Chicago Film Festival Diary – ‘My Week With Marilyn’

Grade: C-

Recently in Chicago a huge 12 story tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe was installed across from the Tribune building downtown. It just so happens that my walk from work to the theatre hosting the Chicago film festival passes this gorgeous piece. I stopped and marveled at it as I was on my way to see My Week With Marilyn, perhaps the most buzzed-about film in the entire festival. Chicago got lucky, the film was just completed mere days ago and has only shown on two other screens in the entire world. A movie with such buzz, and an already growing Oscar campaign, makes the perfect centerpiece for the Chicago International Film Fest. As expected the turnout was huge! Director Simon Curtis was in attendance (I will post my coverage of the Q&A with him later). I grabbed my seat in the front of the theatre excited to be attending such a thrilling evening!

I will admit, upfront, I am a huge Marilyn Monroe fan. I have been since I was a little boy. There was one point in my life where it teetered on a bit of an obsession and I bought dozens of Marilyn Monroe calendars and made what ammounted to wallpaper out of them. Growing up I owned almost every single Marilyn movie on vhs. Then when dvd hit, I bought  them again. I have read many Marilyn biographies, and her journals and poetry which were recently released in a great book: Fragments. I have seen the many Marilyn biopics, which usually are relegated to television (including Norma Jeaan and Marilyn, Blonde, etc). So to say I am a fan is an understatement. And I am not only a fan because she was “the most beautiful woman in the world”, I am actually a fan of her talent. She had an impeccable comic timing, which has rarely been matched ever in cinema. She also was a very trained dramatic actress who didn’t get many oppurtunities to show off her dramatic side – but when she did she usually shined. She steals almost every movie she appears in. She was a true talent and a true beauty. Above all she was a troubled soul. My Week With Marilyn attempts to deal with all of these issues – and sadly falls flat on all of them.

I will start off by saying that My Week With Marilyn is quite simply not a good film. I think there could have been a good film buried somewhere within – but the director and screenwriter have chosen to present the story through a weak uninteresting plot. Lets be clear – this is not a Marilyn Monroe biopic. Nor is it even Marilyn Monroe’s story. Its the story of Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne). As the movie begins we hear Colin give narration of how he’s the “black sheep of the family … no one has faith in him. No one likes him everybody hates him, I guess he should go eat worms”. He is enthralled with the film industry, we don’t really know why other than the fact that he sits in a movie theatre once before he sets out for Hollywood work. The film is based on Colin Clark’s memoires about the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in which he worked for Laurence Olivier and met Marilyn Monroe. I must read these 2 books (‘The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me’ and ‘My Week With Marilyn’) because surely there is an intruiging story there that would have warranted a film adaptation. We are led to believe that Colin picks up everything and moves to Hollywood and sits in Laurence Olivier’s office lobby until he is offered a job – which happens after 1 day of waiting. Yeah .. sure.

Suddenly Colin has a job and we learn that the film he is working on will be the Olivier directed “The Sleeping Prince” co-starring Marilyn Monroe – the most famous woman in the world. Unfortunately for the film crew, she has just married famed playwright Aurthur Miller  who is under investigation by McCarthy, and its unsure of whether or not Marilyn will get a visa so that she can shoot in London. That sounds interesting, right? Well the screenwriter doesn’t think so – we find out “He got his visa, they will be here in 5 days” and 1 second later were at the airport and they are arriving. Flashbulbs pop, lucious score plays, and Marilyn exits the plane. And there she is – Michelle Williams.

I will stress again – this is not Marilyn’s story – its Colin’s. Michelle Williams, although I suppose is the lead actress in the film, is most certainly the supporting actress in the storyline. The film is more focused on Colin’s career path and puppy dog crush on Monroe than anything else. But wait theres a side plot concerning Emma Watson playing a dowdy costume dpeartment worker with whom he shares a couple of dates with. Her character is only involved to make Marilyn look like a man-stealer, and perhaps to get a younger audience (think the Potter series) into the seat. She has nothing to do and no screen time to do it in. Then there’s another side plot of jealousy between Colin and Marilyn’s wrangler played by Dominic Cooper. Do we care? No we don’t. Anytime a message needs to be repeated to an audience, why don’t we just trot out Judi Dench? “Ah young love!” “Ah isn’t young love a blast?” “I can see young love blossoming here.” “Be careful, young love is difficult.” “It’s love at first sight!” – These aren’t her direct lines, but they are close enough.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The movie, although written as a Colin Clark film, is all about the performance of Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. Let’s be clear, this film is nothing more than a neatly wrapped attempt at an Oscar for Michelle Williams. With the Weinstein company producing it – its clear this is the reason the movie was made. “Let’s take the hottest young actress, who is insanely talented, dress her up like Marilyn Monroe and have her win an Oscar.” – That surely was the films pitch. Where to begin with the Williams performance? I love Michelle Williams. I think she is a truly great actress who has turned in many wonderful performances. I am working on completing my list of the best 100 performances by an actress in the years 2000-2012. Michelle will show up on that list twice. She’s been fantastic in Wendy and Lucy, Brokeback Mountain, and her Oscar nominated turn last year in Blue Valentine. I loved her before I saw this film and I will love her after seeing the film. I did not however love her in the film.

