In the summer of 1956, Colin Clark works as an assistant on the British set of The Prince and the Showgirl, which stars Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, who is also on honeymoon with her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller. When Miller leaves the country, Clark introduces Monroe to British life and they spend a week together, during which time she escapes from her Hollywood routine and the pressures of work
Directed by Simon Curtis Produced by David Parfitt Harvey Weinstein Written by Adrian Hodges Based on The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark Starring Michelle Williams Kenneth Branagh Eddie Redmayne Emma Watson Judi Dench Music by Conrad Pope Alexandre Desplat Cinematography Ben Smithard Editing by Adam Recht Studio The Weinstein Company BBC Films LipSync Productions Trademark Films Distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors The Weinstein Company Release date(s) 9 October 2011 (2011-10-09) (New York Film Festival) 25 November 2011 (2011-11-25) (United Kingdom) Running time 101 minutes Country United Kingdom Language English Budget £6.4 million ($10 million)
My Week with Marilyn: the true story While making The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn Monroe took a shine to a lowly assistant director. Their brief relationship is now at the heart of a new film. By David Gritte 05 Nov 2011 in The Telegraph
The year 1956 was a pivotal one in British history, politically and culturally. The Suez crisis rocked the nation's standing in the world, and Anthony Eden's authority as prime minister began unravelling. Rock'n'roll established its grip on the pop charts, while in the theatre, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger premiered at the Royal Court, effectively sweeping away generations of genteel, escapist British plays.
'It was the last of please and thank-yous, collars and ties, and bobbies on the beat,' says Kenneth Branagh, whose new film bears witness to this clash of generations and cultures. 'After this, haircuts were longer, there was rock'n'roll and all the sex involved with it. Politeness, manners, formality, dress codes – all those things were being swept away.'
Against this backdrop, Colin Clark, a young man of 23, talked himself into a lowly job with Laurence Olivier's film production company. Clark was hired as third assistant director (read 'gofer') on the film The Prince and the Showgirl, shot at Pinewood Studios and starring Olivier, leading light of the conservative British acting establishment, and Marilyn Monroe, then the hottest star in Hollywood.
They had separate agendas: Olivier wanted Monroe's formidable glamour to rub off on him and rekindle his career in films, while she hoped working with the multiple award- winning actor and director would bring her the respect that she craved. As individuals, Olivier, then 49, and Monroe, 30, were chalk and cheese: he the rigorous, disciplined knight of the realm with impeccable manners; she a mercurial refugee from Hollywood, prone to mood swings, infuriatingly late on set, continually fluffing her lines, and troubled by pills, booze and a new marriage (to the eminent playwright Arthur Miller) that was already looking shaky.
Clark had the presence of mind to write a diary about his experiences on the film, and chronicle this clash of egos and cultures. Clark, who went on to make more than 100 arts documentaries and who died in 2002, published his diaries, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, to great acclaim in 1995. He wrote about that fateful period with a delicious, gossipy wit (Clark was the younger brother of another renowned diarist, the late Alan Clark MP – bon vivant and flamboyant womaniser). He offered a vivid account of the problems each day on the set seemed to bring, and is at his best on the prickly relationship between Monroe and Olivier (to whom he refers in shorthand as MM and SLO). 'MM doesn't really forget her lines,' he wrote. 'It is more as if she had never quite learnt them – as if they are pinned to her mental noticeboard so loosely that the slightest puff of wind will send them floating to the floor.'
Monroe took a shine to the confident yet innocent Clark, and at one point whisked him away from the set to spend a week virtually alone with her, an escape from the pressures she felt Olivier was imposing on her. Together they enjoyed what might be called a chaste romance, though the week in question is omitted from the diary.
But in 2000, following the success of the first book, Clark published My Week with Marilyn, an account of their nine days together, an experience, Clark said, 'so dramatic and extraordinary that it was impossible to include it in my daily chatterings'. And now comes a film based on both books, also called My Week with Marilyn, starring the American actress Michelle Williams as Monroe, with a British cast headed by 28-year-old Eddie Redmayne as Clark and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier – an actor with whom he was often compared in his younger days.
For the director Simon Curtis, the social and political background to this gently romantic interlude is as interesting as the main story itself. 'At that time Olivier had become emblematic of a fading Britain. Marilyn was emblematic of an exciting, complicated new America. Arguably, 1956 is the year that Britain finally started to shake off the shadow of the Second World War. Rationing had only just ended. So for me, this is about Marilyn and her glamorous, colourful American entourage arriving in black-and-white England.'
Curtis first approached the producer David Parfitt about a possible film based on the books seven years ago. 'Everyone liked the idea,' Parfitt recalls. But one problem about making a film about Monroe is that she feels so familiar and iconic: what is left to say? She died almost 50 years ago, aged 36, but remains firmly part of the collective consciousness. We think we know everything about her, from her curvaceous frame, that breathy, babyish voice, her sexy shimmy, to her failed marriages and affairs, and her tragic premature death from a drug overdose in 1962.
