In the mood for Marilyn

Romantic comedy provides a glimpse into one of Tinseltown's most troubled personalities

Marilyn Monroe was a real woman, but through the decades she has also existed as an image _ and an imagination. The later generation, appreciating Monroe in iconic, sex pot poses and perky screen persona, associates a wide gamut of ideas, fantasies and conjectures with her and her era, the '50s. A powerful presence on the screen (her movies lose meaning when she's not in the frame), she's also a blank page on which you supply your own surmises and assumptions, theories and conclusions. It says a lot when, in probably her most famous movie from 1955, The Seven Year Itch, Monroe plays a character with no name: it's enough to know her as The Girl.

Now Michelle Williams plays Monroe in the enjoyable yet somewhat thin My Week With Marilyn, which opened at the Lido yesterday. Meanwhile long in gestation is Blonde, in which Naomi Watts, less buxom admittedly, plays the actress in the story adapted from a "fictitious memoir" by Joyce Carol Oates. To feminists and boys, to revisionists and worshippers, Monroe still exerts an influence that hovers between wonder and alarm, between transparency and riddle.

In 1956 Monroe, 30, at the height of her fame and six years away from her death, arrived in London to film the comedy, The Prince and the Showgirl, with Sir Laurence Olivier, Britain's most respected director/actor of the time. On the set, Monroe, who came to England with her third husband Arthur Miller, veered from insecurity to juvenilism; she arrived late for hours, broke down in front of the camera, then sought numb comfort in pills, drinks and her acting coach who kept whispering in her ears how she was the best actress in the world. All of this is recorded in a memoir published in 1995 by Colin Clark, who as a young man served as Sir Olivier's assistant on the set and who claimed to have a brief, chaste, wistful relationship with the blonde actress during the shoot.

My Week with Marilyn is based on Clark's book, and the film is a sketch of one of the most troubled personalities in the trove of Hollywood lore. Like all films on outsized figures whose life story is surrounded as much by spotlight as by the fog of publicity, My Week with Marilyn proposes to take us behind the closed doors of the actress's bedchamber and provide a deeper dimension of her public joys and private sorrows. Only to an extent that the film, directed by Simon Curtis, succeeds, and largely it's the performances of Michelle Williams as Monroe and Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark that buoy us along. The decision to make this into a romantic comedy is at once an advantage and a shortcoming, for while we laugh and sympathise with Monroe's tragedy-in-the-making, the scope of whole thing feels like a glimpse into this cursed, edgy soul.

On the surface, Williams practised the Hollywood tradition of mimicry that will certainly earn her an Oscar nomination (we'll see another soon, as Meryl Streep appears as Margaret Thatcher) but in the accumulation of winks, tics and pouts, she goes beyond mere imitation: Williams captures that sense of bewilderment, the strange contrast that made Marilyn so desirable and so formidable. A bombshell and a child, at once silly and cunning, she walks on to the set and finds herself face to face with such luminaries as Sir Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, keeping it amusing) and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench, keeping it less amusing) and a void opens up before her.

At that point in history, Monroe is probably the most famous actress in the world, and the burden of fame is weighing down on this woman who seems to rely solely on her instinct and superficiality rather than on craft and all that twaddle about Method Acting her coach has prescribed.

Haloed by a natural aura, Monroe would breeze into a room (or a set, or a bar) and command total attention; the film suggests that even Sir Olivier, the veteran of British theatre married to Vivian Leigh (played by Julia Ormond here) and who's getting increasingly incensed by Monroe's antics, has fallen under her spell and been struck by the kind of visceral purity that makes her a good _ and somehow unconventional _ actress. The reason Monroe seeks out Clark, supposedly an invisible errand boy on the set, as her confidante is not too hard to fathom: as everybody wants a piece of her _ even Arthur Miller, her new husband, is probably using her as a material for his writing _ she finds young Clark harmless, a neutral, guileless presence whose shoulder is wide enough for her to cry on.

But perhaps the attempt to make Monroe more "real" is always futile. Williams brings her out of the haze, only to yield to the inevitability of slipping her back in. Some like it hot, and some like it not _ it's probably best to keep Monroe a mystery, the way the actress herself seems puzzled by her own ability to change the mood and respond to the expectations of people around her. In one of the good scenes in My Week with Marilyn, Monroe sneaks away from the set and goes sightseeing with Clark. When a group of fans recognise her, the actress, who's been "out of character", beams mischievously and assumes the Marilyn persona by chortling, sashaying and posing for photos. Born Norma Jeane, Marilyn lived for 36 years, and it would certainly take more than a week, let long 100 minutes, to really know her.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Former Life Editor