“She’s the greatest piece of ass on earth. With tits like that, you make allowances.” This crude logic proffered by Marilyn Monroe’s (Michele Williams) publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones) sums up how much talent it takes to forge an acting career in Hollywood provided that you’ve got the right package of bodily goods to ware. Let’s admit it: Marilyn probably didn’t get her famous role in Some Like It Hot because of her ability to re-create a character; rather, it was one more fulfillment of the persona Hollywood had created for her: that of a coquette who could get leering men hot in the pants by making kissing gestures at them with her forefinger and doing a little bunny-hop dance number. Shallow? Sure. As the old saying goes, sex sells. Sadly, such shallowness also sums up Simon Curtis’s My Week With Marilyn, a film that I’d expected much more from.
Despite Williams’s captivating and sympathetic performance as Marilyn, the film rambles and lectures, telling us little to nothing we didn’t already know. It pretends to focus on a young starstruck university graduate and aspiring film-maker, Colin Clarke (Eddie Redmayne), and the halcyon time he spends with the most celebrated female sex symbol in movie history. Instead, we get a yawnworthy biopic that predictably shines the spotlight on the prima donna. We see Marilyn in all her forms: the consummate cocktease; the frazzled, incoherent druggie; the neurotic, insecure, catatonic mess; the unexpectedly intelligent woman who reads Joyce and Dostoevsky in her free time. In other words, we find out little more than we could have looked up in an encyclopedia or seen on a television retrospective. A good biopic should have more insight than that.
Actually, the film seems to be clumsily trying to do more than that. Depicting Marilyn’s performance in an English movie, The Prince and the Showgirl, as she stars alongside the movie’s director Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), it makes a heavy-handed contrast between the British and American schools of acting. Olivier, portrayed as an unrelenting taskmaster by Branagh, castigates Marilyn for her constant tardiness, breakings-down during rehearsals, and inability to understand her character. He discovers that Marilyn can only method-act in a role she’s typecast for; she falls apart when she has to step into an unfamiliar character’s shoes. She’s a big star but not professionally trained and probably not natively gifted enough to compete with even the lowliest British character actor.
Ironically, though, in My Week With Marilyn the British fall prey to the same hero worship of celebrities. The film’s ponderous message boils down to little more than a simplistic observation of humanity’s infatuation with stardom. Colin becomes so besotted with Marilyn that he breaks up his down-to earth relationship with Lucy (Emma Watson), the wardrobe assistant he’s dating, in the laughably quixotic hope that Marilyn might forget her status as a famous personality and have a fling with a nobody. A co-actor, crone Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), builds up Marilyn’s self-esteem, telling her that she can be a great actress despite her erratic behavior and incompetence. Even Olivier, despite growling that “trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger,” is completely transfixed by her screen presence, even in her most fumbling and embarrassing moments.
I, too, find her irresistible, but I’d chalk that up to my weakness as a typical lustful, cleavage-loving male. Vicariously living through a star is not my idea of a fulfilling life. Truth be told, Marilyn didn’t want to be Marilyn either. “I just wanted to be loved like a regular girl,” she tells Colin in one of the film’s more poignant moments. Unfortunately, the film never really delves deeper into Marilyn’s emotional conflict or her apparent resentment at being manipulated by the movie establishment. We never get more than a superficial glimpse into what made Marilyn the person tick.
If I have neglected to give poor Colin his due, it’s because the film practically forgets about his troubles after his opening voiceover, in which he informs us that his family considers him a failure and doesn’t approve of what they perceive as his frivolous career choice. It could have made for some interesting storytelling to explore his struggles alongside Marilyn’s by showing us what they learn about themselves during their time together. It could have made their relationship seem plausible despite the very different worlds they come from. They’ve both pushed themselves into a career in the movies to try to conquer their nagging self-doubt. He’s trying to escape his stuffy, elitist roots yet desperately wants his family to take notice of him; she wants men to love her more for her brains than her boobs. Their commonality is the alienation they feel as a result. Maybe they could be two kindred spirits after all.
Unfortunately, though, character development is skirted over in My Week With Marilyn as it would be in any C-grade Hollywood production. Like the real Marilyn, this film is making money off a name, failing to supply the substance to warrant its success.
Joe’s Grade: C