Adrian Hodges, the film's screenwriter, saw the problem immediately. 'Is there anyone more famous to write about? Princess Diana, possibly. Even people who don't know why they know Marilyn Monroe know her. That's how big she is in the culture. If you'd said to me one day I'd write a film about her, I'd have been amazed, because I wouldn't have known where to start.'
The saving grace for Hodges was that Clark's books about Monroe are snapshots of a short, specific time, which meant he could avoid the cliches and caricatures now associated with the actress. Thus, he says, his script is 'a view of her as a woman of 30, at a crossroads, still close enough to the person she'd been to have contact with reality. She was not quite the fading supernova. I liked the idea that this was before anything was inevitable for her.
'I felt the world could also use a generous view of Marilyn. The film isn't uncritical of her behaviour and it certainly doesn't give her a free pass. It's just that I think there are other things to say about someone who was once a complete person, not just this… thing.'
Michelle Williams also admits to feeling nervous about playing Monroe. 'How could you not be? I'd always been interested in the private Marilyn, the Marilyn before "Marilyn". Even as a young girl, my primary connection wasn't with this larger-than-life personality, but with what was going on underneath.'
As Williams sees the story, 'She was expecting to go to London and make a movie with the most esteemed actor of the time. When she arrived she felt she was being mistreated and laughed at. Olivier… didn't treat her with the kind of attention she was hoping for. She felt she needed allies – and she found one in Colin Clark.'
Although it is Marilyn's name in the film's title, Clark emerges as an equally fascinating individual. He came from a very privileged background; an early scene in the film shows him driving away from the magnificent Saltwood Castle in Kent, where he grew up. (The real castle was used in the film.) His father was the renowned art historian Kenneth Clark, best known as the writer and presenter of the television series Civilisation. Eddie Redmayne found Clark a complex character. 'There's a sense that Colin has come from a life of privilege,' he says, 'but there was something idiosyncratic about him. He went to Eton, but while all his friends were hunting, shooting and fishing types, his father was an art historian – at a time when no one quite knew what a historian was. He was slightly embarrassed about it.
'At one point he became a zookeeper for six months, just because he wanted to. He had a rather glamorous background – with people like Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Margot Fonteyn visiting his parents' home for tea. So he came out of Eton and Oxford with tremendous confidence, but in need of an emotional education.'
Clark littered his diaries with nonchalant accounts of casual sex, both straight and gay. In My Week with Marilyn, though, it is clear he was entranced by the world's best-known actress. The nearest he came to consummating their relationship was when they spent the day together in a chauffeured car, visiting Windsor Castle (where Clark's godfather was the librarian), his old school Eton, and driving through Windsor Great Park where they stripped off to swim in a river, and she kissed him on the lips. In the film, this last scene is played for both tenderness and laughs. 'We shot it just over a year ago, in October,' Redmayne recalls. 'It wasn't a balmy day, and the water was very cold. It wasn't exactly romantic. Michelle and I just concentrated on getting our lines right first time, and running out of the water into warm towels.'
The third side of this triangle, of course, was Olivier, and Branagh leapt at the chance of playing this complex man at a key moment in his life. 'I knew about Olivier from his memoirs,' Branagh says. 'At that point in his career, he was almost 50, and I think he felt maybe a little fossilised. He had a glamorous marriage [to Vivien Leigh] and he was treated like royalty in Britain. But I think he wanted to be "cool", as we'd say now. And initially he thought he was going to get that. But then came the feud with Monroe and all the frustrations of working with her. All those things that Olivier believed in – turning up on time, knowing all your lines – were traduced by Marilyn on that film. It almost unmanned him.'
In the end, the film was no one's finest hour. In this laborious, old-fashioned comedy, largely panned by the critics, Monroe plays a saucy American showgirl who is romanced in London by the Prince Regent of Carpathia (played by Olivier with a non-specific middle-European accent) during George V's 1911 coronation. The playwright Terence Rattigan, one of many talents who suddenly looked desperately old-hat in the cultural upheavals of the 1950s, wrote the script from his own play The Sleeping Prince – Vivien Leigh had played the showgirl role on the London stage.
Despite the problems she caused with her erratic behaviour, it is Monroe who walks away with the film. Hers is the only character on screen with any life or zest. Yet the film may now be best remembered as a superb dramatic battlefield for Olivier and Monroe, and a first-rate romantic backdrop for Monroe and Clark.
'I don't think it's hard to identify with Colin in that situation,' Adrian Hodges says. 'Anybody could identify with that fascination with Hollywood and the extraordinary strangeness of becoming close to someone so famous, who patently did need him – at least for a moment or two.
