There’s one crucial component of film stars that separates them from theater actors: eternal preservation, the simple fact that a winking, luminous Marilyn Monroe in her white dress in 1954’s “The Seven Year Itch” would remain that way, sexy yet innocent, in 2011.
Meanwhile, Lee J. Cobb’s performance as Willie Loman in Monroe’s onetime husband Arthur Miller’s original production of Death Of A Salesman in 1949 existed only then, at that moment, for that audience. Making a movie with a star like Monroe must have been like collecting beautiful-yet-volatile butterflies.
“My Week With Marilyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film that, in setting its sights on so narrow a focus – a mere week on the set of one of Monroe’s more disposable comedies, seen through the star-struck eyes of a bottom-rung assistant – has cleverly pre-approved its own frivolity. This is not a biopic of Monroe, nor a sweeping exploration of her lasting impact on Hollywood. Instead, we’ve been given a slight, charmingly inconsequential account of one man’s hopeless crush on a film star whose own doomed fame is in media res. In short, we have a rare specimen, preserved.
The infatuated party is dreamy dolt Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), on whose diary the film is based. He’s run away from home to break into the movie industry, with nothing but pluck and a family connection to Lawrence Olivier. (Sure, you could survive in this business on your talent alone … as long as you know the right people.) The picture he’s working on is “The Prince And The Showgirl,” an Olivier/Monroe romantic comedy that … well, Colin says it best: “He’s an actor who wants to be a film star, and she’s a film star who wants to be an actress, and this movie isn’t going to help either of them.”
The on-set tensions between Olivier and Monroe, whose shyness was only matched by the former’s short temper, personify a much larger debate in the hands of screenwriter Adrian Hodges: classically trained performers vs. those aspiring chameleons known as Method actors. We hear the term now and we think of Christian Bale shedding 100 pounds for “The Machinist,” or Robert DeNiro toning himself for months for “Raging Bull.” Monroe didn’t take the Method to quite those extremes, but she does attempt to take considerably more stock in her character than the script does – a practice that infuriates Olivier, who only hired her to “be sexy.”
The Method debate is one that holds common for film and theater actors alike, and those who have been down both roads will see Monroe’s crippling on-set insecurities and seriously wonder how much of it is a quote-unquote “act.” Monroe’s characteristic outbursts may not have been entirely unwarranted. After all, if you were married to Arthur Miller (here played by Dougray Scott) and you discovered a notebook full of his musings on why he never should have married you, wouldn’t you feel like emoting a bit, as well?
Fittingly for a movie about performance, “My Week With Marilyn” has perhaps the best cast assembled in years for a single production. To the degree that credited casting directors Deborah Aquila, Nina Gold and Tricia Wood worked to land Judi Dench, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper and especially Emma Watson (bewitching in her post-Hermione phase) for stellar supporting roles, attention must be paid. And to the degree that they are responsible for ensuring that Michelle Williams would be eternally preserved as the perfect Monroe: Thank you.
To see Williams’s performance is to witness a bravura disappearing act, a creature of both lilting playfulness and crushing vulnerability. Her eyes, warm and fragile even when diluted by pills, betray a deep yearning, a long-unfulfilled desire to be loved — by men, by fans, by the world, but mostly by herself. She has the power to render even the Royal Librarian at Windsor Castle (Derek Jacobi, natch) starstruck: As he shows Monroe the history of the Queen herself, the librarian asks her in the same breath what it must feel like to be “the most famous woman on Earth.”
Amazingly, Kenneth Branagh, who should have been the only obvious choice to play Olivier, only won the role after Ralph Fiennes had to drop out in order to make his directorial debut in a film version of “Coriolanus,” no less. It turns out he’s just as irreplaceable in the role as Williams is in hers, for the simple fact that Branagh has walked practically his whole career in Olivier’s footsteps (or shadow, if you prefer). Both men have directed and starred in adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello and Richard V. Branagh’s demeanor reveals Olivier’s incredulity at his own world-weariness: He’s a Shakespearean, for God’s sake. He shouldn’t feel threatened by an insecure, childish celebrity. And yet … he does.
Monroe’s entourage, her agent, acting coach and driver, fawn over her as much as the job description requires, and then a little bit more. Together they make up the Erich von Stronheim to her Norma Desmond: At one time, no doubt, they loved her truly and sincerely. Now they feel it is their duty to shelter her from those who don’t share their feelings.
But only those who are not Monroe are capable of loving Monroe. And when we witness the bottomless despair that follows this sexpot wherever she goes, we realize just how taxing even a single week in her life can be. The tragic theater of Monroe is that we can’t know what it’s like to be her, but thanks to this marvelous film’s act of preservation, we can nevertheless fall in love with her. Just like everyone else.
“My Week with Marilyn” opens Wed Nov 23, 2011.
“My Week With Marilyn” (2011)
Written by Adrian Hodges; based on the books by Colin Clark
Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne
Official Web site: MyWeekwithMarilyn.com