Sunday, October 09, 2011
New York Film Festival 2011: My Week With Marilyn
If the Siren’s attitude toward Marilyn Monroe could be graphed as a fever chart, it would have two lines. One line would represent the Siren’s opinion of Monroe’s acting, and it would show a steady, if not steep, rise. The other line would chart the Siren’s interest in the Monroe myth. It would resemble a headlong tumble down the south face of K2.
Unfortunately for the Siren’s patience with My Week With Marilyn, the new movie just screened for the press at the New York Film Festival, the myth is still what sells.
In act one, whippersnapper Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) uses his refined upper-class moxie to get a job as third assistant director on Laurence Olivier’s ill-starred directorial outing, The Prince and Showgirl. That part is palatable, as young Colin rushes about making himself indispensable, and there’s a chance for Toby Jones to utter some choice lines, including one delivered on learning of Arthur Miller’s (Dougray Scott) visa troubles: “All those pain-in-the-ass New York intellectuals are Reds.”
The second act is pretty enjoyable. That’s where Colin hangs around as Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) shoots his movie and copes with Monroe’s (Michelle Williams) bizarre work ethic, which included much dedication to the Lee Strasberg distillation of the Method and almost none to such trivia as punctuality and knowing the lines. Little fresh material is evident, except possibly a conception of Monroe’s drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) that does not paint her as a complete gargoyle. But it’s fun, even if the score is vacuous, the camerawork never once rises above director Simon Curtis’ BBC-TV roots, and Emma Watson plays a love interest who should have been left on the cutting-room floor. The Siren certainly hopes Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) really was that charming and understanding. Branagh is hilarious, whether remarking that teaching Monroe to act is “like teaching Urdu to a badger,” or making a priceless face as he fields a call from the absent actress and says, “Colin, it’s for you.”
None of the actors look much like their real-life counterparts. Williams is Monroe-ish only around the cheekbones, and Branagh is Olivier only from the cheekbones up. Judi Dench looks like Judi Dench. Julia Ormond fares worst. She has only Vivien Leigh’s coloring, not her features, but Ormond is still a beautiful woman, and here she’s subjected to lighting and makeup that would have sent the real Leigh into one of her depressive breakdowns. It is one of the film’s strengths, though, that once the initial shock wears off, the lack of physical matching doesn’t much matter. Branagh’s speaking forcefully recalls Olivier’s Old Vic accents, and Williams’ voice blew the Siren away--fully Marilyn, yet believable, consistent and 100% free of parody.
Williams is, in fact, superb. The Siren has lost count of the actresses she’s seen playing Monroe, but Williams leaves them all in the dust. She takes the most imitated woman of all time and manages a performance that recalls every gesture and effect, while still creating a character. It’s a remarkable feat of acting, and Branagh’s work, despite his having to spend too much time musing out loud about Marilyn, is still right up there with Williams.
But what shall it profit an actor to give a good performance in a movie this trite? For any interest in My Week With Marilyn vanishes as soon as the much-vaunted week begins. That’s when we’re supposedly getting to know Marilyn the Woman. And it’s the same goddamn Marilyn we’ve all been seeing since approximately 4:26 am on Aug. 5, 1962. The wounds of her childhood abandonment and loneliness, her rotten luck in love, the pressure oh the pressure. Jesus Christ on a soundstage, you don’t need the Siren to recap any of it. She could hand her Macbook to a stranger on the Columbus Circle subway platform, ask for one paragraph on Marilyn Monroe, and those scenes are what you’d get.
So the Siren’s graph diverges more strongly now than ever. This story that purports to give us Marilyn as she was off-camera only winds up proving what the Siren has always known to be true: Monroe on camera was, and always will be, vastly more worthwhile.