Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find about what sorts of movies Academy members are writing memoirs. This week they go colonial on Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn‘s royalist ass.
Hey, Henry, is My Week with Marilyn an unofficial sequel to
My Week with George VI The King’s Speech? The similarities between Marilyn and last year’s Oscars-sweeper are striking, like both film’s obsessions with performances of Britishness against a backdrop of crumbling empire and attendant postcolonial anxieties, technophobic responses to new devices, and the prying ways of modern news media. Except whereas Tom Hooper was acutely aware of these themes and engaged them in interesting ways, Simon Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges (who adapted Colin Clark’s two memoirs The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn) focus myopically on the relationship between Colin (Eddie Redmayne) and Marilyn (Michelle Williams), exploring little of their seven-day romance’s rich context. Instead Curtis resorts to the kind of swelling strings-accompanied gawking that, the film implies, has already begun to kill Marilyn in the summer of 1956, six years before her death. What did you make of Marilyn‘s King’s Speech connections?
Nice comparison to The King’s Speech, Ben. I thought of that movie, too, but for a different reason. Remember that scene when Colin takes Miss Monroe on a sight-seeing tour of England’s grandest grounds and institutions while narrating their histories? And then gets Derek Fucking Jacobi himself to meet them as a kind of ambassador? Since when did American movies get so sentimental for the English crown? If the Academy defines these kinds of monarchy-boosting as prestigious, and then we raise our daughters to idolize Disney princesses… this is how democracy dies, Ben. Anyway, do we really have to waste our time talking about this movie? I guess just for Miss Williams’ embodiment of Miss Monroe, eh? She does a thorough job of impersonation, but that’s easy because, like any icon, Marilyn was all signifiers: mole, white dress, platinum curls, a whispery coo and lipstick as red as a Coca Cola can. But Williams also captures her emotional life—the insecurity and private anguish. The gratitude pouring out of her eyes every time she’s paid a compliment made me want to cry, until maybe the sixth or so time she does it. It’s a good performance—Williams is always terrific—but I’ll take Meek’s Cutoff, thanks. (Even Dawson’s Creek DVDs, honestly. Those crazy kids!) The role is straight-up Oscarbait: the tortured soul of the bombshell superstar, the private life of the public figure. Meh, what did you think?
Sure, Henry, there’s something about backlot biopics that seems especially pandering come awards season, like the film industry cannibalizing itself in some gross, masturbatory spectacle of self-congratulatory faux-introspection. That said, one of the few interesting thematic strands Curtis and Hodges actually picked up on, and which may help to assuage your anxieties about the film’s perceived pro-empire romanticism, was the contemporaneous shift in acting styles from all those RSC grads’ classical training towards the more truthful and emotionally raw method acting Marilyn’s coach and confidant Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) promotes. The filmmakers have a bit of fun with the ways in which the British stage-turned-screen actors working on the movie-within-the-movie (1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl) feel they’re less capable of acting for the camera than the American method actor in their midst. At one point exasperated director-producer-co-star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, obvs) tells the starlet who’s struggling to understand her character, “Can’t you just lie!?” See Henry, My Week with Marilyn doesn’t fawn over the British, it ridicules them as stuffy liars! Liars who already at mid-century had an even more merciless and invasive celebrity tabloid press than the U.S.
Ben, I got the sense that Marilyn’s Method was interfering with her sort of natural screen charisma, much as stage-training did to the Britons’—that it was a sort of self-imposed neurotic tic. So, nope, Anglophilic, all the way. (C’mon, how loveably irascible was Kenneth Branagh as Olivier?) Anyway, all of Monroe’s moody Method madness ends up on the cutting room floor, as hidden from her public as her late-night breakdowns are from the paparazzi, which feeds into the movie’s one potentially compelling yet underexplored theme (no, I don’t mean the one about how celebrities are people, too): the conflict, and vast remove, between the public and the private. (Just like last week’s J. Edgar!) I enjoyed that very first scene, which cuts between Williams-as-Monroe performing “Heat Wave” both on a screen and on a set, as it introduces nicely the dichotomy between real and fake, like we’re going to do a Purple Rose of Cairo in reverse and crawl inside the screen to get the real backstage story. But it’s all downhill from there, as soon as that freckle-faced naif starts in with his dippy voice-over. (What’s with this guy, Ben? Why does everyone, including SIR LAURENCE FUCKING OLIVIER, confide in him? And how does he always happen to be in some unlikely place where he can overhear an important private conversation? “Yeah, I happen to be in the projection booth now, even though I’m not a projectionist.”) Hey Ben, did you also notice how condescending the movie was toward Marilyn Monroe? Depicting her as some mercurial little girl, impetuous, petulant, frail, and histrionic? Nowhere perhaps more so than at the end, though, when Olivier literally prints the legend, but Colin makes sure to use the rest of his life—including two books and now a feature film—to make sure everyone sees her as she really was: not just talented, but also screwed up. What a dick.