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Home » Culture and Criticism

28/31: My Week With Marilyn

Submitted by on December 28, 2011 – 9:30 PM10 Comments

"…Actors." — everyone

Marilyn Monroe and her myth: spare me. I just really don't care. I have compassion for her, for what she must have gone through that opened that maw of insecurity and narcissism, but I don't find her body of work interesting at all, and the unprofessional behavior consistently cast as a gathering gloom of tragedy, whether it's in My Week With Marilyn or in the latest Vanity Fair archive dump, strikes me as merely annoying and exhausting. When Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier spits, "Why can't you get here on time fortheloveof fuck," I grumbled, "Seriously. And learn your fuckin' lines while you're up."

To My Week With Marilyn's credit, I think it intends us to see Monroe (Michelle Williams) as equal parts charming child and frustrating mess. Unfortunately, neither Williams's portrayal nor the Explainypants McOnthenose script does anything new with that idea, which is by now the received wisdom of several decades. The film, based on the memoir by Colin Clark, follows Clark's time with Monroe on and off the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, and the predictable hijinks ensue; Monroe is later than Liz Taylor, flubs her lines, clings to Method coach and fluffer Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), freaks out when new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) goes back to the States, periodically ensorcels Olivier in dailies, blah blah blah. Five minutes in, we get it: she's beautiful and broken and lonely, so then she seduces Clark (the utterly adorable Eddie Redmayne…seriously with the freckles?), who is basically a gofer on the movie but becomes Monroe's conspirator, lover, and babysitter, primarily because he's there.

But we never see her physically seduce Clark, exactly, and as Karina Longworth's review in the Voice notes, "Perhaps the film doesn't dare make Marilyn sexy because it can't deal with the thornier issue of what it means to elevate a severely damaged woman into the greatest pinup icon of her time. Or all time." This is an excellent point, that basically the last person equipped to handle that type or size of stardom sought it out compulsively, then wound up crushed underneath it — but we don't see any genuine intimate engagement, either between the film and that idea or between Monroe and any of the objects of her desperate affection. We see Miller complaining that he can't work; we see Clark goggling at her like a 10-year-old; she's passed out, she's bleeding; it's like a PSA about the perils of mid-century foster care.

I don't mean to sound flip about these topics, but the movie itself can't decide from scene to scene if it wants to be farcey about what a mess Monroe is (speaking of a farce: it's spelled "Tuinal," set dresser), or yank the nostril-hairs of sentimentality about her tragedy. Not that you can't do both, but this movie can't. Adrian Hodges's script never met a nose it wasn't exactly on, for starters. Nuggets of pure obvious like "They like to keep her doped up; it makes her easier to control. They're terrified their cash cow will slip away," "All people ever see is MM. As soon as people realize I'm not her they run," and "I wanted to renew myself" snuff out what little nuance Monroe's personal narrative might have had left LIKE A CANDLE IN THE WIND DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE. Often, a line is acted well enough that you won't quite believe what you just heard (Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike communicates subtly on several channels the idea that blowing gold up Monroe's culo is the only way to get anything done). But eventually the words sink in, and you start listening for a filmstrip's distinctive bong, since surely this is a learning module and not an actual movie. We as a culture have probably passed the point where there's anything new to say about Monroe, but if we haven't, it isn't this writing we should look to.

Williams's portrayal of Monroe is fine. She does quite well with an aspect of Monroe I do find compelling, her inability to resist the shortcut to cheap love and approval. She must have hated all the ways her body and its image defined and controlled her over the years, but she would downshift so easily back to the dumb wiggling kiss-blowing bag of sexy puppies shtick. Williams does a masterful job with that slide, and doesn't need any lines about how it would destroy her if she didn't stop doing it. At the same time, the physicality isn't quite believable. Williams feels contained; Monroe didn't. Of course, that's what makes an icon — that you can't quite copy it — and I can't think of anyone who would have done better with the role, but it did come off a bit studied.

It's not impossible to do something interesting with Monroe as a subject — maybe something like I'm Not There. Dan Bern's "Marilyn" is pretty thoughtful (and funny and catchy). This movie is a 2D mash note, flawed in its inception, and while I can see Williams winning Best Actress for the portrayal, I don't love the idea.

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  • M says:

    Ha! I want to see this almost solely based on my own admiration for Eddie Redmayne's freckles.

  • Seankgallagher says:

    I actually walked out of this movie after an hour; as you said, it was so monotonous, and while Branagh and Williams are fine (and Dench in her far-too-little screen time was very good), they've both been better elsewhere (how I wish Williams was getting awards attention for "Meek's Cutoff" instead of this), and I found Eddie Redmayne annoying (though I concede it was more the writing and how he was directed that made him annoying).

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Heh. Totally agree on the Obvious with a side of DUH script: while it's always nice to watch the Brit war horses Rise Above they really have better things they could be doing.

    Dench's fifty shadings of "Kindness is the fastest path to in the can" is like an exquisite pencil sketch next to the fingerpainting of the dialogue. The way she's so effortlessly nice to everyone, handing out praise and scarves, and the way it contrasts with MM's ability to do the same (she can deploy her act like a stealth missile with the press but is too intimidated to do so with her "peers")–more of that, less "did you get that I can underline it if you didn't get that here let me get a highligher" and there really could have been a there there.

    Branagh's been a favorite since I was but a wee college drama student, and he does his best with what's there, but you feel his frustration with the limits of the script. And Wilson really did manage, for me, to capture that famous "glow"–the way she seemed to channel an energy that lured and enticed just about everyone but he price she had to pay was feeling like nothing but the vessel for it.

    Eddie's freckles were as darling as a basket full of puppies.

  • Trip says:

    I think Williams did as good a job as possible with this material, and deserves her nomination (and very possible Oscar, given how much the Academy loves starlets and biopics). And yes, Redmayne is adorable. The main story: I just kept thinking "yeah, right; the real story is probably 'Marilyn waved to this gofer once, and this is the fantasy he concocted out of it'".

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Sean, totally. She's excellent in MC, but this is the show-stopper, so…

    @Trip: Right? He poured her into bed a couple of times and got two memoirs out of it?

  • year of the cat says:

    Anita Ekberg was asked who was the best sex symbol and replied: "Rita Haworth was worth ten of the rest of us Blank Blanks." I am SO over Marilyn, although I have nothing against Michelle, and the personal tradegy angle will give her a leg up if the material doesn't. Bleagh.

  • year of the cat says:

    Sigh-forgot the Y in Hayworth, although it is the original spelling of her mother's maiden name.

  • Colin says:

    "Yank the nostril-hairs of sentimentality" had me giggling for like five minutes straight. May…may I borrow that? (Properly credited, of course.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Colin, I adapted it myself, from a line Jonathan Bernstein had in "Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies." Borrow away!

  • pomme de terre says:

    Not crazy about it. While I don't go much for the Monroe myth, I have seen and do like a lot of her actual movies. I thought Williams was OK. Not bad, but nothing revelatory, although may be a function of Marilyn being an overly explored subject already.

    Eddie Redmaybe's freckles and Judi Dench's portrayal of Thorndike were the high points.

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