The Films of 2011: My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams has proven herself to be one of the most talented actresses working in movies today; she can play tough or vulnerable, or a mixture of both, so in some ways she’s the perfect choice to play Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn.  But the movie is so badly done that Williams’ talent barely emerges unscathed.  It’s a film that wants to get to the “real” Marilyn underneath the star persona but only reinscribes that persona, trapping Williams inside. 

The film is an unintentionally fascinating example of how, fifty years after her death, audiences and filmmakers keep resuscitating the same Monroe cliches, collapsing Monroe with her on-screen roles as bubbly blonde, as sexpot, as giggling innocent.  However much we may want to peel back these layers, we can’t imagine the Marilyn beneath them, Marilyn “at ease.”  But this film isn’t much interested in imagining that Marilyn anyway.  Rather, it wants to conjure up Marilyn the icon, the cartoon.  This isn’t a movie about Marilyn Monroe: it is a Marilyn Monroe movie, a male adolescent fantasy in which a star-struck, goggle-eyed kid (Eddie Redmayne) briefly basks in her radiance.  He's a romantic movie-set lackey who briefly becomes Marilyn’s confidante, confessor, and partner-in-crime; they spend an idyllic afternoon playing hooky, fleeing the set of The Prince and the Showgirl to go touring Windsor Castle and skinny-dipping in a lake.  As in The Seven-Year Itch (which I just finished watching for the very first time; I’ll be posting about it next week), they keep things chaste; a few tender kisses aside, Marilyn’s simmering sexuality is to be looked at, not touched.  This Marilyn is really just a variation on the same roles that the real Monroe played during her career: the sexy-funny, somewhat free-spirited innocent, with a whiff of sadness about her--but just enough to make her mysterious.  As interpreted here, she even talks in the breathy, childlike cadences of Marilyn’s characters when she’s supposedly acting "naturally," and says things in private that would feel right at home coming out of those characters’ mouths.  The film tries to give her some dimension by suggesting her inner demons in a few scenes, but they’re not enough to give us a sense of Monroe the person—they’re just more clich├ęs.   

The film gives us Marilyn the ditzy comedienne, the lovable doll, the wistful lost girl, but it doesn’t show us a Marilyn outside of these familiar poses (in the way that Joyce Carol Oates’ remarkable novel Blonde manages to do, for instance).  Williams, sadly, might have been the actress to do it, but she can’t here, in a film that further ensconces Monroe behind a wall of star glamour and cheap pathology.  Ironically, like Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, Williams is stuck in a dumb film that isn't worthy of her talent.  My Week with Marilyn doesn’t interrogate or illuminate the myth of Marilyn; it masturbates to it.           

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