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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film Review | My Week with Marilyn

Marilyn, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Thomas Delapa

There are movie stars, and there are Movie Stars. For ten short years, few shone as bright as Marilyn Monroe’s. In the fifties and early sixties, she was every American man’s dream girl, from presidents to princes. She might have been the quintessential female star of the Hollywood sound era, a pinup Greta Garbo in living, luscious color.

You won’t need to be a fan (or a man) to fall in love with My Week with Marilyn, which features some of the best performances of this past year. In a role that would scare off scores of actresses, Michelle Williams is nearly spot-on as the once-plain Norma Jeane.

At the height of her fame in 1956, Monroe traveled to Olde England to make The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by none other than Laurence Olivier, the regal grand man of the British stage and screen. During brief intermissions in the troubled production, the 30-year-old Monroe struck up an unlikely friendship (and perhaps more) with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a lowly assistant director not unexpectedly dazzled by the blonde bombshell.

Clark’s 1995 memoir (The Prince, the Showgirl and Me) was followed by My Week with Marilyn in 2000, and those few days have been translated with taste and movie-loving brio by director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges. Unlike the exploitative handling of Monroe before and after her tragic death in 1962, Curtis and company have fleshed out the person behind the one-dimensional star image: insecure, innocent, frightened, and mercurial—as well as a heavenly vision of beauty and sensuality.

My Week isn’t a kiss-and-tell dream date with Marilyn. It’s a smart, handsome film about celebrity, acting, exploitation, and professional insecurities. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Larry” Olivier greets Marilyn and her entourage with charm and open arms, he soon tires of what he sees as her Method madness, especially with her doting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) constantly whispering in her ear. The clash of acting styles deftly dramatizes the division between old-school U.K. acting (“the character is on the page”) and the erupting U.S. Method (“the character is in me”) of the Kazan/Strasberg/Brando school. Hodges’ script deftly echoes Monroe’s problems with her role with those coming from her own impossible full-time part as “Marilyn,” the voluptuous, girlish sexpot who keeps her underwear in the freezer. In one of her most revealing private moments, she coyly asks Colin, “Shall I be her?” before instantly turning on her radiant, full-lipped persona in front of an adoring crowd.

Williams’ wattage outshines her Oscar-nominated work in 2010’s Blue Valentine. It’s an imitative performance, but not an impersonation (take that, Meryl Streep); rather it’s a full-bodied interpretation that’s closer to alchemy than acting. The only blemish in the complexion is that Williams fades a bit during Monroe’s famed film performances. On some rarified level of the silver screen, only Marilyn seems able to spin pure gold.

While some have disputed Clark’s latter memoir, this is nonetheless a glistening fairy tale of fleeting love and friendship, with shadows lurking in the wings. Accompanied by her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott)—an owl and the pussycat marriage if there ever was one—Marilyn is erratic and inconsolable at times, popping pills that Hollywood Dr. Feelgoods were/are only too happy to prescribe. We also get a dose of the sexism that sought to typecast Monroe as a dumb blonde, both on and off the screen.

While Olivier plays the smitten prince to Monroe in his star-crossed movie, it’s the young and perceptive Colin who gallantly comes to her aid. Their sweet, near-Edenic relationship—flowering in nature—also germinates a handful of droll lines. All Colin has to hear on the phone is “Marilyn wants to go shopping,” and he is galloping to her beck and call.

Along with Williams, Redmayne and Branagh, bows are in order for Judi Dench in the small role of actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who maternally tries to reassure Monroe after Olivier’s nasty cuts. Like 2008’s underrated Orson Welles and Me, My Week with Marilyn engages in a touch of romanticizing star-worship, but it never basks in idolatry. It deserves a place on your calendar.


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