Weak Celebrity Bio of Marilyn
My Week with Marilyn
By Armond White
Art critics cite Andy Warhol’s 1962 Gold Marilyn Monroe (a tinted print using a Niagara movie still) to exemplify the movie star’s “infinitely reproducible” image. Movie critics simply yell “Oscar!” at Michelle Williams’ image of Monroe in My Week With Marilyn but her impersonation amounts to a giant played by a midget.
My Week with Marilyn doesn’t deserve a Warholian defense since the movie fails to enhance or complicate one’s relationship to Monroe’s celebrity or humanity. Based on Colin Clark’s memoir recalling his encounter with Monroe when he worked as a gofer on Laurence Olivier’s 1957 production of The Prince and the Showgirl, the star’s Pop status is reduced to a sensitive “natural” whose approach to Method acting was misunderstood.
Director Simon Curtis settles for Monroe’s distant tabloid myth according to Clark’s privileged, star-struck naivete. She’s presented as an inadvertent sexpot, abused by intellectual louts from Lee Strasberg to Arthur Miller to Olivier himself who at exploits her value as a showbiz commodity. Condescension toward fame is all that’s reproduced here–like Bennett Miller’s celebrity exploitation in Capote. Curtis’ monotonous style ignores what made Monroe fascinating. Instead, too many close-ups make for a tedious characterization. Close-ups don’t necessarily mean insight. Curtis affects a Playboy magazine style of false, pornographic “intimacy.” But Williams lacks the personality and lush physicality for successful prurience; she’s more Renee Zellweger than Monroe. Curtis and Williams’ collaboration creates shallow sympathy for a misused waif who strikes sexy-pathetic poses, going through fits of sullen insecurity while Olivier (hammy Kenneth Branagh) and Dame Sybil Thorndike (hammy Judi Dench) wait on set at the legendary Pinewood Studios.
There’s no perspective on Marilyn’s art–her cagey, incomparable performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bus Stop which were clearly not the work of an airhead. More superficial than Warhol’s print, Williams’ performance is the height of arrogance. Monroe’s emotional instability is merely another shameless stunt performance like Cate Blanchett’s Bob Dylan, Charlene Theron’s Aileen Wuornos, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote and–worst of all–Blanchett’s ludicrous Katharine Hepburn. Williams’ unimaginatively “natural” approach (all moue and retard) fits the Olivier line “No wonder she’s permanently ten-feet under water” rather than vividly inhabiting “Marilyn.”
Williams keeps audiences under water, lacking the liveliness of Theresa Russell memorably impersonating the Marilyn icon in Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 Insignificance. Russell met the legend head-on, adding her own sexual insouciance and cunning suppositions about Monroe’s intelligence (including a remarkable moment explaining to Albert Einstein his own theory of relativity). Insignificance (recently on Criterion DVD) challenged pop myth as incisively as Warhol but My Week with Marilyn resembles a tabloid tease. A step down from Christopher Munch’s The Hours and the Times that used the legend of John Lennon’s lost weekend with Brian Epstein for queer appropriation, this bio is so wan that suggestions of feminism get lost in celebrity worship. It’s particularly wrong-headed when bland Julia Ormond is cast as Vivien Leigh, then Olivier’s wife. (Curtis comes up with no better indication of female movie star empathy than to use the Monroe-Leigh summit to indict Olivier’s chauvinism. Worthless.)
Combining political sympathy and media ignorance, the filmmakers confuse Monroe’s fame with her self–a mistake Warhol’s print should have discouraged, calling for a smarter response to Pop legends. In My Week With Marilyn, Williams’ portrayal of Monroe as an extension of her screen roles cannot be trusted. There’s too much deliberation in Williams’ slyness, including a third-rate singing impersonation of Marilyn’s famous “That Old Black Magic.” Fact is, Monroe was not Cherie in Bus Stop, even though it was a great performance. Only a stupid actor could give this impersonation.