Tuesday, December 6, 2011

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN - A Slice of Hollywood History


- As a small town kid that moved out to Hollywood, I won't lie, I often did - and do - fantasize a bit about meeting and befriending stars. And when I have, on occasion, rubbed elbows with a celebrity, there is always that brief moment where you wonder if you could possibly form some sort of connection beyond that of lofty star and lowly fan. Now, let's take this scenario to the ultimate extreme: it's 1953, you're a 23-year-old nobody, a proto-movie-geek living outside of London (okay, sure, your family is pretty well-connected and well-to-do, but that's mostly irrelevant if you're trying to break into showbiz). You get a job as a glorified gopher working on a film set - Sir Laurence Olivier is shooting his latest movie at the famous Pinewood studios in London, and it's co-starring none other than Marilyn Monroe. Imagine that you meet Olivier, you meet Marilyn. And somehow, someway, she takes a liking to you. She starts hanging out with you. She maybe, just maybe, FALLS IN LOVE WITH YOU. Preposterous, right? Afterall, this kid is a geeky, gawky nobody, and Marilyn Monroe is the biggest star in the world, the most gorgeous woman in the world. But, she's also a lost soul, a pill-addicted, anxiety-ridden girl pining for any semblance of a normal life. And so maybe this kid, who doesn't know any better than to talk to her like a high school crush, is exactly what she's looking for. And that's the true-life premise of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. Well, allegedly. 100% true or not though, it makes for a great story, and for a thoroughly entertaining film.

A lot of the talk about this one has centered around Michelle Williams' turn as Marilyn. And rightfully so. It's an absolutely fantastic performance, and a surefire Oscar nominee. The physical transformation alone is pretty remarkable. Makeup and wigs and prosthetics do some of the work, but Williams captures Marilyn's mannerisms, her voice, her walk, her moves. But that's only the surface level. Beyond just the mimicry and whatnot, there's also a ton going on beneath the surface. We see the depression, angst, and volatility of the iconic star - how she would succumb to her fans and be "Marilyn Monroe," even when she didn't want to be "on." We see how she was getting to that insane level of stardom where it's hard to even be a human being, and the toll it was taking on her. We see her role as a star, as opposed to Olivier, who was an *actor.* Since this is a story told from the perspective of our young gopher - Colin (Eddie Redmayne), William's Marilyn still comes off, for all her faults and problems, like some kind of luminescent angel recently fallen from heaven. Maybe she didn't always *want* to be a star, but she just is one, innately. And again, I think that's what makes this film so fascinating - it's not a biopic of Monroe, but a look at a very specific moment in her life, as told through the perspective of an ordinary guy who happened to come into her orbit.

It's fascinating to see this moment in Monroe's life, and it's equally fascinating to see this moment in pop-culture play out on screen. The movie does a fantastic job of showing all the benhind-the-scenes drama that existed on the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl," the movie that Marilyn Monroe travelled to London to make with Olivier. She saw is as a chance to establish herself as a more legitimate actress, he saw it as a shot to be more of a Hollywood star - and the results, it seems, were often disasterous. Olivier had little patience for Marilyn's lateness, her oversensitivity, and her reliance on an everpresent acting coach to guide her through each scene of the film. Marilyn, meanwhile, felt intimidated by what she perceived to be a hostile set, and had little tolerance for Olivier's prickliness. And yet, Olivier, like every other man on the planet at that time, found himself entranced by his platinum-blonde costar, even as she infuriated him.

Speaking of Olivier, Kenneth Branagh is superb as the legendary thespian. Branagh makes Olivier into a larger-than-life character almost as fascinating as Monroe. He's a Shakespeare-quoting, tempermental, refined actor of the stage and screen who finds himself aging, still not having achieved the widespread recognition and acclaim he feels he deserves. Since Branagh himself is cut from a similar cloth (instead of making The Prince and the Showgirl, he directed THOR), there's a pretty interesting dynamic at play in his portrayal. And remember - Michelle Williams started out on Dawson's Creek, so there are some parallels there as well. Another huge standout is Judi Dench, who gets in some great lines as veteran actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who plays a supporting role in Olivier's film. Dominic Cooper, continuing a year in which he's apparently in every other movie released, is also characteristically great as Marilyn's manager, Milton Greene (and his Captain America cohort, Toby Jones, shows up as well - this movie has quite the Marvel comics connection). I also really liked Dougray Scott (never thought I'd say that!) in his small role as Marilyn's husband at the time, the famous playwright Arthur Miller. Harry Potter's Emma Watson also has a nice supporting role as a costumer who Colin passes over in favor for a chance with Marilyn.

If there's any weak point to the film, it might be, oddly, its main character - who in many ways is a suporting character in his own story. Really, the chief role of Colin is to be our eyes and ears - through his everyman perspective, we get a unique glimpse at Marylin Monroe, at Laurence Olivier. But Colin himself ... I never found him particularly endearing. I liked him at first, when he was the wide-eyed newbie on the set of his first big film production. But there's also a certain, slightly-irritating smugness to his character. I think part of this might be the fault of Eddie Redmayne. He's good, but he just seems a little too much like British royalty or something to function as a true everyman. There's an air of entitlement to Redmayne that doesn't do the story any favors. Of course, it's a true story - based on a memoir anyways - so the movie has certain boundaries it has to work within. At the same time though, there's something a little less appealling about a preppy, sort-of-smug British kid - wide-eyed film fan or not - as being the one who somehow manages to win the heart of Marilyn by-god Monroe. This is the sort of one-in-a-million story you'd want to happen to someone truly likable and unassuming, and Colin is likable enough, but you also never *really* root for him or feel elated for him.

Nonetheless, the movie really does a great job of capturing the initial rush of being on a film set and of this kid meeting directors and actors and stars. I couldn't help but think back to my own early days as an NBC Page, and the rush of adrenaline I got realizing that here I was - a kid who months earlier had been sitting around in suburban CT - working on The Tonight Show and interacting with stars I'd grown up watching.

My Week With Marilyn really surprised me. Far from being a dreary biopic, it's a funny, affecting, excellently-acted snapshot of a particular moment in movie history - and film fans and cinephiles and dreamers everywhere should get a huge kick out of it. Michelle Williams knocks it out of the park, Kenneth Branagh is terrific, and who knows, after watching this ... maybe you'll feel like you just might have a shot with Scarlett Johansson afterall.

My Grade: A-

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