Her I.Q. was 160, but most people were interested in Marilyn Monroe’s other numbers: 37-23-35. Thanks to 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the California-born actress became an international celebrity. But she tired of her bombshell persona, and disparaging her brilliant comedic talent, Monroe longed to be a serious actress.
At age 30, with playwright/husband Arthur Miller and her entourage of enablers in tow, she went to England to co-star in The Prince and the Showgirl with the world’s most respected “serious” actor, Laurence Olivier. Olivier, feeling old at age 50, thought working with the vivacious American actress would make him feel young again. Alas, Oliver hadn’t figured on Miss Monroe’s crippling insecurities nor her notoriously bad working habits. (“I’ve been on a calendar,” she said, “but never on time.”). The production was a nightmare for both of them.
Ingratiating himself to everyone on set was a 23-year old movie-struck Eton graduate named Colin Clark. In an alignment of destiny that defies logic, Colin found became the personal companion to Miss Monroe. He was the only male she could trust, it seemed, and she insisted that he be at her beck and call. The two of them romped like teenagers, played tourist, went skinny dipping, held hands during the day, spooned at night, and talked all the time. Colin explained to her what was really happening on the set: “It’s agony because he’s [Olivier] a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you’re a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won’t help either of you.” Miss Monroe felt safe in Colin’s youthful honesty. He, of course, was besotted with her.
A half century after Monroe flew back to the states and into film history, Mr. Clark’s memories come to the screen in My Week with Marilyn. It’s a sweet, enjoyable story, a pleasant nostalgic trip back to 1950s, where movies were made on sound stages and the battles between movie stars were witnessed by film crews who kept their opinions to themselves. It’s TV director Simon Curtis’ first feature film—based on a TV writer’s script—which perhaps is the reason why the film is competent but not extraordinary.
What is wonderful about My Week with Marilyn are the performances. Michelle Williams, usually cast in “small-town” roles (Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island), is positively incandescent as movie star Marilyn Monroe. She doesn’t imitate Monroe so much as share a similar wattage. She captures Monroe’s heart-wrenching loneliness and her childlike vulnerability to such a degree that you’re convinced you know both women because you’ve been eavesdropping on their most intimate revelations.
Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark is a likeable young hero, awkward and brave. Kenneth Branagh, always bigger than life in general, doesn’t create a version of Olivier so much as play himself—no complaints here. Judi Dench, as screen dowager Sybil Thorndyke, glistens like the jewels she wears. The most obnoxious character, Monroe’s obsessively protective acting coach Paula Strasberg, is given a creepy and all-too-realistic interpretation by Zoe Wanamaker.
The smaller roles were a tad frustrating, perhaps because the film, at less than 100 minutes, shortchanged them. Dougray Scott was a suitably nasty Arthur Miller, proving what I always say about us writers—we have no monopoly on virtue. Julia Ormond needed much more screen time to flesh out her character, Vivien Leigh (who played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind), the older wife worrying her husband might be scorched by Miss Monroe’s radiance.
In the end, truthfully, you don’t remember the supporting cast, nor the great costumes or lovely English settings. You, like the young Colin Clark, are utterly enchanted by an unforgettable screen goddess—and this time her name is Michelle Williams.