Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Week With Marilyn (2011): Icky

This slick product was even triter and more cliche-ridden than I expected. A giant sloppy valentine so tacky that the glue splurts out at the edges and the little candied hearts spill out all over your school desk. It's a coming-of-age story centered around a charmless, bland, unattractive boy's Madonna-Whore idolatry of an apparently brainless, voluptuous, child-woman shaped legend.

My Week With Marilyn is the kind of movie with lines like, "Don't get in too deep, son," "she just needs kindness," "that's what she does, she breaks hearts," "I had everything to prove to my family, but more to prove to myself," and "When I think of her now, I think of that time when a dream came true. And my only talent was not to close my eyes." Why, yes, Colin Clark, judging by this movie, that was your only talent outside of picking houses for her to stay in.

Marilyn simpers, "why do the people I love always leave me,"  and "people always see Marilyn Monroe. As soon as they realize I'm not her, they run." And, yes, even that old beaten horse, "Little girls should be told how pretty they are." That's how deep the movie goes analyzing Marilyn Monroe: they look at her memorable quotes page on IMDb.

Director Simon Curtis and Colin Clark's own "memoirs" supply us with nothing new, no unique glimpse into Marilyn Monroe's character. Apparently she was vulnerable. Apparently she was late to the set and had a hard time remembering her lines. Apparently she had family issues. Apparently she took pills. Apparently she was manipulative. But no, apparently she was really a child at heart. No, no...really...she was WOMAN.

Oh, to be forcibly gagged again and again with a spoon.

Where is the witty conversationalist Truman Capote remembered fondly, that brash, intelligent woman, frankly unsentimental about the harsh facts of life? Where's the savvy businesswoman who took her career in her own hands when Hollywood kept sending her trash to star in (I added this in after reading this well-written piece at The Sheila Variations left me in the comments by the lovely Rachel.)?

She's not here. Oh, Laurence Olivier mentions at the end that she "must be tough" to have survived Hollywood, and is much stronger than we all think. Well, at least we get to hear stuffy guys say that while watching footage of her dancing girlishly rather than, God forbid, provide a scene where she's actually acting like an adult.

In Vulnavia Morbius's recent review of The Hunger Games over at Krell Laboratories, she discusses the concept of "masking" and how it applies to the character of Bella in the Twilight series: how readers/viewers can "mask" over that blank slate of a girl without any defining characteristics with their own qualities, thus making out with the vampire boy by proxy. My Week With Marilyn commits the same crime of masking with the character of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Going by the way he's portrayed in this film--as a gawky, unappealing ramrod of a boy--I highly suspect Clark's credibility, believe it or not. If the real diary he wrote during The Prince and the Showgirl's filming reads anything at all like this drippy wish-fulfillment script, then in all probability Clark indulged in some hardcore Marilyn Monroe fanfiction to pass the time.

Oh, I'm sure if the boy was appealing and dynamic enough, even a legend like Monroe could have fallen for him. Love comes in many different shapes and sizes, yadda yadda. But because she's only an object for us to contemplate in awed adoration, we see none of Marilyn's motivation for taking him under her sensual wing. As played by Redmayne, he's a wide-eyed dope, a walking, talking, pasty pubescent boner. We're meant to think Marilyn's drawn to him because he's so kind to her, so understanding. Yeah, well, guess what? There were probably about fifty men in that studio alone who would have been more than willing to be so kind, and far more interesting in the bargain. But ah, how could you, the average male viewer, ever relate to a suave, dashing fellow's magical encounter with La Marilyn? Indeed, how could the average girl relate to a Marilyn Monroe goddess winning Edward Cullen's heart?

Just the fact that Curtis et al assume the only way Marilyn Monroe's character can be approached and appreciated is through the nauseatingly lustful and puppyish lens of this horny nonentity is a screaming insult to the actress. When does a tantalizing enigma become a victim of insulting objectification? When the standard Hollywood "swelling and meaningful" score by Conrad Pope pipes up in full "swelling and meaningful" mode when Marilyn enters the picture, dazily arriving at the London airport while Colin looks on, dry-mouthed.

