Friday, December 16, 2011
My Week With Marilyn
That was probably my favorite line from the film My Week With Marilyn. It is innocent yet provocative; knowing and not a bit naive.
I must admit that I’ve only seen two films in which Marilyn Monroe appears: the Bette Davis vehicle All About Eve and the cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot. I’ve never gone in search of her, but she’s always been in my view: the blast of air from the subway blowing up her white dress as she stands atop the grate in The Seven Year Itch, her rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung to President Kennedy wearing a form-fitting dress she was sewn into, the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” scene in Gentleman Prefer Blondes imitated by Madonna in her “Material Girl” video. She’s iconic – her platinum hair and big smile, the way she walks and talks. She is part of pop culture and cinematic history.
All of these things ran through my mind as I tried to focus my approach to this piece. Then it occurred to me that the focus is getting what you want.
Colin Clark, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, wanted something different for himself. He wanted to work in the movies. I wanted something different for myself than the small-town life into which I was born. I wanted to perform, the goal being Broadway. Marilyn wanted something different for herself. Norma Jean wasn’t it, so she created Marilyn and gave her the last name Monroe. We’re all similar, with dreams and desires bigger than our surroundings.
If I am too believe Colin Clark’s memory of the week he spent with Marilyn in 1955, then I am to believe that Marilyn was an insecure, vulnerable person who craved being taken seriously as an actress. The persona that she created lent itself to beautiful, sexy, and some might say, dumb girl roles. She wanted more than that. She wanted to be a serious actress. It wasn’t easy for anyone to see her as such. Then there’s the idea that she suffered from stage fright. There are published reports that she would be physically ill before shooting a scene and would have to be coaxed and calmed in order to get the scene on film. She was notorious for being late to set, sometimes not showing up at all. These things are pointed out frequently in My Week With Marilyn. She had her acting coach with her constantly. Laurence Olivier, directing the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, the time period during which My Week With Marilyn is set, is said to have thought Marilyn’s acting coach was there for nothing more than “buttering” up Marilyn. Basically, he thought the coach was just blowing smoke up Marilyn’s ass and collecting a paycheck. Who among us knows what Marilyn got from her coach? Who among us can judge what it takes to do another's job?
Maybe the person answering the phone in the call center for American Express has to give himself a pep talk in the mirror each day in preparation for the inevitable call from an irate customer. Maybe the chorus girl has to convince herself each night that she will remember the choreography when she steps onto the stage by saying a little prayer. Maybe I have to take a breath and know that I can face each customer at my ticket window and that no transaction is the end of the world. We all have our shit. Who can say what we need to get through it? Marilyn needed pep talks. She needed convincing. She needed images to latch onto in order to complete a scene. She needed to find a way to believe her character’s situation. At least that’s what Week would have us believe. I believed it. I’ve read about it in other places. What is astounding is that for however much time it took to get it in the can, it seems worth it. Colin portrays all who view Marilyn in Olivier’s completed film as mesmerized by her, unable to look away.
As seen through the eyes of a young man in his twenties, Marilyn seemed happiest when she was out of the public eye - strolling along the grounds of her rented house on the arm of a boy who would do anything for her, running barefooted through the grass, swimming nude with no paparazzi in sight. She had achieved international stardom, but it seems to me what she craved most was lost somewhere in the past with Norma Jean. She didn’t seem to have a solid marriage between her personal and professional lives.
As portrayed by the beautifully nuanced Michelle Williams, Marilyn was effervescent when she was Marilyn the actress. But she also sparkled as Marilyn the woman. She was completely at ease out of the spotlight. She was heartbreaking in her desire to please not only the people around her, but also herself. She wanted to be loved and she wanted to trust - desperately.
My time with Marilyn was less than two hours and it wasn’t even the real Marilyn. It was, however, the most insight I’ve had into Marilyn Monroe’s life. I want to learn more about her and above all I want to watch more of her films.
So if I may respond to the question posed above in my favorite line from the film. The answer applies to both Ms. Monroe and Ms. Williams.