'I really love all the showbiz stuff, the scenes on the film set. But there's only so much you can do before the general audience says, fine, but give us a story. That's where Colin's week with Marilyn comes in. That's the heart and soul of the film.'
Seven years seems a long time between the idea for a film first being mooted and its eventual release, but David Parfitt recalls, 'It wasn't too bad really. Simon Curtis and I went straight to BBC Films and the UK Film Council, who put up the development funds, and we had a screenplay we were happy with after 18 months. Then came the search for finance, and for our Marilyn.'
Simon Curtis insists that Michelle Williams was always the top choice to play Monroe. 'Neither Marilyn nor Olivier are the kinds of parts where you go down a list and eventually you find somebody. These people have to be not only the right age and have a resemblance to their characters, but stunningly good actors as well. Michelle and Ken were both at the top of my list, and I feel so lucky.'
Williams committed to My Week with Marilyn two years before shooting started, and stayed loyal, according to Parfitt. 'We were waiting for her to finish other films, such as Blue Valentine.' Finally the financing for My Week with Marilyn was clinched by Harvey Weinstein, the American producer and studio head, who had snapped up the rights to Blue Valentine and was keen to keep working with Williams. Buying the rights to My Week with Marilyn made that desire a reality.
Weinstein may have bankrolled the film, but it is an utterly British creation. Judi Dench plays the actress Sybil Thorndike, who took kindly to Monroe on set and stood up to Olivier on her behalf. Emma Watson is a young wardrobe mistress on The Prince and the Showgirl, with whom Clark attempts a more conventional romance. Zoë Wanamaker is Paula Strasberg, Monroe's acting coach, whose constant presence on set enraged Olivier. Julia Ormond plays Vivien Leigh, more than a little jealous of Marilyn. Stalwart British actors such as Simon Russell Beale, Philip Jackson, Jim Carter and Derek Jacobi have smaller roles. Redmayne felt almost overwhelmed by the venerable names in the cast. 'Most of them are people I've admired for years. Much of that gaping, wide-eyed look I have in the film wasn't really acting.'
There is a fascinating postscript to Clark's story about The Prince and the Showgirl, an indifferent film that turned out to have a galvanising effect on its two frustrated, unhappy leads. Just before it started shooting, Olivier and Rattigan went to see Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court. They were both appalled. But Olivier went back, decided it offered a glimpse of the future and wrote to Osborne asking if he 'had anything for him'. Osborne offered him The Entertainer, the story of a failing middle-aged song-and-dance man, Archie Rice, and an emblem of England's fading glories. Released in 1960, it would be one of the triumphs of Olivier's career.
As for Monroe, her next film was Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder's sublime comedy and the high-water mark of her big-screen appearances. It's as if The Prince and the Showgirl was an unlikely spark that brought two very different personalities together for a while, and set them free to go off in new creative directions. And not just Monroe and Olivier, but Monroe and Clark, too.
Jill worked from original 1956 film footage to recreate the pale blue dress Marilyn wore when she arrived in the UK
In "Vintage Seekers" www.vintageseekers.com Curating a Heritage Lifestyle
The award-winning costume designer Jill Taylor tells us how she transformed Michelle Williams into the ultimate screen icon of the 50s
As told to Estella Shardlow on Thursday 3rd November, 2011 What I’ve always said about Marilyn is that she was way ahead of her time in terms of how she dressed in her everyday life. She really picked up on the American sportswear thing that was coming about with designers like Claire McCardell and Norman Morrill, who were making clothes that were less structured. In Britain we’d just come out of the New Look and were still wearing a lot of very tailored suits, but Marilyn's wardrobe was much looser – how we ended up in the 60s is how she was in the 50s.
I think she’s absolutely not given enough credit for her fashion sense. People pick up on the iconic Marilyn, the 'tits 'n' ass' sex symbol thing, but her sense of style is great. She wore simple lines and neutrals - a lot of white, beige, camel and black. If you look at all those photographs of her with Arthur Miller, she’s in a striped T-shirt, Capri pants and knitwear. She was a Calvin Klein girl before there was Calvin Klein.
I trawled through loads and loads of antiques fairs and vintage shops to see if we could find original vintage pieces that would suffice for the film. We were pretty successful but we also had to reproduce a lot from original photographs – for example, we had to do the scene where she lands in this country, which is well-documented on newsreel. There’s a famous photo call when Marilyn arrived outside the house she was to stay in, with Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. We had to reproduce that, but of course everything was in black and white so we needed to match tones to colours.
Someone like Audrey Hepburn had this wonderful style, thanks to Hubert de Givenchy, which she carried through from her private life to her film life, whereas Marilyn didn’t really do that; the Marilyn you see in her movies is a very different portrayal of the girl who went off to studios. I’ve got a wonderful photograph of her with Susan Strasbourg, Lee and Paula’s daughter, sitting in an actors’ lesson and she’s just wearing a big cream cardi and cream Capri pants and a t-shirt. It’s just very simple and very modern. She dressed for comfort.
