Friday, May 11, 2012

My Week with Marilyn (Weinstein Company/BBC Films, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran My Week with Marilyn, the quite charming quasi-biopic from the Weinstein Company and BBC Films last year which, as the title suggests, deals not with Marilyn Monroe’s entire life but with the period during which she was in Great Britain to film the first (and, as it turned out, the only) movie her company Marilyn Monroe Productions ever made, The Prince and the Showgirl. Marilyn’s business partner was still photographer Milton Greene (played in this movie by Dominic Cooper), who had shot some of the most haunting images of her ever created but was a total neophyte in the business of moving pictures. He cut a distribution deal with Warner Bros. (though Marilyn still owed three films to 20th Century-Fox as a contract player) and for the company’s first project, he bought the movie rights to a play called The Sleeping Prince (also the working title of the film and the name we see on the slate cards when this film depicts the shoot) which Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, who began his film career directing and starring in a 1996 remake of Shakespeare’s Henry V — the film that had launched Olivier’s career as an actor/director in films in 1944) had performed on stage with his then-wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), who in real life took being aced out of her stage part by an American with far less grace than is depicted in this script by Adrian Hodges, based on a couple of memoirs by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who’s actually the male lead in the film. Greene decided to hire Olivier not only to repeat his stage role in the movie but to direct it as well — and Olivier, according to biographer Donald Spoto, took the job mainly to prove to the world (and especially to the rest of the movie business) that he could direct a film that wasn’t based on a Shakespeare play. My Week with Marilyn is based on a couple of books by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), an ambitious young man from a well-to-do aristocratic family who was determined to break into movies and saw his chance when he applied for a job as a “Third” (i.e., a third assistant director, really a glorified go-fer) to the production of The Sleeping Prince — eventually released as The Prince and the Showgirl to get Marilyn’s character in the title — and he controversially claimed to have had a one-week affair with La Monroe during the shoot, following which Marilyn’s resistance and fear of the project evaporated and the film moved swiftly to completion.

Clark’s reminiscences have been controversial because he, shall we say, vastly inflated his importance to the production — its other surviving participants almost universally said they couldn’t remember him and they highly doubted that Marilyn ever had sex with him (and even the film itself is pretty coy about the did-they-or-didn’t-they? question; they’re shown swimming together, she in the nude and he in his underwear, and doing a bit of necking but they don’t slobber all over each other blatantly in the common modern movie manner when two characters are supposed to be in a sexual relationship) — and the film is least credible in the scenes with Clark and Marilyn together. What it does show is what a handful Marilyn must have been to work with; just about all the Monroe biographies and other histories of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl describe it as a tense and troubled shoot, with Olivier appalled at the presence of Paula Strasberg (Lee Strasberg’s wife and Susan Strasberg’s mother) on the set as Marilyn’s private acting coach (“We can’t have two directors on one film!” Olivier thunders, and Milton Greene and all Marilyn’s handlers inform him that they have to do whatever they can to make and keep Marilyn happy) and even more appalled that the great sex goddess, who by 1957 had been cast mostly in dumb-blonde sexpot roles but had occasionally got parts that showcased real acting talent under the peroxide, the white makeup, the ass-wriggling and the cutesy-poo intonations (The Asphalt Jungle, Clash by Night, Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara and, most importantly, Bus Stop, in which despite the woodenness of Don Murray as her leading man she turned in a sensitive, beautifully calibrated performance as the untalented but sympathetic roadhouse entertainer Cherie), had been studying the Method and started dropping Method phrases about motivations and having to “find” the character. Olivier at one point instructed Marilyn to “be sexy” — thinking that she could just turn the sex machine on and have every (straight) guy in the audience creaming in his pants at the sight of her — and she was trying to find her way to the inner depths of a character that really didn’t have any.

The story they were making was, as I noted when Charles and I watched The Prince and the Showgirl together, a “predictable and clichéd” rewrite of Cinderella in which “Grand Duke Charles [Olivier], regent of Carpathia, is in London in 1911 to attend the coronation of King George V; to amuse himself while he’s in town he picks showgirl Elsie Marina [Monroe] from the chorus line of a musical called The Coconut Girl, and invites her to the palace for a midnight supper — only to find that this Cinderella knows exactly what he wants and how to fend him off; eventually, however, she loosens him up enough to permit democracy in Carpathia and show some affection to his son, who’s going to become king when he turns 18 a year and a half from then, and there’s a hint they will get together in that time once his regency ends.” Much of the movie rings true to what we know about Monroe — how discombobulated she was, how chancy her nerves were, how some days she would stumble and be unable to remember the simplest lines while on others she’d be line-perfect through whole pages of script and nail everything in one take or two (Billy Wilder, who directed her in The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, recalled how she was virtually impossible to work with during the studio work in Hollywood on Some Like It Hot, but when the company went to Coronado for the exteriors Monroe — perhaps because she was away from the city that was both the epicenter of the movie business and her own home town — loosened up, needed almost no retakes and was a joy to work with), and how sensitive she was to signs of betrayal, real or imagined.

