I saw the film “My Week With Marilyn” yesterday and was floored by Michelle Williams’ performance. To be honest, when I first saw her on screen, I took a big gulp and thought, “oh, no, this isn’t going to work.” Although beautiful in her own right, Williams doesn’t really look like Monroe and I cringed at her brazen attempt to portray the iconic figure. Ten minutes later, and for the rest of the film, part of me honestly believed I was watching Marilyn Monroe. I don’t know how she did it. Yes, she got her voice down, she mastered the walk, she did all the technical things that any actress needs to do to play Marilyn, but those things in and of themselves are simply impersonations, like the Marilyn lookalike who trolls the forecourt at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, asking $5 per photo and breathily responding “Thank you ever so” to every customer. Nope, what Michelle Williams did was not merely an impersonation, it was a channeling.
I’ve always admired Williams as an actress but this is, in my opinion, her best performance to date. In fact, I think she is better than the film itself. Oh, I loved it but I felt it could have gone further in exploring Monroe’s psyche at that time in her life. Especially with Michelle Williams’ uncanny ability to show us the vulnerable, terribly damaged, but also oddly strong woman trapped under the weight of Marilyn’s persona.
I thought Kenneth Branagh was great as Sir Laurence Olivier but I was very disappointed with Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh. I heard they wanted Catherine Zeta-Jones (who I think would have been perfect) but at the time she she didn’t want to leave her sick husband’s side. On the other hand, Dame Judi Dench was perfection as Dame Sybil Thorndike. I don’t have much of a frame of reference for the real Thorndike but I don’t care, Dench was amazing! As Marilyn’s companion/acting coach, Zoe Wanamaker was as irritating as the real Paula Strasberg must have been, and I thought Eddie Redmayne was very good as the young Brit who falls in love with Monroe (and who wrote the book on which the film was based). It was nice to see Harry Potter’s Hermione, Emma Watson, in a small role as Lucy the costume girl. Good for Watson, that’s exactly the kind of role she should be tackling following the end of the Harry Potter juggernaut. Now she has the time (and money) to take on smaller roles in interesting films and continue to build her craft (she’s quite appealing in the part).
The film, of course, takes place during the shooting of the film “The Prince and the Showgirl” starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. As much as I loved “My Week With Marilyn,” however, I have no desire to watch that awful film again. Interestingly, both Monroe and Olivier went straight from that monstrosity to some of their most successful projects (Marilyn made “Some Like It Hot” and Olivier appeared on stage in “The Entertainer”).
Poor Marilyn. She longed for the fame and recognition she achieved but never seemed very happy with it. I remember writing about Marilyn several years ago after a former L.A. County prosecutor named John Miner, the man who first investigated her death in 1962, shared what he said were the contents of tapes that Marilyn made with her psychiatrist. The official ruling on Marilyn’s death was that it was a “probable suicide” but until the day he died last year at the age of 92, Miner believed the actress was murdered.
Back in 2005, Miner made headlines with his previously unreleased transcripts of Marilyn’s sessions with her shrink, Dr. Ralph Greenson. Miner had interviewed Greenson who had supposedly shared the tapes with him in an attempt to find clues about the foul play Miner was convinced occurred on the day that she died. The tapes were made shortly before Marilyn’s death and some of the content was pretty shocking. Miner promised Greenson that he wouldn’t release any of the info from the tapes (according to Miner, Greenson destroyed the actual tapes before his death).
The prosecutor kept his promise for many years, but when some recent books about Monroe tried to implicate the psychiatrist himself in the movie star’s death, Miner got permission from Greenson’s widow to reveal the secret transcripts. Unlike some reports about Marilyn’s demeanor at that time, she seemed anything but despondent on the tapes, and she was making lots of plans for her future including a commitment to study Shakespeare with Lee Strasberg:
I'll pay him to work only with me. He said I could do Shakespeare, I'll make him prove it…Then I'll produce and act in the Marilyn Monroe Shakespeare Film Festival which will put his major plays on film...I've read all of Shakespeare and practiced a lot of lines. I won't have to worry about the scripts. I'll have the greatest script writer who ever lived working for me and I don't have to pay him…I've some wonderful ideas for Lady Macbeth and Queen Gertrude. I feel certain I'll win an Oscar for one or more of my Shakespearean women.