This is heavily due to the material she is given to work with. All the talk about this film surrounds us getting a glimpse at the “real” Marilyn. The Marilyn I see in this movie is: Intimidated, unconfident, a bad actress, an all around mess, and a cornball. Yes – Marilyn was known for not having confidence, she was known to be a drug addict and alcohol abuser, and yes she is widely known as being a ditz. Hint – look at the words “known” and “widely known” in the previous sentence. This isn’t showing me anything I didn’t already know. And just because I am a “superfan” doesn’t mean that most people don’t know this about Marilyn. Most people know her as a giddy blonde bombshell who died young of a drug overdose. The movie’s biggest misstep was that they played Marilyn almost unlikeable. She constantly shows up late, she doesn’t remember her lines, she is hard to work with, she is lazy, she comes accross as a horrible actress, she is an adulterer, a boyfriend stealer, among other things. Granted – some of this is completely true. But the films biggest flaw insulted me as a Marilyn fan. In an early scene in the film the cast and crew are crowding the set and Marilyn just cannot get her lines. She flubs them left and right. Finally she says the line correctly and everyone lights up! The biggest insult in the film comes when her wrangler says: “When Marilyn gets it right .. no one is better.” This couldn’t be a more true statement about Marilyn Monroe – however the statement doesn’t work when watching William’s performance. When she delivers the line correctly – she delivers it like a zombie in a ball gown. Gone is any of the affectious glee and comic brilliance of Monroe’s acting. It’s as if they set up a cue card in front of her and she simply reads from it. We never see the talent of Marilyn.

Williams doesn’t look like Monroe, and that’s okay. She is much too skinny and no matter the attempt at padding from the costume department she doesn’t share Monroe’s frame. That is okay! There are a couple of scenes that with the right lighting and costuming – she does resemble Marilyn. Plainly put, no one will look like Marilyn. She was a one of a kind. So I do not fault Williams for this. Or even the casting department. How do you even begin to cast Marilyn? Its a daunting task for sure. Honestly, I felt bad for Michelle Williams the whole time. It’s as if she was set up for failure. I desperately wanted to life her performance. I had heard some very positive things, and I actually thought the trailer looked quite good. But, for me, she just doesn’t make the cut. I was fully prepared to praise the performance because it seemed Michelle wasn’t going to be doing an “impression” of Marilyn. The trailer made me think she was going to key into certain Marilyn-isms, while making it her version of Marilyn. Any actress who has a shot of nailing Marilyn would have to go this route. But in the end Williams doesn’t do this – it is an impression – and not a very good one. This is due, as I’ve said, to the fact that she isn’t given any scenes to actually bring anything new to the character. I will never say Williams didn’t give it her all – she did. And that is admireable. And there were few scenes where she did get me! There’s a darling moment (taken from The Prince and the Showgirl) where she is alone in a palatial room dancing. This was excellent. She suddenly did inhabit the Monroe we remember. There were no lines – which may be key to why this worked – but she embodied Marilyn’s fun loving spirit. There were also a number of scenes with Marilyn and Colin that I found worked. The two had great chemistry and these moments were the most interesting. See Marilyn go shopping, see Marilyn at a castle, see Marilyn visit Colin’s old school. Taking the well-known character and putting her outside of a film set was what the movie should have done more often. But sadly its always under the guise of her puppy-dog romance with Colin and it doesn’t even attempt to go past that onto more interesting developments into Monroe at the height of her fame.

