MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Simon Curtis, Britain, 2011, 6)
About halfway into MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, I was getting ready to dismiss it by saying “Elton John did this much in 1/30th of the time and for a helluva lot less money.” But then we got some private scenes between Monroe and Colin Clark, a 3rd assistant director who wormed his way (not terribly convincingly) onto the set of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, the film Monroe is shooting in Britain with Laurence Olivier. In those scenes we get something more than the latest “imitate an icon and win an Oscar” beg and get a glimpse of the private side of this most-public of women.
Michelle Williams isn’t exactly doing an imitation — in closeup, her face isn’t really right and in longshot, her figure isn’t. But she does manage to exude Monroe’s spirit, or at least the spirit she projected to the world — a deeply insecure little-girl-lost who only really comes alive and can act naturally by Being Sexy for the gaze of others. And whose great tragedy (and this comes out during those intimate scenes) is that she knows this about herself and has resigned herself to this fate. “As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run,” she says. Monroe’s persona, while not wholly “calculated” in the sense that a timed bank robbery is, was still somewhat “calculated” in the sense it was who she was (or at least became). A day date with Colin is the only real spontaneity she gets, interacting with a worshipful but manageable public — the staff at Windsor Castle and the boys at Eton — and tossing off one-liners that indicate her mind was just fine. But even in those moments, she was “Marilyn,” not, as Elton John would put it, Norma Jean. Colin offers her (unrealistically, but nevertheless) a normal life with him and leaving Hollywood behind, but she just smiled and turned away. “You can be happy / I am happy / Of course you’re happy, you’re the biggest star in the world.” But when her acting coach tells her “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you” in the “this too shall pass” reassurance mode, Williams plays the moment as terrifying.
What will get lost, I fear, in the adulation Williams is (deservedly) receiving is Kenneth Branagh’s terrific performance as Olivier, against whom he was already being measured back in the 80s. It too is not an imitation (or if it is, I couldn’t tell since the uncostumed Olivier of that period is not terribly well-known to me), but Branagh’s gesture-y fussiness blends well with a peculiarly British mixture of face-to-face polite impatience and behind-closed-doors explosiveness we know is wrong. I couldn’t stop laughing at the line that getting Monroe to act is “like teaching Urdu to a badger” (which, yes, is a writer’s very-written line but it has to be delivered in the right register to work). Branagh also plays Olivier as the wisest man in the room who still isn’t as wise as he thinks. He also nails the way Olivier felt just as inadequate around Monroe as she did around him because she had gifts he didn’t have and — more importantly — couldn’t acquire, just stand in awe of in the screening room.
Even with all that, MY WEEK never exactly transcends the “fan mash-note” genre. There are some narrative clumsiness (Was she pregnant? Did I miss some earlier exposition?) and the subplot of the costume-girl Colin is also wooing gets as much the short shrift as the character herself does. And as Colin, Eddie Redmayne is at best adequate, which is not adequate. There’s also the subject matter, which kinds left me wondering “what’s the big deal.” Olivier and Monroe were obviously a badly mismatched pair on screen (never mind on set, though that too), and the film they were making couldn’t have been more trivial. MY WEEK practically comes out and says Olivier made that film because he wanted to seduce Monroe. It also sideways acknowledges the unsuccess of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL by putting more weight in the closing title cards of Monroe’s and Olivier’s next projects — their iconic roles in SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE ENTERTAINER (both stage and screen), though Olivier basically never directed another film. Indeed, you can read this film in a Camille Paglia-ish way about Marilyn as a femme-fatale destroyer — using her sexual power to dominate the world around her and leave the men who want her frustrated in her wake.
I was reminded in an odd way of two other films currently in theaters — Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA and Steve McQueen’s SHAME — the first by being about a depressive who can only function in an environment of utter collapse, a collapse she helps bring about; the second in being about a sex addict. Monroe uses sex differently from Brandon in SHAME. It would be more accurate to say she’s addicted to her sex appeal (and to her insecurities, ultimately) and what being a sex object gets for her in terms of power over men than she is to the sex act itself (or to its appeal to Brandon — that notch on the belt at the end of the day). MY WEEK intimated that Monroe never slept with Colin; certainly she’s not shown going farther than a kiss. But Monroe and Brandon are caught in the same yo-yo of acting out and regretting it.