Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
Nov. 22, 2011
The life of Marilyn Monroe is the quintessential American Hollywood fairytale: a story of a down-on-her-luck kid who is chosen by fate to become a movie star.
The film My Week with Marilyn is based on filmmaker Colin Clark’s 2000 book of the same name. The book relates Clark’s experiences working as the third assistant director and Laurence Olivier’s personal assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1957 film directed by Olivier and produced by both him and Monroe. My Week with Marilyn—both the film and the book—focus on the weeklong affair between Clark (Eddie Redmayne) and Monroe (Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine and Brokeback Mountain) that occurred during the film’s production.
Born Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe spent her childhood in foster homes. Her mother was psychotic and she never knew her father. As a teenager, a series of guardians shuffled her around.
It was when Monroe was 19, working in a munitions factory, that she got her first lucky break. The young woman was photographed by an army photographer who sold the picture to Yank, the Army’s weekly magazine, and encouraged Monroe to pursue modeling. She dyed her hair blonde and her career took off.
This random encounter with the photographer led Monroe eventually to a contract with Columbia Pictures. Her popularity—and infamy—grew with the American public. She began dating famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio (he later became the second of her three husbands) and became the first Playboy centerfold in 1953. Her risqué behavior on- and off-screen led some to consider her work inappropriate, while others saw her as a symbol of the emerging liberated American woman.
Monroe both enjoyed and was troubled by all of this attention. She traveled to England in 1956, where she began filming The Prince and the Showgirl alongside the famed British Shakespearean actor-director Olivier, hoping to establish herself as a serious actress. This moment is where the film My Week with Marilyn begins.
Monroe was married to acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), her third husband, during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. It was only after Miller returned to America a week before the production ended that Clark and Monroe were free to begin their affair.
The film closely follows the narrative Clark describes in his book. During the filming, Monroe felt personally attacked by Olivier (the smugly wonderful Kenneth Branagh) and sought out Clark for moral support. Clark was, of course, immediately enamored with Monroe and could not refuse any of her demands. Redmayne, as Clark, gives a compelling performance as a naïve young man unable to see that Monroe is ultimately taking advantage of him. His boyish, freckled face lights up whenever he is in her presence, and Redmayne’s transformation from a shy boy into a confident young man is one of the highlights of the film. Scenes of the two frolicking in the English countryside and devolving into fits of laughter showcase the best moments in their relationship.
Williams’ performance, like Monroe herself, is more difficult to fully grasp. Unlike other actresses who have portrayed the icon of feminine beauty, Williams focuses on Monroe’s childlike wonder rather than her irresistible sexiness. My Week with Marilyn depicts Monroe as a troubled woman not fully in control of her own actions. She has moments of crippling self-doubt as well as scenes in which she flourishes under the public eye, though it is clear that the rift between her public persona and her private life causes her emotional pain. Williams does a good job of creating this image, but ultimately, the character is unsatisfying. Throughout the film, it never really feels as though the audience is watching Monroe. Rather, we watch an actress play her.
Part of the problem is that Williams, despite her blond tresses, looks little like Monroe. Monroe was famous for her full figure and brash attitude, whereas Williams is a waifish pixie with a thin face who often looks uncomfortable on the red carpet. Williams does manage to capture Monroe’s girlish voice and trained walk, but she doesn’t give a convincing performance overall.
Branagh, on the other hand, is the clear standout of the film. He shares several uncanny similarities with his character, Olivier. Both men are highly regarded Shakespearean actors, and both have directed and starred in film versions of Hamlet, Othello, Henry V and Richard III.
In the film, Olivier is unable to cope with Monroe’s unprofessional attitude. The actress is often several hours late and cannot remember her lines. Olivier ends up screaming slews of curses at her or to his cast and crew. These furious monologues are some of the funniest moments in the film. Branagh performs just as well in My Week‘s more subtle moments, such as his interactions with Olivier’s then-wife, actress Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). It is also lovely to see the character, in one of the film’s final scenes, come at last to acknowledge Monroe’s acting talent.
My Week with Marilyn attempts to be a dramatic story of one man’s fling with the most famous sex bomb of all time. However, it never manages to live up to the drama of this premise. The relationship occurs when Miller is out of the country, so there is no chance of him discovering Clark and Monroe’s affair. Furthermore, the film includes a scene implying that Miller doesn’t even love Monroe, so the audience can’t fault Monroe or Clark for committing adultery.
Many characters warn Clark not to get involved with Monroe, that she will break his heart. He ignores them but comes out unscathed anyway. Despite disapproval from the rest of the cast and crew, Clark suffers no professional consequences for his affair. When it is time for Monroe to return to America, the two have one final, amicable conversation. When his former girlfriend, Lucy (a small role by Emma Watson), asks if Monroe broke his heart, Clark responds, “a little.” There is no passionate fight, no breakdown or emotional hardship. The relationship is never even consummated. The two kiss twice, briefly. I had to wonder if the week Clark spent with Marilyn was more of an ephemeral friendship than an affair to remember.
My Week with Marilyn gives a glimpse into Marilyn Monroe’s life just before her demons began to get the best of her. It is a light-hearted film without a huge amount of substance. However, it does provide an interesting look into the life of one of the most famous, but ultimately enigmatic, stars of the twentieth century.