Tuesday, December 27, 2011
I'm Ready For My Closeup
I begin with a confession: I have never seen any of Marilyn Monroe's films. I've seen bits and pieces of things, YouTube clips and such, but I've never watched any of her films start to finish. I remember stumbling upon one of her early films (The Asphalt Jungle, I think) and though styles have changed so much since 1950 I still remember the sheer earthquake sexuality of her the moment she came on screen. Even at so brief an exposure it was clear that she had--literally--an animal magnetism about her, a kind of lit-from-within quality that stole every scene she was in. But I haven't made a study of her, and she's more on my radar as an icon than an active enthusiasm.
But the movie choices here in Dubai are limited, at least for a visiting Westerner, and Simon Curtis's recent film My Week With Marilyn seemed intriguing. Based on an autobiographical sketch by the obscure British entertainment grunt Colin Clark, the film tells the story of Clark's brief acquaintance and quasi-affair with Monroe in 1955 when she was in London to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. Olivier, played fabulously here as a steam-kettle diva by fellow Master Thespian Kenneth Branagh, had little time for Monroe's unschooled and needy nature, and his exasperation was redoubled by the thorough upstaging she gave him despite seeming not to know what the hell she was doing.
Newly-hired Third Assistant Director Colin Clark is tasked with looking after the needy Monroe, and a friendship blossoms and becomes something a little more, the briefest of flames.
That story is reasonably entertaining on its own, but the film's raison d'etre is really to serve up a character study of the complex persona of Norma Jean / Marilyn Monroe. Endowed with a certain degree of talent and this clock-stopping bombshell aspect, the Monroe of this film is unable to show her face in public for the mayhem that instantly ensues. But there are inherent difficulties to being the most famous person on Planet Earth, as the interest of everyone rather makes it difficult for anyone to get to know you in a meaningful way. When everyone wants from you without limit, it becomes very difficult to trust anyone. By 1955 Monroe was recently embarked on her third marriage, this time to Arthur Miller, a marriage which the film implies was on its way out a mere three weeks after the nuptials. Take this person and put her in front of a camera with an older, established stage actor with a retinue and an impatient nature (and plenty of insecurity of his own), and you have guaranteed extra-curricular drama.
Monroe is played here by Michelle Williams, last seen by me in 2010's Shutter Island. Watching a couple trailers for the film before I went, I was a little skeptical as she doesn't exactly parrot the almost self-parodied characteristics I've seen in Monroe's clips--the breathy voice, the shimmying walk and ditzy persona. Williams does all these things, but they're fairly subtle, and it's in the film's quieter moments--the stuff not shown in the trailers--that she seems to magically conjure up the doomed diva. Williams is neither as stunningly beautiful or voluptuous as Monroe (though she scores high enough on both counts), but her brilliant performance gives us someone absolutely magnetic, yet so wounded and needy and scared; her Monroe is not a weak character, but a blindly self-contained one under unimaginable pressures. Like the real Marilyn Monroe, our eyes are glued to Michelle Williams every second she is on screen. There is a light in her eyes that is irresistible and a certain childlike quality to her that is at once vulnerable and frighteningly out of one's league.
There are several other luminaries in the cast: Judi Dench and Michael Kitchen and Emma Watson and Julia Ormond and others. Eddie Redmayne does a lovely job as Colin Clark.
But it's Marilyn Monroe who, as expected, steals the show. The character given us by Michelle Williams is deeply intriguing whether or not she is conjuring an actual person. The fact that there is an historical Marilyn Monroe makes Williams's accomplishment so much better. It's not the movie of the year; but it's a lovely story and a fine entertainment.