It takes some ten minutes to get used to, and accept, Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe in this movie—one other attestation of the strength of Monroe’s impression on our collective visual memory. That aside, this is one of the best movies made in 2011, and that includes Michelle William’s portrayal of the film star.
My Week with Marilyn (directed by Simon Curtis) documents the making in 1957 of The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Monroe was cast next to Laurence Olivier. The story is told from the perspective of the third assistant director, a young man of twenty-three, Colin Clark, who becomes Monroe’s confidant during the movie’s production. (His diaries published in the mid-1990s provided the basis for the script of My Week with Marilyn.)
Of course, Colin also falls in love with Marilyn and she too plays with him a little, but the ‘sweet despair’ of this (first) love is only a side story, the real focus, from beginning to end, the tension between Marilyn the film star and the real Marilyn and how that tension was played out—then, like so many other times—in the way she was perceived by and interacted with her colleagues and the public.
‘Shall I play her?’ she asks Colin in one scene upon coming down the stairs of a college and across a bunch of young male students—and without waiting for an answer she goes ahead and puts on the act that made her famous, swinging her hips, torso slightly lowered and extended, her face lightening up with a smile, her eyes sparkling, her voice high and seductive—female sexuality supreme but combined with child-like innocence—it was an act, but also truthful because those were genuine character traits of Marilyn Monroe.
Trouble was she was more than just that, but nobody was particularly interested in what else she was, might be or become, and that included her husband—at the time the playwright Arthur Miller—and Laurence Olivier (in the movie wonderfully portrayed by Kenneth Branagh). Monroe dreaded Olivier as he represented what she aspired for herself: great acting (which was more often than not within her reach) but also a self-confident professional demeanor (which she never managed to internalize).
The result was drama of the type put on by adults when they begin behaving like sullen children: Monroe showed up consistently late for shootings, staged escapades and put on crying fits; Olivier played up his English mannerisms, put her down and shouted. She craved for his recognition; he admired her sex appeal and gave her dirty looks.
It is said about Monroe that she loved the camera and did not mind being seen as a sexual object. Maybe occasionally; but not all the time. To be fixed eternally by the (male) gaze as a source of seductive fascination also means to be left alone when not delivering, and to be condemned to ever fear the act of desertion. That was Monroe’s source of unhappiness and what renders her a tragic figure.