Michelle Williams redeems some of this movie, not all. She is very, very good. She doesn't look like Marilyn, durrhay, and yes, sometimes--even though we'd like to think we're above associating Marilyn with her mere physical image--the difference in looks takes you away from the character a little. But Williams at her best evokes something that is Marilyn, something in her gestures, voice, and big sad eyes. Unfortunately, they're the parts highlighted above: vulnerable, lonely, tragic. I watched some clips on YouTube afterward of Marilyn in The Prince and the Showgirl, and I realized one thing the movie and Williams is missing: the joyousness of Marilyn, the carefree humor that permeated all her roles even when she seemed at her saddest and poutiest. Marilyn's never a chore to watch. You're never thinking, "oh, I can't watch this, you plainly see how tragic her life will turn out" (save maybe for Don't Bother To Knock where she sold the hell out of her image of vulnerability, to chilling effect). She carried with her an airy, happy charm totally lacking in this representation.

I don't want to downplay how sad Marilyn Monroe's life often was and how terrible and borderline Dickensian her upbringing was. But anyone who's read up on the lives of Gene Tierney or particularly Susan Peters will quickly determine that Marilyn Monroe was not quite the most tragic classic actress that ever was, as we so desperately try to make her. Do we make Monroe a tragic icon so we can feel better about liking her? Is it really that important to our collective ego that we enjoy her as something more, something deeper than a uniquely delightful, blonde, and cuddly comedienne? For whose benefit are we turning her into a sexy Joan of Arc martyr? Retroactive guilt for refusing to take her seriously while she was alive, like she wanted? No, I think it's because none of us feel comfortable admitting we miss a pretty woman with a great body who made us laugh. Guys wanted to have sex with her, but not in a crude way. And because it's too simple to reason that away with, "well, she was a funny, good-natured, innocent sexpot onscreen," we have to say instead, "it's because a tragic goddess peers out longingly from those tortured, half-closed eyes that we must protect her rather than boink her! Or protect her while we boink her." Because that's less creepy somehow?

Williams was good, Redmayne was bad, and no other character registers long enough beyond making weak impressions or stumbling about as loud, clumsily drawn stereotypes. Kenneth Branagh as Olivier is a buffoon, a haughty classical clown who yells a lot. Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike is a kindly enigma, existing only to function as a one-dimensional symbol of upper-crust grandmotherly wisdom. Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller is another enigma, this time of the standoffish, maybe three-minutes-of-screentime variety (I doubt he started writing After the Fall three weeks after marrying Marilyn. Cheap emotional ploy by the writers). He and Thorndike disappear about halfway through, along with a weirdly gnomish publicity man (Toby Jones) and a wasted Derek Jacobi who only shows up to be entranced in a fatherly way for one scene by Marilyn. They fade away in the wake of the gross, poorly written, unbelievable quasi-romance that spawns between Marilyn and the ickiest boyish stalker that ever was, Colin.

Emma Watson is cute and capable as the discarded Lucy, making more of an impression than I expected, especially compared to the film's paltry portrayal of Marilyn. Seriously, no matter how doe-eyed and sincere Williams made her, I like Olivier wanted to haul off and slap her, yelling, "Grow up!" We all got problems, Norma Jeane, yet where are our Paula Svengali Strasbergs to hold our hands and literally bow down before us? Get over yourself, get to set on-time, stop wasting everyone's energy and money, you monstrous baby-woman.

I really don't think that's how we're supposed to feel about Marilyn Monroe, but after a few hours of indulgent fawning from the director, that is very much how I felt. I lost patience with the weepy, spoiled Marilyn image forced on us.

My big secret motivation for seeing this film was as a protective and discerning Vivien Leigh fan. So what did I think of Julia Ormond? Eh, she was all right, I suppose. Her actual acting might not have channeled much Vivien beyond the surface elegance, but her carriage and bearing did. She is a bit brittle, though. When she breaks down watching reels of Monroe and tells Olivier she hopes Marilyn makes his life hell, Ormond had been so stately and sophisticated up to that point, she really comes across more like a bitter old diva than a woman with a tortured psyche of her own. Still, she wasn't the screeching harpy I was afraid a Marilyn-friendly bio would portray, so overall I considered it an inoffensive if not superficial turn. Catherine Zeta-Jones was originally slated to play the role but dropped out to care for a sick Michael Douglas, so I'm sure if she had played Vivien the role would have been made larger and meatier to accommodate the famous Zeta-Jones name (even if I think she looks less like Vivien than Ormond). Still, even after Zeta-Jones left, Vivien's character was written down in the script, so I guess they figured they ought to keep Vivien in, for appearance's sake. A very British thing to do.

