Are All Your Fantasies Like This?
You’re a third AD on set and the star actress decides she can’t be without you. What do you do?”
That’s this movie.
What’s Good About It
The casting of Michelle Williams is surprisingly good in this film. Kenneth Branagh as Lawrence Olivier is also an inspired bit of casting. The performances are very good in this film. It’s even nice to see Emma Watson all grown up and away from the trappings of Harry Potter. The look of the film is delicate as the subject matter, while the pace is just slow enough and languid enough to tune into the nuances of the people in the story.
It’s very good in that way that certain British films do character and drama so well. We don’t do this sort of thing anywhere near as well in Australia. It takes too much sensibility for classicism and we flushed that down the toilet some time in the 1970s because anything with the word class in it was un-egalitarian and un-Australian.
What’s Bad About It
I said Michelle Williams is good, but at the end of the day she is not Marilyn. You keep re-imagining the moments with the real Marilyn. In that sense she evokes the screen goddess, and then is unable to fill the shoes (Or the bra, as the case maybe).
The most painful thing about this film might be how everybody talks about how amazing Monroe was as a screen actress, but we’re given Williams’ interpretation of Monroe in its place and we’re left with the hollow feeling in the gap. It’s not Williams’ failing as an actress. It’s just that the undertaking is too immense for anybody to do. I can’t think of an actress who might have done a better job. It’s just that it’s an almost impossible job at which she falls short.
What’s Interesting About It
It’s a somewhat gossipy film in its nature. I’m not really sure I’m all that interested in the shenanigans of star and the difficulties of working with British unions. As films about film making goes, it’s actually only got a tepid emotion for film. It has a lot of emotion for the persona of Marilyn Monroe instead, but you’re left wondering if that is really all that important.
I’ll be honest, I’m a huge fan of her work, but I feel uncomfortable about stories to do with her private life and her many loves and the alcohol and prescription medication abuse. Seeing it portrayed in this film while ignoring other huge parts of her character wasn’t exactly edifying. If there was anything insightful about it, it was Arthur Miller saying that he can’t sleep, he can’t work, she’s devouring him. I finally got an insight into what exactly people were talking about when they reported back she was hell as a companion.
The private Marilyn is one of those cultural myth monsters where we are led to believe she (allegedly) shagged half of Hollywood and half the Kennedy brothers (Jack and Bobby) as well as married Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. If there is an aura of sex goddess and the mightiest of Aphrodite around her screen persona, there is equally a fog of alcohol and prescription medication around her day to day it’s hard to tell how she put together her remarkable career.
This film does attempt to put all of these myths and anecdotes in some kind of perspective. It’s not a biopic, but as myth-making goes, I think it gets a pass, but not a credit or a distinction.
The Method Acting Thing
Lord Olivier of course is very famous for his scathing put-down of “Have you tried acting, my dear boy?” which was uttered on the set of ‘Marathon Man’. It’s interesting to see a film which attempts to portray the seismic shift in the acting craft that took place in the 1950s as a result of the Stanislavsky Method arriving in the United States. What might not have been widely known was the degree to which Marilyn Monroe committed herself to the craft and ‘The Method’ as it came to be known.
Reliving that conflict of styles forms the extrinsic drama in this film, and it goes some ways towards illustrating it, but alas, Kenneth Branagh is decidedly not Lord Olivier and Michelle Williams is decidedly not Marilyn Monroe. Oddly enough, they are forced to enter their characters from the outside in order to show us the inside of these people. This adds to the very British-ness the drama on the screen, but part of the reason Michelle Williams never gets close to the Marilyn screen persona when she plays snippets of Marilyn’s screen moments is because she’s not privy to Marilyn’s method that produced those moments. And of course, they’re the most damning moments in this film.
The Sex Symbol
People used to bandy about the phrase ‘sex symbol’. I don’t know that they do so today. It’s been a long while since I used the phrase. “Oh that Jennifer Aniston, isn’t she a Sex Symbol!” (I don’t think so-o-o-o!) Of course, the first person that really won that title must have been Marilyn Monroe.
I’m sure Jungians out there would easily understand the expression of the Marilyn Monroe persona as kind of an archetype f the love goddess. She is in a sense a reiteration of the archetype that gave us Ishtar in the epic of Gilgamesh. And yet one can’t help but wonder about the power of the image itself. Andy Warhol’s screen prints of Marilyn Monroe proliferated the image and the scene where she stands over the subway vent and allows the skirt to rise is forever evocative of equal parts Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and Playboy Magazine.
Marilyn Monroe was in any case, the prototype for this phrase that has now gone into obscurity. When you untangle the mess of all this pop culture projection, you’re left with this strange figure who evokes so much loneliness and nostalgia. This film does a nice job of packaging up this discourse.
The Socialist And Progressive Liberal
One of my favourite things about Marilyn Monroe that I’ve read is that she was socially progressive. She wanted humanity to be a fraternity across racial and class and sectarian divides. She was passionate about equal rights and and strongly identified with the workers – she even worked in a the Radioplane Munitions factory in her youth. If you took away the sex symbol thing, the myths, the films, the stunning looks, the anecdotes, her pioneering work in method acting, she was still a great woman of the Twentieth Century without all those trappings and accomplishments. There are accounts of her lending support to people such as Ella Fitzgerald, her participation in communist meetings in her youth, how she read books – Marxist books – even, and how she hung around people J Edgar Hoover’s FBI considered communists.
That Marilyn was totally absent from this film. I don’t know if this is because the young man Colin Clark never saw it, or because even if he saw it, he did not understand it. The absence is a yawning gap for me. It’s a good film, but misses the best parts of Marilyn Monroe.