Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Irksome: My Week With Marilyn

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"My Week With Marilyn" is based on two books by Colin Clark: "The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me," and "My Week With Marilyn."

The first book is a fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the 1957 film "The Prince and the Showgirl," during which author Colin Clark was a "third assistant director," but was really just Sir Laurence Olivier's on-set gofer. It takes a very detailed look into the day-to-day, on-the-set production of what turned out to be a pretty mediocre movie.

I believe most of this book is true because I can see no reason why anyone would willfully make up something that is, for the most part, so boring.

As for the later book, which details his alleged week alone with Marilyn as they frolicked in the English countryside? Complete and utter fabrication. You just have to read both to see that one feels quite real (and mundane), while the other reads like the heated dream of an aging Englishman.

Aside from the fact that the movie is being sold as "based on a true story," it might not seem like whether the story is truth or fiction would matter, as almost all biographical tales have to be taken with some grains of salt. But in this case I find it irksome because what is being presented as truth is really just another male fantasy about "Marilyn Monroe," sex icon; broken little girl; man-eater; and drugged-up movie star.

The movie opens with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) at the movies, watching Marilyn Monroe singing "When Love Goes Wrong" and "Heat Wave," but not in a scene reproduced from any actual movie. This is pure fantasy, and is our first introduction to Michelle Williams's Monroe, and it is an unfortunate one. Her voice is adequate enough, but her physicality is all wrong. She looks like she has a pillow shoved up her dress to replicate Monroe's ample derriere, and she comes off as a bad drag queen.

This opening stacks the deck against Williams, and she has to do a lot of work to erase that unfortunate beginning from our minds. I'm glad to say she does, for the most part, do that, (but then director Simon Curtis goes and ruins it all again by ending the film with another bad musical number).

The majority of the film takes place during the production of "The Prince and the Showgirl," the movie version of the play "The Sleeping Prince," in which Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) had starred with his wife, Vivien Leigh, (played by Julia Ormand here). Monroe has just started her own production company, and hopes working with the world's greatest actor will help Hollywood, and the world, take her more seriously as an actress. Olivier, on the other hand, is getting older, and hopes working with the world's biggest sex symbol will help him recapture his youth and a younger market share.

But they clash on the set. Olivier doesn't take to Monroe's "method" style of acting, or the constant presence of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, (Zoƫ Wanamaker), and Monroe, who suffered from insecurities and stage fright, is constantly late to the set, flubbing her lines, or never showing up at all.

This, of course, drives Olivier insane. But as his co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) points out, when Monroe does get it right, it's magic, and when she's on screen, no one can look at anyone else. (And she's right; Monroe is the only reason to watch that movie.)

Off the set, Monroe also clashes with her new husband, Arthur Miller, (inexplicably played by Dougray Scott), and her business partner, Milton Greene, (Dominic Cooper; I guess Williams was one of the only Americans allowed on set?), and Olivier assigns young Colin to keep an eye on Marilyn, and rein her in, if he can. Eventually they develop an affection for each other, much to the chagrin of Lucy, the young costume girl Clark is dating, (played by Emma Watson, in a part that is pretty pointless).

Soon Colin and Marilyn are escaping to the English countryside, skinny dipping, sharing a bed, and confessing intimate secrets to each other. It's a lovely fantasy, I suppose.

There's much talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, though I think that's being a little generous. Now, I don't fault the casting of Michele Williams. Marilyn Monroe had a unique star quality that just can't be replicated. (If it could be, we wouldn't still be talking about her today.) And while Williams doesn't really look like her, (she's too skinny; too modern), she is a good actress, and perhaps that is the more important casting decision. (I'm sure there are plenty of actresses out there who look more like Marilyn, and who can do an uncanny impersonation, but impersonation and solid acting don't always go hand-in-hand.)

But the movie is, really, pretty standard stuff, and the screenplay Williams has to work from doesn't rise above the many Marilyn cliches we've seen in countless biopics before. She does the best that she can, but even Williams at her best can't convey the absolute magic Marilyn was able to project on screen in even her worst movies. Monroe could make a movie as bad as "The Prince and the Showgirl" watchable, but Williams can't save "My Week With Marilyn."

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