Carly at the Movies: My Week with Marilyn

As Sir Laurence Olivier famously shouted, “Teaching acting to Marilyn Monroe is like teaching Urdu to a badger!” And while that may have been true for Marilyn, no acting lessons are needed for Michelle Williams who portrays her perfectly in “My Week with Marilyn.”

What a fabulous pre-Christmas gift is this film, based Colin Clark’s book, written from his diary of life as a Third Assistant Director during the filming of “The Prince and the Showgirl” in the mid-1950’s.

In those days, Marilyn was the most famous woman in the world, and her co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, was the most famous actor. The clash of these two iconic titans was a shot heard round the film world, and it’s safe to say this backstage drama is far more interesting than the film they eventually made.

That is due in large part to Michelle Williams, who has already been named Actress of the Year at the 2011 Hollywood Film Festival. She has been nominated for an Oscar twice, including “Brokeback Mountain,” and played the lead in an absolutely wonderful 2008 independent film called “Wendy and Lucy.” Her third Oscar nomination is forthcoming for “My Week with Marilyn.”

There were a few problems in retrospect with the film, but as a movie fan who was just as transfixed as was everyone else with the real Marilyn’s magic, I found this movie absolutely delicious.

Sensitive-looking young Eddie Redmayne played the lowly Third Assistant Director assigned to keep the unruly goddess in her place, and Branagh obviously enjoyed his imitation of the great Sir Laurence. He was certainly adequate. But somehow I’d rather see Olivier do his impersonation of Branagh. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of forgery. And Emma Watson (now and forever, alas, linked with the Harry Potter movies) has grown into a strikingly lovely young actress playing a working behind-the-scenes film worker who Redmayne should have hooked up with.

All of that was fine, but when Judi Dench arrived, playing the imposing Dame Sybil Thorndike, one tends to be desperately taken by her. She is a delight, and her performance a wonder to behold. Then, about halfway through the film, she drops out – as does character actor Toby Jones – while the plot concentrates on the Redmayne-Monroe relationship.

Frankly, I would have settled for a lot less of Julia Ormond (playing an aging Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s jealous wife) or Dougray Scott (as playwright Arthur Miller, or even Zoe Wanamaker (Marilyn’s phony guru, Paula Strasberg).

But the faux “romance,” between a young nobody and the most beautiful woman on earth, is beautifully shot and underplayed by Michelle Williams, who reaches the essence of Marilyn-the-icon and only hints at the vulnerable and deeply disturbed woman beneath. She is hypnotic. She floats. She is Marilyn.

The movie they were working on, “The Prince and the Showgirl,” was a clunker. Monroe’s next film was “Some Like It Hot” and Olivier’s was “The Entertainer,” both great films in anybody’s book. So neither of them were exactly ruined by their involvement in Prince/Showgirl. But the behind-the-scenes battle of the strict and self-absorbed Olivier and the drug-ridden, insecure beauty is the stuff that Show Biz is made of.

It’s the kind of backstage magic that makes you want to run right out and see what the real movie was like. “The Prince and the Showgirl” is available on DVD and from Netflix. But it’s not half as much fun as “My Week with Marilyn.”

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

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