We had a little bit of fun with Emma Watson’s character, basing her on your average young, fashion-conscious girl of that time. She played a costume assistant, a girl who lived in the London suburbs who would try to look as good as she could on not much money. Given the American influence to England in the 50s, her style is quite Sandra Dee and girlie.
Julia Ormond, who’s just gorgeous, is a completely different shape to Vivien Leigh, so we had to do some adaptations to the suit to give her those waspish curves. I’ll just say with the magic of cinema we pulled it off in the end – or at least I hope we have as I was also a huge fan of hers. Her wardrobe wasn’t Vivien on the red carpet, but rather what she as a young actress would wear going to visit her husband on set or going to the office in her everyday life.
There were some rather challenging costumes. I was very relieved to finish an absolute beast dress from the original Prince and the Showgirl for Judi Dench's character, Sybil Forndyke. I just felt sick when I saw it, so that was amazing to pull off. It was a challenge to find fabrics that looked as lush as they did in those days, and the amount of work you could do then which now would cost thousands and thousands of pounds today.
The Old Hollywood was such a glamourous time, and that’s dissipated to some extent now. It was very controlled publicity that came out of Hollywood in the 30s, 40s and 50s. There was no such thing as paparazzi in those days, so stars weren’t caught on the street corner going to buy a pint of milk. There was a sense of mystery about all these people that doesn’t exist with celebrities nowdays. Now the age of celebrity has just gone berserk - we know too much about them - which also dissipates the level of stardom.
Biopics are notoriously very difficult to pull off. I did one on Peter Sellers a few years ago and again you have the same problems with suspending the audience’s belief, in this case that you’re actually watching Marilyn up there. It was kind of a dream come true and completely terrifying because she’s such an iconic character and there are so many references to her. You’re so open to criticism. So I think Michelle was
My Week With Marilyn (2011)
Laurence Cendrowicz/Weinstein Company From left, Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn."
Glamorous Sex Goddess, Longing to Be Human By MANOHLA DARGIS Published: November 22, 2011 in The New York Times
In 1976, the year that Marilyn Monroe would have turned 50, Larry McMurtry wrote that she “is right in there with our major ghosts: Hemingway, the Kennedy brothers — people who finished with American life before America had time to finish with them.” Almost a half-century after her death, the world, or at least its necrophiliac fantasists, still haven’t finished with Monroe and try to resurrect her again and again in movies, books, songs and glamour layouts featuring dewy and ruined ingénues. Maybe it’s because it’s so difficult to imagine her as Old Marilyn that she has become a Ghost of Hollywood Past, a phantom that periodically materializes to show us things that have been.
The latest attempt at resurrection occurs in “My Week With Marilyn,” with Michelle Williams as the Ghost. The movie is largely based on a slim 2000 book that a British documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne, in a role of many smiles and little depth), claimed was a true account of an intimate interlude he spent with Monroe in 1956 while they were making “The Prince and the Showgirl.” At the time Monroe was newly married to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and hoped that the film, based on a Terence Rattigan play, would help her move past sexpot roles. But the shoot turned into a clash of egos and cultures that threw her, leading her co-star and director, Laurence Olivier, to damn her as “the stupidest, most self-indulgent little tart I’ve ever come across.”
This is Sir Larry the Cruel, an assessment cemented by the miscast Kenneth Branagh’s intermittently amusing, unctuous take on Olivier as a pitifully vain, insensitive clod. Those familiar with Olivier, who was 49 when he made “Showgirl” and still strikingly handsome, may be distracted by the physical differences between him and Branagh, whose soft face registers as a blur compared with Olivier’s sculptured solidity. Branagh makes up for this disparity somewhat with his crisp, at times clipped, enunciation and a physical performance that gives Olivier enough vitality so that when, early in, the character sweeps into his production office with his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond, a wan placeholder for the original), he dazzles Clark and jolts this slow-stirring movie awake.
Clark, the son of the art historian Kenneth Clark, decided at 23, as he put it, to run away to the circus by working in the movies, an easy enough goal because his parents were friends with Olivier and Leigh. He became a glorified gofer on “Showgirl” (officially, its third assistant director), a position that involved managing Monroe, who during the shoot soon went from bad to worse, from late to missing in action. Her already strained marriage was one reason; Olivier was another. “Just be sexy,” he told Monroe, “isn’t that what you do?” No wonder she misbehaved: The man she idolized as the world’s greatest actor — and whom her production company hired — was a chauvinist bum.
He didn’t get Monroe, and she is similarly out of the grasp of this movie. Ms. Williams tries her best, and sometimes that’s almost enough. She’s too thin for the role, more colorlessly complected than creamy, but she whispers and wobbles nicely. (The costumes hug her tight, but wrongly round out her breasts, which should thrust like rockets ready for liftoff.)
