Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

Time to catch up with reviews again! Still writing about stuff I saw last week, but hopefully I'll get fully caught up tonight or tomorrow.

I've been a fan of Michelle Williams for a while now, going back to her Dawson's Creek days and even her role as a young Natasha Henstridge in Species (don't you dare laugh!). She seems to have been the one in the Dawson's crew to come out with the most significant career, not perhaps money wise but certainly in terms of artistic merit.

My Week With Marilyn is a fairly mediocre film - a pretty middle-of-the-road period piece about a classic Hollywood era, in a year with so many nostalgia-fest movies about classic Hollywood eras. What elevates it and makes it worth watching is Williams' performance as Marilyn Monroe. She doesn't look like Marilyn at all, but her embodiment of Marilyn as a character is so uncanny that it's almost like she's channeling.

The film takes place during the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl in England. Marilyn had just married Arthur Miller and was probably the most famous woman in the world. The film was being directed by Laurence Olivier, who was also co-starring. And a young man named Colin Clarke had moved to London to get a job in movies and found himself as Olivier's 3rd Assistant Director (a.k.a. gopher). Though the movie covers the length of the movie shoot, it centers on around nine days in which Colin is drawn close to Monroe (while her husband is away), only to be devoured and spit back out again. That sounds harsher than it is, but it's something Marilyn can't really help. Because Marilyn at this point in her life is much bigger than just a flesh-and-blood woman; she's a brand. I love the little moment where she's about to greet a crowd of fans and whispers to Colin "Shall I be her?" as if she's going to play a character, because in a lot of ways Marilyn was a character she was playing.

The thing that struck me most is how the mood of a room changed - helped along by cinematic elements, of course - whenever Marilyn entered the room. The first time she steps on the set in costume is just magic. Everyone, especially Olivier, is upset that she's two hours late, but in that moment no one seems to care. The entire shoot is fraught with drama, with Monroe frequently late, occasionally absent and, on most days when she showed up to work, difficult. But when Olivier and others watch the dailies, it's undeniable that she has a gift for acting for the camera that no one else has, even thespian icons like Olivier and Sybil Thorndike. You can see, and Williams conveys it perfectly, what a burden all that attention is, though. And having the particular kind of notoriety that she did was rather self-defeating. The moment in the film that I probably felt the most for her is when Olivier tells her to not think about the acting so much and simply do what she does ("Just be sexy!").

One of the elements that amused me was the obvious battle between the classic style of acting and method acting. Marilyn's acting teacher had to be on set with her every day and was with her most of the time off set, too. We're told that Olivier hates "method" and has hated it since his then wife, Vivien Leigh, worked with Elia Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire. That triggered something in my memory about some comments that Kazan apparently made at Leigh's expense during the making of that film, as if method was the only way to act and everything else was just silly. *rolls eyes*

The movie is fairly forgettable, but there are several good performances. Aside from Williams, Kenneth Branagh is quite good (and serendipitously cast) as Olivier. Julia Ormond was actually one of my favorites, playing the small role of Vivien Leigh. And I was pleasantly surprised by Emma Watson, who has another small role that is thankfully easily distinguishable from the brainy witch she is best known for playing.

One last thing. While the movie itself is not extraordinary, it is nonetheless a good example of How To Do a Biopic. The problem with most of these biographical movies is that they're kind of sampler platters of a person's life. This is the trap that J. Edgar and (as I understand, as I've yet to see it) The Iron Lady fall into. "Life stories" don't make good movies, because people's lives are not actually stories. They are a series of stories, many of which overlap one another. The best way to tell a story of someone's life is to not try and tell *the* story of their life. As lukewarm as I am on My Week With Marilyn in general, it at least gets that part right.

Bottom line: This is good, the performances are mostly great, but you can probably wait until DVD to see it. Unless, like me, you're obsessed with seeing all the Oscar contenders before nominations come around. :P

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