Nov 24, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

I have a fear of biopics because they tend to be stiff and cheesy and too reverent towards their subjects. The opening scenes of My Week With Marilyn promise a classic Harvey Weinstein, Oscar-hungry project, all very prim and proper but not very interesting, but if you stick around, it gets more poignant as it goes along.
You have to have ovaries of titanium to step into the shoes of such an icon, and Michelle Williams acquits herself quite well. At first one must get past the physical differences (Jessica Chastain, who does a Monroeish turn in The Help, would have also been excellent casting). Williams can look very pretty, and she has that mix of wispiness and will that make her a good choice for the role; but even with some extra padding in the rump, she does not cut the gorgeous, voluptuous figure that Marilyn cut in her day. Her face is not as perfect, but what she lacks in the flesh, she makes up in spirit. As the movie progresses, we get a glimpse into this rare, unhappy creature. The voice is breathy, almost labored, and the charm and the pain are there, as well as some sullen unreachable quality by which she denies the world her luminous presence. Marilyn is fickle, flirty, manipulative, charming, either innocent or playing innocent -- sometimes all in the space of five seconds. She must have been quite smart, to play dumb so well.
The story is sweet and sad. It is based on a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young man who leaves his family's august manor to "join the circus" of the movies. He gets a job as a gofer at Laurence Olivier's production company. Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, his heir apparent, chomping at the bit) decides to cast Monroe as his love interest in a comedy. In reality, The Prince and The Showgirl was the first movie by Monroe's production company. She is the biggest star in the planet. He is so famous an actor that a brand of cigarettes bears his name, and he is married to Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara, That Hamilton Woman and Blanche Dubois). As actors go, these two were living legends at the time, and must have been huge to Marilyn's eyes. As Colin says to her later in the film, Olivier is an actor who wants to be a movie star, and she is a movie star who wants to be a serious actress: it won't work. Compounded by the fact that the most famous woman in the cosmos was pathologically insecure and suffered from stage fright, among other demons, the shoot did not go well. Marilyn arrives in London with third husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, trying to sound very Brooklyn) and acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) in tow, and everything goes wrong. Marilyn is always late, she flubs lines, Strasberg whispers in her ear, and worst of all, she feels Olivier hates her. Marilyn relies too much on the Strasberg method by which she has to plumb all kinds of emotional depths in order to say one line, which drives Olivier crazy. I loved seeing the chaos she created by always being late, utterly inconsiderate to the cast and crew, including Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench, aka God), a giant of the British stage who was nevertheless enormously kind to Marilyn. Monroe was famously unprofessional. Directors forgave her time and again because her charisma was truly spectacular. She oozed desire. Her painful contradictions seemed to come out from every pore of her flawless skin, which made her an incredible movie star.
The movie is told from the point of view of Colin. Besotted with Marilyn, he somehow gains her confidence and ends up being the appeaser between her and Olivier. They develop some sort of a friendship and Marilyn decides that he is the only person from the studio she can trust. Now, when was the last time you saw a male ingenue on screen? Redmayne is excellent as the wide eyed but smart and sophisticated kid who gets his heart broken by the biggest sexpot on the planet. It is a smart and lovely performance, and except for a couple of moments in which he actually bats his eyelashes, rooted in true feeling. Redmayne and Williams have great chemistry together, and he makes his love for her utterly believable. You can clearly see how he goes from eager neophyte to the manly man who is there to protect her. And you can see his heart breaking, which is no small acting feat. I hope it is not an unsung performance: a man in love is such a rare part for a male actor.
Colin, who is the third assistant director on set, ends up having more power over Marilyn than Olivier. Olivier, a pragmatist, lets it happen as long as Colin can make her show up on time and functioning. Marilyn, of course, wields the ultimate power because she knows she is the only indispensable cog in the wheel. She wields her power with her physique, and by being an emotional wreck. She hints at her horrid childhood, and her complicated relationships with men, but the movie smartly leaves her bottomless misery a mystery. She is solely obsessed with her own shortcomings, willfully oblivious to the chaos she causes on the set. There is a wonderful moment where, after having being herself (if such a thing was possible) alone with Colin, she has to turn on the wattage for an impromptu audience of admirers at Windsor Castle, and she becomes Marilyn for them, mimicking her own sexy mannerisms. It's hard to fathom how impossible it was to be her: she never left the girl from the foster homes behind, even if she reached the pinnacle of access. Adored by everyone, she never felt anybody truly loved her.

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