Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sweet Despair: My Week With Marilyn

Allow me to begin by saying that My Week With Marilyn is packed with great performances; this is the sign of a great director: coordinating so many talented performers, balancing them against the other and not allowing anyone to be upstaged. There have been a few negative reviews from critics and I think this is why: Hollywood loves movies about making movies (which this is) but My Week With Marilyn tends to be slightly critical of "the method acting style" and Hollywood doesn't like that.
Young Colin Clark, played by Eddie Redmayne, who also played the young monk in Black Death (Two Spiritual Pathways: Black Death ) is the youngest son of the internationally famous art historian Kenneth Clark (I was told by one of his former students that, at times, Sir Clark would wear a cape and weep over works of art during his lectures). Colin doesn't want to go into art history (you can understand why), he wants to make movies, and having been introduced to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) at a dinner party, he manages to get into Olivier's production company and become a third director's assistant, just as Olivier is starting to make The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Olivier is directing the film. Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) arrives in England with her current husband, the playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). Because Marilyn is so dependent upon her acting coach  Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and Marilyn's other problems, she and Olivier clash which drives her closer to young Colin who is smitten with her.
Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, the famous actor and director of The Prince and the Showgirl, a light comedy being made in England at the time of My Week With Marilyn. It is suggested to Colin by Olivier's wife, the fabulous Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond; Vivien Leigh is best known in America for playing Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind) that Olivier is in love with Marilyn and desperate to seduce her, which adds an interesting twist of jealously to his accusations against Colin when Marilyn starts spending time with him.
Why is this an important film?
First, as I am writing my post for 2011 the Year of Fear & 2012 the Written Word (to be posted tomorrow), I am realizing how many of the pertinent categories explored by films this year My Week With Marilyn qualifies for, making it a subtle, yet timely commentary on "the way of life" in 2011; secondly, just as a history film is never about history, so biography is never ever about a single person's life, rather, it is the examining of how that individual's life is reflecting the issues a country is going through or particular issues that person might have been active within. For example, The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is not about Margaret Thatcher, it's about what Britain needs now to get it through its crises taking place today.
"Are there two directors on this film?" Olivier angrily asks of Paula Strasberg (left, Zoe Wanamaker) coaching Marilyn (Michelle Williams , right). Why does "the method" get a bad crit in My Week With Marilyn? Olivier was a talented enough actor that he never "needed" something like the method, and wants Marilyn to depend upon him for direction, not Paula. In numerous scenes, Marilyn is simply unable to remember her lines or criticizes the lines because, to a method actor, they don't make sense. Some of Hollywood's most beloved actors and directors employed the method religiously and for My Week With Marilyn to frame the method in a not-so-favorable light puts Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Cliff, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman, in that light, as well.
From the trailers, it looked as if Marilyn could symbolize America and playing coy or "little girl lost," but really not being lost (in terms of politics, the economy, moral structure, art, whatever the film might offer up), instead, being a man-eater. If we compare Margaret Thatcher to Marilyn Monroe, as national iconic images representative of their countries, we come up with very striking . . .  differences. ( The same could easily be done with J. Edgar and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). While Britain looks to its first female Prime Minister who led them victoriously through the Falkland War and goodness knows what else, America looks to a sex-symbol film star who battled mental illness, presidential sex scandals, divorces, drugs, and was either murdered or committed suicide (and that we don't know is an important part of her iconic legacy).
A still from The Prince and the Showgirl with Olivier and Monroe.
So, in one corner, we have "the Iron Lady," and in the other corner, we have a "sex goddess" who is certainly out to seduce young Colin, or at least have fun (and if seduction happens, it happens). She's tearful, she's irresponsible, she's confused, she's a man-eater, she's disrespectful and she's the gorgeous, glowing actress, Marilyn Monroe. Does that describe the "confused state" America is going through now? Upset, on the one hand, that everyone wants "Marilyn Monroe the persona," and then not being herself when she should be (like America the land of opportunity that has lost its opportunity for a lot of people; the land of democracy where a lot of people feel completely helpless and out of touch with elected government; capitalism that gives every one a chance but only 1% or whatever is really benefiting).
Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark in London, 1957 and all those wonderful cars. Colin completely falls in love with Marilyn, but it's an interesting blurring of reality and the movies for Marilyn, as well. Colin reminds Marilyn of the young king in the movie she's making, and it might be said that she's falling in love with a younger Olivier and the image of the young king in the movie is what she's projecting onto Colin and falling in love with the image of him she has created just as millions of people do with her. When they began production of The Prince and the Showgirl, Colin Clark (in real life) started keeping a diary of everything that happened and the film My Week With Marilyn is based on the book he later wrote from his diary.
Perhaps a further example from the film would suffice.
Marilyn has overdosed on pills and is unresponsive, locked inside her bedroom; Colin gets a ladder and gets in through the window and gets to spend the night with Marilyn (nothing happens). Beside her bed is a photo of a somewhat homely, but loving woman, and Marilyn tells Colin that's her mother, who had given her a white piano just before she was taken to a mental asylum. Then Colin notices that she also has a photograph of American President Abraham Lincoln; "That's my dad," she tells Colin, "I don't know who my real dad is, so it might as well be him."
Symbolically, Colin going "up the ladder" means he's entering a higher state of consciousness, and "through her window" means Colin is getting to understand how she reflects on herself. Her mother giving her a "white piano," symbolically means a "pure idea of female sexuality," because a woman's body is often compared to an instrument (upon which beautiful music might be made . . . ) and white means faithful, innocent, pure. Her mother being put in a mental institution means that is what Marilyn equates pure feminine sexuality with: insanity. If she's sleeping with a man, he will keep her from going crazy or at least out of the asylum; in the film, her husband, Arthur Miller, tells someone "She's devouring me," because it's using up all his energy to keep her happy and sane.