Like the real Monroe, this version’s arrival in London to make The Prince and the Showgirl is delayed by her new husband Arthur Miller and the attempts by the anti-Communist inquisitors to get something on him that would persuade the State Department to pull his passport and keep him from leaving the U.S. (years later Miller claimed that the chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who was locked in a tight re-election race, had offered to give him a clean bill of health if Miller could arrange for the Congressmember to be photographed with Monroe) and delayed again when Marilyn has a hissy-fit when she discovers Miller’s journal and reads a comment she interprets as viciously derogative towards her. No one knows for sure at this point just what Miller wrote that ticked her off so much, but Lee Strasberg — whom Marilyn was calling at all hours long-distance from London when his wife’s FTF advice and counsel wasn’t enough to reassure her — recalled Marilyn telling him, “It was something about how disappointed he was in me. I was some kind of angel but now he guessed he was wrong. His first wife had let him down, but I had done something worse. Olivier was beginning to think I was a troublesome bitch and that he [Miller] no longer had a decent answer to that one.” In his controversial play After the Fall, written in 1964 (four years after their breakup and two years after Monroe’s death), Miller reconstructed the episode and made the text read, “The only one I will ever love is my daughter. If I could only find an honorable way to die.”

In real life the incident, whatever the facts of what Miller wrote and what on earth he could have meant by it, was a wrenching emotional catastrophe far more intense than anything being dramatized in the relatively silly movie Monroe and Olivier were making; in My Week with Marilyn it’s simply an excuse for screenwriter Hodges to get Miller (Dougray Scott) to leave England and clear the field for Colin Clark and the Goddess to have their affair, or whatever it was. My Week with Marilyn has its problems — we can believe Monroe as a Lilith-like temptress who gets off on toying with men for a few days and then rejecting them if screenwriter Jacobs and actress Williams weren’t so good at portraying Monroe as a kind of sponge for human emotions, a creature so pathetically needy no amount of love — from husband, boyfriends, colleagues or the movie-going public (one illusion Monroe entered the project with that got cruelly shattered quickly was that she thought British people would be more well-behaved and less demanding of a movie star in their midst; instead, she’s surrounded and virtually attacked on the streets of London just as nastily as she was at home — maybe it’s a cliché by now that fame is a devil’s bargain that gives you money and popularity at the cost of anything resembling a normal human life, but that bargain has rarely been dramatized as well as it is here) — and it’s hard to believe the conceit of this movie that a 24-year-old third assistant director working for a salary for the first time in his entire life could hold the key to making Marilyn behave on set that her prestigious director/co-star, her private acting coach, her private acting coach’s husband long-distance on the phone, her co-workers (including Dame Sybil Thorndyke, played superbly by Judi Dench — the second night in a row we’d seen a film with her in it — and portrayed as the character who probably instinctively knew more about how to handle Marilyn as anyone else, managing to treat her supportively without fawning over her), her business partner, her staff (including Toby Jones as her P.R. man, Arthur Jacobs, who later went on to be a producer himself, most known for the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes) or her own husband could not.

Still, it’s a marvelous movie, well acted — even though one could make the case that Branagh has been playing Olivier now for over 15 years — especially by Michelle Williams. I’ve seen her described as the finest actress ever to play Monroe, which quite frankly I rather doubt — I have great memories of the three-hour TV-movie from the 1970’s in which Catherine Hicks played Monroe and would love a chance to see it again if only to see if Hicks’ performance was as incandescent and as convincing as I remember it, and until I do see her Marilyn again I’m not about to acclaim anyone else’s as the best ever — but she’s damned good, though for some reason Williams is more convincing as the off-screen Marilyn than the on-screen one in the film’s re-creations of scenes from The Prince and the Showgirl. Still, if any project was going to get Michelle Williams out of the shadow of Brokeback Mountain and her short-lived relationship with the late Heath Ledger, whom she met and took up with when they were playing husband and wife in that movie, this was it; she’s absolutely convincing as the vulnerable private Marilyn, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of her career and desperate enough to resort to alcohol and drugs (though when the production hired a security guard to protect her and warned her of her drinking and pills, I half expected him to say, “I worked security for Judy Garland at the Palladium! I know all about booze and pills!”) as well as a determined neediness that sucked emotions out of people the way Count Dracula sucked their blood. And the final summation of the film is delivered by a speech given by Branagh as Olivier once The Prince and the Showgirl is completed, when he sees it and realizes that however difficult she was to work with, Monroe brought her character to life whereas he just looked like the walking dead beside her.

Anyone who’s actually seen The Prince and the Showgirl and judged it fairly will know that that’s an exactly accurate assessment of it: as I wrote about it when Charles and I screened it, “Olivier overacts his way through his own role; instead of tapping the logical precedent from his own career (his marvelous performance as Max de Winter under Alfred Hitchcock’s direction in Rebecca), he spends virtually the whole movie channeling Erich von Stroheim: the monocle, the jerky movements, the air of imperturbable condescension. What redeems The Prince and the Showgirl is Monroe, who not only out-acts her prestigious co-star/director but actually takes Rattigan’s stick figure of a character and creates her as a warm, richly defined human being. There are a few of the Monroe mannerisms — the cutesy-poo vocal inflections and the ass-swinging — but for the most part she keeps these under control and turns in a surprisingly subtle performance that makes us believe in Elsie Marina as a person and not just a Cinderella figure in a plot that stretches credibility to the breaking point. She’s aided by the brilliant cinematography of Jack Cardiff and production design of Robert Furse, who helped make this the best-looking color film in which Monroe appeared. Instead of the garish, neon-bright lighting Monroe got at 20th Century-Fox, Cardiff lights her in a warm, rich way that creates some startlingly painterly effects. Also, either Cardiff put a lot of filters on her or she changed her hair color for this film; instead of the usual eye-searing bottle-blonde Monroe looks auburn-haired in this, which adds to her image here as sensual rather than sexual. … If Olivier the director had been able to call Olivier the actor on his insufferable hamminess through much of the film The Prince and the Showgirl would be even better than it is — but then we wouldn’t have had the amazing spectacle of the showgirl so totally out-acting the prince!”