The problem isn’t Ms. Williams or the serviceable work of the director Simon Curtis, but a script by Adrian Hodges that hews faithfully to Clark’s clichés. Instead of the complex woman familiar from the better books about her, the film offers a catalog of Monroe stereotypes: child, woman, smiling exhibitionist, shrieking neurotic, the barefooted free spirit and, lamentably, the martyr teetering in heels toward her doom.
The tragic Monroe is obviously dramatic, but the intimations of disaster don’t fit a movie that works so hard to be breezily, easily likable. Everything on screen looks good and period-appropriate, if also too manicured, as if the past had been digitally spruced up. Mr. Curtis, who has long directed for television (his credits include the 1999 BBC production of “David Copperfield”), here tends to arrange everything in the frame neatly, often by putting people and other focal points dead center. This isn’t uncommon in comedy, where such centeredness helps build tension as you wait for comic anarchists to wreck a meticulously organized world. In “My Week With Marilyn,” this visual approach adds nothing and comes across as generic, as do as the jerky, handheld newsreel shots and popping photo bulbs.
Mr. Curtis enlivens the movie with music, busyness and Zoe Wanamaker’s darkly comic, toadying turn as Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, as well as, always, the promise of the real Monroe. (Emma Watson has a thankless part as a diversion for Clark.) Mr. Curtis’s most unwise filmmaking move, however, is to put Ms. Williams continually into familiar Monroe poses and quote her famous photos and films — nude Marilyn, tousled Marilyn, singing Marilyn — a strategy that undermines his efforts to turn the idol into a person. He shows that Monroe is aware enough of her image that she knows — with a wink, a smile, a shake and a shimmy — how to turn her persona on for public consumption, but he too can’t escape wanting and always returning to that Marilyn Monroe.
“Shall I be her?” she asks Clark, who, like this film, would like nothing better.
My Week with Michelle by Adam Green | portraits by Annie Leibovtiz
Michelle Williams owns a series of photographs by her friend Dan Estabrook, titled Nine Symptoms, that depicts, in the style of a Surrealist Victorian medical textbook, the physical manifestations of falling in love: shortness of breath, heart-rate increase, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, weakness, fever, chills, delirium, and euphoria. On a sultry Saturday night in July, I find myself experiencing at least six of them as I ring the doorbell to Estabrook’s Brooklyn brownstone, where I am about to meet Williams for the first time. She’s invited me for a picnic dinner in the backyard, on loan for the evening, to talk about her latest project, My Week with Marilyn, in which she brings to life the doomed star whom Norman Mailer once called “the sweet angel of sex.” So I’ve put on my favorite shirt (a checked seersucker number), combed my hair, and brought along two bottles of chilled rosé, which, like me, are beaded with perspiration.
Suddenly there is a slight, luminously beautiful girl with very short, very blonde hair, a vintage flowered sleeveless dress, and bare feet. “Hi,” she says, smiling. “I’m Michelle.” A few minutes later, we’re sitting in a brick wall–enclosed garden, talking over glasses of wine in the muggy twilight. It could be a scene out of a bohemian Brooklyn remake of The Seven Year Itch, the Billy Wilder classic featuring Marilyn Monroe at her most luscious as a model who bedazzles a married man during a New York heat wave.
Click here to see a slideshow of Michelle Williams's best red carpet moments.
On-screen, Williams often exudes a bruised, wary fragility, whether as a betrayed wife in Brokeback Mountain or a young mother watching her marriage crumble in Blue Valentine. Here, though one can still detect a faint undercurrent of melancholy, she is bright and animated, quick to laugh. She gestures with small, slim, expressive hands as the conversation ranges from her affinity for dresses from the 1930s and long-discontinued Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils (“I love things that are old and beautiful and tell a story, even if it’s a sad one”) to the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, whose notoriously complex Ada is a favorite. “I think Nabokov once said that genius is finding the invisible link between things,” she tells me. “And that’s how I choose to see life. Everything’s connected, and everything has meaning if you look for it.”
Williams has been described as guarded in interviews, but her mood now seems relaxed and open. “I feel like something has changed for me, but it’s a new change, so it’s going to be hard for me to describe,” she says. “Maybe it has something to do with turning 30. I don’t feel as shy or nervous or self-conscious. I have more confidence that I can handle what life brings me. I don’t feel scared to have an idea and express it.” She adds, “I feel giddy about it because it’s a complete transformation. It’s like I’ve found my voice.”
With My Week with Marilyn, she’s also just come off a role that required the biggest transformation of her career. The idea of playing such an iconic figure was daunting. “As soon as I finished the script, I knew that I wanted to do it, and then I spent six months trying to talk myself out of it,” she says. “But I always knew that I never really had a choice.” And, she adds, “I’ve started to believe that you get the piece of material that you were ready for.”