I don't think Marilyn deserves a better bio-pic; I think she deserves some damn peace and quiet. If we're not able to give her a fresh edge, a fresh characterization with more depth than the fragile broken baby doll image that denigrates far more than elevates, I'd much rather watch that goofy, fun, sexy gal in How to Marry a Millionaire and call it a day.


  1. Word, word, and word.

    I think your comparison of Colin to Bella Swan is inspired. Damn but this kid is bland and useless and damp-eyed. And yes, I know this is taken from the guy's memoir but the ease with which this rich, entitled kid can waltz onto an Olivier movie set and have people fawn over him just for making phone calls to his aristocratic just sticks in my craw. Granted the real-life guy probably was just a rich kid whose connections got him a job but still. If they're going to play around with reality as much as they do here, can't they at least give him some signs of intelligence and insight?

    I don't know if I despised this film as much as you did. I think the acting of Williams was enough to carry me through. She at least shows respect to Monroe and treats her like a real person to play, even with the triteness of what she's selling. However, I was never able to buy her as a sex symbol. It's nothing to do with her looks, it's just her aura. Williams has a certain cerebral appeal but she doesn't give off that full, sensual enjoyment of herself and her body that Marilyn did.

    And oh dear God, if one more person took Colin aside to warn him about Miss Monroe, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, I was going to throw a shoe at the screen. Please, this is movie-making. If anything, they would have told him to just screw her and be done with it.

    As a palate cleanser, I suggest reading this and this. Great and well-deserved rant!

  2. Ugh, Colin's entitlement and connections just added to his character's overall ick-factor. His godfather just happened to be head librarian at Windsor Castle, so Colin can serve as the perfect tour guide/ticket in for Marilyn. The whole house stunt was supposed to stick in our minds as evidence of Colin's talent, but that's quickly brushed aside so he can be our personalityless eyes and ears on-set. Very unappealing character.

    While Williams certainly put her heart and soul in the part, something about her really wasn't Marilyn to me at the end. Certain looks and scenes were, and those parts were great. But I don't know if it's the cerebral appeal you mention or not, but she wasn't exactly the Marilyn I've gotten to know through film. Which is fine, I guess. That's one thing you can say for Marilyn: she gets different reactions out of different people. Either way, even if she wasn't Marilyn to a tee, Williams was enormously touching and the definite highlight of the movie. A poorly written highlight, but a highlight nonetheless.

    Thank you for the fascinating links! They were both excellently written. I especially like the second one where the author opposes the vulnerable baby doll image crammed down all our throats that sticks in my craw as well. I love how he describes her as a smart businesswoman. So often in the media she's portrayed as absolutely helpless, in constant need of guidance. Hell, I don't think they even mention that Prince and the Showgirl is a production of her own studio in My Week With Marilyn. If they do, it's quick and without much importance attached to it. In Week she's far from a businesswoman, more a "brainless baba," if I may quote Humbert Humbert.

  3. I'm with you on the peace and quiet. It drives me crazy how many tacky, offensive and poorly-executed ideas keep getting attached to her name. I'm not surprised this movie had the ick factor. I've been trying to decide if it's worth seeing at all, and I'm still not sure.

  4. KC, I wish I could give you some sound advice about whether or not to see it. Right now I'm leaning toward not. Again, the movie gives you no new insights, and all the old stuff churned out about Marilyn is portrayed so obviously and loudly here that it made me angry. Maybe see it for Williams. She brings a quieter, more dignified edge to Marilyn than perhaps some of Monroe's other imitators. Not quite Marilyn in my book (as I've said), but it's a likable and unique take that's worthy of the accolades William's been getting.

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