to be played by American sex goddess film actress Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).  Monroe arrives at the studio for the first read through the script with Method coach and supportive figure Paula Strasburg (Zoe Wannamaker), to which fellow actor Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) quietly remarks on the irregular behavior: “How sweet, I wish we all could bring a friend” — and we’re off to the races.  Thorndike soon realizes the native brilliance of Monroe and goes out of her way to assist her (with lines, with telling off the men on the set, whatever).  Olivier experiences aging in the presence of Monroe’s natural youthful shine; wife Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormond) warns him of this possible response to Monroe.  Many small roles are played by big actors, and we happily travel this cinematic ride of sorrow (late medicated nights) and sweet delights (a day in the country with Colin and a trip to Windsor Castle) and gentle revelations (Olivier after filming is concluded in a screening room with Colin looking at Monroe’s on-screen luminescence).

This particular dramatic genre is equal parts real facts and fantasy and perception and devastation and dreams. These works can often lead to the feeling of an unearned prominence gifted to the observer in the story (the gofer, the assistant, the observer, the accompanist) and provide brutal observations of the star at the center.  This movie manages to skirt the tabloid edges of a life that was partially lived as covered in tabloid media.  Famous black and white images are captured in opening and ending credits.  A lovely black and white performance of Williams as Monroe singing “That Old Black Magic” simply, hauntingly, powerfully comprise some of our final moments with this story.  I have a quibble in the fact that Monroe performed that song in the movie Bus Stop released a year BEFORE the release of The Prince and the Showgirl, but the image and the sounds are marvelous.  And the tone is exquisitely respectful yet full of detail.  We all feel a bit as though we’ve lived a week with Marilyn.  And are the richer for it.

Favorite lines from the film:

  • “When Marilyn gets it right, you just don’t want to look at anyone else.”
  • “He gives me the dirtiest looks, even when he’s smiling.” (Monroe about Olivier, early in the shooting process)
  • “All little girls should grow up being told how pretty they are and knowing how much their mother loves them.” (Monroe, who grew up in foster care)
  • “I’m not a goddess, I just want to be loved like a normal girl.” (Monroe, evoking Tracy Lord in Philadelphia Story.)

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 4, 2011)

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