Therefore encour age one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing…
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the
weak, be patient with all of them.
1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14
This film, based on Colin Clark’s diaries, The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, can be seen as a good addition to the movies about movie making genre, as well as a peek into the private life of what was once the most famous and adored actress in the world. And for people of faith director Simon Curtis’s film has the additional dimension as being a good story about encouragement and grace and their role in life. That the story’s events are more or less true makes it all the better. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) comes from an upper-class English family, his father being the famous art historian Kenneth Clark whose 13-part BBC Civilization: A Personal View is a classic television documentary. Wanting to develop his own life and escape from under his father’s shadow, Colin manages in the summer of 1956, through pluck and persuasion, to land a position at Pinewood Studios. It is an unpaid position at first as a “Third Assistant Director” to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), which translates as “gofer.” Olivier is directing and co-starring in The Prince and the Showgirl , and the actress regarded by the press as an American sex goddess is soon to arrive in London. This, of course, is Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), bringing with her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), wife of Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg.
Both at he airport and at Pinewood Marilyn is given the red carpet treatment, with Olivier heading the assembled cast and studio staff expressing warm greetings and words of admiration. For Olivier this will be the last time for a long while that he utters anything positive to or about his costar. The insecure actress is always late, sometimes hours late, and when she does leave her dressing room to show up on the set, she seeks guidance and reassurance not from director Olivier, but from Lee, whom she always keeps close at hand.
It is during this tumultuous period that the 23 year-old Colin, who like virtually every other male (Olivier included, as his wife Vivian Leigh observes) has developed a crush on the actress, is invited into the private life of the tormented actress. This becomes the intense week when Arthur Miller, who observes that Marilyn and her celebrityhood sucks all the air from him, decides to return to the USA so that he can get back to his writing. Feeling abandoned (again), Marilyn turns to Colin for the comfort and reassurance that she needs as badly as any heroin addict ever needed a fix.
During a week in which there is little call for her to be on the set, Colin escorts Marilyn around London. Earlier there had been a delightful exchange when someone says to her that she must get out more to see the sites of the city, to which she replies, “I am the sight.” This is not a vain boast, but a wry expression of the truth. She tries to go shopping, but is immediately spotted and quickly surrounded by a crowd pressing in upon her, everyone trying to touch her or acquire her autograph. She is as much a prisoner of her fame as a beneficiary of it.
When Colin takes her to his old university, she is quickly surrounded by admiring students, blessing one with a kiss on the cheek that he will never forget. Standing at the top of a short flight of steps, she senses that they want the screen Marilyn, so she graciously gives to them a brief performance of her famous shimmy and shake steps. They are enthralled. However when Colin is able to get them into the Queen’s palace, she shows her more serious side, making some intelligent remarks and questions to Colin’s grandfather, who is the royal librarian (and unaware of who she is).
Marilyn is wonderfully portrayed by Michelle Williams as a highly talented woman wracked by serious doubts about her ability and haunted by a sense of childhood abandonment. In one telling scene Colin sees two pictures on her vanity desk, one of her mother, he learns, and one of Abraham Lincoln. To his query, she says, “he is my Dad. I never knew my real father, so it might as well be him.” In scene after scene we see also that Marilyn is fearful in the presence of the man considered one of the greatest actors in the world. She worries that she cannot measure up to Olivier’s expectations, and sure enough, time after time she doesn’t, her mistakes requiring retake after retake. It is Colin who during their week spent together provides the comfort and support that not even longtime associate Lee Strasberg can offer.
Kenneth Branaugh should not be overlooked in this film, his performance as the frustrated director also being outstanding, though understandably overshadowed by that of Ms. Williams’. We see in Olivier’s interaction with Marilyn the clash between two approaches to acting, that of the classical in which practice and skill are paramount and that of the Method in which the actor strives to understand the motivation and inner life of the character. As Colin says to Marilyn, “It’s agony because he’s a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you’re a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won’t help either of you.” Marilyn, emerging from an insecure past and wanting to move beyond the straight jacket of “sex goddess” to which her fans would confine her, struggles to become an artist as serious as Olivier himself—and to be taken as seriously.
Earlier I wrote that this is a film of grace, and so it is. We see how young Colin, even more innocent in some ways than Marilyn, provides a measure of temporary security and comfort for the actress. But so do others serve as agents of grace, the most prominent being Judi Dench’s Dame Sybil Thorndike, an actress who immediately realizes Marilyn’s vulnerability and need for reassurance. Unlike Olivier, who as director is so focused on getting the film made within budget, she is able to reach out to the younger woman at various times. Marilyn as the child/woman also bestows grace—on the students who gaze at her in awe when she briefly performs for them, and also upon Colin, well before their magical week spent in close company. Sensing his concern for her, she treats him as a person and not just as a gofer. She lets him down gently when it comes time to part. And whether or not their relationship became physical the film leaves open to question. For this, and also because it takes us into the process of movie making, this is a film I will cherish henceforth.
Note: Discussion questions are available with this review for those subscribing to the Visual Parables journal. The journal also includes many extras–book reviews, the use of films for church seasons, a lectionary related column, and more. Hundreds of old reviews are also available in the subscribers; section. Check out the sample issue.