“My Week with Marilyn” (2011). Cast: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Zoë Wanamaker, Emma Watson, Philip Jackson, Toby Jones, Michael Kitchen, Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford. Director: Simon Curtis. Screenplay: Adrian Hodges. Books: My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, by Colin Clark. http://myweekwithmarilynmovie.com/
Allowing our genuine selves to shine through can be rather challenging, but it can pay off handsomely if nurtured and allowed to blossom. And it’s true for everyone, from everyday folks to the biggest celebrities, a notion examined in the enchanting new biopic, “My Week with Marilyn.”
In 1956, with her career soaring, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) traveled to London to film the romantic comedy “The Sleeping Prince” (later retitled “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957)) with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who also directed the project. This production brought together two of the era’s biggest acting icons for what should have been a breezy, fun-filled shoot. Little did they know what they were getting themselves into.
The events that went on behind the scenes of this often-tumultuous undertaking were chronicled in a diary kept by a young assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Colin enthusiastically signed on for the picture to pursue his passion for film and to escape the condescending criticism and overbearing scrutiny of his stuffy aristocratic family. However, in his role as an A.D., Colin was largely relegated to being little more than a “go-fer” (“go for this, go for that…”). So, suffice it to say, it came as quite a surprise when his responsibilities quickly came to include looking after Marilyn, a woman he had adored from afar for years.
At the time, Marilyn needed tending to because she was experiencing a number of challenges. Personally, at age 30, she had just married her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), but she exhibited none of the qualities of a glowing young bride. She was emotionally fragile and vulnerable, with Miller playing more the role of protector than of husband, a duty that he ultimately felt inadequate to fulfill (which Marilyn learned of through her discovery of one of his journals), despite his insistent denials to the contrary.
Marilyn’s fragility was largely brought on by the pressures of her professional life. She was in high demand to portray the quintessential flirtatious, though ditzy blonde bombshell. And, even though she played the part well, both on camera and off, she struggled with self-confidence issues on the set, routinely turning in disastrous performances in initial takes. She frequently doubted her abilities, calling upon acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) to assist her, an effort that consisted more of bolstering the star’s confidence than teaching her anything about acting. On top of Strasberg’s encouragement, seemingly everyone, from Olivier to agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper) to co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), told Marilyn that she was fine just as she was, but she often questioned the sincerity of many of these compliments (and rightfully so).
Before long, the only person Marilyn came to trust was Colin, a young man who seemed very comfortable being himself – and from whom she drew tremendous inspiration. Marilyn was especially grateful to him for “being real,” a commodity rare in the world in which she worked. And so a deep and special connection was forged that lasted throughout the remainder of the shoot.
Many of us have probably experienced our share of issues with “being real,” either with those around us or, more likely, with ourselves. Sometimes we might look at ourselves, dislike what we see and choose to ignore it. Or perhaps we might be so busy trying to please others and live up to their expectations that we never take the time to examine ourselves, never figuring out who we really are. Whatever the case, though, the decisions we make in either of these scenarios are often fraught with many potential pitfalls.
The opposite, of course, is also true. By making the effort to assess ourselves thoroughly and honestly, we get an insightful perspective into our true nature. Being real in this way allows us to probe the intents and beliefs that we use as conscious creators to manifest the reality we experience. And engaging in such an exercise is precisely what the characters in this film attempt to do, even if they’re not always fully aware of it.
Being real means different things to each of the three protagonists, both professionally and personally. For Marilyn, for example, being real means coming to terms with what she wants to do with her career. She epitomizes the role of sex symbol, and she does it so well that it’s second nature to her, both in her roles as on-screen movie star and off-screen Hollywood celebrity, personas that she carefully crafted and that her fans obviously crave. She gets herself into trouble, however, when she questions what she’s created, wondering whether she should try to reinvent herself as a serious actress, an endeavor she struggles with. So this raises the question, if she’s already good at what she does, then why tamper with success?
By contrast, Olivier is a seasoned actor who’s most at home on the stage, having received numerous accolades for his stellar performances in the classics. Despite such success, though, he longs for the limelight accorded movie stars, a desire that gets him into trouble for trying to be something he’s obviously less comfortable with – and less practiced at.
Colin is perhaps the most self-aware of what he wants professionally, and even though his first movie job may not be all that he’s hoped for, it still sets him down the path of achieving what he ultimately wants. In that sense, then, he’s the most well-adjusted of the three protagonists when it comes to being real in a professional context. In fact, he’s the one who astutely observes that the production is fundamentally flawed, because its cast features a movie star who wants to be an actress and an actor who wants to be a movie star, each seeking to be something that they’re fundamentally not.
Once the film wrapped, each of the protagonists went on to other projects and became huge successes in their respective milieus, and simply being themselves played a huge role in their accomplishments. Marilyn would star in “Some Like It Hot” (1959), one of cinema’s classic comedies, playing a part perfect for her prototypical persona. Olivier, meanwhile, would make a triumphant return to the theater, receiving raves for his impeccable portrayals. And Colin went on to fulfill his dream of working in the movies, becoming a successful documentary filmmaker. Clearly there’s something to be said for being oneself.
Comparable parallels can be found in the protagonists’ personal lives. Marilyn is an inherently free spirit romantically, yet she struggles to be a dutiful wife, a role she’s not cut out for, having already failed twice at marriage and clearly on her way to doing so again. Her disappointments in this part of her life produce much heartache, no doubt contributing to the binge drinking and pill popping that would play a significant part in her eventual downfall. She’s happiest when she’s being an impulsive, uninhibited maverick, and she probably would have been much better off in the long run if she had just allowed herself to be that true self.
Olivier, by contrast, experiences unbearable frustrations in his dealings with Marilyn, because he wasn’t honest with her about his intents. According to Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), the only reason he asked Marilyn to be in his film was that he wanted to seduce her, an observation that Leigh openly shares, even though Sir Laurence said nothing of his intentions to anyone. It should come as no surprise, then, that Olivier fails to get what he secretly wanted, either personally or professionally, out of his voluptuous co-star. His working relationship with Marilyn becomes a living hell, a reality undoubtedly borne out of his deliberate deceitfulness.
And, once again, Colin is the most adept at understanding who he is and what he wants personally. Even though he relishes the opportunity to work with Marilyn, he also knows, based on that experience, that he’s not cut out for anything more with her, despite the obvious temptation and his longstanding admiration. He’s better suited to the more grounded nature of someone like Lucy (Emma Watson), a young costume girl at the studio. Marilyn sees their budding attraction and encourages Colin to pursue an involvement with her, since Lucy’s better able to offer him a future that she herself can’t.
From what I saw of this film prior to viewing it, it seemed like a nice little piece of fluff, but it’s surprisingly more substantive than I expected, delivering a thoughtful conscious creation message wrapped up in a sumptuous cinematic package. The outstanding performances turned in by Williams and Branagh have awards nominations written all over them, and the lavish production values of this exquisitely re-created period piece stand the film in good stead to earn kudos in areas like costume design, art direction and makeup. The writing is smart and crisp, portraying its multidimensional heroine superbly without ever resorting to sensationalism or cliché. This is a hard picture to walk away from disappointed.
Being real makes it possible to open doors that might otherwise remain locked shut. The experiences of the protagonists in “My Week with Marilyn” make that abundantly clear, both in instances of when that practice is put to use and when it’s not.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.
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