My Week With Marilyn

By Ezra Stead

My Week with Marilyn, UK / USA, 2011

Directed by Simon Curtis

My Week with Marilyn is a solid biopic buoyed by an excellent performance from Michelle Williams. Marilyn Monroe was my first real crush, even before I really knew what a crush was. I grew up on old movies, which is probably the reason I still find the image of a woman smoking with a cocktail in the other hand extremely sexy, and no woman on the silver screen from that golden era long before I was born held the mysterious, seductive allure of Marilyn. Three of her films in particular were my childhood obsessions: Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), which turned out to be her final feature. Of course, there were other favorites, especially Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952) and Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955), but those three really captured her sweet vulnerability, her almost oblivious sensuality, and the soft sadness behind her alluring smile, an indication of the hard life she had lived and, as my young mind and these films dared to hope, had now left behind. In reality, of course, poor Marilyn’s life only got harder, until it was snuffed out all too soon.

One of Marilyn’s films I still have yet to see is Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), a light romantic comedy made at the peak of Marilyn’s career, and around the middle of Olivier’s. Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn centers around the tumultuous production of this film, and the brief, unforgettable time Marilyn (Michelle Williams) spent with third assistant director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) while her husband, the great playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), was away from the production. Kenneth Branagh delivers a lovably overstated performance (as usual) as Olivier, an actor to whom he was favorably compared in his early days, especially with the release of his breakthrough Shakespeare adaptation Henry V (1989), and it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Physically, the amazing Michael Fassbender would seem an apt choice, but Branagh chews scenery and spout Shakespeare like no other, and anyway, Fassbender has been way too busy lately.

Obviously, the draw of this film is Williams’ performance as Marilyn, which is an uncanny achievement. Like Branagh as Olivier, it is not so much a striking physical resemblance (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks would clearly be a better choice for that) as it is a profound immersion in the character. Though she doesn’t really look like Marilyn, Williams has the voice and mannerisms down so perfectly that at times I literally forgot that I was watching what could unkindly be called an impersonation and felt as if I were actually seeing long-lost, impossibly candid footage of the great woman herself, the highest compliment that could be paid to a performance like this. It is similar to Cate Blanchett’s brilliant turn as Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2005), though Blanchett looks even less like her subject, and of course Katharine Hepburn never broke a nation’s heart with her untimely death (since she lived to the ripe old age of 748).

As is said of Marilyn herself by her co-star, Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) in the film, when Williams is onscreen, nothing else matters. It is impossible not to identify with Colin as he falls hopelessly in love with Marilyn because, well, how could he not? At the same time, it is a doomed, tragic love, not only because Marilyn is already married to Miller, but because she could never seem to truly love herself. She voraciously sought and received the adoration of the world, but the constant attention only made her unhappier. Her career and life were a vicious cycle of dependence not unlike the relationship of an addict to their drug of choice; Marilyn needed fame like a junkie needs heroin, and it destroyed her in the same seductive way. The film manages to capture this without resorting to blatant melodrama, and Williams’ performance sells it more than anything else.

I don’t mean to sell the rest of the film short; everything else about the film is solid as well, particularly its fine supporting performances by Dench, Dominic Cooper and Emma “Hermione Granger” Watson, as well as a superb cameo by British national treasure Derek Jacobi. Curtis does a good job of capturing the daily travails of studio filmmaking, and the era feels authentic. Credit should also be given to the makeup and lighting departments for their assistance in creating the central illusion of Marilyn, but ultimately, as with any kind of biopic, this film belongs to its star, and Williams carries the show. It is a remarkable, devastating performance that will undoubtedly be remembered when we get to Oscar time, and though she may not win this year (she’s already been nominated twice before, for her excellent work in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and last year’s Blue Valentine), it is to be fervently hoped that, unlike poor Marilyn, she will have decades more to amaze us all with her skill and talent.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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