Click here to read our October 2009 profile of Michelle Williams in Vogue.
Williams, who was born in Montana but raised in San Diego, grew up with pictures of Monroe on her bedroom wall. “I had one of her in a field of trees in Roxbury, Connecticut. She’s wearing a white dress and she’s barefoot and she’s got her arms spread and she’s laughing. There was just something about that image of her—so lovely and joyful and free. I’ve always thought of her as that woman-child, not an icon, which is probably why I let myself approach the role.”
As an icon, of course, Monroe continues to loom over our cultural landscape (her unforgettable billowing dress from The Seven Year Itch just sold at auction for $4.6 million), and the unhappy trajectory of her short life—from the traumatic childhood to the broken marriages to the pill overdose at 36—has become a kind of American myth. “Everybody has their own idea of who Marilyn was and what she means to them,” Williams says. “But I think that if you go a little bit deeper, you’re going to be surprised by what you find there.”
Based on a pair of slim memoirs by the late documentary filmmaker Colin Clark (son of Sir Kenneth), My Week with Marilyn chronicles the turbulent story behind the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 comedy in which Monroe starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier (played here by Kenneth Branagh with rueful élan), who was also its director. The promising collaboration between England’s greatest actor, who hopes to become a Hollywood movie star, and America’s blonde bombshell, who wants to be taken seriously as an actress, quickly devolves into a clash between an autocratic director and a woman constitutionally unable to show up on time, learn her lines, or come out of her dressing room without an entourage that quells her emotional storms with pills, booze, and flattery. As Colin, a 23-year-old gofer on the set, played with offbeat, bright-eyed fervor by Eddie Redmayne, tells Monroe, “This film won’t help either of you.”
It is Colin’s brief encounter with Monroe as her confidant, protector, and almost lover that gives My Week with Marilyn its tender heart. Dougray Scott stars as Monroe’s aloof husband, Arthur Miller; Dominic Cooper as her anxious business partner Milton Greene; and Zoë Wanamaker as her Svengali-like acting coach Paula Strasberg; there are stylish cameos by Simon Russell Beale, Sir Derek Jacobi, and, as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Dame Judi Dench.
If the film never quite achieves the high drama and urgency of a period piece like The King’s Speech, it does glowingly evoke a vanished era in filmmaking. But the main attraction is Williams, who brings Monroe to life with heartbreaking delicacy and precision without resorting to impersonation or cliché. It’s not hard to see why the film’s director, Simon Curtis, wanted her. “Not only is she beautiful and brilliant,” he tells me, “but she brings such intellect to her work along with an intuitive grasp of character, extraordinary depth of feeling, and a kind of innate glamour—I guess we call it star quality, don’t we? For a director, it’s the dream package.” Curtis recalls their first meeting at her house in upstate New York. “It was a wonderful, almost magical day,” he says. “And I thought, My God, I pray she wants to do the part, because I can’t imagine making it without her. We stopped somewhere on the way to dropping me off at the bus back to the city, and a fan asked for her autograph. Then the fan turned to me and said, ‘Is this your father?’ That brought me back down to earth instantly.”
Williams spent six months immersing herself in all things Monroe. She read biographies, diaries, letters, poems, and notes, pored over photographs, listened to recordings, watched movies, and tracked down obscure clips on YouTube. “I’d go to bed every night with a stack of books next to me,” she recalls. “And I’d fall asleep to movies of her. It was like when you were a kid and you’d put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it by osmosis.”
Her turn from indie waif to Hollywood sex goddess involved working with a choreographer to perfect Monroe’s walk and gaining weight to approximate her curves. “Unfortunately, it went right to my face,” she says, puffing up her cheeks to illustrate. “So at some point it became a question of, Do I want my face to look like Marilyn Monroe’s or my hips?” (She opted for the former and filled out the latter with foam padding.) In the end, she says, “it felt like being reborn. It felt like breaking my body and remaking it in her image, learning how she walked and talked and held her head. None of that existed in my physical memory, and I knew I needed as much time as possible to make it part of me.”
Williams may have become a star as a blonde teen siren on Dawson’s Creek, but since then, despite plenty of on-screen nudity and some graphic scenes, she has studiously avoided trading on her sex appeal. She cites a story that Monroe used to tell about walking down the beach in a bikini as a teenager and suddenly feeling the whole world open up to her. “Any messages that I got as a child about what it is to have a woman’s body or to be sexual were all negative—that people wouldn’t take you seriously or that they would take advantage of you,” she says. “So I couldn’t relate to that at all.” But surely she took some vicarious pleasure slipping into Jill Taylor’s lush period costumes? “The expectation to be beautiful always makes me feel ugly because I feel like I can’t live up to it,” she says. “But I do remember one moment of being all suited up as Marilyn and walking from my dressing room onto the soundstage practicing my wiggle. There were three or four men gathered around a truck, and I remember seeing that they were watching me come and feeling that they were watching me go—and for the very first time I glimpsed some idea of the pleasure I could take in that kind of attention; not their pleasure but my pleasure. And I thought, Oh, maybe Marilyn felt that when she walked down the beach.”