It feels weird to read Marilyn’s private comments to her shrink, but they are mostly flattering to the film star, and do a lot to broaden our idea of what made her tick. Marilyn was clearly an intelligent, introspective person. In addition to Shakespeare, she talked about other authors she was reading including Joyce and Dostoevsky. She was clearly someone who wanted to be taken seriously despite her glamorous image that she had a big hand in creating. At 36 years old, Marilyn surveyed the parts of her that the public seemed to be most interested in:
I stood naked in front of my full-length mirrors for a long time yesterday. I was all made up with my hair done. What did I see? My breasts are beginning to sag a bit. My waist isn't bad. My ass is what it should be, the best there is. Legs, knees, and ankles still shapely. And my feet are not too big. OK, Marilyn, you have it all there.
She mentioned Clark Gable, with whom she had recently completed “The Misfits” with great fondness.
He was so nice to me and I didn't deserve it. I was having problems with Arthur and being sick and I held up the shooting a lot. Clark protected me from Huston who kept giving me a bad time… In the kissing scenes, I kissed him with real affection. I didn't want to go to bed with him, but I wanted him to know how much I liked and appreciated him. When I came back from a day off the set, he patted my ass and told me if I didn't behave myself, he would give me a good spanking. I looked him in the eye and said, “Don't tempt me!” He burst out laughing so hard he was tearing.
Because of his performance I've seen “Gone With the Wind” over and over again. He was perfect. It makes me so mad I could scream—those Academy fuckers didn't award him the Oscar. He should have won hands down.
Marilyn talked about her famous husbands in the tapes and confirmed that she and Joe DiMaggio still had feelings for each other:
Joe D. loves Marilyn Monroe and always will. I love him and always will. But Joe couldn't stay married to Marilyn Monroe, the famous movie star. Joe has an image in his stubborn Italian head of a traditional Italian wife. She would have to be faithful, do what he tells her, devote all of herself to him. Doctor, you know that's not me.
It's different with Arthur. Marrying him was my mistake, not his. He couldn't give me the attention, warmth, and affection I need. It's not in his nature. Arthur never credited me with much intelligence. He couldn't share his intellectual life with me. As bed partners we were so-so. He was not that much interested. You know I think his little Jewish father had more genuine affection for me than Arthur did.
Is that getting too salacious? But wait—you ain't heard nothin' yet! Before reading these transcripts in 2005, how had I never heard about the brief affair Marilyn had with…wait for it…Joan Crawford! Yikes! What, Faye Dunaway was too busy for a cameo in “My Week With Marilyn?”
We went to Joan's bedroom…Crawford had a gigantic orgasm and shrieked like a maniac…Next time I saw Crawford she wanted another round. I told her straight out I didn't much enjoy doing it with a woman. After I turned her down, she became spiteful. An English poet best describes it: hath no rage like love to hatred turned; and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – most people wrongly credit that to Shakespeare. William Congreve is the author. That's me, Marilyn Monroe, the classical scholar.
Joan Crawford’s orgasm? Marilyn quoting William Congreve? Remember, folks, I got all this stuff from the Los Angeles Times, not the National Enquirer!
This man is going to change our country. No child will go hungry. No person will sleep in the street and get his meals from garbage cans. People who can't afford it will get good medical care. Industrial products will be the best in the world. No, I'm not talking Utopia — that's an illusion, but he will transform America today like FDR did in the 30's…I tell you, Doctor, when he has finished his achievements he will take his place with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. and FDR as one of our greatest Presidents.
But Marilyn was worried about her relationship with Bobby Kennedy.
I guess I don't have the courage to face up to it and hurt him. I want someone else to tell him its over. I tried to get the President to do it, but I couldn't reach him. Now I'm glad I couldn't. He is too important to ask…Maybe I should stop being a coward and tell him myself. But because I know how much he'll be hurt, I don't have the strength.
Pretty incendiary stuff if it’s true. Several people place Bobby at Marilyn’s house on the day that she died. They apparently had an argument and Kennedy stormed out, not that I believe he had any direct connection to her death. In releasing the transcripts in 2005, Miner was hoping to get public support for exhuming poor Marilyn’s corpse to run further tests that may prove her death was not a suicide after all. He didn’t succeed, and frankly, the idea of exhuming her body decades after her death seemed pretty grisly. We’ll probably never know what really happened that night.
But if you want to see a living Monroe one more time, get yourself to a screening of “My Week With Marilyn.” I need to revise my “Insanely Early Oscar Predictions” that I published on MSN Movies last month and add Michelle Williams right away (sorry, Kirsten Dunst). If there’s any justice, Williams will help Monroe finally get the acclaim from the Motion Picture Academy that alluded her during her life.