Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

If you take away that Elton John song; the shot of her standing over the sidewalk vent from The Seven Year Itch; that she was married to a couple of the guys she was married to (Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio are the ones I’m thinking of, and I guess I’m not 100% sure that she was actually married to DiMaggio); and maybe a handful of the films she was in (the aforementioned picture with the infmaous street scene, Some Like it Hot, and…yeah, those are actually the only two that I can come up with), then the only thing I could tell you for sure that I know about Marilyn Monroe is that she was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.

And that, contends this new picture starring Michelle Williams as the iconic Monroe, might just have been the problem. The film tells the story of the week that Colin Clark spent with Monroe while he was the third assistant to director Laurence Olivier while the latter was filming The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Monroe. It’s a little bit dangerous for me to write anything about this film, since I don’t, in fact, know all that much about Monroe. There is a subset of human being that obsesses over her, and I can totally believe that they spend a lot of time patrolling the magic internets so that they can flame anyone who gets even the most minuscule fact about Monroe wrong.

I thought that, anyway; and then I found proof positive of it when I landed on the Amazon page listing the book upon which this film is based, one that collects two books by Clark into a single volume for the first time—The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: The Colin Clark Diaries and My Week with Marilyn, the first being Clark’s diary from the set of the film, and the second being a memoir of the period. There are two user reviews, both of which seem to take great umbrage at the fact that Clark’s books do not square precisely with how they have come to know their dear, dear Marilyn. The second of these goes on and on about how Clark could not have been on hand to witness Monroe having a miscarriage.

I don’t know how that plays in the book (though I do plan to read it, so I guess we’ll see), but I can tell you for sure that the miscarriage scene is so quick as to be inconsequential in the film. David came in while I was watching the film last Tuesday night, to tell me that he had finished watching his own movie and was getting ready to leave; and in the one or two minutes we were talking, the miscarriage scene came and went, and then was not alluded to again. The Amazon reviewer writes as though Clark has personally besmirched him, noting that Monroe, having passed, cannot defend herself. Perhaps the reviewer did not take the time to learn that Clark has also passed and is also unable to defend himself.

Alas, however, this is not a documentary. It is a dramatization, and as such, it has to conform to certain standards pertaining to the narrative arc. There are not a great many people whose lives have been textbook narrative arc material, which is another way of saying that even many of the most interesting people who have ever lived need to have a few things either made up about them or embellished up from the foundation of the truth in order to make their life stories interesting enough to sustain modes of entertainment like novels and feature films. (Which is not to say that people should just make stuff up about other people in order to sell books and movies. But at the same time, people need to realize that sometimes the larger story cannot be told without an exaggeration here or an embellishment there. No matter how much care is taken with the procurement and presentation of facts, even the most the rigorous piece of non-fiction is, at bottom, also a work of fiction.)

So with all of those annoying caveats out of the way, what else is there to say about the movie? The big thing is that Michelle Williams is excellent as Marilyn Monroe. She plays a Monroe who is both confident and terribly insecure, and in many scenes she says just as much with her eyes as she does with words. Her version of Marilyn Monroe gives us the young woman who wants to be more than just the manufactured sex symbol—except that she can’t manage to convince anyone that there is more to her than her sex appeal; it is both her stock in trade and the seeming bane of her existence, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which she is both trapped and aware that she is trapped.

The script takes some liberties with history, compressing time so that Clark can be on hand for the aforementioned miscarriage, and so that he can be there for Marilyn to hang out with after husband Miller returns to New York. According to the commenter on the Amazon site—and yes! I’m using an internet commenter as a source!—Miller had left for America and then returned to the UK in time to be there for Monroe’s miscarriage, a fact that would have precluded quite a bit of what happened in the film; and whether that internet commenter is correct or not, much of what takes place when Clark and Monroe get to spend time together has the feel of a fairy tale—which I think in the end comes back to haunt the film.

Eddie Redmayne is fine as Colin Clark, neither overly impressive nor particularly awkward. Kenneth Branagh is over the top as Olivier, but after all these years, does anyone really expect Branagh to be anything but over the top? I don’t know anything about Olivier either, but Branagh’s performance seemed to fit the character pretty well; and for all of that bluster, there were a few genuine moments that an actor less nuanced than Branagh (who can be so when he wants to be) might have fumbled. The saddest part of the movie is the waste made of Emma Watson, in her first live-action role in a film that does not begin with the words Harry Potter. She plays the production’s costume girl that Clark had been flirting with and had asked out—before he became so besotted with Monroe. She doesn’t have much of a part, and so can probably be forgiven for failing to bring much to her few lines; but it would have nice to be able to see her flex her acting chops without the aid of a wand. (That chance is coming, however; Watson stars in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for the Gen Y set, next year.)

The point of a movie like this is to see Marilyn Monroe as portrayed by someone else; everything else is ancillary, including the background story, and some of that background material gets short shrift here. A lot of the time, a sudden, intense attraction between two people turns out to be a temporary thing. In Clark’s case, the attraction was one-sided; Monroe simply used him to get things that she wanted or needed. (I suppose you could make the case that she was attracted to him too, but I think it’s a weak argument, especially considering how manipulative Monroe—as portrayed by Williams—tended to be.) The grounded-in-reality part of the story that frames the would-be fairy tale, then, should either be razor thin and without serious distraction, or fully involved in the initial and further development of the character at the heart of the fairy tale. Neither is the case here, unfortunately. The addition of the Watson character muddles what the audience is given to ponder about Colin Clark, and that also takes away from the clarity of the fairy tale.

The filmmakers seem to get the idea that they have an interesting story to tell, but they seem to have much less of an idea about how to place that story in a larger context. It’s almost as though they expended so much effort on the Marilyn parts that they didn’t have enough left in the tank for the rest of the film; and it’s important for the rest of the film to be strong, or else Williams’ performance is just a performance, and not a part of something greater—but I’m afraid that in the end, that’s what we have: a really strong performance by Williams, and not much more than that.

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