Her costars were in awe of her daily metamorphosis. Branagh, who passed the time getting into makeup by listening on headphones to Olivier reading the Bible, says, “I’d look over and there is Michelle. Half an hour later, Marilyn has arrived but is a bit sleepy. Half an hour later, I look round and Marilyn is now very frisky. And finally, just before we’re due to be called, Marilyn is fully there—the dress is on, the hair is in place, there’s a glint in the eye.”
Williams’s transformation is all the more remarkable because she disappears into it so completely, managing to capture the essence of a glamorous, mercurial creature with the simple, unadorned truthfulness that is the hallmark of her acting. She is as captivating gazing forlornly into a dressing-room mirror as she is re-creating Monroe’s famously winsome dance routine from the original film. Williams has always had an astonishing gift for revealing the inner lives of her characters in unguarded moments (watch her near-solitary performance in Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 indie feature Wendy and Lucy). Here she brings it to the portrayal of a woman who lived through the gaze of others. “Someone once said that Marilyn spent her whole life looking for a missing person—herself. And so she cobbled together what people thought, felt, saw, and projected onto her and made a person out of it. She had no calm center inside herself that she could come home to and rest.”
Williams’s working home during the shoot was Pinewood Studios, where The Prince and the Showgirl was filmed, and Parkside House, where the newly wed Monroe and Miller spent a tempestuous four months. But more than the physical setting, “it was a very moody, needy, desperate, insecure place that I was in playing Marilyn,” she says. One can’t help thinking, given her personal experiences, that it must have been particularly wrenching to play a scene in which Monroe appears to have overdosed on pills, prefiguring her death six years later. Whatever her struggles, Williams apparently didn’t alienate her all-English costars the way Monroe did. “She brought that very American spirit of play to a British set,” recalls Redmayne, “charming us completely and making us step out of our comfort zones.”
Redmayne recalls with particular fondness shooting a sequence in which his character and Monroe escape for an idyll in the English countryside—skinny-dipping in a lake, sharing a kiss, visiting Eton and causing a small riot among the students. “I happen to have gone to Eton,” Redmayne says. “So it was very weird returning and walking around with Michelle Williams looking like Marilyn Monroe. The boys were so excited to see Michelle—the hormones were really flying—and she was flirting with them, signing autographs, blowing kisses, and sort of loving it. There wasn’t too much acting needed.”
As Williams recalls, “It was lovely to connect with that happy, free Marilyn I knew as a little girl.”
In the days after our alfresco dinner, Williams and I exchange e-mails about where we should go to continue the conversation. I suggest Far Rockaway, a longtime mecca of surfing, sunbathing, and seaside frolic near Kennedy Airport that has lately become a destination for food-obsessed hipsters. Williams seems up for the idea, writing, “It sounds like an adventure and I need one.”
On a bright and sweltering Sunday, I meet Williams at the three-story brownstone in Boerum Hill where she lives with her daughter, Matilda. Reminders of Heath Ledger, from whom Williams was separated when he died in 2008, are everywhere—in family photos, in the oversize stuffed animals that he bought for Matilda, in the large, brooding mountainscape by the Australian photographer Bill Henson that hangs in the living room. The most vivid reminder, of course, is Matilda herself, a spirited, sunny six-year-old whose face, a felicitous mix of both her parents, lights up when Williams walks into the room. “Supermommy!” she shouts, running to throw her arms around her mother’s waist. “Hiya, Superdaughter,” Williams says, kneeling down to kiss her forehead.
Williams tells me that they split their time between their place in the country and Brooklyn, where, she says, “I wanted her to have the warmth and bustle and security of family.” Out on the ivy-covered terrace, I’m introduced to said clan—Williams’s younger sister, Paige, and her husband, Zach, and their friends Jeremy and Lauren, all of whom live in the house, and Williams’s half-sister Kelley, who is visiting with her five-year-old son, Evan—and I get recruited to shoot a group portrait. Before we leave, Matilda proudly shows me two new teeth. She giggles when I tell her that they’re the most grown-up-looking grown-up teeth that I’ve ever seen. Out on the sidewalk, Williams says, “Is there anything better than making a kid laugh?”
On the A train to Rockaway, we compare iPhone music playlists (on hers: soul, R&B, and her daughter’s current favorite, Stevie Wonder) and discuss which artistic heroes of one’s youth it’s still OK to like (yes: Diane Arbus and J. D. Salinger; no: Hermann Hesse). No one on the crowded train takes much notice of Williams, who’s dressed for the occasion in a vintage red sundress and pale-pink ballet flats.