She almost does the same to Colin.
It's very interesting, in the beginning of the film, Marilyn Monroe can't get her passport because her husband Arthur Miller (left) is being investigated as a communist; once the government decides he's not a communist, Marilyn gets her passport and they can visit England. This isn't a by-product or simple biographical detail, rather, like Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, My Week With Marilyn is revisiting what the Cold War Era did to make this country, good and bad. Just a side note: in real life, Zoe Wanamaker's  (who plays her acting coach) father was being investigated as a communist by the government (he was an actor) and he immigrated to England from the United States because of it.
Marilyn Monroe is saying that she is the product of Abraham Lincoln.
This is timely because there are two films being made about Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter to be released June 2012, and Steven Spielberg's production of Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis. These are details that are important; in and of themselves, maybe not so much, but taken within the vast mosaic of all the films being released, it is certainly important.
At the studio trying to film, Paula, Marilyn and Milton Green (Dominic Cooper) who owns about 49% of Marilyn Monroe. He's also important for telling Colin that he himself had gotten to spend 10 days with Marilyn alone and he fell in love with her but that didn't last, she's a heart-breaker. Of course Colin doesn't listen, he finds out for himself.  Marilyn's late so often, and then has such difficulty with her lines and direction that Olivier complains, "We've only been shooting 4 days and all ready we are 2 weeks behind!"
Abraham Lincoln is the president that was murdered by an actor; Marilyn Monroe may be the actor murdered by a president (John F. Kennedy). Yet examining Lincoln's career, we can deduce some more clues about Marilyn's attraction to Lincoln: he won the Civil War; Marilyn fights a "civil war" within herself over her insecurity and fame, over her drugs and her desire to settle down and learn to make Arthur's favorite matzo soup; her disdain for her Marilyn Monroe persona and her adoration of it. Lincoln is also the one who freed the slaves, and Marilyn is certainly enslaved to many people: her "agent" Milton Green, her acting coach, Paula, her director Olivier, her husband, her public and even her own self image; does she want to be emancipated? As long as emancipation seems a viable option, no, she doesn't but when things get to be too hard, yes, she would then.
Julia Ormond portraying Vivien Leigh, Olivier's wife who becomes jealous over Marilyn and wants Colin to tell her if they have an affair because that's what she's expecting to happen. Leigh had played Marilyn's part on stage, but is now too old to play the part on film. Leigh tells Colin, "I'm 43, no one will love me for very much longer," which opposes itself nicely to Marilyn being in her dressing room, not in make-up and Colin seeing her and Marilyn saying, "Excuse my horrible face." Both actresses faced challenges being taken seriously because of their beauty.
While Marilyn is in England and Colin is with her, she goes into spasms of pain and begins bleeding; unaware of what's going on, Marilyn cries out, "I can't lose the baby!" but it appears that she does. What is the point of including this in the film? Rather like the George Clooney political drama, The Ides of March, Colin is being lost from the production crew just as Marilyn's baby is lost (Olivier is jealous of him) and (in a more innocent fashion) constructs for us an affair between a much-older, famous, married person and a much younger, unknown "intern."  (Symbolically, I think Marilyn's specifically means that, since the baby is lost when she's with Colin, they "don't have a future together" because babies usually symbolize the future).
But that's not the only similarity between The Ides of March and My Week With Marilyn.
Judi Dench portrays Dame Sibyl Thorndike who has a part in The Prince and the Showgirl. It's quite refreshing to see her in such a sunny and generous role; she has to be so tough in the James Bond films. Dame Sibyl simply adores Marilyn and tries to help her (or, "cover for her" is more accurate) whenever Marilyn has problems with her lines.
There are some rather nasty scenes involving unions in both films. In My Week With Marilyn, Colin goes to get a chair for Dame Sibyl (they have been waiting on Marilyn for hours) and a union prop manager gets into an argument about who will hand Dame Sibyl the chair that is only a few feet from her, and threatens to shut-down the entire production with a strike if they don't let the union member do it (in Ides of March, Gov. Morris promises not to make shady political deals with unions but finds himself doing it anyway; for my complete review, please see The Ides Of March: Assassinating the Democratic Party). 
Marilyn shopping in London with Arthur Miller.
Moving towards my conclusion, one of the best aspects of director Simon Curtis' unspoken dialogue with the audience about Marilyn is his incredible use of glass. Colin and a body guard go with Marilyn and Arthur on a shopping trip in London and Marilyn is spotted by some fans. As she is pressed in on all sides, her face is pushed to the shop window and she puts her dark sunglasses on. Throughout the film, especially in the car, driving, her reflection plays on the car window, putting the audience in the position to reflect on Marilyn's reflecting on herself, which is what we are doing now. Wearing dark glasses means that she doesn't want to reflect on what is going on; looking out the car window, she reflects on the "vehicle" that is moving her through life, whether it be her fame or fears.
If My Week With Marilyn is an accurate depiction of the American unconscious right now, it fits in as snug as Marilyn in one of her dresses with other films being released this year (to be discussed tomorrow). Like Marilyn reflecting and choosing not to reflect, naming Abraham Lincoln as her father and loving the British, America is going through many of the same spurts and bouts of depression, fears and anxieties, self-doubts and miscarriages. She might not have been the "Iron Lady," but Marilyn was a lady, in her own way. If we can take Marilyn to be a great parable of America, then, like Marilyn always wanting to be loved, we have to bear with our country through its fits and pains, and show that no matter what, we love it, now and always.