In 1957 Marilyn Monroe stared in The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Sir Laurence Olivier, the film’s director and co-star. According to Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn, Monroe saw this collaboration as an opportunity to extend her range as a serious actor while Olivier saw it as a chance to get a taste of Hollywood glamour. The result was a turbulent set of conflicting motivations as witnessed by future filmmaker Colin Clark, who at the time had just left university and was doing his first job as an assistant director. Clark’s two published accounts of his experiences, which detail his relationship with Monroe, form the basis of Curtis’s film. Similar to Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008) My Week with Marilyn is partly a coming-of-age/love story, partly a study of fame and partly a once-removed biopic where the famous person at the centre of the film, in this case Monroe, is viewed through the eyes of an unknown.
My Week with Marilyn begins as something of a light-hearted romp. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Clark is initially presented rather broadly as a poor rich boy, whose show-business aspirations are something of a disappointment to his upper class, overachieving and restrictive family. Once on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl he experiences both the welcoming and nurturing side of filmmaking in the guise of Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), as well as the bullying, condescending and inpatient nature of the biz through Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Olivier. However, Olivier is not completely unsympathetic and some of his annoyances and frustrations are understandable if not always reasonable. My Week with Marilyn suggests that Olivier was both threatened and in awe of Monroe and her devotion to method acting.
Once Monroe (Michelle Williams) becomes a central part of the narrative, the film becomes significantly more interesting. Williams captures the vulnerability, allure and transcendent appeal of Monroe perfectly. She does not mimic Monroe and Curtis seems to have deliberately avoided making Williams precisely look the part. The result is a performance that captures Monroe’s essence rather than focusing on superficial surface appearances. That essence was Monroe’s contradictory and sometimes self-destructive relationship with fame. She yearned to be taken seriously as an actor rather than be seen as a kooky sex symbol and yet, as portrayed in the film, she continually defaulted back to publicly playing the part of a coy sex bomb. My Week with Marilyn captures the great sadness of a woman who played up to her glamorous image despite despising it.
The film begins with one of Monroe’s performances, which cuts between the actual performance as it is being filmed and then shots of that projected image in a cinema, to establish Monroe’s identity as a movie star who existed for so many as a projection. Throughout the film she is constantly being photographed and illuminated with spotlights, always on display and under scrutiny. Often the film cuts to still photos of her to suggest a constant attempt to freeze a moment in time and trap her image. Even telling Monroe’s story as a snapshot from the point-of-view of Clark reveals how Monroe’s existence had so much to do with her being a public figure being forever viewed through the eyes of others.
Underneath the film’s conventional dramatic flourishes and fun references to other celebrities of the era is a sweet and melancholic story. Rather than being a full blown biopic attempting to cover her entire life, My Week with Marilyn presents the conflicting and complex nature of who she was on- and off-screen by focusing on one week in her life through the eyes of an at-the-time industry outsider. After The Prince and the Showgirl Monroe went on to deliver her finest comedic performance in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Some Like It Hot (1959) and her finest dramatic performance in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) before dying in 1962 at the age of 36. When Williams as Monroe says to Clark, ‘Don’t forget about me’, she’s not asking him to not forget the most famous woman in the world, but she is saying to him ‘Don’t forget me as a real person who was your friend’ and to the audience ‘Don’t forget I was a serious and talented actor.’