At the beach, we stroll along the hot, teeming boardwalk among throngs of cool kids eating locally sourced tacos. Williams puts on a pair of large black Ray-Bans—and not just because it’s sunny. She gamely jokes that she’d imagined a scene “more like Coney Island in the winter, or something out of Stardust Memories, with a dilapidated boardwalk and deserted beach.” Suddenly, she seems vulnerable. I think of a sequence from My Week with Marilyn in which the screen goddess’s attempt to go shopping in London sparks a near riot of hysterical fans, ending with Williams as Monroe staring sadly out a limousine window behind a pair of dark glasses. Nothing like that happens here. But after years of having her personal space breached by strangers, most of them with cameras, Williams can be forgiven a certain skittishness in crowds. “You feel like you’re in the zoo,” she says matter-of-factly.
While she understands that it comes with the territory, Williams hates seeing her daughter subjected to the same relentless invasion of privacy. “That’s what seems the most rotten thing about it to me,” she says. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to make her feel safe and protected, and to extend her childhood for as long as possible.”
The hurricane of grief that came with Ledger’s death seems to have finally passed. “Three years ago, it felt like we didn’t have anything, and now my life—our life—has kind of repaired itself,” Williams tells me later that evening over dinner in Brooklyn. “Look, it’s not a perfectly operating system—there are holes and dips and electrical storms—but the basics are intact.” Still, she says, in a fundamental way nothing will ever be the same: “It’s changed how I see the world and how I interact on a daily basis. It’s changed the parent I am. It’s changed the friend I am. It’s changed the kind of work that I really want to do. It’s become the lens through which I see life—that it’s all impermanent.”
Williams shuts her eyes, then opens them again and says, “For a really long time, I couldn’t stop touching people’s faces. I was like, ‘Look at you! You move! You’re here!’ It all just seemed so fleeting, and I wanted to hold on to it.”
My Week with Marilyn opens at the New York Film Festival this month, but Williams is already back at work, playing another iconic blonde—in this case, Glinda in Sam Raimi’s big-budget Oz: The Great and Powerful, which is shooting in Detroit. Her costars include James Franco as a con man from Kansas who becomes the great wizard of the title, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis as Glinda’s spell-casting frenemies. Williams describes the state of mind in which she usually starts a film by pretending to claw her face and moaning, “Uuuuuurgh!” But this time it’s different. “I think I’d forgotten somewhere along the line that work could be fun, and this is really fun,” she says. “And it’s much nicer to exist in the space of a good witch who grants wishes and tries to help people than in the space of a human mess, like pretty much all the characters I play.”
Williams is obviously hardworking—she’s made 25 movies in the last ten years, and she’s about to come out opposite Seth Rogen in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, a mournfully comic look at a couple whose marriage is in crisis. But she’s not, she says, particularly ambitious, and she recently told herself, “It’s time to quit or take on the classics.” Lo and behold, one of her idols, an actress turned director whose memoir Williams had been carrying around with her wherever she went, offered her a role in an upcoming film adaptation of a nineteenth-century stage classic. Williams asked me not to reveal any more than that, because nothing’s been finalized and, she says, “it’s just too precious to me.” But let’s simply say that of all the movies she’s made about relationships that end badly, this one turns out the worst.
Williams speculates that she may be drawn to stories about the vicissitudes of romantic love because “relationships have always seemed very mysterious, and therefore worth exploring. I’m single, so it’s still kind of a mystery—a worthwhile mystery, one that I want to be on the scent of.” She confesses that she misses having a guy around when it’s time to haul wood at her house upstate. But, unlike Monroe, she doesn’t define herself through the men in her life: “I’m not lonely, and I think that has a lot to do with what’s on my bedside table rather than what’s in my bed.”
In the meantime, Williams hasn’t entirely let go of Marilyn. Not long after our trip to Rockaway, she invites me to go with her to Feinstein’s, an old-school supper club in the Regency Hotel, to hear a jazz singer named Rebecca Kilgore perform songs made famous by Monroe. Williams sways her shoulders in time to such numbers as “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy.” Afterward, we stop for a drink at a bar in the East Fifties that Williams likes because it evokes the New York of another era, complete with a corny piano player, tin ceilings, and walls lined with faded photographs of long-dead personalities. We’re seated at a table near the back of the room beneath, as it happens, a photo of Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s second husband. “I wish that I could play her for the rest of my life,” Williams says. “Because when can you say that you’ve really solved the riddle? When can you say that you really know her?”
One of the riddles Williams still hasn’t solved is how a creature filled with so much life and joy could also be filled with so much misery and pain. “Her deepest desire was to be taken seriously as an actress, but she doesn’t really shine in her serious roles,” she tells me. “Where she happens to shine is in comedy and in song and dance, but she denied that. She essentially said, ‘It’s not what I’m good at.’ She didn’t know it, but she clearly was incandescent.”