Here’s a question for you: did dear old England contribute to the decline and fall of Marilyn Monroe? The fanfared six-month trip Marilyn took to England in 1956, her only visit to the country to film the period comedy The Prince and the Showgirl under Laurence Olivier’s direction, had begun with great expectations. But, as many writers, biographers and members of the production team testify – including lowly assistant director Colin Clark, whose memoirs form the basis of the film My Week with Marilyn, opening in the UAE this week – it turned, sadly, into something of a disaster. Or did it?
At the time, Marilyn, played by Michelle Williams in the film, was at the peak of her fame. She was still basking in admiration for a trio of movie triumphs – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Bus Stop (1956) – and trailing adulation from her tours for US troops in Korea. What’s more, she was newly married to America’s brightest playwright (Arthur Miller), recently re-energised by her induction into Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and artistically freed by the formation of her production company. The famous star held ambitions to become a great actress. The world’s greatest man of the theatre, the recently knighted Olivier, was not averse to adding a little reflected glamour and worldwide appreciation to his breast of medals. So the thinking went: their collaboration may not constitute a perfect marriage of minds, but surely it presented a sensible combination of mutually beneficial interests?
The thinking was wrong. There proved to be three in this marriage: Marilyn, Larry and The Method. And they got along as well as Diana, Charles and Camilla. After two months of late starts – Marilyn had been forgetting her lines since Clash by Night in 1952 and her increasing diet of a cocktail of prescription drugs could, at times, make her forget what day it was or which country she was in – Kenneth Branagh as Olivier is moved to exclaim: ‘Another month of this and I’d rather commit suicide!’
Of course, he didn’t (although, of course, six years later, she may have). Albeit two months late, The Prince and the Showgirl finally wrapped and enjoyed a modest success, winning a Bafta and the Italian Oscar, the Donatello. ‘Marilyn… in her happiest role!’ the Warner Bros trailer blazed. Marilyn’s transcendent, radiant quality is inimitable. And it would be fair to say that Williams’s performance in My Week with Marilyn copies but does not capture it.
What Williams does do well, however, is suggest the complexities in her personality. ‘Marilyn was a very curious little person,’ Olivier told Michael Parkinson in 1969, ‘a divided personality… She wouldn’t know how humiliating she could be.’ Olivier didn’t know how humiliating he could be either. Nor did his wife Vivien Leigh, whose presence on set crushed the insecure Monroe.
It’s again ironic, then, that Marilyn should be saved by Colin Clark, an old Etonian scion of the Clark family; son of Lord Clark of Civilisation fame. That is, if we are to believe what Clark wrote in his two books on his one-week, quasi-romantic relationship with Monroe, made into a UK documentary in 2004 and faithfully followed by Curtis’s film. Eddie Redmayne, as the sparkle-eyed ‘gofer’ assigned to babysit the errant star, does add a much-needed sweetness to the traumatic story of Monroe’s visit. But it is Williams, who, despite her generosity and genuineness, allows the interpretation that Clark was a mere pawn in what was undoubtedly some kind of war of egos between herself and Sir Larry (or ‘Sir Olivier,’ as she calls him). Interestingly, from watching both The Prince and the Showgirl and this new film, it was a battle that, in her own way, Marilyn seems to have won. But sadly it was to prove, as so many conquests in her life, another hollow and bitter victory. My Week with Marilyn is in cinemas now. Read our review opposite.