It’s no wonder that Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women of all time. She wasn’t just the star of such classics as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Monroe was an international symbol of femininity, sexuality and the American dream.
But as is the case with so many stars, the public Marilyn Monroe was very different from her tortured, fragile private persona. Her life followed the classic script about the Hollywood starlet whose life becomes overrun by fame, substance dependency and loneliness.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical when I first heard that a film about Monroe’s life was in the works. We’ve all seen Valley of the Dolls. We all watched as Britney Spears was forcibly removed from her home as a result of her mental instability. By now, we all understand that Hollywood has a reputation for building up its key players only to smirk as they crash and burn. So how was Monroe’s story going to be told without torturing a cliché or exploiting her legacy?
Simple. Instead of crafting a full biopic of the tragic star, My Week With Marilyn paints an honest portrait of Monroe by focusing (as the title states) on merely one week of her short life. By honing in on her daily struggles, the film provides the audience with pieces of a puzzle which, when put together, helps them understand this deeply troubled woman as a whole.
While Monroe is obviously the focal point of the film, My Week With Marilyn is equally the story of Colin Clark (played with fervor by Eddie Redmayne), an assistant on the 1956 British set of Monroe and Lawrence Olivier’s co-starring vehicle, The Prince and the Showgirl. During the shooting of this film, Monroe’s then husband, Arthur Miller, left England to go work in America, resulting in her very brief affair with Clark.
To Monroe, Clark represents a type of innocence. He’s a boy who idolizes her for her celebrity status yet is also able to protect her from it by seeing past her façade. He hasn’t been corrupted by the pressures and politics of Hollywood and provides an alternate reality: one in which she can be free from the “Marilyn Monroe” mask she’s burdened with wearing. It’s a fantasy to which Monroe, self-aware as she is insecure, can briefly escape. Yet, despite Clark’s best efforts, she knows that it’s not one where she can stay.
As a result, Clark becomes Monroe’s puppet of sorts. He attempts to soothe her insecurities by providing her a level of attention that he witnessed Miller failing to give her. When she’s lonely, Clark is at her beck and call. He tells her that she’s the world’s greatest actress. He confesses how much he loves her. He tells her the truth about The Prince and the Showgirl, explaining that it isn’t the movie that’s going to launch her as the serious actress she so longs to be. He convinces her that he understands who she really is at the core. But to Monroe, Clark is nothing more than a hologram – a pretty illusion that acts as a projection of what she desires. Someone to fill the void until her real savior shows up.
It’s impossible, however, to continue writing about this cinematic achievement without discussing its extraordinary lead actress, Michelle Williams. The amount of rawness and passion that Williams brings to the role provides for such a razor-sharp foray into Monroe’s psyche that it’s hard to watch her and not feel intrusive. To not feel like you’re trespassing on a stranger’s innermost private moments.
As she did last year in the devastatingly gorgeous Blue Valentine, Williams demonstrates a firm grasp of her character, conveying an unsurpassed degree of truth. Even in a year of exceptionally strong female performances–Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia and Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day–Williams soars above her awards season competition. She does so by channeling this real-life woman with such authenticity that even Monroe’s friends and companions are singing her highest praises.
Williams doesn’t even appear on screen until well into the film. Instead, director Simon Curtis brilliantly sets up Monroe’s arrival in England by showing the hype surrounding it, paving the path for the events to come. And it’s not until nearly half of the movie has gone by that Williams explicitly struggles with over-medicating or feelings of solitude.
Yet, even when she is first presented as the bubbly Marilyn we all know, Williams masterfully displays a subtle vulnerability that suggests we’re only seeing the surface of this incredibly complex character. She masters Monroe to such a degree that even her smallest facial expressions reveal to the audience that this was a woman in the midst of unraveling.
It’s interesting to think of Williams playing this despondent role. After all, Marilyn Monroe was a much deeper and more elaborate character than any part Monroe herself ever played. And where Williams shines brightest is by showing the juxtaposition of the real-life woman and the hollow character she tries to make into a believable person.
Another reason why My Week With Marilyn succeeds so well is that it is an actor’s movie. And I don’t just mean because of the phenomenal performances from Williams, Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Emma Watson. Similar to The Artist, one aspect of My Week With Marilyn I found to be especially fascinating was the narrative it employed about the tensions between “old” and “new” Hollywood – or rather classical vs. modern methods of acting.
In the movie, Olivier is portrayed as a classically trained actor struggling to adjust to a post-Stanislavski climate. Monroe, on the other hand, is the quintessential manifestation of the contemporary actress. She even has an acting coach on set to walk her through her beats and objectives as she attempts to understand Elsie, her seemingly one-dimensional The Prince and the Showgirl character.
During a particularly memorable moment of the film, Olivier becomes increasingly frustrated with Monroe with each failed take of a scene. Monroe is not able to understand her character’s motives, let alone agree with them. Therefore, she can’t bring herself to shoot the scene because it defies the idea of truth she believes acting is all about.
“Can’t you just be sexy? Isn’t that what you do?” Olivier barks at her in a fury. It is clear that Olivier, as both the director and co-star of The Prince and the Showgirl, is far less concerned with Monroe’s craft than he is with her spectacle.
To a woman who wishes nothing more than to be taken seriously, this is the cruelest directive to be given. It is made obvious that, even among her peers, Monroe was seen as nothing more than a toy to be objectified at the public’s disposal. Her happiness and health were irrelevant as long as she could remain the blonde bombshell who seductively pouted her lips and winked at the screen.
What makes the movie even sadder is that every viewer knows about Monroe’s eventual lethal overdose. A biopic would have documented all the specifics of Monroe’s downward spiral. My Week With Marilyn takes a different approach—and packs a more concentrated punch. Williams’ stellar performance, Curtis’ direction and Adrian Hodge’s script showcases just how depressed, misunderstood and frail a person Monroe really was. The result is a truly heartbreaking, beautiful, original piece of art that should be on every Academy voter’s radar this season.
My Week With Marilyn is playing in select cities now.