The film also stupidly opens and closes with 2 pointless musical numbers. I knew, from the very beginning, this wasn’t going to work. Michelle sings the songs herself – which I admire, but which sound nothing like Marilyn. The two songs are taken completely out of context and have nothing at all to do with the plot. Its also as if Marilyn is performing them on a Broadway stage as we see an audience, and then we pan out and see another audience watching this performance in a movie theatre. It makes no sense and is only in the movie to introduce us to Michelle’s Marilyn and show Colin sitting in the theatre (remember he loves the movie business). These scenes were not needed and seemingly are just filler to add more Michelle onscreen and give her campaign another boost – “SHE REALLY SINGS YOU KNOW?!”

What did I like? Well, like I mentioned there are a couple of scenes that are quiet good between Williams and Redmayne. I actually loved Eddie Redmayne as Colin. I didn’t like that the story was Colin’s and the story was a bore – but Redmaye is a fantastic leading man. I have been following him for a while onstage (where he recently won a Tony last year) and onscreen. It seems he is often cast in bad movies and is great in them – a good example of this is Savage Grace, a terrible film with a fantastic performance from Redmayne and Julianne Moore. He is a great actor and does what he can with the film. I really loved the performance by Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier. He has a fantastic moment where he is sitting alone in his dressing room repeating Prospero’s speech angrily while looking at himself in the vanity mirror. His performance is a combination of impersonation and interpretation that works quite well. Of course he is underwritten, and comes off even a bit hateful. He is frustrated with Marilyn and condemns her as “untalented and lazy”. At the end though, as he is watching the dailies, he sees that she is the true star of the film – overshadowing him scene after scene. He tells Colin that he will tell her this, and apologize for his poor treatment of her. We, sadly, do not see this scene. Why? Because its not Colin’s story. Here’s a quick list of other scenes we do not see, because its Colin’s story:

* Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike stands up for Marilyn on a shooting day and then invites her out for coffee so they can chat. Marilyn is thrilled and agrees. We don’t see it.

* Arthur Miller is there. He mentions that Marilyn is destroying and devouring him. We don’t see it – the only time we see the two of them is while they stand by a house.

* Marilyn and her acting coach Paula Straberg stay locked in their dressing room working on their “method”. We don’t see it, we hear about it.

* Colin and Lucy (Emma Watson) go out on a date and he says he is paying for the evenings festivities even though the waiter comes to the table asking if he wants the bill charged to his fathers account. Uh-oh BUSTED! … Oh wait, we do see this scene. We don’t need too but we do.

Sorry, I got off track again. I was talking about things I liked. I also liked Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg. She looked exactly like her and acted exactly as I imagined she would in real life. Of course, she is not really allowed by the screenplay to do much besides tell Marilyn how great she is. I also liked Julia Ormand as the aging Vivien Leigh, but don’t blink or you’ll miss her.

I’m sorry for rambling so long, its just that this film frustrated and disappointed me so much. I’ve included a picture of the real deal above. What I would recommend you do instead of seeing My Week With Marilyn, see the real thing. Know that the making of The Prince and the Showgirl was hell. Know that Marilyn was dealing with a failing marriage, having a fling with the third assistant to the director, fighting with the legendary stage actor Olivier, and being intimidated by being in a new country. Then watch all of that exit your mind as you see how brilliant Monroe is in the film. That’s what its all about folks. As its said in the film to Olivier: “You’re the greatest actor trying to be a film star. She is the greatest film star trying to be an actress.” It’s true she still remains the greatest star of film – and she succeeded in becoming a great actress, but you wouldn’t know that from seeing this movie. I am happy this movie was made for one reason – to bring a newer generation into the MOVIES of Marilyn. Check out The Prince and the Showgirl, Some Like it Hot, The Misfits, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bus Stop (her best performance), Niagara, etc. However this movie, as it stands, isn’t a movie – its a desperate attempt at an Oscar. And after seeing the performances this week by Kirsten Dunst, Elizabeth Olsen, and Tilda Swinton – this one doesn’t compare. Like many Marilyn Monroe biopics in the past, this one too should have been sent straight to basic cable.

** (and very generous) / out of *****

I welcome any and all of your comments. And know, I was very sad to have to write the review, because I wanted to like this so very much.

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  • i was so thrilled and excited for this movie but now …. not :(

    and as always, Great review.

    • I found the movie good. What didn’t you like about it?

  • Sophie

    Helloooo that’s why it’s called MY week with Marilyn, not MARYLIN’s week with me :)

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