In his book “Retromania,” music critic Simon Reynolds makes the case that pop music/rock has gone distressingly meta, feeding on its accumulated history at the expense of any further forward evolution musically. It’s a bold argument — and well worth a read — but one could probably make the same case against cinema as well.
Just look at this year’s Oscars: You had “Hugo,” about 1900s special-effects pioneer Georges Melies; “The Artist,” an overt homage to silent-era cinema and packed with knowing movie references; and “My Week With Marilyn,” in which Michelle Williams plays one of Hollywood’s most iconic leading ladies, Marilyn Monroe.
These nominations may reflect the Academy’s general old-fogey-ism (a recent L.A. Times article stated the median age of Academy voters as 62), but it might also lie in the fact that Hollywood loves nothing so much as basking in its old glory.
My own theory though is that the Academy tends to nominate actors who portray real people (Johnny Cash, King George VI, Harvey Milk, Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Truman Capote and Katherine Hepburn, to name but a few) because impersonation is an easy yardstick of performance. How does one quantify George Clooney’s performance as a cuckolded husband in “The Descendants”? Whereas with Marilyn Monroe, either you nail that look, that voice, that walk, or you don’t.
Michelle Williams did, and certainly earned her Best Actress nomination, albeit in a rather mediocre film. “My Week With Marilyn” is based on a memoir by Colin Clark, a documentary filmmaker who at age 23 landed his first job on a film set as third assistant director (read: “gofer”) for “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957), where he allegedly had an affair with the blonde bombshell — much to the fury of her costar and director, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was equally eager to get into her pants.
I say “allegedly” because Clark published his memoir in 2000, some 43 years after the events in question. This may be because he was a polite man who didn’t want to offend anyone and waited until all involved parties were long dead to publish his secret. More likely, it was a case of no one being around to refute him; the tale certainly stretches credulity.
Whether it’s true or not, though, is somewhat beside the point. What emerges is a portrait of Monroe as both worn out by and addicted to movie stardom, and a woman who certainly knew how to wield her charms to manipulate the men around her. In this, the film is mostly accurate. Director Simon Curtis presents Monroe as the era’s original troubled diva, the precursor to today’s Britneys and Whitneys, drawn like a moth to the death-singe light of celebrity.
The story follows young Colin (Eddie Redmayne) as he moves from an aristocratic upbringing to become an eager film-world novice. After landing a job with Olivier’s production company, he immediately finds himself in the role of Marilyn’s handler when she arrives in Britain to a baying pack of paparazzi. Tensions immediately arise between the no-nonsense, just-get-on-with-it professionalism of Olivier (played fussily by Kenneth Branagh) and the method school, feel-it-don’t-fake-it approach of Monroe.
Olivier finds his authority undercut by the Rasputin-like presence of Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), Monroe’s acting coach, who somehow can’t get a doped-up Marilyn to make it through a simple page of dialogue. As the film threatens to fall apart, Colin finds himself caught in the middle, his innocent ways allowing him an easy intimacy with Monroe that soon leads to something more. Or so Colin thinks; a canny viewer will sense that Monroe is playing Colin to an extent, charming him into becoming her ally on the set, and an intermediary with the temperamental Olivier.
Williams shines as Monroe, flipping back and forth between the vamping, teasing icon she had created and the insecure, out-of-her-depth actress she secretly feared herself to be. Redmayne gets the puppy-dog crush aspect right, but fails to provide the simmer beneath the nice-guy smile that would have enticed someone like Monroe, forever drawn to complicated and accomplished men. Further hurting his chances is the director’s TV-movie penchant for pulling in repeatedly on tight reaction shots where we see Colin rapt in hypnotic awe of Marilyn. The effect soon becomes like typing with the caps lock key on, which is true of much of the film: Every point has to be rammed home, and the dialogue is often telling us things we’ve long since worked out, such as how Olivier, beneath his bluster, is envious of Monroe’s natural charm on the screen, or that Monroe felt that people loved her image, not her.
Hanging over all the proceedings, of course, is Monroe’s overdose-death/suicide, which the film’s final postscript strangely fails to mention. It’s a curiously happy ending for a star whose life was anything but.